Stone Lined Graves

Last Updated on September 26, 2016 by Dennis

Nacoochee Stone Box Grave
About the same time that construction was begun on the Track Rock terrace complex, a stone box grave cemetery was established near the Chattahoochee River, southeast of Brasstown Bald. Itza Maya commoners typically buried their dead in stone box graves, under or near their houses.

Stone graves-that is, small excavations which were lined or partly lined with natural slabs of stone-have been encountered in great numbers in various parts of the Mississippi Valley. They are discovered scattered and separate; in other instances vast numbers are grouped together, thus forming extensive cemeteries. While the great majority were formed by lining properly prepared excavations, others were created by erecting one upon another, forming several tiers, and covering all with earth, so forming a mound. In and about the city of Nashville, on the banks of the Cumberland, in Davidson County, Tennessee, such burials have been revealed in such great numbers that it is within reason to suppose the region was once occupied by a sedentary people who remained for several generations, and must have had an extensive village near by. It will be recalled that the Shawnee occupied the valley in the early years of the eighteenth century, and that a French trader was there in 1714. A mound standing near Nashville was examined in the summer of 1821, and writing of it Haywood said:

This is the mound upon which Monsieur Charleville, a French trader, had his store in the year 1714, when the Shawanese were driven from the Cumberland by the Cherokees and Chickasaws. It stands on the west side of the river, and on the north side of French Lick Creek, and about 70 yards from each. It is round at the base. About 30 yards in diameter, and about 10 feet in height, at this time.

The mound was examined and much charcoal, traces of fire beds, a few objects of stone, and bits of pottery were found. And telling of the later history of the mound the writer continued:

The mound also had been stockaded by the Cherokees between the years 1758 and 1769. . . . Very large burying grounds once lay between the mounds and the river, thence westwardly, thence to the creek.

Although from this statement it would appear that many graves had already been destroyed before the close of the first quarter of the last century, nevertheless vast numbers remained to be examined at a later day. About 20 years after Haywood wrote, another account of the cemeteries in the vicinity of Nashville was prepared, at which time it was told that

We have one near the suburbs of our town, which extends from near the Cumberland river almost to Mr. Macgavoc’s; it is about one mile in length, how much in breadth I cannot say, the road and houses cover one side, and a cultivated field the other; in this field is a tumulus which is now worn down. From the part that I have examined of this grave-yard, I found that the stone coffins were close to one another, situated in such a manner that each corpse was separated only by a single stone from the other; about one and one-half or two miles from this, on the other side of the Cumberland river, is another burying ground, where the graves are equally numerous. At Cockerel’s Spring, two or two and one-half Miles from the first mentioned, is another; and about; six miles from Nashville, on the Charlotte road, we have another; at Hayesborough, another; so that in a circle of about ten miles diameter, we have six extensive burying grounds. . . . As to the form of the graves, they are rude fabrics, composed of rough flat stones (mostly a kind of slaty limestone or slaty sandstone, both abundant in our State). Such flat stone was laid on the ground in an excavation made for the purpose; upon it were put (edgewise) two similar stones of about the same length as the former, and two small ones were put at both extremities, so as to form an oblong cavity lined with stones, of the size of a man; the place for the head and feet lead the same dimensions. When a coffin was to be constructed next to it, one of the side stones serves for both, and consequently they lay in straight rows, in one layer only, I never found one above the other.

This very graphic description of a stone grave would apply equally well to those discovered in widely separated parts of the country. But it was not always possible to secure pieces of stone of sufficient size to allow a single one to serve as the side of a grave, in which event it was necessary to place several on each side. Again, the graves were made of a size to correspond with that of the body which was to be placed within it, and therefore they varied in length and breadth. Others which were prepared to hold a bundle of bones after the flesh had been removed, or had disappeared, were quite short-the latter were the ” pygmy graves” of the early writers. About 9 miles from Nashville is a hill “on which the residence of Colonel Overton stands . . . was in former times occupied by an aboriginal settlement. The circular depressions of the wigwams are still visible.” Many stone graves were discovered here, ” the earth having been excavated to the depth of about eighteen inches, and the dimensions of the excavation corresponding to the size of the skeleton. The sides of each were lined with carefully selected stones, forming a perfect parallelogram, with a single stone for the head and foot. The skeleton or body of the dead person was then deposited at full length. In the square short grave the skull was placed in the centre and surrounded by the long bones.” Jones made another very interesting observation and discovered that ” some of the small graves contained nothing more than bones of small animals and birds. The animals appeared to be a species of dog, also rabbits, raccoons, and opossums. The bones of birds appeared to belong to the wild turkey, eagle, owl, hawk, and wild duck. Occasionally bones of these animals and birds were found in the large graves along; with the bones of human adults.” It may be difficult to determine the explanation of this strange custom, but similar discoveries have been made elsewhere in the southern country. Westward, across the Mississippi in Crittenden and Mississippi Counties, Arkansas, Moore encountered bones of birds in graves associated with human remains. Bones identified belonged to the swan, goose, and turkey. And, as will be shown later, the Creeks within historic times buried various animals with or near the dead, and this may have been the survival of a more ancient custom. In addition to the extensive cemeteries, similar graves were arranged above the original surface and a mass of earth reared over them. A most interesting example of such a mound was described by Jones. It stood on the bank of a small stream about 10 miles from Nashville, and measures some 55 feet in diameter and 12 feet in height, and “contained perhaps one hundred skeletons, the stone graves, especially towards the center of the mound, were placed one upon the other, forming in the highest part of the mound three or four ranges. The oldest and lowest graves were of the small square variety, whilst those near or upon the summit, were of the natural length and width of the skeletons within. In this mound as in other burial places, in the small square stone graves, the bones were frequently found broken, and whilst some graves contained only a portion of an entire skeleton others contained fragments of two or more skeletons mingled together. The small mound now under consideration, which was one of the most perfect in its construction, and the lids of the upper graves so arranged as to form an even, round, shelving rock surface, was situated upon the western slope of a beautiful hill, covered with the magnificent growth of the native forest. The remains of an old Indian fortification were still evident, surrounding an extensive encampment, and several other mounds. The graves of the mausoleum which chiefly engaged my attention were of all sizes, arranged in various directions, with no special reference to the points of the compass. In a large and carefully constructed stone tomb, the lid of which was formed of a flat rock over seven feet in length and three feet in width, I exhumed the bones of what was supposed to be an ancient Indian chief, who had passed his hundred summers. The skeleton was about seven feet in length and the huge jaw had lost every vestige of a tooth, the alveolar processes being entirely absorbed. From another sarcophagus near the base of the mound, were exhumed the bones of an Indian of gigantic stature and powerful frame, who died apparently in middle life.” Another mound of equal interest, although of a somewhat different interior arrangement, was described by the same writer in the same manuscript volume. This stood on the eastern bank of the Cumberland, opposite Nashville, and just across from the mouth of Lick Branch. It was about 100 feet in diameter and 10 feet in height, and tear by was a larger mound. ” In the centre of the mound, about three feet from its surface, I encountered a large sacrificial vase, or altar, forty-three inches in diameter, composed of a mixture of clay and river shells. The rim of the vase was three inches in height. The entire vessel had been moulded in a large wicker basket formed of split canes and the leaves of the cane, the impressions of which were plainly visible upon the outer surface.” Within this were the antlers and jaw bone of a deer, and a layer of ashes about 1 inch in depth which seemed to have been derived from burning animal matter. ” Stone sarcophagi were ranged round the central altar, with the heads of the dead to the centre, and the feet to the circumference, resembling the radii of a circle. The inner circle of graves was constructed with great care, and all the Indians buried around the altar were ornamented with beads of various kinds, some of which had been cut out of bone, and others again were composed of entire sea-shells, punctured so as to admit of the passage of the thread upon which they were strung. . . . A circle of graves extended around the inner circle which we have described as radiating from the altar. The stone coffins of the outer circle lay at right angles to the inner circle, and rested, as it were, at the feet of the more highly honored and favored dead. In the outer graves no ornaments were found, only a few small arrowheads, and fragments of shells and pots.” Objects of shell, and an effigy vase, copper pendants, etc., were associated with the burials in the inner circle of graves. Two skeletons were discovered on the southern slope of the mound, but their graves had not been lined with stones. Near one, supposed to have been the remains of a woman, was a beautiful vessel “composed of a mixture of light yellow clay and shells . . . and was painted with regular black figures.” Beneath the skull of the second burial, probably that of a man, ” lay a splendid stone hatchet, with the entire handle, and ring at the end of the handle, cut out of a compact green chloritic primitive mineral.” Graves in the vicinity of Nashville, as well as elsewhere, were in some instances lined with fragments of large earthenware vessels, similar to the one discovered in the mound just described. These were the great “salt pans,” or evaporating dishes, which may have been used for various purposes, but primarily for the evaporation of water from the salines. In referring to pieces of these large cloth-marked vessels found on different sites near Nashville, it was said ” The graves are frequently lined and covered with them, instead of slabs of stone.”

Many of the graves in the vicinity of Nashville are lined with large, thick fragments of broken pottery, as neatly joined together as if molded for the purpose. The fragments were merely employed as a substitute for the thin slabs of stone, and therefore eliminated the labor of obtaining the latter. The use of similar fragments for a like purpose, in cemeteries farther north, will be mentioned on a subsequent page. Stone-lined graves have been discovered in many widely separated places, both north and south of the Ohio, but in no other locality were they so numerous as in the vicinity of Nashville, Tennessee, and seldom were they found so carefully constructed as there. But the variations in form and size may be attributed rather to the material available for their lining than to the difference in the skill of the native by whom they were made. To illustrate the variations and the manner in which the graves differed, it will be necessary to refer briefly to several scattered groups. During his explorations along the valley of the Tennessee Moore examined mounds on Swallow Bluff Island, Decatur County, one of which was some 18 feet in height with a diameter of about 130 feet. This was considered a domiciliary mound, and around the margin of the summit plateau were discovered numerous stone-lined graves, but none was found in the central part of the top. An example of these burials is illustrated in plate 6, a, showing the grave after the removal of the cover stones, revealing the partly flexed skeleton; b, the same grave before the removal of the cover, but after the excavation of the superimposed and surrounding mass of earth. In describing this burial Moore wrote: ” Burial No. 12. a few inches from the surface, was a fine example of the stone box-grave, the sides and ends upright, the covering slabs resting squarely on them. This grave, oblong, 3 feet 8 inches by 2 feet 5 inches, had the sides and ends of single slabs, except at one point where there were two slabs. Surrounding the grave small gaps had been filled with slabs of inconsiderable size; other unimportant spaces had been left uncovered. The top was composed of three large slabs forming a single layer, the one at the lower end of the grave, however, having another slab upon it, forming a double layer at this place. The inside measurements of this grave were 3 feet 3 inches by 1 foot 8 inches. Its depth was 1 foot 1 inch.” It is extremely doubtful if the builders of the mound were responsible for the stone graves. The latter were probably of a much more recent date, and should therefore be regarded as intrusive burials. Continuing up the Tennessee, leaking many interesting discoveries on the way, the party reached Henry Island, near Guntersville, Marshall County, Alabama. At the head of the island were several mounds, one of which had been worn down to a height of about 1 foot. Much of the work had evidently been destroyed, but in the remaining portion were several graves, one of which, a stone-lined grave, was of much interest. It is shown in plate 7 before and after the removal of the top stones. It had an extreme outside length of 6 feet 8 inches and a width of 3 feet. Inside it measured 5 feet 10 inches in length, 2 feet 2 inches in width, and 1 foot 7 inchs in depth.

This grave, of the regular stone-box variety, was made of limestone slabs carefully arranged, the slabs having been set a number of inches into the ground below the base of the grave, which was neatly floored with slabs in contact, the small spaces between the larger ones having been filled with fragments of a suitable size. A large single slab was upright at the lead, which was directed SE.; another, at the feet.

Consult Further:


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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