Kerr Reservoir Archeology

By Linda McCord
Published in The News & Record, (date unknown) taken from the Kenneth Cook files.

Before the extensive archeological digs were begun around the John H. Kerr Reservoir in 1947, the area was virtually an "archeological no-man's land." Some sporadic investigations had been done in the past by the University of North Carolina and by the National Park Service, but no other systematic reconnaissance had been made.

Unfortunately, the climate of this area of Virginia is not favorable to the preservation of perishable remains. Only the most durable artifacts have survived the climate and the massive flooding of the Staunton, Dan, and Roanoke Rivers.

Along the Virginia-North Carolina border lies an area of great significance because it forms a link between the North and the South. Earlier ethnic and linguistic studies made in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries were of little value in correlating the historic Indian groups in this region.

At the request of the National Park Service Corps of Engineers and the U.S. Corps of Engineers Dr. Carl T. Miller and his team began a preliminary investigation of Kerr Reservoir from February 14 to May 1, 1947. The project was on a phase of the River Basin Surveys of the Smithsonian Institution's salvage program. Areas in Mecklenburg, Halifax, and Charlotte Counties in Virginia and Warren, Vance, and Granville Counties in North Carolina were studied.

The primary purpose of this reconnaissance was to locate all archeological sites, or as many as possible, within the reservoir limits, to appraise their informational values, and to determine which of them covered the entire archeological range. The original sites were located by means of inquiry and exploration, according to Miller in his "Archeology of the John H. Kerr Reservoir Basin, Roanoke River Virginia - North Carolina - River Basin Survey Papers, No, 25" published in 1962.

Because of the interest of this newspaper in this archeological research, we contacted Mrs. Janette Saquet Anthropology Librarian at the Smithsonian Institution Libraries last April to try to get a copy of Miller's conclusions Just two weeks age we received a nearly 450 page copy of the papers. It had been specially retrieved for us from the Smithsonian storage facility; and even though the process had been slow, we had not been forgotten.

Clarksville, we learned, because of its central location had been selected as the base of operation for most of the excursions by Miller, carried out mainly by foot or by jeep. The archeologist was guided to many of the sites by local persons whom he lists as: Macey of Richmond, Mr. and Mrs. James V. Howe of Jeffress, Arthur Robertson of Chase City, Judge John Tisdale of Clarksville, and Mrs. Ruth Northington of Chase City.

Between 1947 and 1951, 92 archeological and two historical sites were surveyed. The archeological sites consisted of 34 village areas, 3 Paleo-American and 14 Neo-Indian campsites, and 41 flint workshops. The historical sites consisted of two areas assignable to the colonial period when large plantations existed. Only 86 of the 94 sites were directly affected by the flooding of the reservoir with the other eight only indirectly influenced by this condition. Seventy-seven sites, the vast majority of those studied, were in Mecklenburg County.

The sequence of cultures as found by Miller in his digs ranged from the Paleo-American period dating well before 7,000 B.C. to the Late Woodland period from 1100 to around 1600 A.D. Two of the excavations yielded human skeletal remains in such abundant quantities that they not only received much attention by Miller but also considerable study by anthropologists Lucille E. Hoyme of the U. S. National Museum and William M. Bass of the University of Kansas.

The first of these was the Tollifero site located in Halifax County about a mile from the entrance to Occoneechee Island where the remains of the old Tollifero home stood. The foundations, chimney and parts of the house's superstructure were still standing at the time of the excavations.

The home stood on an old village site, and tests showed that the area had never been cultivated and that only a shallow humus layer covered the Indian deposits.

Miller assigned this site to either the Late Archaic or Early Woodland period, meaning it was occupied between 1000 B. C. and 500 A.D.

The second, and probably most important of all of the areas excavated was the Clarksville site located on the north bank of the Roanoke River across from Occaneechee Island to the north of the Southern Railways trestle extending northward to the mouth of Island Creek. It was, of course, named for its nearness to the town.

Here is Miller's statement of this site, the first in the area to receive attention:
"A case of then or never, it was being rapidly destroyed by construction work on the railroad trestle and bed. A new railroad right-of-way and a cement trestle were being constructed across the Roanoke River into Clarksville. Work was well underway and the major part of the site was badly damaged before word was received about this condition. At this time a great deal of the topsoil, together with the underlying deposits, was being carted off as dressing for a local golf course."

The five acre site was thought by Miller to have been occupied later than the Tollifero site. The Middle to Terminal Woodland times, 800 to 1630 A.D., was probably a good guess.

Tools made from bear, beaver, duck, fox, deer, and elk bones, as well as fish, and mollusk remains occurred at both sites. Only at the Clarksville site did traces of corn, beans, and tobacco present themselves. Pottery and other remains were also varied at the two sites suggesting different archeological periods and different ways of life.

Rather than deal exclusively with Miller's archeological finds at these important sites this reporter has chosen to study a report by Hoyme and Bass concerning an anthropological comparison of the Tollifero and Clarksville site persons. These anthropologists used the bones dug up by Miller in 1950, and 1951, in 1958 plus Miller's notes to do detailed studies of these people and their customs.

Diet, accompanying the later Clarksville peoples with their agricultural abilities, was found to be the major source of physical change. According to Hoyme and Bass:
i "in contrast to the more generous diet of the Clarksville people, the gathering of nuts, seeds and roots probably provided the Tollifero people with a minimal supply of carbohydrates at best; and the remainder of their calorie requirements would have had to come from animal protein ... Such a diet ... would not necessarily have provided an extra margin for growth. And there may well have been seasonal shortages.

... Diet is also a convenient indicator of the economic well-being of a population; and prosperity may well have had an effect on the incidence of disease, the length of life, and severity of age changes."

Dentitign and Diet

The course diet existing at the pre- or early agricultural Tollifero site produced rapid wearing of the teeth. Decay and tooth loss, however, were relatively rare.

In contrast to the healthy but worn-down teeth of the Tolliferos, the Clarksville site skeletons' teeth were in poor condition. Cavities appeared in both deciduous and permanent teeth, causing much destruction, and tooth loss.

Such light wear and widespread cavities are characteristic of a soft, high carbohydrate diet. Corn and beans were found at the Clarksville site, and evidence showed "a rather varied cuisine."

"'It is safe to assume", says the report, "that the diet of the Indians in the Occaneechee Island area around A.D. 1500 was varied and well-cooked, soft and fairly starchy."

Tollifero cookery was quite different wild nuts, berries, and grass seeds were found as were bones of various animals. Mortars, boiling stones, and hoes were also excavated, but no other indications of agriculuture were present.

Such a hunting and gathering economy would not supply the abundant, varied agricultural diet of the later peoples. The course, prefibrous, pre-agricultural diet would show much more wearing of teeth than the soft-starchy diets.

Physical Type

Cranial and facial sizes and long bone lengths appear to be two to four percent greater in the populations of the Clarksville site than those of the earlier site. The Clarksville crania were wider and higher than the Tolliferos, and the males show a somewhat greater size.

The anthropologists attribute the increase in cranial and post cranial size, seen only in the Clarksville men, to the dietary change; however, the change in facial proportions, seen in men and women, may be genotypic.

The Tollifero crania seem to fit into a series of earlier Southeastern Indians, while the Clarksville crania agree better with their local predecessors, the Tollifero group, than with others.

In general, the Tolliferos were somewhat shorter than the Clarksville population, but an increase in body size did not change body proportions.

Part II

In Part I of our report dealing with the archeological excavations of the John H. Kerr Reservoir made by Dr. Carl F. Miller of the Smithsonian institution, we learned that there were two sites studied which yielded such an enormous amount of skeletal remains that anthropological studies were also conducted.

Lucile E. Hoyme of the U. S. National Museum and William M. Bass of the, University of Kansas, both anthropologists, began in 1958 to do comparative studies of skeletons from these two sites excavated by Miller in 1950 and 1951. Their report was included along with Miller's in a copy of the "River Basin Surveys Papers, No. 25 .- Archeology of the John H. Kerr Reservoir Basin, Roanoke River Virginia - North Carolina" sent to us recently by Mrs. Janette Saquent, Anthropology Librarian at the Smithsonian.

The two important sites in question were listed by the archeologist as: 1) Tollifero site -- about a mile from the entrance to Occoneechee Island where the remains of the old Tollifero house stood -- occupied between 1000 B. C. and 500 A. D., and 2) Clarksville site -- on the north bank of the Roanoke River across from Occoneechee Island to the north of the Southern Railways trestle extending northward to the mouth of Island Creek .. occupied between 800 to 1630 A.D.

In general, the Tolliferos were shorter, lived longer, had a greater ratio of males to females, and enjoyed better health than did the later Clarksville inhabitants.

In Part II we intend to examine what cultural practices the anthropologists could ascertain by studying the skeletal remains of these two groups. Their findings, you will see, were very interesting.


Three of the Clarksville crania show long, shallow grooves which suggest that the scalps had been removed about the time of death. Two of the skulls belonged to men; one was a young woman's. Whether scalping occurred just before or shortly after death could not be determined, but at any rate, all three received the customary burial treatments.

The anthropologists conclude that because these three were accorded at least minimum mortuary rites, they must have either been members of the Clarksville group, or else this group accorded proper burial to enemies brought there to be scalped and killed.

Early visitors to our country said that scalping was usually associated with warfare, with scalps seen as valued trophies. Women's and children's scalps were particularly prized.

The report reads:
"Friederici (1907) ... assumes that the scalp was a substitute for taking the whole head, a trophy of high importance. In some areas, the dead were dug up to obtain the scalps. If it were impossible to save a friend from the enemy or to carry away his body, then the scalp was at least taken to safety ... Indians executed by their own people were never scalped. Otherwise only enemies were scalped."

It is difficult to imagine why the Clarksville people would spend so much time on the burial of enemies, as suggested by the ritualistic procedures. There is the remote possibility that these grooves represent some other mortuary procedure.

Friederici said also that the custom of scalping came from the Old World after the Europeans introduced bullets for killing, knives for scalping, and paying high prices for scalps. "These three skulls from a site which, although late, shows no evidence of European contact and are additional evidence of the pre-Columbian presence of the custom," conclude Hoyme and Bass.

Burial Practices

Skeletons from the Tollifero site showed a number of irregular pits on the inner and outer cranial bones and also on long bones, The anthropologists considered the possibilty of pathological changes, animal toothmarks, bird beaks, and chance archeological damage as causing these small marks, but all of these were ruled out. It was determined that the bones had been marked before burial.

Similar markings were seen on the Clarksville skeletons' bones yet they were deeper and more plentiful. They were also found on hand and foot bones and in nearly every skeleton dug up there. Short, parallel scratches which looked like the hacking of a knife blade also appeared.

The report continues:
"The most reasonable interpretation of this pattern of damage is that it occurred when the flesh was stripped from a relatively fresh cadaver, and that the remains, still articulated by ligaments, were subsequently buried. The skin may or may not have been replaced, but it appears that the shell ornaments were put back in their customary positions on the arms and neck."

The Clarksville skeletons indicate that the skin was removed first, and the corpses were then eviscerated. Hacking, gouging, and stripping, and then scraping were required to remove all flesh. Even the skull shows these marks.

Adults and children both received full treatment, but infants show less damage either because they were less important to the community or because their smallness made flesh removal more difficult.

Evidence for burial customs at the Tollifero site is harder to interpret. The small numbers of cadavers showing these marks may mean that the custom had just been introduced.

Davidson in 1935 said Hoyme and Bass noted that "in Virginia, the bodies of prominent individuals, at least, were disemboweled, the skin slit up the back and removed, the flesh cut from the bones by priest-officials and dried, the skin replaced and packed with sand to enclose the skeleton."

The marking of the Tollifero bones indicates considerable antiquity for this practice. In some communities professionals removed the flesh; in some, all group members participated.

Disposal of the flesh, how the cadaver was related to the group, and the motives for the practice varied from place to place.

Why did the practice exist? Three reasons have been summarized: "(1) mummification of bodies or chiefs or other important personages was practiced in some areas; (2) bones of other persons were also cleaned and kept; and (3) that the cleaned bones were occasionally carried about from place to place as the group moved."

Veneration of a person, sentiment, religious beliefs, or other motivations, may have caused the groups to keep the remains with them.

Hoyme and Bass conclude:
"One can only speculate as to whether this was the remnant of a former custom, the practical purpose of which had been forgotten; or whether changed conditions of the side rendered the survivors unwilling, or unable, to do more than prepare the bodies in the customary manner and bury them."


Both positive and negative evidence exists as to seeing cannibalism as a motive for flesh removal.

Two children's skeletons from the Tollifero site suggest deliberate breakage of the bones to remove the marrow. The skulls, too, show markings indicating removal of the brain.

At the Clarksville site many bones show small holes bored through the cortex, possibly to allow the liquid marrow to be sucked out.

"Cannibalism, however, does not seem an adequate explanation for most of the cases" of flesh removal, say Hoyme and Bass. Motives for such a practice are usually ritualistic or to obtain food. To meet ritualistic customs, so much flesh would not need to be removed and the remaining skeletons would not necessarily have been buried so carefully. No signs or butchering or chewing show a food source as a motive.

The reports conclude:
"All things considered, although there is some evidence that in a few cases the marrow was removed from the bones, there does not seem enough evidence to conclude that cannibalism was a widespread practice at either site."

Multiple Burials

At the Tollifero site, four instances of two or more persons being buried in the same pit occurred. All the other burials were primary, single burials. Multiple burials usually consisted of a primary burial of someone recently deceased along with a secondary burial of a previously deceased person. There is no way to establish the relationship of the persons involved in multiple burials so interpretation is difficult.

The Clarksville site shows that multiple burials usually consisted of persons who had died about the same time and may have possibly been related.

Skeletal evidence shows no information as to the cause of death.

The anthropological report of Hoyme and Bass states the following in its conclusion:
"By far the largest part of the information yielded by human bones is cultural, pointing up the biological and social consequence of some of the cultural raw data, and revealing the presence of customs whose existence was not suspected when the examination of the bones was undertaken .. The gradual change in culture parallels the gradual change in physique ... With our present limited knowledge of the prehistory the Southeastern United States, it is impossible to say with certainty whether these parallel changes were due to evolution in sites, or to replacement of one population by another of very similar culture and physique."

Sex Distribution and Length of Life

The archeologists and anthropoligist found a number of differences in age and sex distribution at the two sites. Infant mortality was about 16 to 17 percent at both places, but juvenile deaths nearly doubled proportionately at the Clarksville site.

The Clarksville site showed a 3-2 sex ratio in favor of males, whereas the Tolliferos showed a 5-2 ratio with males far out-numbering females. Males outlived females at both sites, but the earlier Tolliferos appeared to have lived longer than the later peoples, hardly an expected conclusion with the later people having an improved diet.

The introduction of European diseases is how Hoyme and Bass explain the increase in deaths of the juveniles and young adults in deaths of the juveniles and young adults at the Clarksville site. The 5-2 sex ratio, however, of the Tollifero is said to be "biologically abnormal" which suggests the occurence of some intervening factor.

The anthropolgists explain that the Tolliferos were seminomadic hunters and _gatherers, and that death of all members of the group surely occurred away from home. The less important dead would be buried along the trail; but the more productive members of the group, the men, would be transported home for burial. This is only one explanation of the illogical Tollifero sex ratio favoring males.

Health and Disease

Skeletal abnormalities exist more frequently in bones found at the Clarksville site than in those from the Tollifero site. Hoyme and Bass suggest the reason for this is: 1) different diets presented differences in general health, susceptability to illness, and recovery from illness, 2) cultural differences in body preservation of the dead may have existed, and 3) new diseases may have appeared with the advent of more trade for the Clarksville people and new treatments may have allowed the less fit to recover.

The report states:
"Since the Tollifero people followed a hunting and gathering economy, and were probably seminomadic, one would expect that fractures occurred more frequently than in agriculture, and more sedentary Clarksville people. Yet this factor could influence the number of cases found for an injured member of the group might be abandoned to care for himself as best he could and his skeleton would not be among those found by the archeologist."

What the experts called "flammatory changes" occurred much more frequently in the Clarksville long-bones. These were possibly caused by defiencies in diet.

In general, the Tollifero people enjoyed better health than the later peoples.Diseases affecting the bones were more common at the Clarksville site.