Preserving the giant’s rock

By Jennifer Garlesky • Staff Writer

Up in the mountains along Caney Fork Road in Jackson County lies an important prehistoric artifact to the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians. Judaculla Rock, a large soapstone boulder located approximately three miles off of U.S. 107, is covered with numerous petroglyphs that some say contain the secrets to the universe.

But over the years this rock has sustained some damage from tourists covering it with chalk to photograph the glyphs to a large crack developing near its center.

Jackson County officials have decided to develop a conservation plan to help preserve this piece of Cherokee history. In early October county commissioners hired Stratum Unlimited in Georgia to develop a plan of action to prevent further damage.

Archeologists will discuss their plan later this month with commissioners, said Jackson County Manager Ken Westmoreland.

Preserving Judaculla Rock is not only important to the Eastern Band, but also to area residents. Anne Rogers, professor of anthropology at Western Carolina University, has used the rock as a teaching tool for her students.

“It’s part of Cherokee’s history, and we need to be aware that we live in the Cherokee’s homeland,” Rogers said. “It’s just been exposed to all the elements for many years.”

The petroglyphs carved onto Judaculla Rock are images that are tough to decipher. Squiggly lines and circles could represent a serpent or bird but only a few know the true meaning.

“For us they are tough to decipher but for many Cherokee they still have meaning,” said Scott Ashcraft, U.S. Forest Service archeologist in Asheville and director of North Carolina Rock Art Survey. Ashecroft has been studying Judaculla Rock since the early 1990s and could be considered a local expert

Ashcraft has seen the negative environmental impacts first hand. Over the last 15 to 20 years sediment has been burying the rock, he said. About half of the rock is hidden from view now, beneath the soil that has settled around it.

The rock was probably once used as a ceremonial place for shamans, said Ashcraft. This idea emerged after Ashcraft photographed the rock at night by the light of a fire that made the glyphs come to life.

“It was a pretty powerful situation for anybody, even during prehistoric time,” he recalled of his experience that night.

The Legend

Judaculla was a giant the roamed around the mountains protecting the plants and animals. The markings on the rock were left by Judaculla before he left this world, said Tom Belt, a Cherokee language professor at Western Carolina University. Some believe that the symbols are ways for us to communicate with plants and animals, he explained.

Belt also says that the site was used by shamans.

“For Cherokees these were scared things (the rock) and were used for spiritual purposes,” he said.

Ashcraft and Belt are excited about the county’s conservation plans.

“We need to identify what is wrong and why it’s occurring and hopefully phase two of the project will be remedying it,” Ashcraft said.

“This site is held in high regard with our people,” Belt said. “It’s extremely important part of the tribe, the mountains and what the creator gave us. It was part of our concept of place. The marks are very complex and hold an incredible amount of information about the universe as we know it.”

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