Monday, May 27, 2013

Tennessee's Native American Stone Box Graves

Tennessee's Native American Stone Box Graves

A number of cists have been found in Tennessee, and are thus described by Moses Fiske:14

There are many burying grounds in West Tennessee with regular graves. They dug them 12 or 18 inches deep, placed slabs at the bottom ends and sides, forming a kind of stone coffin, and, after laying in the body, covered it over with earth.

It may be added that, in 1873, the writer assisted at the opening of a number of graves of men of the reindeer period, near SolutrĂ©, in France, and they were almost identical in construction with those described by Mr. Fiske, with the exception that the latter were deeper, this, however, may be accounted for if it is considered how great a deposition of earth may have taken place during the many centuries which have elapsed since the burial. Many of the graves explored by the writer in 1875, at Santa Barbara, resembled somewhat cist graves, the bottom and sides of the pit being lined with large flat stones, but there were none directly over the skeletons.
The next account is by Maj. J. W. Powell, the result of his own observation in Tennessee.

The burial places, or cemeteries are exceedingly abundant throughout the State. Often hundreds of graves may be found on a single hillside. The same people sometimes bury in scattered graves and in mounds—the mounds being composed of a large number of cist graves. The graves are increased by additions from time to time. The additions are sometimes placed above and sometimes at the sides of the others. In the first burials there is a tendency to a concentric system with the feet towards the center, but subsequent burials are more irregular, so that the system is finally abandoned before the place is desired for cemetery purposes.

Some other peculiarities are of interest. A larger number of interments exhibit the fact that the bodies were placed there before the decay of the flesh, and in many instances collections of bones are buried. Sometimes these bones are placed in some order about the crania, and sometimes in irregular piles, as if the collection of bones had been emptied from a sack. With men, pipes, stone hammers, knives, arrowheads, &c., were usually found, with women, pottery, rude beads, shells, &c., with children, toys of pottery, beads, curious pebbles, &c.

Sometimes, in the subsequent burials, the side slab of a previous burial was used as a portion of the second cist. All of the cists were covered with slabs.

Dr. Jones has given an exceedingly interesting account of the stone graves of Tennessee, in his volume published by the Smithsonian Institution, to which valuable work15 the reader is referred for a more detailed account of this mode of burial.

G. K. Gilbert, of the United States Geological Survey, informs the writer that in 1878 he had a conversation with an old Moquis chief as to their manner of burial, which is as follows: The body is placed in a receptacle or cist of stone slabs or wood, in a sitting posture, the hands near the knees, and clasping a stick (articles are buried with the dead), and it is supposed that the soul finds its way out of the grave by climbing up the stick, which is allowed to project above the ground after the grave is filled in.