Mystery shrouds ancient petroglyphs on Judaculla Rock in North Carolina

January 18, 2004

CULLOWHEE, N.C. - Judaculla Rock is no ordinary stone. It is, in fact, a stone with a story.

Consider the rock's size. It is more boulder than rock as it emerges from the ground on a slant. Shaped something like a giant fan, it is relatively flat on one side, but deep and gray down the edges.

And like most rocky things in this region, it is millions of years old. But Judaculla has something else: markings, scribbling and dribbling, spidery lines, known as glyphs in the archaeological world, that were put there perhaps 10,000 years ago.

As it sits now on the edge of James Parker's pasture, protected by Jackson County, a fence and a creek, Judaculla Rock is a mystery wrapped in mythology and shelled over with stories.

Scott Ashcraft, staff archaeologist for the U.S. Forest Service in Asheville, has been studying and photographing the rock for several years now, collecting its history and taking down notes on the thing. He is the resident expert on the rock, but he wouldn't call himself that if you asked him.

He and other volunteers in the state are tracking such phenomena in the North Carolina Rock Art study. It is a serious review with serious folks behind it, such as Ashcraft, the North Carolina Office of Archaeology, the Eastern Band of the Cherokee Indians' Department of Cultural Resources and the North Carolina Archaeological Society, along with numerous western North Carolina colleges and volunteers.

When the study began in 1998, only about seven such rocks were known. Today, the study has pinpointed more than 50, and the list is growing, especially along the Tennessee-North Carolina border. Ashcraft calls them rock art "clusters."

It is hoped, said, that the border clusters will render great insight into rock art.

"Basically, where you find rock art, you will find petroglyphs because the Native American was everywhere," he said. "Rock art was a lot more prevalent around here than we thought in years past."

Important finds in East Tennessee, he said, have been uncovered in caves. "The archaeology in East Tennessee is some of the best in the U.S. because the mudglyphs are undisturbed. About 60 to 65 percent of the rock art in North Carolina has been disturbed."

In some cases, said, whole boulders have been toted off or destroyed.

Glyphs come in two types generally: petroglyphs, which are images carved into the rock, and pictographs, which are paintings applied to a rock's surface. The petroglyphs usually are simple circles, cups or other intricate artistic designs representing humans and animals.

Ashcraft, 36, has mapped the Judaculla Rock, meaning he has divided it into quadrants to get an idea of how many carvings there are and the many designs. From this, he has come up with some unusual findings.

For example, he thinks some of the carved patterns are not exactly what they seem to be. Something that looks like two large circles next to each other are more than just circles. He thinks they may represent owls.

That is not the only strange thing about the rock. Its name is more than a little interesting. It is out of Cherokee Indian mythology, only it was spelled much differently.

In Cherokee, the word comes out Tsulkalu, which translates into "slant-eyed giant," a mythic figure who ruled over game. The name became corrupted when white Europeans tried to wrap their tongues around the word. It became Jutaculla and Tulicula and eventually evolved into Judaculla.

The rock is near Cullowhee in Jackson County at the head of Tuckasegee River along Caney Fork Creek.

The rock lies atop a deposit of soapstone, and it is speculated that the Indians of several thousand years ago dug around the rock to get soapstone for utensils and ornaments.

Ashcraft said a good guess is that the rock carvings are roughly 4,500 years old. But some estimate the carvings are as much as 10,000 years old.

Judaculla Rock is fairly soft and can be easily damaged when it is "chalked" to make the glyphs stand out. Over the years, people have chalked the rock or even whitewashed it in order to see the carvings. Chemicals in the whitewash and chalk have reacted with the rock to damage the carvings, Ashcraft said.

The rock's mystery continues to fascinate. Ashcraft said the carvings obviously represent humans, animals and combinations of man and animal.

"But Indian art is almost always abstract and highly stylized," he said. "It is not immediately recognizable."

In other words, things are not always what they seem in rock art. What looks like a salamander, might really be some spiritual being. Ashcraft thinks the rock could have also been used in shaman ceremonies, which is one reason he photographs the stone at night now by firelight. It is a kind of commune with the rock.

"A fire makes the images seem to come alive, and maybe a shaman did this in order to interact with the spirits of those images," he said.

Myths were the Cherokee way of trying to understand the forces of nature they confronted in their daily world.

The Cherokee myth surrounding the rock holds that Judaculla was a giant hunter who owned all the game. He could step across mountains. His voice was like thunder, and his arrows were bolts of lightning.

Judaculla is supposed to have jumped down upon the rock one day from Balsam Ridge, leaving his footprint. Silt has filled in a portion of the exposed rock. Ashcraft swept away mud to reveal large, claw-like marks at the edge of the rock.

"You can see where Judaculla's toes might have been," said Ashcraft.

The giant leap is not the only supernatural story surrounding the rock. At least one Internet Web site dealing in the paranormal say the rock show that alien beings were once on Earth.

The rock was part of the Parker family farm until 1959 when Milas Parker gave the rock and the land around it to the county. Jeff Carpenter, director of Jackson County Parks and Recreation, said the county is thinking of creating an interpretive area around the rock.

"This is really a unique site," said Carpenter. "And it needs to be preserved."

As for the carvings themselves, Ashcraft said no one can say for certain what they mean. "We just don't know. It is lost to history."

As night comes on, Ashcraft said the rock's images begin to move.

"As the shadows get longer, the rock talks to you more."