In the Movies, It’s Never a Good Sign When the Dead Leave Their Graves

But it real life, it’s harder to tell if it’s an omen when they find 6,000 year old bones at Clee’s Landing, there at the end of Bell’s Bend (speak

The shore is littered with tiny white shells, to mark the burial place above.

The shore is littered with tiny white shells, to mark the burial place above.

of the Devil).

The Nashvillest asks, “Who the heck was in Tennessee 6,000 years ago besides the dinosaurs!?” and I am happy to report that I now know that the people who were in Bell’s Bend 6,000 years ago were doing then what folks in Bell’s Bend do now–hunting, fishing, and experimenting with growing things.  They lived in small groups, usually three or four related families, and some of them would have been following the game and others of them would have settled into small fishing villages.  They would have been on the verge of figuring out how to grow squash and gourds.

Those bones, in fact, probably belong to the very people who put the white shells along the bottom of the bend to mark where in the river bank they buried their dead.

So, that’s who was here, folks who hunted and fished and who put their dead people near the river, so that they would always been near the lifeblood of their people.

16 thoughts on “In the Movies, It’s Never a Good Sign When the Dead Leave Their Graves

  1. I was hoping that they were old enough to be mastodon hunters, but alas, it was not meant to be. But what the hell? Maybe when they put in May Town Center, they can dig up some hairy elephant hunters.

    I also learned on wikipedia that “mastodon” means “nipple tooth.” I sincerely hope that’s some 14 year old’s idea of a joke.

  2. Yeah, the megafauna went extinct around 10,000 years ago, so dude was 4,000 years too late — roughly as distant from them as we are to the construction of Stonehenge or the domestication of the horse.

    Western and middle Tennessee was probably the most densely settled part of North America during the Archaic period. There’s some huge Clovis period camp remains and one of the oldest mastodon kill/butcher sites in North America near where you are. Must have been a hell of a barbeque.

  3. Who the heck is at the Nashvillest who thinks there were dinosaurs 6000 years ago? They need to take some remedial geology and perhaps watch a little less Flintstones.

  4. I think they were making an oblique joke about how the now-defunct plans for a Bible themepark would have had dinosaurs running around with humans less than 6,000 years ago. It’s kind of an ongoing joke in certain circles.

  5. Back in the 80’s we had a particularly dry year and the Mississippi River fell 25 feet below river stage, which exposed hundreds of human remains on the Arkansas side. It was quite obviously a mass grave of some sort, but nobody could figure out where it had come from.

    A few days worth of investigation revealed the answer: they were the bodies of slaves. Apparently that particular spot on the riverbed was a popular place for slave owners to simply dump their chattel when they were done with them.

    There’s all kinds of stories like that buried in the dirt.

  6. Autoegocrat, I have to say that this shocked the hell out of me and did not surprise me. When we lived along the river (farther north), some folks would complain about how, when they were dredging the river, “nigger-heads” would clog the works and someone would have to get down in the mud and remove them.

    At the time, I thought they were talking about actual skulls of black people, and then learned that they meant a rock of the size of a human head.

    But it now would not surprise me to learn that what you’re talking about was a common enough practice that it may have originally actually referred to human skulls.

    Which just goes to show you how fucking callous and disgusting people are when they think they can get away with it.

  7. Just returned from taking students to Normandy, the Loire Valley, and Paris for 15 days. The culture war really came out on our trip. The Christian kids refused to allow any cursing, even in a different van if they couldn’t hear it and wouldn’t allow the other kids to discuss anything that offended them. I had to put an end to it as we had two atheists, a Unitarian, and a Muslim on the trip.

    One of the Christian kids, a very smart young man, stated one day that there had never been any such thing as Neandrethals and that the Earth was barely 5,000-6,000 years old. I tried to explain to him that he could have his faith and still accept that the world is billions of years old and that man did, in fact, evolve over hundreds of thousands of years. I think he still thinks I’m the devil.

  8. Casey! I’ve missed you. Glad to see you back around. I have tried to avoid talking about anything that might interest until you got back but I’m afraid you missed a good discussion in which we discovered that at least a couple of folks around here are Melungeon.

    As to your anecdote, this is honestly something I don’t understand and I was raised a Christian by a Christian minister in somewhat stifling small towns. And yet… and yet we weren’t raised to believe that our being Christians gave us the right to insist that the rest of the world conform to our needs.

    In fact, we were taught it would be just the opposite.

    And we were for sure taught that while everything in the Bible is THE TRUTH, we were to understand that some of it was a mystical or allegorical truth, not a fact.

    I am sure that it would have been seen as insulting to God to insist that He had to create the world as it is 6,000 years ago, instead of believing that he could and would develop something so complex and wonderful that it took trillions of years to spin out just as He planned.

    And I know this strain of “The Bible is literal fact” has long been with us in America, but I still find it stunning.

  9. Hey – just wanted to send a small correction. In a couple places on the blog you reference the shells on the beach at Clee’s Ferry as being “to mark where in the river bank they buried their dead.” If the shells ever had anything to do with ceremonial activity that was a secondary function. The piles of shell along the bank at Bells Bend are the result of the “shell midden” portion of the site being eroded away by the river.

    The shell midden at that site was formed during the Archaic period when the locals were living along the natural river levees and eating primarily shellfish out of the Cumberland. Long droughts around that period caused deer populations to crash and lowered river levels to where shell beds were accessible. After the folks living there ate the critters inside the shells (yes, even the tiny snails) they threw away the leftovers, which over thousands of years built up into huge piles along the levee. You can see the point where the droughts ended, because the shell pretty much disappears from the bank line despite there being another 15 feet and 5,000 years of archaeological deposits on top of it.

    Folks continued to live on top of the shell deposit even as it grew. They dug holes down into the shell to make storage and fire pits, and also buried their dead – the same as they would have at any other site. Some archaeologists have suggested that shell middens were “ceremonial” or somehow related primarily to burial activity, but that idea isn’t widely accepted. From a material culture perspective, finding a burial in a shell midden is like finding one at the city dump – it’s been placed in the ground surrounded by the trash of everyday life.

  10. From a material culture perspective, finding a burial in a shell midden is like finding one at the city dump – it’s been placed in the ground surrounded by the trash of everyday life.

    you mean it’s really pretty remarkable, then? because that’s just about the last place i’d expect to find a burial ground. the whole reason we bury/cremate/whatever our dead is that we value life — and, thus, we mark death — above ordinary refuse.

  11. Remarkable to us today, perhaps, but not so much in the prehistoric. Problem 1 night be looking for a “burial ground;” in these parts no such thing existed prehistorically. Folks were sometimes buried in small clusters, or cemetery areas (& mounds…), but always within the boundaries of the larger settlement and surrounded cheek-by-jowl by house footprints, trash pits, flintknapping stations, etc. When you hear on the news about a “burial ground” being obliterated in Williamson Co., the actual human remains are only a small part of the story. Case in point – there were maybe a dozen skeletons found when they built Brentwood Library, but there were more than 3,000 house posts, fire pits, etc. An entire village was destroyed, but the media usually only picks up on the bodies.

    The fact that offerings were left in some prehistoric graves probably means they were marking the occasion with a sort of ceremony. But, the burial pits were almost always backfilled *WITH* ordinary refuse – everything form broken tools and flintknapping leftovers to the deer bones from dinner the night before. Heck – during the Archaic period they didn’t even inter children in discrete graves unless they lived to about 11 or 12 years. Younger than that and you find the bodies tucked into the sides of other types of features, and without any sort of offerings.

  12. SHUT UP!!!!! God damn. Whenever people ask me why I blog, it’s exactly to this kind of stuff I point. Here I am, an amateur, but interested, scrounging to learn what I can and spout it like I know what I’m talking about.

    And folks who know what they’re doing just show up and tell me cool stuff. I love it. I find it humbling, but I love it.

    Anyway, thanks Contingency. I changed my most recent entry over at the Scene to take out the part about the white banks marking the graves. So, you have probably saved many historians and archaeologists from eye-strain, where they would have otherwise had to roll their eyes at that spot.

  13. The bones were said to be in the water, floating. That does not tell us that they came from that area. They may have floated down from parts unknown. Without documented investigation we can speculate a lot of things. These are descriptions of what has been found in other locations, but do not point to truth about these shells and this spot. It is possible that this whole area was flooded at one time and the river moves exposing new ground each year. The flow of the current is strong as it passes the Bend.

  14. grapa, I know that you wish to be a naysayer, but here you’re reaching. Shell middens are among the most recognizable sites of ancient occupation; they are fairly easy to spot and historical archaeologists are not in doubt about how they came to be. They may dispute what the humans used them for (though not very heatedly), but they do indeed point to ancient human occupation over a long duration. In that sense, they are like archaic fire pits. Once one has seen enough of them, one knows what they are when one sees them, which leaves the specifics of when it was used and what was cooked in it and left near it to be nailed down.

    I’m generous to your position, but only to a point. Since we agree we’ve got common ground over the preservation of the area, it’s more productive to focus on the many sites that need attention rather than to insist that we just don’t know anything about the ancient, Mississippian, woodland, and proto-colonial period usage.

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