From the posts Carr surmised "that the summit of the mound had at one time been occupied by some sort of a building—possibly a rotunda or council chamber."
Lucius H. Cheney, a student in the Harvard School of Geology, and Charles B. Johnson, of Gibson's Station, in Lee County, were excavating the human remains when their discovery caused spectators to rush suddenly to the edge of the excavation. The weight of the spectators caused the sides of the excavation shaft to collapse, covering the men with soil. Although the men were quickly dug out, Johnson was severely bruised and Cheney was dead; the weight of the soil had broken his back or neck.
There is a slight depression at the top of the mound that extends northwest to its edge, surface evidence of Carr's excavations during the nineteenth century. Ely Mound retains much of its nineteen-feet height. An apron of soil fill extends to the southeast, likely evidence of a ramp or series of steps ascending the southeast side of the mound. Although the mound is well known to local people and to professional archaeologists, and is readily visible from Highway 58 and identified by a highway marker, no looting has occurred at the site. Subsequent excavations have not occurred at the site. Throughout much of the twentieth century the previous landowner refused to permit excavations in the mound or adjacent to it. Based on artifacts observed in nearby fields, there also is a small settlement, or town, associated with the mound. Ely Mound was placed on the Virginia Landmarks Register and National Register of Historic Places in 1983. As of the early twenty-first century the mound was protected by an easement.
The Ely Mound is significant in the history of archaeology, for based upon his investigation, Lucien Carr emphatically rejected the so-called Lost Race theory of mound-builders in eastern North America. Popular among nineteenth-century American archaeologists, the Lost Race theory argues that American Indians were not civilized enough to have built the many earthworks and mound complexes—some of which covered hundreds, even thousands of acres—that dotted the landscape. Instead, the mound-builders must have been an earlier people: Welshmen, Norsemen, Phoenicians, Tartars, Chinese, or even Canaanites, the "lost tribes of Israel." According to early archaeologists, these more sophisticated and civilized people were displaced by the American Indians; displacing American Indians, therefore, was justified. Only by the 1870s, when the Indians were completely subdued, were archaeologists willing to accept the fact that these same Indians were the direct descendants of the mound-builders.
Carr, meanwhile, was one of the first archaeologists to definitively link the Indians at the time of European contact with the mound centers and the artifacts associated with them. The Ely Mound is probably attributable to people either closely related to or in direct contact with the ancestors of the Cherokees. The mound and the associated town hold great potential for archaeological investigations documenting the spread of Mississippian chieftain cultures up the Powell, Clinch, and Holston rivers and their interface with the typically less complex tribal societies in southwestern Virginia.
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First published: January 28, 2016 | Last modified: February 22, 2016