By Julia Merchant • Contributing writer
Priceless artifacts often end up tucked safely away behind the protective glass cases of museums — but not Judaculla Rock.
A thin, twisted piece of rusty rebar is all that separates this well-known boulder, covered with mysterious Native American petroglyphs, from the thousands of visitors who flock each year to the rural Jackson County field where the rock lies. A few hastily tacked newspaper articles do little to convey the importance of this sacred prehistoric site.
“Judaculla tends to be one of the most complex boulders in terms of the amount of glyphs carved into it, and it’s one of the only public rock art pictographs in the state,” said Lorie Hansen, project director of the North Carolina Rock Art Survey. “It’s not currently being protected environmentally or from visitors.”
But that’s going to change, thanks to efforts spearheaded by Jackson County, the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, the North Carolina Office of State Archaeology and the Caney Fork Community Development Council. Last month, the county released the findings of a soil survey conducted on the site in July — the first step of a comprehensive management plan for the artifact that will one day result in a boardwalk, more signage, and erosion and sediment control features.
“I think all the commissioners feel an obligation to take care of it,” said Emily Elders, Recreation Project Manager for Jackson County. “It’s a local landmark.”
Over the years, a variety of forces — mostly human — have caused a great deal of damage to Judaculla. Visitors have highlighted the petroglyphs with chalk, talc powder, and shoe polish in an effort to see them better. At least twice, someone has attempted to remove sections of the rock, possibly for a souvenir; others have left behind graffiti or carved their initials. People have stood on the boulder and used it as a mountain bike ramp.
In the past, the county has made some efforts to preserve and protect Judacualla, but even those did more harm than good. A roofed cinder block building constructed over the boulder in the 1960s created a moist environment that enabled the growth of lichen. The roof was later replaced by an open structure, which caused increased sedimentation.
“What you see invariably is people trying to do the best they knew to do at the time to save it and help it,” said Elders. “I think it’s always been motivated by a desire to do right by the site.”
The need to do something more to preserve Judaculla, however, became more urgent in recent years.
“Many people in this part of the state had become aware of Judaculla and the effects on it from visitors and weathering forces,” said Hansen. “We started a committee to talk about what could be done. Jackson County was very responsive and contributed funds to get a conservation plan developed.”
In 2008, the county commissioners asked Georgia-based Stratum Unlimited to develop a comprehensive management plan that would address ways to alleviate damage to the boulder. Authored by renowned archaeologist Jannie Laobser, the report found that the accumulation of soil and sediment around the rock was “of specific concern,” and had accelerated in recent years, obscuring and eroding the petroglyphs.
The report noted that the boulder was still in remarkably good shape, considering all the damaging factors it had been subjected to over the years. However, it also stated that while the county could continue to press its luck, it also had the opportunity to grab the reins and take a proactive approach to preserving Judaculla.
“The fact of the matter is that the site cannot escape being ‘managed,’ be it in an informal or ‘chaotic’ fashion by the visiting public, or in a more formal, or planned, fashion by the county,” wrote Laobser.
The county, joined by multiple state and local agencies, stepped up efforts to preserve Judaculla. The Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians was also eager to help protect the site, considered sacred in Cherokee culture.
“In a sense, the Cherokee have a cultural ownership of Judaculla Rock,” says Brian Burgess of the Tribal Historic Preservation Office. “I imagine it’s difficult for any Cherokee citizen, young or old, to visit the rock, and not appreciate the time and work that went into the creation of the glyphs, and not feel some type of spiritual connection to the people that carved the images so long ago.”
The Cherokee Preservation Foundation gave $17,000 to help fund the conceptual site plan for Judaculla.
With the help of public input, it was determined that the best way to preserve Judaculla would be to restore historical stormwater flows and grades to reduce or eliminate the sedimentation that was burying and eroding the rock. But just what was “historical?”
“We don’t have any real records of what the land used to look like around the rock,” said Elders. “When we talk about trying to restore the normal water flow, it makes sense to ask, was anything ever being grown there? Was there a hill behind (the rock) originally? That’s what we were really looking for.”
To gather historical information, the group resorted to creative means.
“We relied on photographs a lot. We ran an ad in all the papers and with the Oklahoma Cherokee Nation and Eastern Band asking for stories, legends, or information about Judaculla rock,” said Elders. “We got all kinds of stuff. People brought in copies of old postcards, old articles, some Citizen-Times articles on microfiche, old pictures.”
The information helped the county complete a site plan for Judaculla, which was released this past May.
Under the site plan, the rusted rebar which currently serves as the sole barrier around Judaculla would be replaced by a raised viewing platform closed in by railings, The plan also calls for the installation of interpretive signage, which would inform visitors about the archaeological significance of the site, explain the Cherokee legend associated with Judaculla, and detail the more recent history of the Caney Fork area.
A major focus of the plan is getting rid of the sedimentation that has damaged Judaculla over the years. The area’s natural slopes and vegetation will be restored to reduce stormwater runoff. The county is also pursuing a conservation easement that would move access to Judaculla away from the uphill slope above the rock, where visitors currently park.
“That would eliminate a lot of the erosion problem coming from the road. The goal is to get rid of some of the traffic,” said Elders.
Instead, visitors would park further away from the rock and walk along a six-foot wide, compacted gravel access trail.
Implementation of the site plan began this past July, when a week-long soil sampling survey was conducted at Judaculla. More than 100 soil core samples were extracted around the site and examined to help determine what the natural flow of water had once looked like around Judaculla. The findings will help determine the design and placement of surface water runoff facilities and serve as a guide for removing the soil that has built up to obscure some of the petroglyphs.
The eventual goal is to return the soil surrounding the rock back to the level it was in the 1920s, the last time it was a “natural situation,” says Elders. “After that, there was artificial, exacerbated erosion coming in.”
It’s unclear how much more of the rock will be exposed when the soil buildup is removed, since pictures of Judaculla from that time are rare. But Elders says the process will expose more of the rock’s carvings, and will be followed up with stormwater and erosion protection measures to ensure soil buildup is kept to a minimum.
The next step in implementing the site plan is already underway. Equinox Environmental was awarded a contract last month, funded by the Cherokee Preservation Foundation, to start engineering some of the drainage and erosion control measures.
Putting the whole site plan in place, however, could take some time.
“It’s a multi-year kind of project broken down into stages,” Hansen said.
Slowing the process is Judaculla’s designation as a state historic site. Archaeologists must approve plans for and be present at each state of site work, in case artifacts are turned up in the process. That requirement is the costliest part of the preservation effort. “The actual construction is not that costly,” Elders said. She said she doesn’t know how much the whole project could end up costing, but will seek out grants to help pay for it.
The whole process of preserving Judaculla may seem painstaking, but it must be that way so the mistakes of past preservation attempts can be avoided, Hansen said.
“We want to make sure it’s the right thing for the site, because in years past there’ve been very good attempts on the part of the county to protect it that turned out to be to its detriment,” Hansen said.