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Pristine mound tells past of Connestee culture

Posted to NDN AIM by ErthAvengr

By Tim Whitmire The Associated Press

'Any time we gain an understanding of Middle Woodland culture, then we are filling out the picture of what we know about native people in North Carolina.'

Stan Knick director of the Native American Resource Center at the University of North Carolina-Pembroke

More than a century ago, George Vanderbilt created a monument to Gilded Age opulence amid the lush Blue Ridge Mountains. In doing so, he also protected the remnants of a people whose lives were far removed from the elegance of Biltmore Estate.

For more than two years, archaeologists have excavated part of what once was a cornfield next to the Swannanoa River. What they've found is an American Indian mound that offers the most complete picture yet of the culture of a prehistoric people known as the Connestee.

Archaeologists believe that between around A.D. 200 and A.D. 500, in what is known as the Middle Woodland period, the site was a major ceremonial center for the Connestee, who may have been ancestors of the Cherokee tribe.

Located near the intersection of two major American Indan trails, the mound was saved from the intrusion of modern culture by its location inside the sprawling, undeveloped Biltmore property.

The estate is a national historic landmark that covers 8,000 acres of agricultural fields, woodlands and forested mountains, including the nation's first professionally managed forest. George Vanderbilt created it as a country retreat - the Biltmore house, built in the style of a late Gothic French chateau, has more than 250 rooms and 4 acres of floor space.

Vanderbilt and the people who created Biltmore for him knew they were working on land that had been previously occupied. When the estate was built, landscape architect Frederick Law Olmstead did rough archaeological studies of the property and gave specific instructions that no Indian remains were to be disturbed.

However, the mound being excavated now was not discovered until 1984, by an archaeologist working for the state, David Moore.

The only known similar Connestee mound lies beneath a subdivision near Canton, about 15 miles west of Asheville.

"This mound has the potential for answering the questions and writing the whole history of the time period. ... The reason we're focusing on this site is that it's so pure," said Biltmore landscape curator William Alexander.

Stan Knick, director of the Native American Resource Center at the University of North Carolina-Pembroke, said, "Any time we gain an understanding of Middle Woodland culture, then we are filling out the picture of what we know about native people in North Carolina."

What makes the 1,000-square-foot Biltmore site particularly valuable is that multiple layers of dirt are clearly stratified and distinguishable, offering clues to what occurred at different points in the Connestee occupation.

To the archaeologists' eyes, each tonal gradation of earth - mossy green, medium brown, orange, tan, dark brown or yellow - tells a story.

The deepest layer, a yellow subsoil, represents the earliest period of occupation, when the site was home to a Connestee village, said Appalachian State University archaeologist Scott Shumate.

Archaeologists have identified nine stages of construction at the site. They've found evidence of five different earthen floors and about three dozen postholes, suggesting a series of large structures, about 75 to 80 feet in diameter.

"We can say as a tentative hypothesis that this was a council house," Shumate said. "People came from all surrounding villages for important ceremonies - it was the equivalent of a county seat. Maybe this place represents the social and spiritual center for a number of villages."

Shumate said fragments of tools, mostly hunting weapons for the men and pottery and small-bladed knives for the women, have been found at the site, as well as pieces of clay figurines that may have belonged to children. Archaeologists also have found numerous fractured animal bones, some with markings that indicate they were gnawed on by other animals.

Shumate theorized that the mound could have been a venue for large feasts, where bones were thrown on the floor and trampled, and animals sneaked into the empty building later on to gnaw on the remnants.

Other artifacts found at the site point to significant trade with the Hopewell Indian culture active in southern Ohio at the same time: glossy, heat-treated flint blades; pieces of Hopewell pottery with a distinctive "rocker-stamped" design; and the cut-and-polished mandible of a grey wolf native to the upper Midwest.

Appalachian State archaeologist Larry Kimball speculates that the mandible, sawed away from the rest of the jaw, with two teeth still attached, was inserted into a human mouth as part of a shamanistic ritual in which the wearer would appear to have the teeth of a wolf.

Alexander notes the trails that intersected near the mound were the prehistoric equivalent of interstate highways. One ran roughly northwest from the S.C. Lowcountry, passing through the Asheville area on its way through Tennessee and Kentucky to southern Ohio. The other came southwest from central Virginia through the N.C. Piedmont and the mountains of western North Carolina, also passing through the area of present-day Asheville.

"Asheville is kind of like a prehistoric crossroads," said Brian Burgess, a staff archaeologist for the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, whose reservation is about 50 miles to the city's west.

"The Middle Woodland is a time, all over the eastern United States, of great commerce, of great passing around of things," Knick said. "Most Americans have a stereotype of Indians living in isolation from each other. That isn't accurate, and it was least of all true in Middle Woodland times."

Though archaeologists have so far been unable to reconstruct an unbroken ceramic tradition that links the Connestee and the later Cherokee cultures, Burgess and Kimball both believe the Connestee were ancestors to the Cherokee.

"They are the people whose culture became known to us as Cherokee," Kimball said.

More than $100,000, including a grant from the National Geographic Society, has been spent so far on the dig. Archaeologists hope to excavate half the mound, a process that could take another decade. They plan to leave the other half undisturbed for future archaeologists who may have new technologies and different questions.

Present-day archaeologists also may excavate a 12-acre Connestee village a short distance to the south. And Alexander said the Biltmore Estate may create a center where people can learn more about Connestee culture.

In the meantime, the archaeologists hope to answer a central question about the Connestee: What happened to them?

After A.D. 500, Connestee villages became smaller, fewer and less closely connected, Kimball said. By A.D. 900, their hunting-and-gathering economy became totally agricultural, with enclosed villages and high rates of disease.

A similar change occurred in the Hopewell culture of the Midwest, Kimball said, and has been much debated by researchers there.

"No one has an explanation for this collapse in the Southeast, so we're kind of on the forefront of asking this question," he said.

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