Thursday, May 9, 2013
Fabrics from Cave Burials in Kentucky and Tennessee
At an early date in the history of the country reports began to find their way into print relating to the discovery of mortuary fabrics in caverns and shelters. Extracts from some of these publications may be given.
From the writing of John Haywood historian of Tennessee, we have the following:
In the spring of the year 1811, was found in a copperas cave in Warren county, in West Tennessee, about 15 miles southwest from Sparta, and 20 from McMinnville, the bodies of two human beings, which had been covered by the dirt or ore from which copperas was made. One of these persons was a male, the other a female. They were interred in baskets, made of cane, curiously wrought, and evidencing great mechanic skill. They were both dislocated at the hip joint, and were placed erect in the baskets, with a covering made of cane to fit the baskets in which they were placed. The flesh of these persons was entire and undecayed, of a brown dryish colour, produced by time, the flesh having adhered closely to the bones and sinews. Around the female, next her body, was placed a well dressed deer skin. Next to this was placed a rug, very curiously wrought, of the bark of a tree and feathers. The bark seemed to have been formed of small strands well twisted. Around each of these strands, feathers were rolled, and the whole woven into a cloth of firm texture, after the manner of our common coarse fabrics. This rug was about three feet wide, and between six and seven feet in length. The whole of the ligaments thus framed of bark were completely covered with feathers, forming a body of about one eighth of an inch in thickness, the feathers extending about one quarter of an inch in length from the strand to which they were confined. The appearance was highly diversified by green, blue, yellow and black, presenting different shades of colour when reflected upon by the light in different positions. The next covering was an undressed deer skin, around which was rolled, in good order, a plain shroud manufactured after the same order as the one ornamented with feathers. This article resembled very much in its texture the bags generally used for the purpose of holding 030coffee exported from Havanna to the United States. The female had in her hand a fan formed of the tail feathers of a turkey. The points of these feathers were curiously bound by a buckskin string, well dressed, and were thus closely bound for about one inch from the points. About three inches from the point they were again bound, by another deer skin string, in such a manner that the fan might be closed and expanded at pleasure. * * *
The cave in which they were found, abounded in nitre, copperas, alum, and salts. The whole of this covering, with the baskets, was perfectly sound, without any marks of decay.
In the year 1815 a remarkably interesting set of mortuary fabrics was recovered from a saltpeter cave near Glasgow, Kentucky. A letter from Samuel L. Mitchell, published by the American Antiquarian Society, contains the following description of the condition of the human remains and of the nature of its coverings:
The outer envelope of the body is a deer skin, probably dried in the usual way, and perhaps softened before its application, by rubbing. The next covering is a deer skin, whose hair had been cut away by a sharp instrument, resembling a hatter's knife. The remnant of the hair, and the gashes in the skin, nearly resemble the sheared pelt of beaver. The next wrapper of cloth is made of twine doubled and twisted. But the thread does not appear to have been formed by the wheel, nor the web by the loom. The warp and filling seemed to have been crossed and knotted by an operation like that of the fabricks of the northwest coast, and of the Sandwich islands. * * * The innermost tegument is a mantle of cloth like the preceding; but furnished with large brown feathers, arranged and fastened with great art, so as to be capable of guarding the living wearer from wet and cold. The plumage is distinct and entire, and the whole bears a near similitude to the feathery cloaks now worn by the nations of the northwestern coast of America.
The Bureau of Ethnology had the good fortune to secure recently a number of representative pieces of burial fabrics of the classes mentioned in the preceding extracts, and somewhat detailed descriptions of these will sufficiently illustrate the art as practiced by the early inhabitants of the middle portions of the country.
The relics which have come into the possession of the Bureau were obtained in 1885 by Mr. A. J. McGill from a rock shelter on "Clifty" or Cliff Creek, Morgan county, Tennessee. Mr. J. W. Emmert, through whom they were procured, reports that they were found in a grave 3½ feet below the surface and in earth strongly charged with niter and perhaps other preservative salts. The more pliable cloths, together with skeins of vegetal fiber, a dog's skull, some bone tools, and portions of human bones and hair, were rolled up in a large split-cane mat. The grave was situated about as shown in the accompanying section (figure 4). A shelf some 20 feet in width, with depressed floor, occurs1about midway between the creek bed and the slightly overhanging ledge above, the whole height being estimated at 300 feet.