About 10 people gathered around an ancient Cherokee petroglyph in Cullowhee Jan. 24 to get a better view of its markings.
Despite almost freezing temperatures, researchers met at the Caney Fork landmark to use laser-guided equipment to create the most detailed view of Judaculla Rock to date.
The soapstone boulder containing hundreds of mysterious symbols is the state’s largest petroglyph and is significant to the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians.
Recent efforts by Jackson County and the EBCI have stabilized the rock’s environmental deterioration, and 133 acres of land around the rock were placed into a conservation easement last year. The land the rock sits on was donated to Jackson County in 1959 by the J.B. Parker family.
Last week’s scan, which will create a detailed view of the rock’s face, is the result of a master’s thesis in Kansas.
University of Kansas geography graduate student Deborah Kirk is studying James Mooney’s ethnography from the late 1800s as part of her research, and Mooney spent a great deal of time with the Cherokee Indians.
“He gained their trust, and they took him to all of these homeland sites,” she said, adding that Mooney documented more than 600 Cherokee sacred sites.
Judaculla Rock is one of those sites and one of only two petroglyphs Mooney described.
University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill professor Brett Riggs discovered Mooney’s maps in the Smithsonian Institute, had them stabilized and asked Kirk if she’d be interested in using them for her thesis.
The pair also collaborated with T.J. Holland, who works with the tribe’s Cultural Resources Department and had also been working with Mooney sites.
Kirk and her team also worked with U.S. Forest Service Archaeologist Scott Ashcraft, who coordinated the effort with the county and Tribe.
Charlotte-based ESP Survey conducted the light detection and ranging scan, commonly referred to as LIDAR.
“Depending on the density, it takes between one and three hours,” said ESP technician Jason Dixon.
“Each point it (the laser) hits, it creates x-, y- and z-coordinates,” he said, noting the scan would produce millions of coordinates.
Using that data, Kirk plans to create an interactive map to be used in the Cherokee Language Program.
“These maps will be more than just putting something up on Google Earth with a popup,” she said.
“They’ll have an audio file with the language embedded. They need to be mystical and magical – they’ve got to capture the students’ attention.”
Kirk will provide a copy of the scan along with copies of her research to the tribe.
“I hope it turns out. You have all these ideas in your head and nobody has ever done what I’m trying to do with this story map, so I don’t have anything to follow. I’m just trying to learn this as I go along and figure out what the components are and how to put it together,” she said.
According to Holland, the scan will “give us a better view of what’s really there.” It also establishes a sense of place and “reaffirms who we are and our connection to these things,” he said.
“Judaculla is so important to our stories,” Holland said.
Riggs said he and Kirk have been discussing documentation of the sites, interpretation and trying to create some kind of systemic understanding for a year.
“It’s important for the Cherokee people to bring this to light for the people of the tribe,” Riggs said. “These are not simply isolated tidbits of strange historical trivia but are all part of what was an integrated system representation of landscapes and traditional belief.”
Kirk’s project will really build an appreciation for the sites not only as archaeological resources but as traditional cultural resources, he said.