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Rattlesnakes in Cherokee ethnology

(Proto)historic records from excavation, archives, and ethnography

Over the past few weeks I have had the pleasure of participating in the Winter 2015/16 ETSU Archaeological Field School at a multi-component site on the Nolichucky River. One of the more eye-catching finds was a finely-wrought cazuela with a coiled rattlesnake motif punctated amidst the rim incising.


Rattlesnake cazuela recovered at 40Wg143 in January, 2016. Photo courtesy of Jay Franklin.

On a scale of 1–10, my comfort level with and knowledge of archaeology is somewhere around 2 or 3 at this point in my life so I don’t feel like I have anything informed to add there. On the other hand, my control of Cherokee material culture from late prehistory to the present day is pretty decent: I would say 5–6, which is dragged down significantly by the fact that I am only now taking baby steps towards learning to identify and describe Cherokee ceramics. And I have a solid control of the old colonial texts and maps, ethnographically collected museum holdings, and ethnographic work. I would give myself a 8–9 in that area.

So my thought here is to put together a very selective list of materials relevant to the Cane Notch rattlesnake cazuela to point the way towards solid interpretation of the find. The worst misconception about historical archaeology is that it consists of digging up artifacts and features to confirm what has already been written down. In fact, archaeologist privy to a combination of related archaeological and non-archaeological—which is not necessarily to say “material and textual”—evidence are faced with a more difficult task than those who are making their interpretations based solely upon archaeologically recovered evidence, not an easier one.

c. 1600–1650 – Carter’s Quarter gorget from 31Ma34

A single Carter’s Quarter style rattlesnake gorget was recovered during the University of North Carolina excavations at Coweeta Creek in Macon Co., North Carolina. The gorget was associated with an interment during the initial stage of the townhouse, which has been dated to the first half of the 17th century.1

Cherokee rattlesnake

Carter’s-Quarter gorget recovered in a funerary context at 31Ma34.

c. 1750 – James Adair on the conjurer of Tamassee

Adair noted the mid-18th century use of a rattlesnake-related artifact by the headman of Tamassee.2

In Tymáhse, a lower Cheerake town, lived one of their reputed great divine men, [who] had a carbuncle, near as big as an egg, whey they said he found where a great rattlesnake lay dead, and that it sparkled with such surprizing lustre, as to illuminate his dark winter house, like strong flashes of continued lightning, to the great terror of the weak, who durst not upon any account, approach the dreadful fire-darting place, for fear of sudden death.3

Late 19th century – James Mooney’s published myths

Relevant myths compiled by Mooney for publication in the 19th BAE Report include:

  • 5. The daughter of the Sun: the origin of death
  • 49. The snake tribe
  • 58. The rattlesnake’s vengence

From the second of the above:

[Rattlesnake] was once a man, and was transformed to his present shape that he might save the human race from extermination by the Sun, a mission which he accomplished after others had failed. […] In certain seasons of epidemic a roasted rattlesnake was kept hanging up in the house, and every morning the father of the family bit off a small piece and chewed it, mixing it then with water, which he spit upon the bodies of the others to preserve them from contagion.4

Early 20th century – illustration of castanet-topped dance rattle

Fieldwork upon which the short but sweet volume Cherokee dance and drama is built took place between 1913 and 1944. This fine little book includes the ink sketch below.5


Illustration from ‘Cherokee Dance and Drama,’ originally published in 1951.

If my back, knees, and shoulders continue to cooperate and opportunities continue to present themselves, I plan to spend the next couple of years field teching in order to gain a grasp on the basics of archaeology. I don’t expect to be a master of the discipline by that time, just to have gained something resembling basic competency.

That’s probably a realistic approach for an experienced archaeologist interested in delving into textual, cartographic, and museum materials relevant to the Cherokee. Any one item only really begins to make sense when you have been exposed to most of the rest of them and are able to look again with a critical eye.


1.See pp. 79 and 124 of Christopher B. Rodning’s Center places and Cherokee towns: archaeological perspectives on Native American architecture and landscape in the Southern Appalachians. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2015.

2.The site of Tamassee is located north of Walhalla, S.C. See Smith, Marvin T., Mark Williams, Chester B. DePratter, Marshall Williams, and Mike Harmon, “Archaeological investigations at Tomassee (38Oc186): a Lower Cherokee Town.” Institute of Archeology and Anthropology, University of South Carolina Research Manuscript Series 206. [Columbia, S.C], 1988.

3. See pp. 133–34 in The history of the American Indians, edited and with an Introduction and annotations by Kathryn E. Holland Braund. Tuscaloosa, Ala.: University of Alabama Press, 2005.

4. See “Myths of the Cherokee,” in Nineteenth Annual Report of the Bureau of American Ethnology, 1897–98 (Part 1) (Washington, D.C.: United States Government Printing Office, 1900), 295–96.

5.Frank G. Speck, Leonard Broom, and Will West Long. Cherokee dance and drama. Vol. 163 in The Civilization of the American Indian Series. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1993.


1 Comment

  1. See also, this rattle snake rattle worn by a ball player and collected from John Wolf by Mark Harrington. AMNH Object: RATTLE, SNAKE TAIL [50 / 7269]

    Liked by 1 person

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