Tellico Plains in 1926, showing the burial mound of the Mississippian Moundbuilders.

Tellico Bottoms about 1926. The mound in the center of the photo is believed to be a Mississippian Moundbuilder burial mound.

Some Thoughts On Tellico Plains And

The First Millennium

By Lowell Kirk

   Y2K has finally arrived. And as far as anyone can tell, passed with an anti-climactic whimper? The Millennium Bug failed to bite or was killed off by an overdose of cash.

   Yet one thousand years ago as the first millennium approached, there were many in western Europe who were prepared for the same Millennium change to occur. As a matter of historical fact, the Twelve Disciples expected Jesus to return to Earth and whisk them to Heaven in their lifetime. For two thousand years after the crucifixion of Jesus the history of western Christian culture is full of self-proclaimed "prophets" who have predicted such an event. Some have even gone so far as to set the exact time and date.

   One such prophet was the Baptist, William Miller who set the date as March 22, 1844. When Haley's Comet appeared in the sky, several thousand people in New York and New England climbed hills in "Ascension Robes" to await Christ's second coming. At the end of that Christ did not appear. Miller was bewildered and broken. But one follower, Hiram Edson, reorganized remnants of Miller's followers around the more serviceable belief that the world would end soon, and thus the Seventh Day Adventist Church was formed. They're still waiting and so are many more in the western Christian world as Y2K fast approaches.

   One of the best and most recent books that deal with the history of the Apocalypses over the past 2000 years is Eugene Weber's Apocalypses: Prophecies, Cults and Millennial Beliefs through the Ages.

   Of course, millions of Americans are filled with trepidation that at midnight on Dec. 31, 1999 computers will fail and bank accounts and stock market investments will be lost. (My bank assures me that they are Y2K ready!) Some predict airline disasters as computers fail and some, as in a recent TV movie, predict nuclear disaster as computers fail. Some survivalists, fearing a total collapse of the world economy, have stashed food, weapons and ammunition for fear of a total collapse of the world economy. Not b eing a prophet myself, I do plan to be awake at the turn of midnight on Dec. 31, 1999, but only to watch TV and see the ball fall in Times Square to welcome in the new year with my family, as I have done for longer than I care to remember! And then I plan to go to bed and sleep.

   A thousand years ago in Tellico Plains, as well as in the rest of North, Central and South America, there was no consternation regarding an impending End of Time nor a Y2K meltdown. The rather brutal and rather abrupt introduction of Christians and Christianity to America was not to affect the people at Tellico until Hernando Desoto brought more than 600 Spanish Christian soldiers to Tellico in 1541, more than 500 years after the First Millennium. But in 1000 AD there were thou- sands of people living in the early stages of what was referred to as Mississippian Moundbuilding Culture living in the Tellico area. Archaeologists date the Moundbuilder's culture from about 900 AD to 1600 AD. The political system a thousand years ago co nsisted of a series of regional Chiefdoms.

   The term chiefdom refers to a special level of social complexity in which the society of Southeastern North America was composed of various social classes ranked according to genealogical nearness to the chie f. These societies had highly productive economies and political centers, which coordinated economic, social and religious activities. A large temple mound was under construction a thousand years ago at Tellico. It was located near the river on what was a major northeast - southwest trail which in historical times became known as the "Great War Path." This fact indicates that Tellico was of these chiefdoms. Archaeologists have found that nearby on the Little Tennessee River at Toqua there were wood palisad es constructed around the village and a large mound was also under construction there a thousand years ago.

   Although no professional archaeological work has been done at Tellico as was done on the nearby Toqua site, it is highly probable that a wooden palisade was also constructed around the Tellico temple mound. Within the palisade the small houses made of sticks woven together and plastered with mud. The roofs were covered with bark and thatch. The houses were located around a central plaza, which was used for seasonal ceremonies and games. The communal corncribs were constructed several feet above the ground on poles. The chief's house and temple were constructed on top of the central mound. For the ceremonies, the chief wore a feather mantle and el aborate headdress made of copper, which had come from the Great Lakes region. The chief's family as well as the priestly class wore elaborately carved shell gorgets.

   We can imagine that in December, 999 AD that most of the bottom land of Tellico Plains was covered in fields that had produced a rich bounty of corn, beans, pumpkins, squash, sunflowers and perhaps some tobacco. The corn was in the cribs, the pumpkins sliced and dried in the hot summer sun along with the beans, and stored in baskets for the cold and drab days of winter. The women were most likely engaged in such work as collecting walnuts and hickory nuts, which were cracked and boiled in handmade earthen pottery to collect oil. Some were most likely engaged in weaving baskets or sewing cl othing from animal hides.

   Many of the men were off on long journeys hunting deer, bear and wild turkey for meat to supplement the primary vegetable diet of corn, beans and pumpkin. Hunting parties of 10 - 20 men would travel long distances to set up temporary hunting camps to collect and process meat, skins and furs. Perhaps some of the men were on much longer trade expeditions to far and distant places such as New England to collect soapstone, or the Gulf coast to collect Conch shells, or even the so u thwest to collect obsidian. These products were worked by skilled artisans and craftsmen into ceremonial and decorative items for the chief as status symbols. With the chiefs' death, these items were usually buried in a grave with him in the top of the te mple mound. Then several feet of fresh earth was added, basket by basket, and a new temple was the constructed on the top of the mound. That is how the great mound of Tellico eventually reached about 30 feet in height. See photo above.

   It is also probable that many of the young warriors were on war parties. Warfare was a major part of Native American culture. It was in warfare that a boy became a man. The palisades located around the villages indicate that war was frequent and constant.

   The highly complex culture of the Central American society of the Mayans had collapsed by 800 AD. They had a solar calendar that was more accurate than that of the European Christian world. The highly complex Aztec culture of Mexico had not yet formed by 999 AD. There is no indication that the Mounbuilders had such a complex astronomical solar calendar. Yet they well knew the yearly seasonal cycle. Many of the Mississippian Mounbuilder's temple complexes, such as the Ohio Serpent mound complex, were astronomical observatories. Knowledge of the proper seasons for planting was a necessity for agrarian societies such as the Moundbuilders. This knowledge seems to have been the secret knowledge of the priestly class, which helped them to hold their high distinction in their society. But with the approaching end of the Christian year of 999 AD the people of Tellico had none of the Christian concerns for the Millennium.

   Their fears and concerns would have revolved around the concern for their food supply for the winter. Would their war riors protect them from their earthly enemies? Would the next summer's growing season provide them with drought and famine? Little is known about their religious beliefs. There is evidence to indicate the Mounbuilders worshipped the sun, as did the ancient Egyptians. But like all societies with a high ranking priestly class, they may have been concerned about the ability of their priests to keep the known and unknown forces of nature smiling upon them. What is known for certain is that the Spanish Christians did brutally encounter the Moundbuilders after 1541 AD, within the next 60 years their entire political and cultural system had collapsed. And their old enemies, the Cherokee, had moved onto the ruins of their center at Tellico Plains. The Cherokee society, much less politically and culturally complex than the Moundbuilders, did not have or seem to need a priestly class. And within another two hundred years (1819 AD) the western European Christians had taken possession of the Cherokee lands and brought w ith them their concern for the End of Time and the Millennium.

   However, as this New Millennium begins, I do predict that this will not be the last edition of the Tellico Plains Mountain Press.

 

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