Burial in Caves – Marshall County, Alabama

Resembling the preceding (Burials in Caves) was a cave in Marshall County, Alabama, about 1 mile west of Guntersville, a short distance from the bank of the Tennessee. “Its floor is covered to the depth of four feet with fragments of human bones, earth, ashes, and broken stones.

This fragmentary condition of the deposits is chiefly due to the fact that they have been repeatedly turned over by treasure hunters. Much of this deposit has been hauled away in sacks for fertilizing the land. The number of dead deposited here must have been very great, for, notwithstanding so much has been removed, there is yet a depth of four feet, chiefly of broken human bones.” Other instances are recorded where a small room or cavity within a large cave had evidently been set apart and converted into a tomb. Haywood mentioned a cave “near the confines of Smith and Wilson Counties, on the south side of Cumberland river, about 22 miles above Cairo, on the waters of Smith’s Fork of Cany Fork.” The outer portion of the cave was examined and small cavities were entered through natural passages. They reached ” another small aperture, which also they entered, and went through, when they came into a narrow room, 25 feet square. Every thing here was neat and smooth. The room seemed to have been carefully preserved for the reception and keeping of the dead. In this room, near about the centre, were found sitting in baskets made of cane, three human bodies; the flesh entire, but a little shrivelled, and not much so. The bodies were those of a man, a female and a small child. The man was wrapped in 14 dressed deer skins. The 14 deer skins were wrapped in what those present called blankets. They were made of bark. The form of the baskets which enclosed them was pyramidal, being larger at the bottom, and declining to the top. The heads of the skeletons, from the neck, were above the summits of the blankets.” This would. have been near the center of the State of Tennessee. The same writer records another example quite like the preceding. This was in Giles County, Tennessee, which touches the Alabama line. The cave was on the east bank of a creek, 7 1/2 miles north of the village of Pulaski. The cave contained several cavities or rooms, ” the first 15 feet wide, and 27 long; 4 feet deep, the upper part of solid and even rock. In the cave was a passage, which had been so artfully covered that it escaped detection till lately.” When the stones closing the opening had been removed, and the cavity entered, human bones were found scattered over the floor, which had been formed of ” flat stones of a bluish hue, being closely joined together, and of different forms and sizes.” Various other burials, similar to those already mentioned, could be described, but without adding materially to the details. Many such discoveries were undoubtedly made by the early settlers and pioneers, all traces of which have been lost and to which no references have been preserved. It is within reason to attribute these burials in caves to the same people who constructed the stone-lined graves, but in the latter all objects and material of a perishable nature have long since disappeared, whereas garments and wrappings where deposited in caves in contact with certain natural salts have been preserved. Therefore, if the hypothesis is correct, and the builders of the stone-lined graves were the same people who would often deposit their dead in the natural caverns, many of the bodies when placed in the graves would probably have been similarly wrapped in skins or pieces of woven fiber, some decorated with feathers, some plain. But now little is encountered in the graves in addition to crumbling, decaying bones. The manner in which some of the cave burials had been prepared, with the outer wrappings formed of mats of cane or rushes, tends to recall Lawson’s account of the burial customs of the Carolina tribes with whom he came in contact very early in the eighteenth century. And undoubtedly there was intercourse between the occupants of the villages along the eastern slopes, in the western portion of the present State of North Carolina, and the people who claimed and occupied the valleys across the mountains. All may have had various customs in common.

Bushnell, David I. Native Cemeteries and Forms of Burial East of the Mississippi. Smithsonian Institution, Bureau of American Ethnology, Volume 71. Washington: Government Printing Office. 1920.

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