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An Ancient Iroquoian (Cherokee) Wooden Mask from South-Central Tennessee

Richard Michael Gramly, PhD
North Andover, Massachusetts
American Society for Amateur Archaeology

A well-worn wooden mask, likely carved during the eighteenth century but abandoned by its Cherokee owners in 1838, is described and identified as an early example of a Booger mask used in the Bear Dance.

Amateur Archaeologist JournalThe Iroquoian linguistic group is widespread in North America. For three thousand years, perhaps longer, Iroquoian speakers occupied the greater Appalachian Mountain region from Georgia and Tennessee in the south (the Cherokee) through North Carolina and Virginia (the Tuscarora), to Pennsylvania and New York State (the confederate Iroquois tribes, Wenro and related groups). Eventually they spread to lands lying north of the Appalachians and around the Great Lakes where corn horticulture was possible (the Neutral, Huron, Petun, and the St. Lawrence Iroquois). During the 19th century members of Iroquoian-speaking groups living in the United States were re-settled within Wisconsin and (by force) within Oklahoma Indian Territory — where many still remain.

Amateur Archaeologist JournalLate in 1838 most of the Cherokee Nation, including their black slaves, left a homeland within the Appalachians on a months-long journey by land and river to Oklahoma. The principal overland route began at Red Clay south of Cleveland, Tennessee, and headed northwest towards Illinois. The first leg of this 1000-mile trek, named the Trail of Tears because of great suffering and the loss of life that occurred, was to Nashville (Figure 1). The Tennessee River was crossed north of Chattanooga and the caravan passed through Rhea County. Immediately west of the River lowlands, travel became arduous because of a series of formidable mountain escarpments trending at right angles to the line of march. It would not be surprising that when negotiating obstacles before them the Cherokees discarded unessential baggage along route.

Amateur Archaeologist JournalIn 2013 a very worn and obviously old, North American Indian mask was sold through the gallery of Affiliated Auctions. Tallahassee, Florida (Figure 2). It was discovered in recent times hanging within an old barn located in eastern Rhea County and had been consigned to auction by antique dealer, Mr. Tim Weaver. The mask has numerous shrinkage cracks resulting from long exposure to changing temperature and humidity (Figure 3). Despite prolonged benign neglect, the artifact has remained sturdy enough to be handled with care. The survival of the mask is due in part to its considerable thickness (14-26 mm, averaging about 16 mm or 2/3 of an inch) and the wood from which it was fashioned. Judging by its color, lack of patterning, and the presence of knots, this wood is Eastern cedar (juniper).

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Amateur Archaeologist JournalThe mask is large (length 30 cm; width across ears 22 cm; height 15 cm) and fits comfortably upon the face of an adult male. The only provision for harnessing or wearing is a small oval hole near the edge behind each ear. There are no tack or nail holes to suggest that fabric or hair embellished the mask. Except for lips and teeth, which are painted red, the entire front of the mask at one time was colored black. This paint is slightly lustrous, and its sheen may have been enhanced by repeated oiling (Among the Iroquois sunflower oil dressings achieve this effect.). Traces of white pigment are visible within the eyes — especially around the black-painted pupils. The face paint is worn away on the bridge of the nose and above the nostrils, on the left cheek, at the chin, around the eye ridges, and across the brow from eye to eye (Figure 4). Such heavy wear — abuse really — resulted from the mask being set down upon its face, again and again.

Amateur Archaeologist JournalThe False Faces of the Iroquois seldom exhibit hard wear caused by rough handling. Many False Faces personified powerful, and sometimes malignant, spirits. "Faces" who participate in Iroquois ceremonies are never treated callously and dis-respectfully. Obviously, the Cherokee owners of the mask from Rhea County did not regard it as ritually important and in need of special treatment.

Amateur Archaeologist JournalAlthough both ears are damaged and chipped, enough remains of the right one to show that were sub-rectangular and furnished with a narrow channel or groove along the outer edge. For what purpose these channels were intended is difficult to judge. They could have accommodated thin cords used for wearing, or perhaps they were mounts for attaching leather "ears"? We are reminded of the thin leather ears, made of deer hide and pierced on their edges for attachment (Figure 5) that were salvaged from the bulldozed GE Mound in Posey County, Indiana (Tomak 1994: 34-5). This mound was constructed by ancient Hopewellians who lived 1400-1500 years prior to the creation of the Rhea County mask. While no direct relationship between Hopewell and Cherokee craftsmen can be demonstrated, it is possible that certain conventional artistic treatments — for example, affixing leather ears to masks — bridged this gap in time.

Amateur Archaeologist JournalThe mouth of the mask is smiling and has raised lips framing upper and lower rows of seven blocky teeth. The teeth and inner edge of the lips have been daubed with red paint. Smears of red paint are present upon the mask's black-painted chin. The nostrils are in normal anatomical position and are cut completely through the thick wood of the mask, providing ventilation to the wearer. They are roughly circular and may have been drilled — the holes afterwards being enlarged with a narrow gouge or knife blade.

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Amateur Archaeologist JournalThe most distinctive features of this mask are its eyes. They are almond-shaped with pupils that stand alone. Careful carving was required to create them. Similarly shaped eyes are well known for Cherokee "Booger" masks (e.g., Miles 1963: Figure 6:48; Speck 1950: Plate VII). Booger masks portray and mock bad-mannered Euro-Americans and Afro-Americans (see Figure 6); they are secular sculptures and cannot be construed as religious articles. The "Booger masquerade" is still being performed among the Eastern Cherokee (see Fenton 1987: 475-476), and Booger masks were being made for sale after World War II (Figure 7). Booger masks among the Cherokee assume the same role as False Face Beggar masks among the Iroquois of New York State and Ontario Province, Canada. Both Booger and Beggar masks appear during a Bear dance, behave ill-mannerly, and cause great disruption. This dance is normally staged during mid-winter.

Amateur Archaeologist JournalThe reverse of the Rhea County Cherokee mask is nearly as detailed as the face itself. Its upper and lower margins suffered losses anciently and these damaged areas have been gnawed here and there by rodents wanting salt (Figure 8). The side margins are much better preserved and still bear traces of a protective coat of black paint. Wear, due to rough handling, has nearly obliterated paint on the right side. The unpainted interior of the mask exhibits regular chisel marks, 1-2 cm wide, that are highly polished from touching by greasy fingers; a long period of constant use would be needed to replicate such polish. The ridges between chisel scars have been neatly reduced with a scauper (narrow-bladed cutting tool). The scauper's marks, too, are polished by handling. By reducing the ridges between chisel marks, the mask was made comfortable to wear. Likewise, a thoughtful sculptor cut a shallow cavity for accommodating the wearer's nose.

Amateur Archaeologist JournalNowhere within the interior are there obvious marks of a crooked knife; the mask appears to have been hollowed out and finished without this versatile tool, or a file for that matter. Iroquois mask-makers since the 18th century, on the other hand, employed drawshaves, hatchets, standard knives, files and especially the crooked knife for their wooden sculptures. The lack of crooked knives within the tool-bag of 18th century Cherokee craftsmen is to be expected as Cherokee seldom would have had opportunities to interact with northern Algonkian-speakers who constructed birchbark canoes. These craftsmen employed crooked knives in creating their wonderful water-craft. The Iroquois, neighbors of Algonkian-speakers, may have appreciated the crooked knife's merits and copied it.

Wooden Masks from Archaeological Contexts
Amateur Archaeologist JournalThe greatest archaeological discovery of wooden masks was made by Frank H. Cushing during the late 19th century at Key Marco, Florida (Gilliland 1975). Of the many masks that were recovered from a waterlogged deposit dating to the 15th and 16th centuries AD, eight were intact. All of the eight had been painted, and shortly after being excavated, the original colors and designs were copied. The identity of the wood used to make the Key Marco masks remains unknown; however, it might have been cypress as this wood was used for other artifacts from the site.

Amateur Archaeologist JournalBoth cypress and cedar (juniper) are resistant to attack by insects and stand up well during prolonged exposure to the elements.

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Amateur Archaeologist JournalThe Key Marco masks are not as deeply hollowed as the Rhea County Cherokee mask is, and all of them were elaborately painted. Being so flat and shallowly hollowed, it is hardly surprising that none of the human masks from Key Marco have carved ears or mounts for leather ones. Also, drill-holes for wearing or attaching elements of a costume appear to be absent.

Amateur Archaeologist JournalThe eyes of the Key Marco masks are socketed and shaped like a human eye, that is to say, ellipsoidal with large pupils made by cutting or drilling circular holes. The eyes of the Rhea County mask, likewise, are realistically portrayed, but instead of a simple circular hole for a pupil, the eyeball has been cut away leaving the pupil standing alone.

Amateur Archaeologist JournalThe mouths of the Key Marco masks are ovals or circles with a raised margin representing lips. Such a simple convention for indicating lips was also followed by the Cherokee carver of the Rhea County mask. The Key Marco masks exhibit pursed, closed, or slightly parted lips. Only one of the eight has teeth showing. None have a smiling mouth with a double row of teeth like the Rhea County mask.

Amateur Archaeologist JournalWhat tools and techniques were used to hollow out the Key Marco masks are not discussed by either archaeologist Cushing or anthropologist Gilliland; likewise, the degree of wear on each mask is not described. Therefore, an exacting comparison to the Rhea County mask is currently not possible. Still, the Key Marco faces and the Rhea County mask, although separated considerably in time and space, share some key attributes suggesting that both belong to a common eastern North American sculptural tradition.

References Cited

Converse, Robert N.

1991Amateur Archaeologist Journal
Cover illustration: Booger mask used in Midwinter Feast ceremony. Ohio Archaeologist 41(1).

Fenton, William N.

1987Amateur Archaeologist Journal
False Faces of the Iroquois. University of Oklahoma Press. Norman.

Gilliland, Marion Spjut

1975Amateur Archaeologist Journal
The Material Culture of Key Marco Florida. The University Presses of Florida. Gainesville.

Miles, Charles

1963Amateur Archaeologist Journal
Indian and Eskimo Artifacts of North America. Bonanza Books. New York.

Speck, Frank G.

1950Amateur Archaeologist Journal
Concerning Iconology and the Masking Complex in Eastern North America. University Museum Bulletin 15(1). University of Pennsylvania. Philadelphia.

Tomak, Curtis H.

1994Amateur Archaeologist Journal
The Mount Vernon site: A remarkable Hopewell mound in Posey county, Indiana. Archaeology of Eastern North America 22: 1-46.

Captions and Figures

Figure 1. Route of the Trail of Tears from Red Clay, Tennessee to Nashville through Rhea County.

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Figure 2. Angled frontal view of the Rhea County Cherokee mask. Length = 30 cm (12 inches). Assuming that the mask was left behind in Tennessee during the Trail of Tears (1838), it may have been carved in the 18th century. R. M. Gramly photograph.

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Figure 3. Side view of the Rhea County mask showing shrinkage cracks caused by prolonged exposure to sun and changing temperature. Note remnant of "ear block" and the hole behind it for affixing a harness. R. M. Gramly photograph.

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Figure 4. Direct frontal view of the Rhea County mask showing extreme wear and exposure of wood that once lay beneath a coat of black paint. R. M. Gramly photograph.

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Figure 5. Left, drawing of a Hopewellian leather cut-out simulating a human ear with four small holes for attaching to a mask, GE Mound, Posey County, Indiana. Length = approx. 3.9 cm. Right, drawing of a grooved block — perhaps the mount for a leather "ear" — located on the right side of the Rhea County Cherokee mask. Length = 4.8 cm. Note that a section of the block has broken away.

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Figure 6. Front and rear views of a Cherokee Booger mask — perhaps dating to the 19th century. The sculpture was intended to portray a snaggle-toothed, devilish, Euro-American. Length = 30 cm (12 inches). The mask is deeply hollowed and has marks of a chisel and a gouge. Robert Converse collection. Photos by Robert Converse.

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Figure 7. Photograph by Gene Aiken, ca. 1945-50, of a Cherokee carving a Booger mask, Ocanaluftee village, North Carolina.

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Figure 8. Rear view of Rhea County mask showing remnants of black paint at edges and parallel chisel marks having high polish from repeated touching. Note losses along upper edge where rodent gnawing is also evident. Depth of mask = 8-10 cm. R. M. Gramly photograph.

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