Analysis of the Mount Carbon Stone Walls Site (46-Fa-1)
Text © 2009. All Rights Reserved.
Mount Carbon is located on the south side of the Kanawha River in Fayette County, West Virginia between Armstrong Creek on the west and Loop Creek on the east, both tributaries of the Kanawha River. Mount Carbon is a steep sided mountain with a central ridge oriented north-south with several ridge spurs extending east and west from the central ridge. The mountain is formed of numerous horizontally stratified layers of rock including sandstone, shale, Kanawha black flint, and coal.
Mount Carbon has a series of archaeological sites with stone walls, stone cairns, earthen mounds, flint quarries, lithic workshops, and several natural features with evidence of human usage. Furthermore, the mountain has been subject to logging and to several episodes of coal mining. The most recent was a strip mining operation in 1970 on the east side of the mountain. In 2009, an application was filed for additional mining operations on the mountain.
The archaeological sites on Mount Carbon have intrigued local residents, archaeologists, and researchers from the Smithsonian and the West Virginia Archaeological Society for well over two centuries. Numerous observations, descriptions and theories were published about the sites. Many of these pre-1950 accounts have been criticized and considered unreliable due to their wild speculation and imaginative theories. Setting aside the opinions of these early authors, the actual factual descriptions of the sites have proven largely consistent with the more methodical surveys of the sites done by Hale in 1898, and Inghram and Olafson in the 1950’s.
Hale commissioned a professional survey of the site in the late 1890’s and Olafson conducted a “chain and compass” survey of the site in the 1950’s. Unfortunately, only two survey maps of the site have surfaced one by Olafson of walls #2 & #3, and an undated anonymous overall map showing the six stone wall segments on contour map of the mountain. Despite an extensive search in the 1950’s Hale’s survey data and maps have not been located. There are reliable rumors of an additional collection of unpublished materials on Mount Carbon. The authors would greatly appreciate contributions of any other materials on Mount Carbon or information on the whereabouts of other sources.
Editorial Note: Inghram & Olafson on their Map (fig. 1) use the term cairn to distinguish stone piles from earthen mounds. Kellar refers to stone piles as “loose piles of stone slabs” and “third mound or Mound C”. McMichael uses rock cairns and stone mounds interchangeably. He does distinguish between stone mounds and earthen mounds. For uniformity in this 2009 report stone piles were called cairns.
Figure 1 – Inghram & Olafson Map of Wall #2 & #3 and Associated Features (1961).
Figure 2 – Map showing the locations of Walls #1 through #6. Contours are in 500 foot intervals.
II. Mound Carbon Archaeological Site - Description
This section describes the various man-made and natural features which compose the Mount Carbon archaeological site. It follows the wall numbering system used by Inghram, Olafson & McMichael (1961).
Kanawha Black Flint
This is a stratified layer of black flint formed from silica sediment. This strata extends from Gauley Mountain to Charlestown where it dips below the river. The thickness of the layer and quality of the flint varies considerably over its length. This layer is exposed at various points along its length including at Mount Carbon. At Mount Carbon a layer up to 12 feet in thickness of high quality flint is exposed between 1950 feet and 2000 feet elevation. (On Inghram & Olafson’s map the flint layer represented by a dashed line, is exposed around the circumference of the entire ridge.) The Mount Carbon deposits were extensively quarried for stone tool production by the Native Americans. Whether Mount Carbon was the only source of high quality Kanawha black flint is a question worthy of further investigation.
Figure 3 - Dense lithic debitage from stone tool production.
Stone & Earthen Burial Mound
In 1894, Cyrus Thomas, Smithsonian Institution, published a detailed description of a stone and earthen burial mound on mount Carbon. Thomas noted the stone mound was located on a rocky spur of Mount Carbon at approximately 1000 feet above the Kanawha River. From the spur the river could be viewed for several miles in both directions. He described the stone mound as being “42 feet in diameter at the base, and 6 feet 8 inches high on the inside of the well [shaft], which was in the center, and [the well shaft is] a trifle less than 3 feet in diameter throughout.” Thomas said the mound was “one of the most perfect observed.” He was as interested in its construction as well as its contents. The mound contained “an accumulation of decayed bones and rubbish …”
Stone Walls and Related Features
A total of six separate lengths of stone wall were located by various researchers. The walls are spaced out along the north – south axis of the ridgeline. These stone walls are not the typical carefully stacked vertical linear structures normally associated with the term stone wall. These walls are very wide and long rows composed of mounded piles of stone. The length, width, height, and size of stones used in the walls vary from wall to wall. They do not exhibit any evidence of having been stacked or layered in their construction.
The Mount Carbon site can be subdivided into seven sites or groupings of structures and features. These include the six wall segments and a geographical area referred to as the cove. Researchers have identified specific areas designated as flint workshops. However, it should be noted that lithic scatter from tool production was observed across the ridge top in the vicinity of the walls.
Figure 4 - Frames from 1958 8mm film by Joe Jefferd of the Mount Carbon Walls
1. Wall – It is two feet high by twenty feet wide at base. It is laid out in a U shape and is oriented southward. It is composed of “crude rows of loosely piled rock” built on a “level bench or shelf where it crosses the ridge” and “slopes down to Kanawha” River. The stones are of the size and weight which one man can carry. The wall is located “east of the mouth of Armstrong Creek. It is about one-half mile south of the river …” The length of the wall is not given.
2. Flint Workshop E – The “black flint is exposed immediately above Wall 1” and at this point it is “twelve feet thick.” It was noted that “the ground between it [flint] and the wall is covered with flint debris and chips, among which were found several granitic hammerstones.”
1. Wall – Inghram, Olafson, & McMichael described it as “slightly higher and somewhat narrower than Wall 1.” It is laid out in a U shape and oriented southward. “It crosses the ridge where it is quite narrow, and runs down steep slopes on each side.” The stones are of a size that required several people to carry. The map shows it to be 250 feet in length and possibly extending an additional 350 to 500 feet. Hale lists it as 400 feet in length, 12 to 15 feet wide and 3 to 4 feet high. He states that on the west side the wall ends at the top of a cliff.
2. Flint Workshop C – A large lithic work area is denoted on the map (fig.1) south of Wall #2.
3. Cairns & Earthen Mounds:
a. Stone Cairn – It is 400 feet south of Wall #2 and is on north side of flint workshop area. It is described as “excavated” but no further information is given.
1. Cove – This geographical feature is located on the west side near the top of the ridge south of Wall #2. It covers about 25 to 30 acres.
2. Spring I – A natural spring is located in the cove near the end of the old mine tram-road a short distance southwest of wall #2. It is described as “a saucer-like basin, about 20 feet in diameter and 3½ to 4 feet deep. Nearly in the center is a well hole about 6 feet in diameter and 4 feet deep.”
3. Cairn A & Cairn B - Hale described these two cairns in 1898 as being approximately 40 to 50 yards (150 feet apart). “One is simply an oval pile of stones, somewhat like a turtle back, about 20 feet diameter at base and 3 feet high in middle. A large popular tree, 4 ½ feet in diameter has grown up within this pile of stones … This tree is now dead and fallen.” The second cairn “is a circular ridge of stones about 33 feet in diameter.” A live popular tree with a diameter of 3 ½ feet was found growing in it. In 1958, James Kellar, archaeologist, described two cairns as follows, “both had approximately the same configuration with a large pile of stone on the downhill side and two parallel rows ascending the slope for approximately 30 feet and closing at the top. The central sections were essentially devoid of slabs, giving the impression that a pile of stones had been excavated with debris being thrown out around the periphery.” Kellar apparently excavated cairn B. He notes that, “The almost complete excavation of one of these (Mound B) produced neither modern nor aboriginal artifact.” At the time of Hale’s explorations in 1898, one of cairns was still in intact and the second one (i.e. 33 feet diameter) had already been excavated, most likely by Norris.
4. Cairn C - In 1958, Kellar excavated “mound C.” It measured 13 feet in diameter by two feet high. Under the stone pile Kellar found a well built fireplace filled with wood ash and coal cinders, along with “metal end pieces derived from tramcars and other scrap from mining operations.” The subsequent clearing of the area adjacent to the fireplace “revealed a small dam of stone blocking an erosional gulley and additional piles of ash and cinders.” Kellar learned from a local informant that a ‘moonshining’ operation was known to exist in the area and he concluded the fireplace with the metal pieces creating a platform was the base for a still. This structure post dated 1898 and explains why it is not mentioned by Hale.
1. Wall – This wall is five feet high and thirty feet wide at base. It is laid out in a U shape which is oriented northward. It crosses a narrow part of ridge and goes down slope on either side of ridge. Written descriptions put the length at about 400 feet on each side for a total of 800 feet but the map (fig. 1) shows it about 1350 feet in length. Hale notes that the stones range in size from stones 12” x 15” x 6” (small enough for one person to carry) to 3½’ x 2½’ x 8” (requiring several people to carry.) Blocks of flint carried uphill from the flint layer two hundred feet in elevation below were found in the wall.
2. Flint Workshop A – The map (fig. 1) shows a large flint workshop area about 200 to 300 feet south of Wall #3.
3. Flint Workshop B – A second flint workshop is shown on the map (fig. 1) about 1300 feet southeast of wall #3.
4. Cairn Group – A group of 21 stone cairns is located on the northeast edge of the flint workshop A. 11 cairns are listed as having been excavated possibly in the 19th century and 10 additional cairns which were listed as undisturbed. They are described as “six inches high, and about five feet in diameter.” Kellar excavated one of these cairns but did not recover any diagnostic information.
5. Two Cairns (Pair D) – Two cairns are shown on map (fig.1) on the southwest side of flint workshop A. They are described as having been excavated (19th century?) and only two pits remain indicating their former location.
6. Two Cairns (Pair E) – Two cairns are shown on map (fig.1) on north side of flint workshop B. No further information is available about them.
1. Wall – This wall is laid out in a V shape with one side heading south and the other heading west. It is 74 yards in length (222 feet) and crosses the ridge with one side on the east slope and the other on the west slope of the ridge.
2. Flint Workshop D – On top of the ridge about a quarter mile south of Wall #4 a large amount of flint chips were noted.
1. Wall – This wall is located 1500 feet west of Wall #4 on a spur and 100 feet lower in elevation.
1. Wall – Inghram and Olafson never located this wall. The only available description is from Hale. The wall is described as being 1045 yards (3135 feet) westward of Wall #4 on the main ridge. It crosses the ridge and extends down the slope on both sides. It is 70 yards (210 feet) in length.
2. Spring II – A natural spring with compacted soil around it is mentioned in the vicinity of wall #6.
3. Cave – A natural cave is mentioned in the vicinity of wall #6. It is described as “about 6 feet down, and 20 feet horizontally” and was large enough for one of man in Hale’s surveying crew to crawl into.
4. Stone Circle – A stone circle was found constructed of flagstones. The circle was six feet diameter by ten inches high. It was described as “not far from the last wall [#6].”
5. Cairns F, G, & H – Three stone cairns were found on west side of the ridge between Walls #4 and #6 approximately 100 feet down from top of ridge and 75 feet apart.
Distances Between the Walls
NOTE: These are horizontal (i.e. airline) distances not the walking distances which are significantly longer because of walking up and down the slopes. Some of the distances given in older descriptions of the site are walking distances not airline distances.
Wall #1 to Wall #2 – 4000 feet (approximately)
Note: There are some minor discrepancies between writers and between Inghram & Olafson map and Inghram, Olafson, & McMichael text as to elevations especially with wall #2 & #3. The differences are 125 feet or less.
Kanawha River – 625 feet
Wall #1 – 1790 feet (highest point?)
Flint Workshop A – between 2050 and 2100 feet elevation
Cairns & Earthen Mounds (South of Wall #2) – between 2100 and 2150 feet elevation
Figure 5 - Surface collected artifacts from Mount Carbon. Artifacts are in various stages of production and made from Kanawha Black Flint. Bottom right photo is a hammer stone. (Private collection used with permission)
This analysis is based upon similarities, differences, and patterns found within the data present in section II of this report. It should be noted the information on Mount Carbon site is far from complete. This analysis may be subjected to formal revision as new information becomes available.
1. From 2/3 to 3/4 of a mile between walls
Walls #1 - #2
2. Walls cross narrow part of ridge and go down each side
Walls #2, #3, #4, #5, #6
3. Flint Workshops
In association with Walls #1, #2, #3, #4
4. Walls above exposed flint layer
Walls #2, #3, #4, #5, #6
a. Northern end (Spring I) – with walls #1, #2, #3
6. Sets of Two Cairns
7. Set of Three’s
a. Between walls #4 & #6 – 3 cairns
8. Two sets of Structures
a. Flint Workshop C near wall #2 – stones cairns & earthen mounds
1. Stone Sizes
a. Wall #1 – one-man-carry
2. Kanawha black flint stones used in walls
a. No Flint Stones – Walls #1, #2
3. Wall Lengths
a. Short – Walls #2, #4, #6
4. Flint Workshop Inside vs Outside of wall
a. Inside – Flint Workshop E near Wall #1 & Flint Workshop C near Wall #2
5. Cairn Size
a. Large – Cairn A & B in Cove (One measured 20 ft diameter x 3 ft high)
6. Cairn Group Size
a. Small Loose Group – Cairns A & B in Cove; Cairn Pair D & E near Wall #3; Cairns F, G, & H near Wall #6. These cairns were separated from each other by between 75 and 150 feet.
a. Northern end: Spring I was dug out, two cairns
8. Walls on Northern End (differences)
Wall #1 has exposed flint layer above wall, flint workshop E between exposed flint layer and wall, and no cairns recorded.
1. Wall Construction Method – Stones loosely piled
2. Location of Structures - On high ridge
3. Wall Layout – They cross narrow part of ridge and go down each side. There is one exception: wall #1. It crosses the ridge but unlike the other walls it was built on a level bench.
4. Flint Workshops – These are areas with heavy concentrations of flint debris which are associated with individual walls: #1, #2, #3, #4.
The walls cross the ridge and go down opposite sides but vary in length. The stone sizes vary from wall to wall (#1 small, #2 & #3 large & small). In addition, large blocks of flint were placed in one wall #3 but not mentioned in the other walls. Small oblong earthen mounds were found inside the flint workshop at wall #2. In comparison, a cairn group was associated with the flint workshop at wall #3.
Two springs, one on the northern end and the other on the southern end each had different associated structures. Each spring potentially went with a set of three walls on its respective end. The differences at each spring suggest different time periods. The differences in walls #1, #2, and #3 suggest different stages within a single time period.
The Kanawha black flint was an important source of raw materials for tool making for the Native Americans. Within the Native American worldview, this flint would have been considered a gift from the spirits. They may even have considered the flint as possessing a spirit or spiritual power. This spiritual power contained within the flint projectile points may have aided them in their hunting activities. The source of this precious material was most likely granted sacred status. It is logical to assume that the Native Americans felt that the spirit who controlled the flint (“Flint Spirit”) resided within Mount Carbon in particular the upper portion of the mountain.
The flint exposure at Mount Carbon created a natural barrier around the ridge. Carrying the flint blocks uphill to work areas kept the flint within its natural home-zone. The Native Americans in doing so may have viewed this gesture as keeping the flint removed in the tool making process within its own environment, within a protected area and under the protection of the Flint Spirit. With the exception of wall #1, all of the workshops, cairns, springs and other walls are within this protected zone.
The use of stone walls and cairns acknowledged the sacredness of the flint ridge and the spirits that dwelled there. The stone walls may have been used to make an offering to the Flint Spirit, or to block out uninvited spirits, or to contain the Flint Spirit within the flint flakes from wandering off. Wall #1 is slightly below the flint stratum placing it between the flint and the Kanawha River. This suggests wall #1 may have been used to block out spirits associated with the river water and the spirits of Native American travelers on the river. The other walls are above the flint stratum within the natural flint barrier. These walls suggest stone offerings. The actual purpose of the walls is secondary to understanding the walls had a religious / ritual / ceremonial context. The use of the cairns falls into the same religious / ritual / ceremonial usage pattern as the walls.
Native Americans like other aboriginal cultures around the world placed great importance on springs. Many springs had spiritual or religious importance. Springs were the source of pure and safe drinking water. Most importantly, they were considered doorways or portals to other spiritual dimensions like the Underworld. The presence of springs within this protective zone of the flint would simply have added to its spiritual significance. Spring I in the Cove near Wall #2 was extensively modified. These modifications suggest it was more than utilitarian source of water, they suggest it had ritual importance.
The Mount Carbon site can be subdivided into two divisions, a northern section and a southern section. Both sections have walls, cairns, and most importantly each has an associated spring. There are differences between the two sections which suggest they represent different time periods. The southern section has only three documented cairns whereas the northern section has 26 documented cairns. The southern section has a small stone circle and cave and the northern section has earthen mounds. These differences suggest more than differences in time periods, they suggest differences in social organization.
The southern section has a spring associated with a small stone circle and a cave. These three features most likely formed a ceremonial area which was separate from the walls. The stone circle was only large enough for a single person, and the cave could only accommodate one or two people. This indicates that one or two shaman were the only people present at the ritual(s) which took place in this ceremonial area. The cave represents a person’s physical entrance to the Underworld. The stone circle represents an enclosed space where a single person, likely a shaman could make contact with a spirit. In contrast, the walls required the work of many people. This would suggest that select ordinary people and the flint knappers (most likely from different villages) gathered at the walls for ceremonies. There was a clear social separation between the restricted shamanistic ceremonial area near the spring, and ceremonial wall areas open to rest of the tribe.
The northern section has a modified spring associated with two cairns in the Cove. One cairn was 20 feet diameter by 3 feet high. The size of this cairn suggests it was formed by offerings of stones placed on the cairn by a small group of people who gathered for the ritual annually. A small group would probably have been made up of a shaman and select ordinary people and flint knappers. There is no evidence of anyone entering the Underworld (i.e. going underground.) In addition, there is no circle where a shaman would separate his/her self from the rest of the group. The spring in the cove with the two cairns represent a time period where select ordinary people joined the shaman in making contact with the spirits. This represents a minor but significant social organizational difference from the southern section. The wall areas were where select ordinary people and flint knappers (most likely from different villages) gathered for a ritual.
Both the springs and their associated Spring Water Spirit and the flint strata and its associated Flint Spirit come from deep within the earth, a place traditionally viewed as the spiritual Underworld. At Mount Carbon, the tribal shamans and other members of the community could come into physical and spiritual contact with these important Underworld Spirits.
V. Other Wall Sites
The Mount Carbon walls site does not exist in isolation. There are reports of other wall and cairn sites with the region. Many of these reports state the structures are built on high points suggesting there was a clear cultural preference involved in site selection. Collectively, the evidence begins to suggest these sites are part of a regional phenomenon. A more detailed regional study is warranted by the evidence.
Paint Creek Wall – This site is located on a 1,000 feet high bluff at the junction of the Paint Creek and Kanawha River 7 miles from Mount Carbon. It was investigated by Norris and Cyrus Thomas, both from the Smithsonian Institute, and John Hale. The sketch map (Fig.3) by Norris is the only map of the site. The wall was in poor condition at the time of investigation. It was described as extending from the top of the east slope 800 feet to the top of the top of the west slope of the bluff and situated along the top of the southern edge of the bluff. Hale described the wall as of similar construction as the Mount Carbon Walls.
Figure 6 – Norris’ Sketch Map of the Paint Creek Stone Wall
Rush Creek Wall – John Hale reported a wall site near Rush Creek. “On a bench or natural terrace of the mountain fronting the river below Rush creek is a nearly straight wall connecting with nothing on either end.”
Raleigh County WV Wall Site (Unverified) - “A resident of Raleigh County, West Virginia, reports another stone wall on top of a high mountain, 16 miles south of Mount Carbon.”
Omar, Logan County, WV (Unverified) – “A newspaper article notes other examples [of walls] as occurring in Logan County, West Virginia, near Omar.”
Stone Mound in Stone Circle, Armstrong Creek – Cyrus Thomas described a stone mound within a stone circle on Armstrong Creek a ½ mile from its junction with the Kanawha River. It is unclear whether this was within the bounds of the Mount Carbon site or possible on the opposite side of Armstrong Creek from Mount Carbon. The stone circle was 100 feet in diameter, 15 to 20 feet wide and 3 to 5 feet high. The stone mound was badly damaged at the time of Thomas’s investigation. Local tradition states it was originally 24 to 30 feet in diameter and 10 feet high.
Stone Cairns, Kanawha River Region – Cyrus Thomas noted in the Kanawha River region that “On the summits of nearly all of the prominent bluffs, spurs, and high points of this region are heaps of large angular stones. Unlike the loose cairns of the plains of the northwest and elsewhere, these appear to have been systematically constructed for some particular purposes, with a circular well-like space in the middle.”
The Mount Carbon Walls site was a ceremonial complex (composed of walls, cairns, earthen mounds, and natural features like springs and a cave) which was built by the Native Americans. The site was an important source of Kanawha black flint and more importantly a sacred place within the Native American spiritual worldview. The site was the abode of two important Underworld spiritual beings, the Flint Spirit and the Spring Water Spirit.
The massive nature of the walls and large size of some of the cairns along with the extensive lithic scattered at a number of different workshop areas testifies to the long term usage of this site across many generations. The division of the site in two ceremonial sections from two different time periods further strengths the long-term usage argument. A more detailed analysis of the northern section may reveal it is composed of a series of shorter stages within the larger time period.
Mount Carbon does not exist in isolation. It is one of a number of stone structure sites within the Kanawha River valley. All of these sites showed a strong cultural preference for geographically high points. At Mount Carbon, this preference was largely influence by the presence of the flint strata and secondarily by the springs. Was Mount Carbon responsible for the preference for high points? Further research and better dating of these sites is necessary to explore this question.
Figure 7 - Damage from the 1970 coal mining operation.
In 1970, the western side of Mount Carbon was strip mined for coal. It has been assumed the strip mining destroyed the site. In reviewing aerial photographs for this report, it appeared that the ridge of the mountain was largely intact despite several access roads across the top. There is a valid possibility that portions of the site may have survived. A thorough field exploration is warranted to assess the current status of the site. This site assessment is urgently needed. In 2009, a new mining permit was filed requesting permission for further strip mining of Mount Carbon.
Figure 8 - These two out of focus images come from a 1980’s expedition to Mount Carbon which
Please consult the PDF version of this article for detailed footnotes and references. Printer Friendly PDF
1970b “Walls Tumbled Before Strippers, City Man Vows.” Charleston Gazette March 12, 1970
1989 “Was There Actually An Ancient Wall In Fayette?” West Virginia Hillbilly December 7, 1989. http://www.wvculture.org/history/nativeamericans/mysterywalls04.html
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