Burials in Caves

The early settlers of eastern Tennessee, eastern Kentucky, and the adjoining region discovered many caves of varying sizes in the broken, mountainous country. In many instances human remains which had been deposited in the caverns, together with the garments and wrappings of tanned skins or woven fibers, were found in a remarkable state of preservation, having been thus preserved by the natural salts which abounded within the caves. Fortunately several very clear and graphic accounts of such discoveries were prepared. One most interesting example, then recently made in a cave in Barren County, Kentucky, was described in a letter written August 24, 1815: ” In exploring a calcareous chamber in the neighborhood of Glasgow, for saltpetre, several human bodies were found enwrapped carefully in skins and cloths. They were inhumed below the floor of the cave; inhumed, not lodged in catacombs. 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. The next wrapper is of cloth, 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 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 n. w. coast of America. The body is in a squatting posture. There is a deep and extensive fracture of the skull near the occiput. The skin has sustained little injury. The scalp, with small exceptions, is covered with sorrel or foxy hair.” Four years earlier a similar discovery was made about 100 miles to the southward, near the center of the State of Tennessee. The entire account is quoted. ” 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 coarse fabrics. This rug was about three feet wide, and between six and seven in length. The whole of the ligaments thus framed of bark, were completely covered by the 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 coffee exported from the 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 shin string, in such a manner that the fan might be closed and expanded at pleasure. Between the feathers and this last binding by the string, were placed around each feather, hairs which seem to have been taken from the tail of a deer. This hair was dyed of a deep scarlet red, and was one third at least longer than the hairs of the deer’s tail in this climate generally are. ” The male was interred sitting in a basket, after the same manner as the former, with this exception, that he had no feathered rug, neither had he a fan in his hand. The hair which still remained on their heads was entire. The female was, when she deceased, of about the age of 14. The male was somewhat. younger. 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.” A somewhat similar burial was encountered in a rock shelter on the bank of Cliff Creek, Morgan County, Tennessee, in 1885. This was some miles northeast of the cave described in 1811. The burial was reached at a depth of 3? feet in earth strongly charged with nitre. Rolled up in a large split-cane mat were very remarkable examples of aprons made of Indian hemp (Apocynum cannabinum), skeins of vegetal fiber, a dog’s skull, some bone implements, fragments of human bones, and some hair. All were inclosed in the mat, and together with it were preserved by the natural salts. The specimens are now in the United States National Museum, While the preceding burials do not appear to have been placed in prepared graves, other instances have been recorded where the bodies had been inclosed in a cavity protected by flat stones, thus resembling the stone-lined graves of the region. Such were the conditions revealed in a cave some 4 miles distant from Mammoth Cave, in Warren County, Kentucky. Here the remains were ” found at the depth of about ten feet from the surface of the cave, placed in a sitting posture, incased in broad stones, standing on their edges, with a flat stone covering the whole. It was enveloped in coarse clothes. The whole wrapped in deer skins, the hair of which was shaved off in the manner in which Indians prepare there for market. Enclosed in the stone coffin, were the working utensils, beads, feathers, and other ornaments of dress, which belonged to her. This place the cave had evident marks of having once been the residence of the aborigines of the country, from the quantity of ashes, and the remains of fuel, and torches made of reed, &c. which were found in it.” Other remains had been discovered in this cave previously to the one just described. This was written October 2, 1817. Differing from all the cave burials now mentioned, in which the remains had been carefully prepared and wrapped, then deposited with various ornaments, was a discovery made about 1 1/2 miles northeast of Hardinsburgh, Breckinridge County, Kentucky. Here a great mass of bones was found. ” The cavern is open toward the south, the overhanging roof protecting the space below from exposure to the elements from above, while immense masses of fallen rock make a wall from ten to twelve feet high, directly in front, between which and the rear wall of the cavern the deposit containing the human remains was found. This deposit consists almost entirely of wood ashes. The deposit is about eight by fifteen feet superficial measure, and was about seven feet in depth. In it, without order, were found thirty or more human skeletons, nearly all with a flat stone laid upon their heads. There were infants and adults promiscuously buried at various depths in the ashes, and at the bottom, on a layer of broken stones, some charred human remains were found. Mingled with these remains many flint and other stone implements and weapons were found, with a few fragments of rude pottery.”

See Also: Burial in Caves – Marshall County, Alabama

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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