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THE AMATEUR ARCHAEOLOGIST ONLINE
Turkeytails, Funeral Observances, and the Sacred Calendar
By Richard Michael Gramly
“From ages immemorial, Man has sensed the truth that he must live in harmony with the forces of Heaven” (Anon. 1945)
The apparent movements of the moon, sun and the other heavenly bodies have fascinated all cultures, and scholars specializing in their study have existed on all continents throughout history (and perhaps prehistory). The cycles of movement, in combination with various methods of counting, are the basis of calendars.
The practical applications of calendars, such as telling farmers when to sow and reap, are often cited. Personally, I believe that this argument has been over-stressed. Farmers can tell the seasons by well-understood signs and seldom need a printed calendar for guidance. The real application of calendars, it seems to me, is ritual. Societies need to know when to celebrate, when to make offerings to gods and persons held sacred, when to collect taxes, and when to honor the dead.
Honoring the dead is based upon the belief that they may influence the living. In neglecting to pay homage to its dead, a society risks “divine” retribution – flood, famine, disease. Who can say what might be the outcome of being lax, mis-scheduling a ritual, or neglecting to perform it?
In one way or another all societies propitiate memory of the dead. Our own culture, for example, publishes “bereavement notices” on the anniversary of deaths in the obituary section of newspapers. In Japan at fixed periods after death scripture-readings and prayers are offered (Dunn 1969: 129-130). Also in Buddhist Japan, a full year must pass before ashes of an high-status person are entombed (Kidder 1972: 136).
The length of the fixed periods between funeral observances, of course, depends upon a society’s calendric system. What constitutes a “year” is not agreed upon by all. Some societies, such as our own, are guided by the solar year of 365 days (approximately). For the Chinese the lunar year is used, and the date of its onset varies. A grouping of 60 lunar years (five sets of the 12 named lunar years) is important to Chinese astrologers for telling time and planning ritual observances (Too 1996: 214).
Among early historic and prehistoric Central American societies such as the Maya, there were, not one, but two calendar years! The first, a secular calendar, was solar and counted (360 + 5) days. The second, the ritual calendar, lasted only 260 days. It has been likened to two gear wheels, one of 13 numbers and the other of 20 day signs, side-by-side and meshed together (Coe 1987: 47). In order for the gears to arrive at their starting point again, 260 days must pass. Each of these days was designated uniquely by a number and sign. Such an ingenious calendar was termed a tonalamatl and was used by all Central American societies (Forstemann 1904).
It is thought that the number of named days in the tonalamatl was based upon the number of fingers and toes. Also, the number 13 might refer to the body’s major joints, kinship and descent (See Schuster and Carpenter 1996: Chapter 3 for a discussion.) Nothing more elementally human can be imagined.
Being the foundation for scheduling important rituals throughout Meso-America, it is difficult to believe that societies north of Mexico knew nothing about it. Here I wish to 1) present evidence that the tonalamatl was used in funeral observances by a Terminal Archaic/Early Woodland culture in the Mid-West and 2) argue that it is important to determine exact numbers of artifacts within suspected mortuary features.
Jump link: Figure 1. Map of Kentucky showing locations of Gail Roe (A) and Denney (B) caches of Turkeytails.
Turkeytails and Turkeytail Caches
The several types or varieties of Turkeytail flaked stone points, reckoned to be six or more, have been defined and described by many authors -- among whom are Stemle (1981), Perino (1985), and Justice (1987). While most points would have functioned well as knives, there are narrow, slim examples that surely tipped projectiles and saw use in the field. Turkeytail points are on record for at least 10 states and one Canadian province. Their distribution is centered upon the Ohio River valley where they are frequently encountered along the lower reaches of tributary streams (Ray Tanner, personal communication). Wherever they are found, even at the fringes of their distribution (for example, the Berger cache in northwestern Wisconsin; Amick 2004), Turkeytails are made predominantly of various shades of gray chert also known as hornstone. This superb toolstone, which is capable of yielding very thin bifaces to a capable knapper, outcrops in Indiana and Kentucky.
The occurrence of several types of Turkeytails in various stages of manufacture at the same habitation site (e.g., Obrien’s Cave, Simpson Co., Kentucky) suggests that these forms represent an evolutionary series and are not regional expressions of a common theme (Dennis Vesper, personal communication). Were it so, it should be possible to establish a sequence and date it absolutely from beginning to end. Caches of Turkeytails usually feature a single type; radiocarbon dates from discrete caches should provide the data we need.
The custom of burying groups of flaked stone points, or “caching,” has ancient roots in the Americas. It was practiced during the Clovis era in both the West (Lahren and Bonnichsen 1974) and the East (Gramly 1999), during the preceding (?) period of the Cumberland archaeological culture (Gramly, Vesper and McCall 1999), and even as late as Mississippian times – witness human burials interred with thousands of arrowpoints underneath Mound 72 at the Cahokia site, Illinois.
Use of the term, “cache,” to refer to all deposits of flaked stone points may be something of a misnomer, as strictly speaking, a cache is a group of artifacts (or foodstuffs) that has been set aside for future use. Their owner has every intention of reclaiming them when needed. In the case of objects buried with dead bodies, however, they may have been left permanently as an offering to the dead or were their rightful property.
Sometimes, due to factors of preservation, we are unsure if “cached” artifacts accompanied a burial or were deposited only temporarily but afterwards forgotten by their owner. In these equivocal cases, use of the term, cache, is fully justified.
It is well known that the makers of Turkeytails practiced caching. We are less certain that groups of cached Turkeytails accompanied human burials in every instance. In Elaine Holzapfel’s review of “Red Ochre” culture caches of Turkeytails in the greater Ohio region (1993 and 1994) we note a few cases of associated bone -- perhaps human. For one discovery (Patrick cache), however, a trained observer reported that no bone was present within a pit containing “310-350 ceremonially broken specimens.”
The physical treatment accorded Turkeytails in caches was highly variable. Extra-large points, as seen in the Nussbaum (Converse 1989) and James McNutt (Koup 1990) caches, seem often to have escaped smashing or destruction by fire. Smaller Turkeytails, on the other hand, did not fare as well. Typically, caches of small- to medium-sized Turkeytails have suffered damage by fire, being reduced to small fragments (see Holzapfel 1996 for an example from Clark County, Ohio). Some Turkeytails in caches were intentionally smashed (e.g., the Spetnagel cache, Chillicothe, Ohio). A combination of incineration and smashing may have taken place in some instances, although the evidence is not compelling.
It seems evident that the physical treatment of Turkeytails in caches may have changed over time. If this activity were part of funeral observances, then we must expect customs to have evolved. Also, we must allow that there were differences in funeral observances according to the wealth and status of the families staging ceremonies. These issues are complex and demand the archaeologist’s full consideration when reporting discoveries of Turkeytail caches. Alas, it may be impossible to glean trustworthy information about accidental finds that are afterward inexactingly explored. Regarded as “treasure,” Turkeytails in caches may be misappropriated, divided among finders before restoration, and sold off without being catalogued and counted. In such cases discoveries are almost valueless to archaeological science.
Fulton Turkeytail Caches: Recent and Not-So-Recent Discoveries
The inexorable erosion of actively farmed land accounts for most of the discoveries of Turkeytail caches. Many of these plowed-out archaeological features must escape investigation; fewer still are studied and reported in the scientific literature. One of the notable exceptions is the Denney cache of Fulton Turkeytails that was found in May, 2004, near Mt. Stirling, Montgomery County, northeast Kentucky (Pennington 2004a, 2004b, 2007). Each of the more than 225 Turkeytails, averaging five inches long and made of various shades of gray, concentrically-banded hornstone, had been damaged by fire. Very few specimens could be completely restored from fragments.
The actual number of Turkeytails in the Denney cache is likely greater than 225, which is the number known to date (M. Pennington, personal communication). Many of the very small fire-spalls in the cache have not yet been taken into account. Several thousand small and large fragments lay among “greasy feeling” black soil within a pit extending 13-14 inches below the base of the plow zone and measuring 14 X 24 inches.
No calcined or cremated bone was observed nor was any fire-reddened earth present, which would have indicated burning in situ. To all appearances the Denney cache was a secondary deposit.
The author submitted a sample of wood charcoal weighing approximately six grams from the Denney cache to Beta Analytic Inc. of Coral Gables, Florida, for radiocarbon dating. The corrected result (Beta-193504) proved to be 2,700 +/- 70 years BP or 790-1000 BC when calibrated. This result agrees very favorably with Greg Perino’s estimated antiquity for the Fulton Turkeytail type of 500-1000 BC (1985: 141). It is slightly more ancient than the only other radiocarbon date heretofore reported for a Fulton Turkeytail cache, namely, 2,340 +/- 80 years BP (Grandstaff and Davis 1985). This cache, consisting of nine undamaged points, was discovered during 1984 in Ross County, Ohio. Also with it were gneiss tablets showing the traces of fire, fragments of badly deteriorated bone (human?), and other articles.
Thirteen years prior to the discovery of the Denney Cache, in September, 1991, a remarkably similar grouping of Fulton Turkeytails was plowed up on the Jewell Farm just outside of Willmore, Jessamine County, north-central Kentucky. The findspot occupies one of the highpoints (Figure 2) in the county west of meandering Jessamine Creek and east of the winding Kentucky River. Both watercourses have incised deeply through bedded limestones of Ordovician age (Cressman and Hrabar 1970). Heavily cultivated Jessamine County is rich in prehistoric sites, and everywhere around them picturesque, treed landscapes may be viewed (Figure 3).
Jump link: Figure 2. and 3.
Gail Roe, the finder of the cache and for whom it is named, had the foresight to scoop up all the artifacts and surrounding plowed soil, leaving very few specimens behind. Her thoroughness was confirmed during my November, 2003, visit to the findspot when only a few firespalled fragments of Turkeytails were recovered after a diligent search. The soil and artifacts lay within 5-gal buckets inside Gail Roe’s garage for 12 years (until 2003) when I took title to it. At the time of discovery Gail segregated a group of the larger fragments and attempted (with little success) to piece together some complete Turkeytails. According to her, “three or four” point tips and bases (tails) that appeared to match were gifted to a family doctor; while, another 40 paired tips and tails -- all well-shaped, thinly flaked and mounted within a glassed box – were stolen by a youth and later sold on the streets of Louisville. They were never recovered, and as a result, later only four (4) Turkeytails could be restored by the author. (Three of them are shown in Figure 4.)
Jump link: Figure 4.
Processing the 5-gal buckets of unsearched plow zone was time-consuming as an 1/8-inch mesh, and in some cases window-screen, was used. All chert firespalls and angular fragments of Turkeytails were saved as well as 1) calcined bone bits, 2) charcoal, and 3) lumps of fire-reddened soil. I noted that chunks of soil had been baked to a thickness of 25-35 mm. A very hot fire, kept burning for 24 hours and perhaps longer, would have been required to bake underlying soil to such a thickness. The mere fact of its recovery is evidence that Gail Roe’s cache had once lain within a crematory -- perhaps a shallow basin. The ridge on the Jewell Farm where the cache was discovered would seem an ideal place for cremation, as winds are constantly at play there.
Unlike the Denney cache, calcined bone, possibly human, had been present at Gail Roe’s site. Bone bits were solidly embedded within soil chunks that had been hardened by fire. Altogether 563.6 grams were gleaned from 25 gallons of plowed soil, including 192.4 grams of cortical bone (Figure 5), 53.5 grams of skull (Figure 6), and 318.7 grams of unrecognizable fragments (Figure 7). No single bone could be identified as human nor of any other animal. My difficulty in identifying bone was exacerbated by the thorough milling it had undergone. Reducing cremains to an amorphous mass of small fragments by grinding with stones or wooden pestles, perhaps for cosmetic reasons, may have been a common practice among certain North American societies during the first millennium BC (See Gramly and Kunkle 2003 for a case of milled cremains at a Meadowood site in central Pennsylvania.
Jump link: Figure 5. 6. and 7.
If we consider the calcined bone bits with the Gail Roe cache to be all human, then only part of an adult’s skeleton could be represented. Possibly cremation occurred well after death, and only a few skeletal elements were selected for burning?
The actual number of Turkeytails in Gail Roe’s cache approached 260 and weighed almost 8 kg (17-18 pounds). These figures are based upon the following observations:
TOTAL Objects 4,633
The average weight of four of the five Turkeytail points that were restored (each comprised of several conjoined fragments) is 30.6 grams. If we multiply this figure by the 43-44 Fulton Turkeytails that are no longer with Gail Roe’s cache we may add another 1,315.8 – 1,346.4 grams to the mass giving totals of 258-259 Turkeytails weighing 7,878.3-7,908.9 grams.
Interesting to note, if we divide the median, estimated total weight of the Gail Roe cache (7,894 grams) by the average weight of a Turkeytail at this site we arrive at the estimate of 258 points among the cache. Doubtless, this figure is a slight under-estimate of the complete number, as I observed that some very small point fragments (fire-spalled flakes) remain to be gleaned from the plow zone on the Jewell Farm.
In my opinion the estimated numbers of Turkeytails in the Denney cache (225+) and Gail Roe cache (258+) are so close that it is possible to believe that the same numbers of cremated points were deposited at both sites -- and that the number may have been 260. As I shall argue below, this number is highly significant.
A Word about Style
The Fulton Turkeytails of the Gail Roe cache are divisible into two styles (variants). Among the 113 Turkeytail points that were represented by large fragments (including the 5 completed specimens) and thus could be classified according to style, there were 7 specimens that were thin and wide (Figure 8). Points of this style had relatively small, delicate tails. Also, they had been fashioned of a paler gray hornstone than was the norm for the other, more numerous style of Turkeytail. This variety of hornstone is identical to nodules shown to me from deposits near Mauckport, Harrison County, on the Indiana shore of the Ohio River – downstream of Louisville, Kentucky. Likely, this raw material had been imported by creators of the Gail Roe cache from that distant region.
The dominant style of Fulton Turkeytail in the Gail Roe cache, and apparently for the Denney Cache, as well, is a rugged but well made point with a prominent tail ranging from 100-125 mm (4-5 inches) in overall length. Figure 9 is an good specimen of this style, typical in every respect. The raw material used for Figure 9 and others of its class is darker gray than any hornstone that I have seen from Indiana. This distinction recalls an observation made by Stemle (1981: 116) about dark gray hornstone from the Wortham site, Hardin County, Kentucky versus lighter-colored stone from Indiana quarries. Wortham was a prolific workshop used by makers of Turkeytails. Is it possible that this station or another in its vicinity provided the hornstone used for the bulk of points in the Gail Roe and Denney caches?
Jump link: Figure 8. and 9.
Another Radiocarbon Date
Confined to a sick-bed with a broken leg during February and March, 2007, the author was able to devote many hours to study of the Gail Roe cache. A by-product of this little project was a sample of wood charcoal teased from lumps of fire-reddened earth that had lain within the 5-gal pails of plowed soil collected by Gail Roe. Well-preserved hardwood charcoal with a dry weight of 1.9 grams was bagged and sent to Beta Analytic Inc. for dating by tandem linear accelerator mass spectroscopy. The determination was funded by Dennis Vesper – an amateur archaeologist and Kentuckian who has had a long-standing interest in the prehistory and early history of his native state.
The result (Beta-229096) was 2,570 +/- 40 years BP or 590-640 BC when calibrated and at one standard deviation. The date is slightly, but significantly, younger than the result for the Denney cache. Beta-229096 is an important determination as there are very few absolute dates for Turkeytail caches.
The Spread of Smoking Rituals and the Sacred Calendar
As I have argued in detail elsewhere (Gramly 2006), tobacco with its role in rituals, was introduced to the Mid-West ultimately from Meso-America. Tobacco’s appearance is undoubtedly linked to the first widespread use of smoking pipes during the Terminal Archaic/Early Woodland Glacial Kame culture (Converse 1981; 2003: 114-115 and elsewhere). Dates for Glacial Kame fall within the first half of the first millennium BC -- the same time when Turkeytails were deposited in caches.
Along with tobacco may have come knowledge of foodstuffs that helped support burgeoning populations in the Mid-West. Seen from a causative perspective, it was the cultivation of introduced domestic plants and fostering of nutritious wild species that enabled human populations to rise above earlier levels.
Tobacco must be grown and processed according to a strict schedule if a living is to be made from it. A good calendar based on a solar year may be of help. If, on the other hand, the drug is used desultorily and just in rituals, harvesting a large supply every year is not critical. In this case the only calendar that would have mattered to prehistoric Mid-Western societies might have been the sacred one or tonalamatl. This sacred calendar and the meaning of it could have traveled north from the region where it was developed along with seeds and knowledge needed for successful husbandry of tobacco and foodstuffs.
We can only infer that tobacco and the tonalamatl played some role in rituals of the dead; proof is difficult to obtain. Yet, human societies everywhere schedule funeral observances according to time-honored formulas. This patterned behavior, the basis of any living or archaeological culture, does not surprise us. In the case of people who made and used Fulton Turkeytails, it is reasonable to believe that points were offered to a dead person for every day in the sacred calendar, that is to say, 260 Turkeytails. Perhaps 260 days had to pass between the time of death and final cremation/inhumation? Might family members have kept count of the full (correct) number of days by the points that they offered?
Other numbers besides 260 may have been held sacred and played a role within rituals marked by the tonalamatl. The archaeologist is in the unique position to tell us what these numbers may have been. Patterns that connected ancient societies across continents in the New World, as everywhere on the globe (Schuster and Carpenter 1996), will only become clear when we witness the archaeological record and weigh the quality of our evidence.
It is evident that at least four Turkeytails in the Gail Roe cache had been broken by percussion. Perhaps they had been broken before cremation or smashed afterward – as a deliberate measure to complete the destruction?
The cooperation of Gail Roe and support of Dennis Vesper speeded this small project upon its way. Drs. William A Ritchie and Robert E. Funk inspired my interest in Woodland burial ceremonialism.
Amick, Daniel S.
Captions and figures accompanying Gramly essay about Turkeytails
Figure 1. Map of Kentucky showing locations of Gail Roe (A) and Denney (B) caches of Turkeytails.Jump Back
Figure 2. Findspot of the Gail Roe cache upon a gentle ridge, Jewell Farm outside of Willmore, Jessamine County, Kentucky. Photo by R. M. Gramly, 2003.Jump Back
Figure 3. Gail Roe hugs purportedly the second largest, venerable oak in the state of Kentucky, near Willmore. Photo by R. M. Gramly, 2003.Jump Back
Figure 4. Three of five restored Turkeytails in the Gail Roe cache. They are of the more common style of Fulton Turkeytail point made of dark gray Kentucky hornstone. Length of point on right (also see Fig. 9) is 115 mm (4 9/16 inches). Photo by R. M. Gramly.Jump Back
Figure 5. Cremated fragments of cortical bone, perhaps human. Recovered from plow zone, Gail Roe cache, Jessamine County, Kentucky. Weight of all cortical fragments = 192.4 grams.Jump Back
Figure 6. Cremated fragments of skull, perhaps human. Recovered from plow zone, Gail Roe cache. Weight of all skull fragments = 53.5 grams.Jump Back
Figure 7. Small fragments of cremated bone (human?). They appear to have been milled or ground to an uniform size. Recovered from plow zone, Gail Roe cache. Weight of all unattributable fragments = 318.7 grams.Jump Back
Figure 8. Basal fragment of a relatively wide and thin Fulton Turkeytail representing the less common style of point made of Indiana (?) hornstone, Gail Roe cache. Surviving length = 60 mm (2 3/8 inches). Steve Wallmann drawing.Jump Back
Figure 9. Fulton Turkeytail point of dark gray hornstone, damaged by fire and restored from several fragments. This specimen is typical of the more common style of Turkeytail in the Gail Roe cache. Length = 115 mm (4 9/16 inches). Drawing by Steve Wallmann.Jump Back
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