Popular Science Monthly/Volume 22/February 1883/A Prehistoric Cemetery

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ABOUT ten miles from Cincinnati, along the Little Miami River, is a locality which has long been known to the country people as the "Pottery-Field." The ground was strewed with fragments of pottery, bones, arrow-points, and other remains of like character, and the place was generally considered to be the site of an ancient work-shop. The primitive forest still occupies the locality, and is made up of oak, beech, elm, maple, walnut, etc. All around are found numerous mounds or tumuli, most of them small. A few of these were opened by Mr. Florian Gianque, in 1876, and some interesting things found. But, in 1878, Dr. Charles Metz and other gentlemen interested in archæology commenced a systematic exploration of the country thereabout, and so much has been found that we are enabled to form some idea of the habits, and get a glimpse into the life, of the people who once lived in the immediate vicinity of the city of Cincinnati.

During the four years that the excavations have been carried on, between six hundred and fifty and seven hundred skeletons have been brought to light. Many of them are in an advanced state of decay, and crumble to pieces on the slightest touch, while others, again, are in a very good state of preservation. It can, therefore, hardly be inferred that, because some of the skeletons are much decayed, they are necessarily very old; for, though we have well-preserved remains of bones from Babylon, Nineveh, and Egypt, which are certainly twenty-five hundred or three thousand years old, still the cases are exceptional in which they are found in good condition after the lapse of many years. Different kinds of soil and differences in climate have much to do with the matter: for, in a dry and equable climate, bones may resist for a long time the influences which would cause their decay, while, in a moist climate, and with sudden and extreme changes of temperature, such as we have here, any bone, unless buried in peat, or subject constantly to heavy pressure, so as to become partially fossilized, is liable to soon decay.

An examination of the skulls found in the cemetery, as it is called, as well as the other parts of the skeleton shows some interesting facts. In a paper by Dr. F. W. Langdon[1] is given a table of measurements of the crania which shows that the brachycephalous skulls (those with an index of breadth of 800 and over)[2] are largely in the majority, there being fifty-two out of seventy-two of this character. None of them, however, exhibit any signs of the flattening of the frontal bone, which is such a characteristic feature of the Natchez and. other Southern races of Indians. The Caribs of the West Indies and the Chinooks of Oregon both flattened the heads of their children in infancy; and the skulls of the ancient Peruvians and the figures on the monuments at Palenque show a remarkable flattening of the frontal. This is generally considered to have been the natural form of the skull, to have been the type of beauty cultivated by the Peruvians, Central Americans, Toltecs, etc., and not to have been produced altogether by compression. The peculiar form of skull became hereditary, and children were born with this (to us) deformity.

Various forms of diseased bones are found among the human remains. One of these is a peculiar anchylosis of the spinous and articular processes of some of the vertebræ, the bodies remaining free.[3] It is supposed to have been the vertebral column of a female dwarf, the skeleton of which presented several other points of interest. Among the crania are several which have been fractured by some blunt implement, and the fracture has been partially or completely healed. Two other very interesting specimens are among the human bones. One is the eleventh dorsal vertebra, in which is imbedded for a quarter of an inch one of the small flint-points called war-arrows. The other specimen is a sacrum in which there is imbedded a similar point. This last was found in a pit with twenty-two skeletons,[4] and doubtless belonged to an individual killed with the others in a battle, all of the killed having been buried together. These specimens show with what force the people could send their arrows. Both had entered from the front of the body, passed through it, and were only stopped by the vertebral column. Some of the long bones exhibit various excrescences which have been referred to syphilitic diseases, and which show that the people here buried were afflicted with that fearful scourge which, as some one has expressed it, "turned Europe into a charnel-house."

But the bones of an extinct race of men, interesting though they may be, can tell us but little of their domestic habits, and it is to the implements found here that we turn with greatest interest. These are so abundant, and often of such a peculiar character, that we have much to speculate upon. First of all is the remarkable circumstance of finding so many implements of bone; the abundance of which has generally been thought to be a proof of a low grade of civilization. But probably their abundance or their rarity has been regulated also by the age of the deposit, for, the older the deposit, the less likely it is that the bone relics have resisted the action of time.

Many of the remains are of a peculiar character, unlike anything found elsewhere, and speculations in regard to their origin and use are rife. Still other relics are strikingly like some found elsewhere, not particularly in this country, but in Europe, as will be shown further on. Among the most curious and anomalous of all are certain peculiarly grooved bones, as represented in Fig. 1.[5] They are usually made

PSM V22 D463 Prehistoric deer or elk leg bone.jpg
Fig. 1.

of the leg-bones of the deer or elk. But few of the specimens are perfect, the majority having been broken by use and wearing away of the bone. The groove is often highly polished, though scratches running the long way are visible. These scratches were made in the manufacture or use of the instrument or tool, but what its use was no one has been able satisfactorily to determine. Archæologists are puzzled, and pronounce them to be unique. PSM V22 D463 Shaped and polished prehistoric animal bones.jpgFig. 2. It has been supposed by nearly every one that they were used in dressing skins, but no such scratches as are observed could be made in that operation. Some have suggested that perhaps they were made to serve some purpose of ornamentation, but neither is this explanation probable. It seems to me that the groove has been the result of rubbing, for the purpose of polishing certain other relics found here. There have been found numbers of peculiar cylindrical pieces of bone and horn, like Fig. 2, as unlike anything found elsewhere as the grooved bones; and it seems probable that these cylinders of bone have been rubbed and polished in the grooved bones. We find that the different-sized cylinders fit well into the different-sized grooves, and certainly constant rubbing would both round off and polish the cylinders, and leave scratches in the groove. It has been a matter of speculation, also, to determine the use of these cylinders. Some have said that they were used in playing a game; but it is more likely that they were made into a belt for the waist, or a necklace, thongs being woven between them, first round one, then the next, and so on. None of them show any signs or attempts at boring from end to end.[6]

Deer and elk horns enter largely into the manufacture of many of the relics. Among others are what are known as bone arrow or spear

PSM V22 D464 Prehistoric deer or elk horn.jpg
Fig. 3.

points, shown in Figs. 3 and 4. They are invariably made from the sharp points of horn, the piece being first cut off, and then a hole drilled into the blunt end with a flint. Marks made by the drill are still distinctly seen in the holes. The points were fastened to wooden shafts inserted in the holes. Now, strange though it may seem, relics

PSM V22 D464 Bones with holes possibly used as currency.jpg
Fig. 4. Fig. 5.

of an exactly similar make and of exactly the same sort of material are found thousands of miles away. Dr. F. Keller, in his elaborate book on the "Lake-Dwellers of Europe," gives figures[7] of these implements found in the Swiss lake-dwellings, and Fig. 5 is taken from his book. It is immediately seen that the relics from the two localities are identical, with the exception of the small hole drilled into the side. In Fig. 5 one of the arrow-points has a portion of the shaft still fastened in the hole.

Large pieces of deer and elk-horn, with the prongs polished by constant use, have probably been employed as digging implements. Smaller pieces of the flat part of the horn, with two or three prongs, like Fig. 6, have circular holes drilled into them, and were probably used for loosening the ground in agricultural labors. Here also we have similar pieces found in Switzerland, and Fig. 7 is copied from Dr. Keller's

PSM V22 D465 Horns used as ancient agricultural implements.jpg
Fig. 6.

book, before mentioned.[8] The same idea has evidently actuated the makers of both these articles. Still other implements of horn are known as skin-dressers. These are made of the broad bases of deer-horn, sometimes six or eight inches long and four inches wide. They

PSM V22 D465 Ancient agricultural or skinning tool.jpg
Fig. 7.

are polished at the broad end by constant use, so that they look like ivory. Occasionally one is found with a hole bored in it, but such are exceptional, and were perhaps used for another purpose. Here, again, we find relics of a similar character in Switzerland, as figured by Dr. Keller,[9]

Bone beads are also found with the other relics. These vary in length from one to three inches, and are often very highly polished. Fig. 8 is a large one, and has some peculiar zigzag markings on it, the significance of which is not known. Bone fish-hooks, as represented

PSM V22 D466 Bone with an unusual ornamentation of unknown origin.jpg
Fig. 8.

in Fig. 9, show the race to have lived by the product of the Little Miami River as well as by the chase. Bone harpoons, similar in make PSM V22 D466 Bone fish hooks.jpgFig. 9. to those still in use by the Esquimaux,[10] show further that they derived sustenance from the river, while Fig. 10 shows a needle made of a fish-spine (c) with a large hole in one end, a deer-bone (b), used perhaps as an awl, and a turkey-bone (a), also used as an awl.

Besides the useful articles of bone that have been mentioned, there are others used more for ornament. The beads have already been referred to. A peculiarly-shaped piece of elk-horn, with five teeth and a perforated handle, has been found, and has been called a comb. Fig. 11[11] represents it, and a striking resemblance between it and one from the Swiss lake-dwellings (Fig. 12[12]) maybe noticed. Another piece, the use of which is not known, but which is supposed to have been

PSM V22 D466 Bone harpoon tips and sewing needles of the inuit.jpg
Fig. 10.

perhaps some sort of flute or whistle, is shown in Fig. 13. It is a hollow piece of bone, with six holes of different sizes made in one side, and marks of another where the relic has been broken. How much longer it was we can not tell. In Fig. 14 we have still another tube,

PSM V22 D467 Comb made of bone 1.jpg
Fig. 11.

with only three holes, placed farther apart than in the preceding, and oblong instead of round; and in Keller[13]there is figured almost an

PSM V22 D467 Comb made of bone 2.jpg
Fig. 13.

exact counterpart, except that the center hole is placed a little below the level of the other two. This last is called a weaver's shuttle, and, if our relic may be similarly named, we have evidence that weaving

PSM V22 D467 Prehistoric flute made of bone.jpg
Fig. 13.

was another occupation of this people. And other facts are at hand to show that they did weave. Among the stone relics is one of those peculiar oblong pieces of polished slate which have sometimes gone by

PSM V22 D467 Prehistoric weaving tool made from bone.jpg
Fig. 14.

the name of "gorgets." These pieces have one to three holes drilled through them, supposed to have been made to carry the object by. Still another and more probable purpose, however, is for weaving, the holes being used to regulate the size of the thread. But all doubt vanishes when it is found that some "ash-pits," in which most of the relics have been found, contain pieces of coarse matting. This has been carbonized, so that it can not now be ascertained of what material it was made. Enough, however, remains to show that the fibers running one way are secured by twisted cords running across, and woven in and out between and around them.

As is very well known, the copper-mines of Lake Superior were extensively worked at an early day, and articles made of the copper are found all through the valleys of the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers. The present cemetery is no exception, for fragments of copper are quite common. The pieces are mostly small, however, and do not seem to have been in very general use. In all probability the metal was highly prized, and used simply for personal adornment. The most of the pieces are simply coiled or rolled, and Fig. 15 represents

PSM V22 D468 Ancient copper ornaments from lake superior area.jpg
Fig. 15.

common shapes. These two pieces still have the remains of a leather thong in them, showing that they had been used like beads. Another piece is a sort of copper bell, made of a single piece of metal, with a hole in the side, a handle, and a small piece of copper inside, which rattles when the bell is shaken. Still another large piece is like a cross with two arms, the use or purpose of it being entirely unknown. Objects like it have occasionally been found elsewhere. Squier and Davis[14] have figured a similar piece, but of silver, which they refer to the French Jesuits; and Professor Putnam figures another,[15] which differs in having only one arm. He considers it an ornament, "made in its present form simply because it is an easy design to execute, and one of natural conception." We must beg leave to differ from him in this latter point, for, if the design is one of natural conception, why do we make a point when it is found? Why are the forms like it not more numerous, and why does not the ornamented pottery have innumerable examples of it in the ornamentation?

Beads made of pieces of fresh-water and marine shells are found among the other remains. Sometimes pieces are cut from the mussel-shell, rubbed round, and then a hole bored. Sometimes specimens of Melania or Paludina holes bored near the aperture, and were then used as beads. The beads made of marine shells show that some system of barter or commerce existed with the Atlantic Ocean or the Gulf. Quantities of shells, of species of the genus Unio, "fresh-water oysters," are found. They go to show that shell-fish formed an article of diet of the race. And not only did they eat the animal, but they made good use of many of the shells. Many of them have been ground off at the edge, and were used as spoons or ladles, while others have holes punched in the valves, and were probably used for hoes in their agricultural operations. An examination of many of these shells shows no difference between them and individuals of the same species now found in the river. Still, a change could hardly be expected in the inhabitants of any locality, without a change in the conditions of life, and there is no evidence of a change in conditions since the shells were taken from the river.

The flint pieces, of various shapes, are quite numerous, and many of them beautifully worked. In Fig. 16 are shown some of the war PSM V22 D469 Flint war arrow points.jpgFig. 16. arrow-points, and they are so abundant that one is almost inclined to believe the people who made them were not so peaceable as has been supposed. In Fig. 17 is shown one of the "leaf-shaped" flints, some of which are beautifully worked; while, in Fig. 18 are some of the drills used in boring holes in bones or shells. There is one thing to be noticed among the flint pieces. It is said that, in war, arrows like those in Fig. 16 were exclusively used, while, in hunting, points which were notched at the broad or lower end were used. Now, the peculiarity noticed is the scarcity of points of the latter character. For, out of 316 worked flints, selected from some thousands, there are but four which are notched at the lower ends. One of two things is to be inferred. Either that the race was more warlike than agricultural,

PSM V22 D469 A carved flint and flint bone and shell drilling bits.jpg
Fig. 17. Fig. 18.
and used horn arrows in hunting instead of the notched ones; or else they were manufacturers of war-points for other tribes, and lived peaceably by hunting, fishing, and agricultural labors. All that we know could be interpreted more in favor of the first view than of the second, for, while we are sure they were agricultural to a certain extent, this fact would not be opposed to an argument for their warlike character. The Southern Indians, within the historic period, were at war all the time, and still raised quantities of maize.[16]

The fact of the race of people here buried raising maize is established by finding, in some pits, quantities of it completely carbonized. Corn seems to have often been placed in pots and buried with the bodies, to serve, perhaps, as food for the journey to the spirit-land. Another of their agricultural labors was that of raising tobacco; for, in common with nearly all the other North American races, they were smokers. Numbers of pipes, of various styles and materials, are found here. Some of them are of the red clay known as Catlinite, others of ordinary limestone. In Fig. 19 is shown a pipe carved out of hard

PSM V22 D470 Indian pipe carved out of limestone.jpg
Fig. 19.

limestone. It is very highly polished, and considerable skill is exhibited in the carving of the head. It is evidently meant for a wolf, and the teeth, though interlocking in a peculiar way, are still tolerably true to nature in having the long canines.[17]

The stone implements are much the same as those found in various parts of the country. There seems, however, to be a remarkable paucity of grooved axes, there having been but two found so far. There are numbers of the ungrooved "celts," as well as of sling-stones, blunt at each end, but with a groove in the middle by which to fasten the handle. Some of these stones were also probably used as sinkers for nets in fishing, and are very similar to those found in Swiss lakes, as noticed by Dr. Keller. Rubbing-stones for polishing celts, hammers, anvils, pestles, and corn-pounders, are also abundant. Some pieces of a coarse, gritty sandstone have shallow grooves worn into them, which are supposed to have been used in rubbing down some of the bone or flint implements. Other pieces, with similar grooves, but made of close-grained sandstone, were probably used to straighten the shafts of the arrows. The shaft, at first wet and green, was rubbed up and down in the groove, and all the bends or twists thus taken out. Stones like these have been used by the Indians of the historic period.

Reference was made in the early part of this article to the name of the "Pottery-Field," given to the burying-ground. It may be inferred from the name that pieces of pottery were abundant, and the number of vessels taken out fully confirms the appropriateness of the name. These are all of one general shape and character. The material is a clay mixed with finely-powdered shells, and was baked in the sun. Nearly all the vessels are furnished with four handles, and are generally devoid of any ornamentation. Some have salamander-shaped handles, and the few that are ornamented have simply cross-lines andPSM V22 D471 Limestone with unknown carving.jpgFig. 20. stripes with lines running round the vessel near the top, and perhaps a few dots. Though some of them are very well formed, they do not show any great advance in art.

Among the most interesting remains of any race of people, are the rude beginnings of art they have left behind them; and, though the people under consideration did not have, as far as we know, any written language, they have left a few memorials of their artistic feelings in the shape of some carvings on bone, and a few inscribed stones. The most interesting of these are here figured. Fig. 20 represents, on a piece of limestone, the head and forelegs of some curious animal. What is meant is hard to imagine. The teeth are marvelous, but still, in their arrangement, are like the teeth of the wolf-pipe in Fig. 19. Fig. 21 is a portion of a bone having peculiar marks cut on it. The marks are the same on both sides, but the meaning intended to be conveyed is beyond the interpreting powers of the writer, nor does he know of any explanation having been attempted.

From the remains here described, and from others found in the cemetery, for such the locality undoubtedly was, we can form some

PSM V22 D472 Indian limestone carving from little miami river.jpg
Fig 31.

idea of the habits of the people. They were warlike, yet agricultural, hunters as well as fishermen. They killed the bear, deer, elk, beaver, raccoon, and other animals of the forest, for the remains of all are quite abundant. They ate the shell-fish of the Little Miami River, and caught fish with hooks and nets. They raised corn, as well as tobacco, in quantities. They wove matting, made fish-nets, and perhaps blankets. They ornamented themselves with necklaces of bone and shell beads, bear and beaver teeth. They dressed in skins, prepared with horn and stone implements. They painted their bodies, as cakes of paint testify. They had commercial intercourse, or some system of barter, with Lake Superior and the Gulf, or the Atlantic. They were frequently embroiled in wars with neighboring tribes. They could hardly have been far advanced in civilization, if bone implements instead of stone is any indication. They had no written language, but yet left some record of their existence in the shape of carved bones and inscribed stones. Finally, if the burial of vessels containing food for the dead be any indication, they had some idea of a future life. Much further than this in their history we can not go.

The attention of the reader has been repeatedly called to the similarity between the implements found in this "Cincinnati" cemetery and those found in the Swiss lakes. No one could claim that, because of this similarity and almost identity of forms, the two races of people ever had intercourse with each other. But the fact is interesting as showing how, in two countries, thousands of miles apart, and separated by a period of hundreds of years in time, there were made, with the same materials, the same forms of weapons and implements. The resemblance is no argument for a common origin, but simply shows that nearly the same grade of civilization may be developed spontaneously in two widely separated countries.

It now becomes an interesting matter of speculation to discover the age of the cemetery. It has been referred to the age of the mound-builders, but, if so, it is a most remarkable fact, unless we consider the modern Indians as the lineal descendants of the mound builders, which is quite probable. Heretofore but three or four authentic skulls of the mound-builders have been found in any sort of preservation, while here we have a great many taken from a small area. Further, if we are to refer the cemetery to the mound-building race, we must admit that the race disappeared within a very recent period. On a level bank near the Little Miami River is a circular excavation about forty feet in diameter and seven feet deep. "An old settler relates that fifty years ago remains of stakes or palisades could be seen surrounding this excavation."[18] These have since disappeared, but their being there shows within how recent a period the ground was abandoned. Then the age of the forest-trees growing on the ground argues against any very great antiquity. The largest trees measured are a walnut fifteen and a half feet in circumference, an oak twelve feet, an oak and a maple each nine and a half feet in circumference,[19] equal to about five, four, and three feet in diameter respectively. Now, the average growth of fourteen different species of trees is about ·12 of an inch a year, or one foot radius (two feet diameter) in ninety-eight years.[20] Taking this average, a tree five feet in diameter would be two hundred and forty-five years old; one four feet in diameter, one hundred and ninety-six years old; and one three feet in diameter, one hundred and forty-seven years old; or, in round numbers, two hundred and fifty, two hundred, and one hundred and fifty years respectively.

There is no evidence to show that there was any growth of forest on this ground, after its abandonment by the former residents, previous to the one now covering it. The roots of living trees having trunks two and three feet in diameter have been found penetrating the crania of skeletons found here, a tolerably sure indication of a first growth. Notwithstanding the assertions of many people to the contrary, the process of covering land with dense forest is by no means a slow one. A field allowed to go without being cultivated becomes in a few years covered with a new growth of saplings. Mr. Robert Ridgway, in a late paper, after referring to the cutting off of timber, and also to its encroachment on prairie-land in Illinois, says: "The growth of this new forest is so rapid that extensive woods near Mount Carmel [Illinois], consisting chiefly of oaks and hickories (averaging more than eighty feet high, one to nearly two feet in diameter), were open prairie within the memory of some of the present owners of the land."[21] Taking this fact into consideration, and remembering that the largest tree found on the ground was not over two hundred and fifty years old, the time of the abandonment of the cemetery can not be more than three hundred years ago. This would take it back to less than one hundred years after the discovery of America by Columbus. The present State of Ohio was then probably occupied by a tribe of Indians known as the Eries, who were totally exterminated in 1656,[22] and it is possible we have in this cemetery one of the burial-places of this tribe of Indians.

Catlinite pipes were unknown to the mound-builders, yet some made of this material are found in this cemetery. Hogs rooting in the ground find sufficient nutriment in the bones to eat them greedily, and probably there would be fewer bone implements found if they had not been buried in ash-pits.[23]

Everything, therefore, tends to show the comparatively recent date of this cemetery, and I would state, as a reasonable conclusion, that the remains are those of a tribe of Indians, perhaps the Eries, and were deposited not more than three hundred and perhaps only two hundred and fifty years ago.

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  1. "Journal of the Cincinnati Society of Natural History," vol. iv, pp. 237, cl seq.
  2. The long diameter being taken as 100.
  3. For a figure of this and various other diseased bones, see article in "Journal of the Cincinnati Society of Natural History," vol. iv, pp. 241-257.
  4. Ibid., vol. iv, p. 253.
  5. Copied from "Journal of the Cincinnati Society of Natural History," vol. iii., plate 1. Most of the figures herein given are made from specimens in the collection of the Cincinnati Society of Natural History.
  6. Since this was written, Dr. Phene, of England, suggests that they were used as currency, and it is very possible that this was the case.
  7. See plates 45, 62, 89, and 91 for these figures. The ones here given are copied from Figs. 25 and 28 on plate 62, and Fig. 6 on plate 91.
  8. See plate 13, Fig. 2.
  9. See plate 13, Fig. 14.
  10. Lubbock, "Prehistoric Times," p. 504, Fig. 219.
  11. Copied from the "Journal of the Cincinnati Society of Natural History," vol. iii, p. 132.
  12. Keller, "Lake-Dwellings," plate 28, Fig. 8.
  13. Lac. cit., plate 41, Fig. 9.
  14. "Ancient Monuments of the Mississippi Valley," p. 208.
  15. "Eleventh Annual Report of the Peabody Museum of Archæology and Ethnology," p. 307.
  16. Jones, "Antiquity of the Southern Indians," p. 7. "When, in 1730, the whites interposed their good offices to bring about a pacification between the Tuscaroras and the Cherokees, the latter responded: 'We can not live without war; should we make peace with the Tuscaroras, with whom we are at war, we must immediately look out for some other with whom we can be engaged in our beloved occupation.'" For notice of agricultural labors, see Jones, pp. 296 to 320.
  17. Many other forms of pipes from this locality are given in the "Journal of the Cincinnati Society of Natural History," vol. iii, Nos. 1, 2, and 3.
  18. "Prehistoric Monuments of the Little Miami Valley," by Dr. Charles Metz, "Journal of the Cincinnati Society of Natural History," vol. i, p. 123.
  19. Ibid., vol. iii, p. 44.
  20. See table, by Dr. A. Lapham, of age of trees in Wisconsin, given in Foster's "Prehistoric Races of the United States," p. 374.
  21. "Notes on the Native Trees of the Lower Wabash and White River Valleys in Illinois and Indiana," printed in "Proceedings of the United States National Museum," 1882, p. 54.
  22. "Some Early Notices of the Indians of Ohio," by M. F. Force, published by K. Clarke & Co., Cincinnati, 1879, pp. 1-11.
  23. For an account of these pits, see "Journal of the Cincinnati Society of Natural History," vol. iii.