No Stone Unturned

This story originally appeared on the October 2017 issue of Wonderful West Virginia.

Not much remains of the ancient stone walls on Mount Carbon except some piles of rock and lots of questions.

This is a mystery story, but not the kind with private detectives or jewel heists or purloined letters. This is something deeper, older, stranger.

Along the Kanawha River, on a steep hillside above the tiny community of Mount Carbon, loom the remains of ancient stone walls. No one knows who built them. No one knows how old they are, although they are certainly very old. No one knows why they were built.

Dr. John Rutherford stands beside Wall 3 in 1961 during one of the many expeditions to Mount Carbon in western Fayette County. Courtesy of The Grave Creek Mound Archaeological Complex.

The investigation into this mystery has been underway for well over 100 years. So far, it has yielded little result. The answers, for reasons this article will soon reveal, are probably lost to time. Yet generation after generation of detectives have taken on the case—and the inquiry continues even to this day.

Dark and Profound

The first written mention of the Mount Carbon walls dates to 1876, in George W. Atkinson’s A History of Kanawha County. The author talked with locals but did not personally visit the site, and it shows. Atkinson describes the construction as a continuous three-and-a-half-mile wall running from Armstrong Creek on the mountain’s west side to Loup Creek on its east—even though subsequent research has shown the walls were likely never connected.

The first detailed study did not occur until October 1897 when Dr. John P. Hale—a Kanawha County salt and ferryboat magnate, Confederate Army surgeon, banker, and historian—hired a team of surveyors to investigate the walls.

His report, compiled in the 1898 pamphlet Some Local Archaeology, provides a much different image of the ancient stoneworks from what earlier writers cooked up. Instead of tall fortifications, Hale describes four separate windrows of stones “piled up irregularly and loosely.”

In addition to mapping out the walls, Hale’s expedition also searched for artifacts that might offer clues about their provenance. The team found no evidence of burials, pottery, tools, or other proof of human habitation. “This examination … unfortunately gives us no clue which might lead to the history of (the walls’) origin and use,” he wrote. “These, as heretofore, are shrouded in mystery dark and profound.”

Studies of the walls continued into the 20th century. John Inghram and Sigfus Olafson of the West Virginia Archaeological Society produced a detailed report about the walls and previous explorations of the area. They describe five windrows scattered hundreds of yards apart on the hillsides above Mount Carbon. Although the structures were all built in a similar curved shape, they came in varying sizes: Wall 1, for instance, was only about 2 feet high, 20 feet wide, and a few hundred feet long, while Wall 3 was significantly larger at 25 feet wide, 4 feet tall, and longer than two football fields.

Inghram and Olafson’s report also mentions rumors of a sixth wall segment, although “detailed data on this structure are not available.” “It is possible that there are additional features of this site farther south, but the mountain top has only been explored in detail five or six miles from the river. The ridge however winds south for a considerable distance,” the report states.

In the summer of 1958, University of Georgia archaeologist James Kellar spent six weeks on Mount Carbon as part of an expedition sponsored by his institution and the West Virginia Archaeological Society.

Heavy rains had turned the mountain into a “lush entanglement of nettles, greenbrier, sassafras, and other saplings,” Kellar wrote. He had to bushwhack through the thicket with a machete just to reach the walls, so he made camp on the hillside to avoid a treacherous daily commute. The primitive accommodations required “the breaking of a few habits of personal hygiene,” he admitted, but allowed his work “a degree of efficiency not obtainable otherwise.”

During his month and a half on the mountain, Kellar excavated three purported stone mounds, one of which turned out to be a cleverly constructed moonshiner’s hangout. He searched for artifacts in 11 areas with high concentrations of flint but found only one relic of consequence: a scraping tool.

Kellar also deconstructed a segment of the largest of the walls, dubbed Wall 3, which was constructed of “many tons of slab and some blocks of black flint.” He disassembled the wall in an eight-foot trench, going all the way down to the topsoil, unpacking stones that sometimes weighed over a hundred pounds. He discovered the rocks were laid in no apparent order—the builders, whoever they were, set some vertically, others horizontally, and some tipped at an angle.

The excavation must have been back-breaking, shirt-wringing work, especially in the humid West Virginia summertime. And to make matters worse, Kellar didn’t find anything. He left Mount Carbon with some guesses about the builders and their motives but conceded, with apparent frustration, the structures’ function and age were both “unknowable.” Just like Hale six decades earlier, Kellar went home with lots of questions and not many answers.

“Every archaeological excavation has involved an element of change, but it rarely happens that the results are negative in their entirety,” he wrote. “However, this was the case at Mount Carbon.”

Educated Guesses

Despite the lack of historical evidence, researchers have been able to make some educated guesses about the walls. Olafson hypothesized they might date to the Archaic period, 8,000 to 2,000 B.C., given the design of the flint tools found in the area. Kellar meanwhile, dismissed the flint artifacts, given the material’s widespread use. He suggested that, since the Mount Carbon walls were similar to the earthen-walled hilltops in the Ohio Valley built by people of the Middle Woodland era—200 B.C. to 500 A.D.—the structures might date from that era.

Around the time of Kellar’s report, West Virginia state archaeologist Edward McMichael released his own observations of the site and proposed the Adena people as likely suspects. He says that group, which inhabited the valley from 800 B.C. to the first century A.D., was the only one with sufficient population and social organization to carry out such a large-scale project. McMichael admits, however, that “all major prehistoric cultures could be advanced as responsible for the walls, save the Paleo-Indians.”

Archaeologists have some guesses about the purpose of the walls, too. Atkinson, in his falsehood-filled report, surmised the walls were used as animal pens. Others suggested they might have been used for military purposes. But researchers quickly dismissed these theories. The walls, even if continuous, would not keep an army out nor keep game in,” Hale wrote in 1898. Lacking any other explanation, Kellar and most subsequent researchers have concluded the walls must have been used for ceremonial purposes.

This is, likely, as close as we will ever come to the truth about the Mount Carbon walls. A dozen years after Kellar’s summer expedition, walls 3, 4, and 5 were destroyed by strip mining. State archaeologists wrote to the Hawks Nest Mining Company, which had the property at the time, asking that the walls be protected. The company agreed. But workers—who were under the false impression the walls were tall, conspicuous structures instead of loose piles of stone—ended up bulldozing them anyway. “It was a lack of information on our part,” Gordon Billheimer, vice president of the mining company, told the Sunday Gazette-Mail at the time. “Nobody wants to deliberately destroy anything like this.”

It’s impossible to know what clues might have been lost when the machines erased the stoneworks from the landscape. But not all was lost.

An Ongoing Search

In early April 1992, West Virginia Archaeology Society members Orville Thomas and David Martin went looking for what might remain of the walls. Both men had been part of a similar, unsuccessful expedition a few weeks earlier with other WVAS members. But then Thomas found a different map of the area and decided to try again. He invited Martin, who quickly agreed. “It was one of the old but unsolved mysteries of West Virginia that I could still check out,” he says.

The men climbed into Martin’s Nissan Stanza, followed West Virginia Route 61’s curving yellow lines to Mount Carbon, and wound their way back onto the mountain with the help of a logging road. The duo looked for remains of Wall 1 but never found anything. Since this structure ran parallel with the ridge, Martin figures the rocks probably washed down the hillside over time.

But after some searching, they came across the remains of Wall 2. The bulldozers that carved the access road had bisected the structure where it crossed the ridge, but the sections trailing down the slopes on either side remained intact.

Martin chronicled the event with a Hi8 camcorder. “There’s so much underbrush, it’s hard to see through it,” he says. Still, the wobbly, grainy footage shows Thomas in red ballcap and light blue shirt standing atop a long, low pile of rocks trailing down the hillside.

Not much has changed in the intervening quarter-century. Writer Catherine Moore hiked up Mount Carbon in spring 2017 as part of her research for an essay about the walls. “It’s maybe the hardest hike I’ve ever made in my life,” she says. She fought through snarls of briars, just as Kellar did back in 1958. By the time she reached the ridge, she didn’t have energy or daylight to conduct a thorough investigation. She was able to find Wall 2, however, just as Thomas and Martin last saw it.

Moore has been interested in the walls for years. “It’s hard to pinpoint when I first heard about them. I’m a local history junkie, so it was probably in one of those obscure local history books I often pick up,” she says. “I was fascinated by this idea that there was something as ancient as these walls in the county where I live.”

The essay, to be published in 2019 as part of a collection of Moore’s work, will deal with the history of the walls as well as the lack of information about them. “I think Mount Carbon has been discounted and ignored by archaeological communities,” she says.

She’s not dissuaded by her predecessors’ lack of success. “I think we shouldn’t allow that seductive air of mystery to keep us from really investigating the walls themselves and thinking about the people who built them.”

And so, the investigation continues.