In America Unearthed S03E03 “The Appalachian Giant” we offer a nod in the direction of Search for the Lost Giants and the current craze for hunting for giants across America. But the heart of the episode is about investigating rock art, particularly two petroglyph sites, Judaculla Rock in North Carolina and Red Bird Petroglyphs in Manchester, Kentucky.
The Red Bird Petroglyphs have a short modern history. Their origin is unknown, and until 1989, they were largely known only to locals around Manchester. (I did find a mention of them from 1964.) Experts have estimated their age at anywhere from 200 to 2,000 or more years. I will adapt here what I wrote about them when America Unearthed came to town to investigate the petroglyph site in April: The Red Bird Petroglyphs are on a chunk of sandstone that broke off of a formation in 1994, five years after being added to the National Register of Historic Places. The boulder was moved to a park near City Hall in Manchester. The resulting boulder is better known as the Manchester Marked Rock. The stone allegedly contains single-character carvings in eight Old World languages, including single letters in Punic, Libyan, South Semitic, Egyptian, etc., and a rebus in Ogham and a Christian monogram (with something that resembles and upside-down Hooked X®). In reality, the carvings bear little to no resemblance to the alphabets they supposedly represent and are geometric inscriptions. They could be Native or colonial or both; they have yet to be studies to determine their origin. Fringe theorists have simply scoured various Old World scripts looking for similarities, and didn’t do a very good job of it, either. Nevertheless, Manchester commemorates these fringe interpretations with its interpretive sign.
But while the Manchester government is happy to promote diffusionist ideas, our other petroglyph site has more critical guardians. America Unearthed raised some controversy earlier this year when they went to film Judaculla Rock, a petroglyph site, because Pisgah National Forest archaeologist Scott Ashcraft petitioned the Jackson County, North Carolina officials in charge of overseeing the site to deny the show access in March due to Scott Wolter’s fringe theories. At the time, Ashcraft accused the show of “purposely under-informing, misleading and misdirecting me along the way” to get him to support Wolter’s unorthodox claims. Wolter, you will recall, accused the National Forest Service of conspiring against him in the 2012 pilot episode of America Unearthed.
At the time, America Unearthed producer Maria Awes convinced county officials to allow the show to film at the rock by promising that Wolter would conclude that Judaculla Rock was a Native American and not a European artifact. Jackson County Manager Chuck Wooten issued the permit over the objections of Ashcraft and Keith Parker, a descendant of the rock’s former owners, and filming went ahead as scheduled.
Judaculla Rock is a large stone covered in petroglyphs whose meaning is unknown. The exact age of the rock is uncertain, and no one knows who carved it or for what purpose. It takes its name from the Cherokee Tsul ’Kalu, a supernatural giant who lived high up on Tsunegun’yi, the mountain known today as the Devil’s Courthouse because Europeans diabolized Tsul ’Kalu’s original mythological role as a supernatural judge who rendered his verdict from the judgment seat atop the mountain. According to ethnographic reporters, the “pioneers [said] it was regarded by the Indians as the special abode of the Indian Satan!” Tsul ’Kalu had a farm on the next mountain over, Tanasee Old Fields, and according to legend he owned all the game in the mountains. To the discredit of the pioneers, they made use of the sanctity of the Devil’s Courthouse and convinced the Cherokee that they had the divine favor of Tsul ’Kalu by making frequent trips to the Old Fields, where no Cherokee would tread, and thus were able to abuse the Cherokees’ trust by threatening them with divine sanction.
What is known of Tsul ’Kalu comes from a handful of accounts written by non-Cherokee hands. The oldest of these dates only to 1823, and the best known is the Myths of the Cherokee by James Mooney, collected for the Smithsonian’s Bureau of Ethnology in 1897-1898 and published in 1900. It is from this text that the above reference to the “Indian Satan” comes. Mooney obtained the tale from two Cherokee named Swimmer and John Ax, and notes that it had also been related to another researcher by a “half-breed” named Charles Hicks. In the story, Tsul ’Kalu is called “a great giant, with long slanting eyes,” which has had the unfortunate effect of spawning diffusionist ideas that he was somehow an East Asian explorer deified by the Cherokee. A fair reading of legend shows that it is pure myth—the giant, for example lives on a mountain filled with ancestral spirits. In the story, Tsul ’Kalu tells the Cherokee that he can only be seen by hungry people wearing new clothes: “Go back, then, and tell your people that to see me they must go into the townhouse and fast seven days, and in all that time they must not come out from the townhouse or raise the war whoop, and on the seventh day I shall come with new dresses for you to put on so that you can all see me.” The Cherokee also prayed to him as a god of hunting.
Other versions of Tsul ’Kalu’s myth bear a Christian influence and were recorded by missionaries. One, told to a missionary named Buttrick, is essentially the Exodus story, in which the Cherokee are said to have wandered from another continent until God, here replacing Tsul ’Kalu, spoke to them like thunder from atop a mountain and, like Moses in the Golden Calf narrative, grew angry at their impiety.
As for Judaculla Rock, it was the place where Tsul ’Kalu hit when he jumped down to the earth:
…about ten miles above Webster, in Jackson county, is a rock known as Jutaculla rock, covered with various rude carvings, which, according to the same tradition, are scratches made by the giant in jumping from his farm on the mountain to the creek below.
Archaeologists think the rock was carved in the Late Woodland or Mississippian periods, perhaps as a map or astronomical chart.
Impressions on other nearby rocks are said to be the footprints of the giant, and in the nineteenth century these were sometimes wrongly ascribed as well to the petroglyphs at Track Rock Gap, where America Unearthed did its first ever investigation, looking for Mayans in Georgia. (Richard Thornton, featured on that episode, is still angry about my coverage of that episode and attacked me by name over my two year old review of it as recently as today, November 22.)
Tsul ’Kalu may have been one particular giant, but in the plural, his name was shared by a mythic race of giants who lived in the far west. According to Mooney:
James Wafford, of the western Cherokee, who was born in Georgia in 1806, says that his grandmother, who must have been born about the middle of the last century, told him that she had beard from the old people that long before her time a party of giants had come once to visit the Cherokee. They were nearly twice as tall as common men, and had their eyes set slanting in their heads, so that the Cherokee called them Tsunil’kälû’, “The Slant-eyed people,” because they looked like the giant hunter Tsul’kälû’ (see the story). They said that these giants lived very far away in the direction in which the sun goes down. The Cherokee received them as friends, and they stayed some time, and then returned to their home in the west. The story may be a distorted historical tradition.
Mooney believed, probably correctly, that this was an exaggerated memory of a time when the historically taller Native groups from the Plains may have pushed into Cherokee territory. Mooney noted the custom of Plains groups to pluck their eyebrows and wear their hair in weighted braids, which exaggerated the shape of the eyes into slants.
We open in a quiet forest as Native Americans run in terror from a giant whose seven-fingered hand claws into a rock as he pursues some men across a meadow. He roars, and we cut to the opening credits. Then we’re off to Sylva, North Carolina, in Jackson County, where Deliverance was shot in 1972. At a coffee shop, Scott Wolter badly acts as though he just wandered into the shop by chance and happened to come across a (white) storyteller named Tim Hall who shares Cherokee lore about Judaculla (Tsul’ Kalu) that he says he learned from research. Wolter plans to investigate whether Judaculla Rock and Red Bird Petroglyphs are evidence of an Old World visit to the ancient Americas, and whether the rocks (separated by hundreds of miles) are somehow connected.
Therefore, he begins at Judaculla Rock, speaking with Lisa Dawn Frady, described as the “tipster” who advised Wolter about the rock. She decided “Scott’s gotta see this” after viewing the large chunk of inscribed soapstone stone last year. Wolter does a little educational demonstration of meteoric iron with Frady, but this isn’t relevant to the soapstone Judaculla. Wolter is trying to make the point that space rocks are sacred to ancient people, but Judaculla isn’t a space rock.
Frady tells Wolter that some of Judaculla’s inscriptions could be Celtic Ogham, and Wolter recites the legend of St. Brendan, which does not contain the references to America Wolter thinks his story does—as I demonstrated in the past. Frady tells Wolter that the rock might be a Cherokee map, or writing left by space aliens, on which point we go to our first commercial break.
After an on-screen text recap, Wolter recaps again verbally. He dismisses the idea of a giant and also space aliens. Wolter declares the carvings “old” based on “gut feeling” (the rock is at least 300-500 years old by any account), and he does a geological demonstration to show the effects of weathering. Wolter then agrees with the suggestion that the rock was intended as a star map, and Frady offers more paranormal suggestions about the rock’s magical and supernatural power.
Wolter then returns to Sylva to hear more from storyteller Tim Hall, who is not a Cherokee, or originally from North Carolina, about Cherokee mythology. Hall repeats the information that the Smithsonian’s Mooney collected back in 1897-1898, in places quite close to Mooney’s wording, indicating his dependence on Mooney as a source, either directly or indirectly. Wolter compares the story of Tsul ’Kalu to the folktale of Paul Bunyan, and then he asks whether the Cherokee had legends of contact with other cultures, particularly from “other continents.” Hall doesn’t offer any (despite the story of the Western giants being a rather obvious place to turn) and instead directs Wolter to Kentucky to look at the Red Bird Petroglyphs.
After the break, Wolter says he believes that the Cherokee carved Judaculla Rock (as we know from his producer he must), but will view the Red Bird Petroglyphs to gather more information. So we are now in Manchester, Kentucky. He meets with Kentucky historian Dave Shuffett, former host of Kentucky Life on KET-TV and Outdoors with Dave Shuffett on the Outdoors Channel, who tells Wolter that the rock may have eight different Old World languages carved on the rock, and he is dismissive of the idea that the Cherokee carved the rock. Wolter dutifully notes that there are no actual words carved on the rock, only single characters that Shuffett wants to interpret as letters. Wolter calls most of the symbols “classic Native American,” but feels that there may be “good evidence” of pre-Columbian contact on the rock. As we go to break, Wolter says he’s going to look at the carvings to explain the “relative age” of each. No doubt he will declare them “old.” For a show about pre-Columbian contact and giants, I am ready to declare this episode boring as we cross the halfway point.
After the break, we have a text recap followed by a verbal recap of the episode so far. I called it: Wolter declares the carvings old! But then Wolter decides that straight lines on the rock could be Ogham, though he makes no effort to prove it. He then lists some other so-called Ogham inscriptions in the Appalachians, but provides too little detail to support the assertion that they are Ogham. I presume that they are derived from Barry Fell, and the pictures shown do not look anything like actual Irish examples of Ogham. Wolter notes that the Judaculla Rock had circles he saw as stars, and here he points to a pentagram on the rock as an analog.
Wolter bitches angrily that “academics” are “probably” calling the rock a hoax and promises he will find the truth. From everything I’ve read, “academics” mostly tend to debate whether the rock was solely the work of Native Americans or whether local colonials added to it. With this mini-outburst, a pale imitation of those from seasons past, we go to yet another break.
After the break, Wolter travels to Red Bird Cliff, from which the petroglyph rock fell in 1994. En route, he recaps the episode yet again. At the site, Wolter meets the descendant of the Cherokee Chief Red Bird for whom the rock is named. Betsy Roy is Red Bird’s thrice-great granddaughter. She believes that Red Bird, who was born in 1748, carved the rock sometime before his 1810 death. Wolter wonders whether the “Old World” symbols on the rock were carved by giants, and he relates this to his abortive investigation of Norse giants in season one, and as we go to break, Wolter is off to see a “giant” head, having given up on dating the Red Bird Petroglyphs.
As we enter our final segment, Wolter is meeting with a man who claims to have the head of an “actual giant,” picture above (source). This man is Jim Burchell, who moved the Red Bird petroglyph stone to its current site in 1994. He shows Wolter a 22-pound stone head in what looks like a crude Victorian style. (Actually, it looks like H. P. Lovecraft to me!) Burchell thinks that it is the petrified remains of a “young giant” that had been decapitated. But this is very clearly a statue, possibly a piece of Victorian decorative embellishment from a building, or maybe a chunk of an old statue. Wolter correctly recognizes it as a sandstone carving, but he decides that it might be “representative” of a giant. Many of the old mansions and churches around where I live have similar faces as decorative embellishments. Wolter, however, believes it was a symbolic Cherokee offering purposely entombed to pay reverence to the giants.
He ends by declining to declare any rocks Celtic. Instead, he declare Judaculla and Red Bird rocks to be Cherokee, but holds open the possibility that the Cherokee were versed in Ogham.
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Esquire, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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