Ely Mound is a traditional mound, a manmade formation consisting of raised earth and stones over a grave site. Such burial mounds occur throughout the world; in Europe, especially, they are called tumuli, barrows, or kurgans. Early in the 1870s Lucien Carr tested the mound, naming it after its owner, Robert Ely. In Carr’s 1877 report he described the mound, which had been in cultivation for many years, as a truncated
oval … about three hundred feet in circumference at the base, and nineteen feet in height, as measured in the excavation or shaft, sunk through the centre. On the top there was a level space, oval in shape, the diameters being respectively about fifteen and forty feet. At a distance of eight to ten feet from the brow of the mound, on the slope, there were found, buried in the earth, the decaying stumps of a series of cedar post which I was informed by Mr. Ely at one time completely encircled it.
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.”
Carr’s testing of the Ely Mound, which occurred sometime between 1876 and 1879, consisted of sinking a shaft, six feet by four feet, from the center to the circumference. Two human graves were encountered during the first day of excavation. Grave number one, ten feet deep in the central shaft, contained the remains of two children. Associated with the children were a black bear canine tooth, two quarts of shell beads of various sizes and shapes, two shell ear pins, and a shell gorget, or decorative collar, with a weeping-eye motif. Grave number two, six feet deep in the side trench, held the remains of a woman with shell beads.
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.
Carr resumed excavations one week later. Two days of steady digging extended the central shaft and trench down to sterile subsoil. For the sake of safely, the excavation’s soil profiles were stepped up, opening a larger portion of the mound than had been originally intended, or approximately one-sixth of the mound. During this work, grave number three was encountered, which held the remains of an adult male. Associated with these remains were two large projectile points; a small pile of white quartz pebbles the size of peas, believed to be the contents of a turtle shell rattle; and a large, polished, sandstone bi-concave disk used to play the game of “chungke.” Carr noted that the lower half of the mound was almost void of all evidence of human occupation, whereas the upper half contained beds of ash, burnt earth, shell beads, small gaming disks of stone or pottery, and fragments of pottery, animal bones, and charred corn and cob. In order to interpret the use and age of the mound, Carr drew heavily on historical accounts by European explorers of Indian culture. He directly linked the substructure mound, shell gorget, and “chungke” stone to descriptions in seventeenth- and eighteenth-century accounts of comparable structures and objects for other Southeastern Indians, including the nearby Cherokee Indians.
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.