Judaculla Rock is covered with more than 1,500 symbols.

Deena C. Bouknight – Contributing Writer

On signage and kiosks, Cherokee syllabary, as well as English, highlights various aspects of Judaculla Rock. Judaculla Rock is situated in a valley less than 10 miles from Western Carolina University.

Besides natural beauty, the Western North Carolina Mountains are rich in the mysterious aspects of American Indian culture. Judaculla Rock near Cullowhee, is just such a relic. Although area forests and remote mountainous geography may conceal an untold numbers of artifacts, Judaculla Rock is easily accessible. 

Less than 10 miles past the entrance to Western Carolina University on Highway 107, and then down a winding riverside road, is an expansive valley and Judaculla Rock, tucked beside river cane and a dense patch of native plants. The soapstone boulder is covered with peculiar scribbling, yet each of the more than 1,500 marks is intentional and symbolic. 

According to Blue Ridge National Heritage Area (BRNHA), archaeologists date the site to at least 3,000 years ago, when American Indians quarried soapstone for making bowls. Eventually, Natives began to gradually add the petroglyphs around 1,500 years ago to about 300 years ago (when European settlers entered the region) as a way of telling a story. 

Signage in Cherokee syllabary and English inform that petroglyphs were achieved by pecking, abrading, or scratching rocks – often during or after specific rituals or ceremonies. Judaculla Rock is in an area of Cullowhee where a Cherokee town and council house mound once existed. 

“The rock may have served as a boundary marker for Cherokee hunting grounds, which were closely guarded by the legendary giant and master of animals, Judaculla (Tsu-tia-ka-la),” conveys the site’s educational information in English and Cherokee syllabary. 

Judaculla, according to the Cherokee legend, is a slant-eyed giant who lived high up in the Balsam Mountains and who guarded hunting grounds that are today known as Devil’s Courthouse, located just off the Blue Ridge Parkway. When “disrespectful” hunters came through the land, Judaculla chased them and put his hand on such places as the rock near what is now called Caney Fork. He left his mark on the soapstone rock as well as on other boulders within the Eastern Band of the Cherokee lands. 

Expressed on judaculla.com: “It seems Judaculla Rock is one of at least three other such stones on the same property. However, one of them was buried in a 20th century mining operation, and the other cannot be found, perhaps covered with vegetation or severely eroded. … Considering the site has never been excavated, there’s no telling what other ancient markings and artifacts may lie a short distance below the surrounding earth.”

Although erosion has made it difficult to distinguish all of the distinct symbols on Judaculla Rock, the petroglyphs have been and continue to be studied extensively. The goal of the U.S. Department of Agriculture Forest Service’s North Carolina Rock Art Project, is, in fact, to locate and document prehistoric and historic petroglyphs, pictographs, and mud glyphs, and to glean understanding from the writings.

Scott Ashcraft, director of the Rock Art Project and archaeologist for the Pisgah National Forest, said it is, “an effort that started out in 1999 as a survey to identify rock art sites and turned into an interpretive effort, but we are back involved in the survey aspects of it. These last two years have been good for finding new sites. We started out finding seven sites; now we have identified over 90 – from old dates to early graffiti to pre-contact petroglyphs and pre-contact pictographs.”

“There are very interesting mountain-top sites that are incredible,” he added. “Most are in rock domes or rock outcroppings spread across 50 or 60 yards.”

Establishing a public interpretive site around rock art, such as the one at Judaculla Rock, is rare for a number of reasons. 

“Some are on state or federal lands, but quite a few are on private lands,” said Ashcraft. “Often there is a discussion about whether or not we want to bring people to the site because it’s so rare and no one wants it to be damaged or vandalized.”

Early Rock Art Project finds were through word of mouth, “but other times it’s a shot in the dark or we know of certain places to look,” he explained. The Rock Art project involves various agencies, volunteers, universities, and the Eastern Band of the Cherokee. 

“We often consult with our tribal partners in Western North Carolina,” said Ashcraft. “One of the most rewarding parts, in fact, has been connecting the people with their history. And they have reached out and shared more with us. These are such important sites for the Cherokee.”

While the Western United States or South America may be most recognizable as rock art regions, there are many sites scattered over not just North Carolina, but Alabama, Tennessee, Georgia, and South Carolina as well, shared David Heck, local adventure specialist. 

Other sites within driving distance of Macon County include:  

– Gardner Rock in Yancey County

– The Cumberland Plateau in Tennessee (rock and cave art)

– Big Rock Trail in DuPont Forest

Even though there are few rock art sites that can be accessed by the public, the ones that can be seen are worth visiting, pointed out Heck. 

“I find them humbling, powerful, and deeply moving as well as centering and grounding. In an impermanent world, symbols lasting that long are worth seeking out for their own sake. More likely, written languages evolved from them. We’ve a great deal to learn from such a vast perspective. And they never fail to help me realize actual perspective when faced with such vast stretches of time in the natural world and universe.”

The site of Judaculla Rock has been owned for at least a century by the Parker family. BRNHA informs on its site kiosk that the family has protected the rock against vandalism and, in 1959, Milas Parker donated a one-acre tract around the boulder to Jackson County. In 2011, his grandson, Jerry Parker, established a 107-acre conservation easement that permanently protects the cultural site and the surrounding valley and mountains.