Carmen with Petroglyphs

Carmen Abner with petroglyphs recently found at a rock shelter in Jackson County during EKU's Archeology Field School 2021

The Remains of Days

The Boy and I were privileged to visit an archeological dig here in Jackson County this week. Anyone who knows me very well at all knows that Archeology was my first love. I cannot remember a time when I didn’t want to know as much as possible about the story of humanity, as far back as it reaches. That hasn’t changed.

Visiting the site was like walking into a time machine for me and my mind couldn’t help picture what life would have been like for those who occupied the rock shelter we visited. I can’t disclose the location because there are those who would use that information to loot the site and destroy valuable information in the process.

There aren’t many people my age in Jackson County who didn’t spend time hunting arrowheads in the freshly turned fields come spring time.  After a rain the flint would glisten in the sun, making it easy to see. That kind of “arrowhead” hunting isn’t destructive as most of the destruction was already done generations ago when such fields were first plowed and successive turnings have caused layers of time to come to the surface, bringing with them evidence of those who walked here before.

Looting of rock shelters and other sites, however, is very destructive and costs those of us who want to know the story of the first people the chance to understand it.

I’ve heard people say, “Well it’s not like we’re digging up graves. We never found any human remains.”  Well, no you didn’t but yes, you did. What is often found in rock shelters such as the one we visited may not be human remains in the sense of bodies or bones or even grave goods, though even that is sometimes the case.  But something very important is found in such places and this is a thing that is so often disturbed and destroyed by those seeking something to sell or to add to their collection.  What they have disturbed is the remains of days, the story of lives shared by members of our human family.

The rock shelter we visited had been extensively looted. We will never know what might have been removed. Those pieces of the jigsaw puzzle of that place in time are lost to our knowledge. Undoubtedly someone will be holding an artifact from that very site and wondering who the people were who made it, how long ago they might have lived and what their life was like.  What they do not understand is that in taking that artifact from the context of the earth in which it lay waiting, they took from themselves and from others the very answers they now wish they possessed.

Fortunately, as most looters don’t know what they are looking at if it isn’t a stone point, much of the puzzle of that place was intact and many of the remains of the days of Jackson County’s first people were still present to whisper their story to us through layers of soil and time.

It is beyond important that things remain in the layers in which they were left and only be removed by those who know what they are looking at. That layer from which that point in your collection came, that layer that you so casually disturbed with your shovel, it contained so much information that now lies jumbled in a heap, context lost. When you take the remains of those lives from the context of their days you have cut the string that could have unraveled the story for you.

In such places, hearths are found, earthen ovens, stone tools, seeds and pollens that would tell us what they might have gathered for food or for medicine. Animal remains can tell us what was hunted and eaten. Evidence might be found as to how they fashioned their clothing. Pottery can tell the story of what resources they used to fashion it and residue may tell us what it was used for. All of this together can paint a picture of lives spent and shared in these very hills thousands of years ago.

For me such remains of days are of deep importance, maybe in some cases more important than human remains might be. From the remains of days found and collected at the rock shelter we visited it is easy to see the people who lived there. It is easy to see them preparing food, knapping flint, repairing moccasins, gathering around the fire, telling stories, sharing food, listening to the laughter of children, celebrating birth and mourning death.  It is easy to return to them their humanity and see in it a reflection of our own.

We would all like for the remains of our own days to be treated with respect. That’s why we pass on things that are valuable to us to our children and grand children. How many people in this county own one of grandpa’s guns or look out their window to see grandma’s rose bush blooming in their yard. I myself possess a small stash of coins, tied in a floral handkerchief that belonged to my grandmother. It matters to me.  I never pick it up without seeing her face and picturing her untying  it to hand a child, maybe even me, a dime for some candy.

In that same sense, these fragments we find of the lives of those who once walked these hills tells their story and, in may ways, the story of us all. It was not so very long ago that all people lived much like those who occupied that rock shelter. Their story is our story and it would serve us well to let that book lie unopened until the whole of it can be read.

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