Artist unknown: The dilemma of the Nottoway Stone Image

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Deborah Painter (USA)

About 61 years ago, a boy wandered among loblolly pines near an agricultural field not far from the Nottoway River in southern Virginia in the USA. His eyes fell upon a tan coloured rock atop a thick layer of old needles at the bases of the pines. It was a curiosity – the coastal plain Southampton County does not feature rocks reposing at the surface. Young Lloyd Bryant turned over the rounded chunk of stone and was jolted to see an etched human face staring back (Fig. 1).

Fig. 1. The mysterious face seems to smile at our efforts to try to imagine who carved it. (Credit: The Isle of Wight County Museum.)

Lloyd showed the 8.8kg head shaped carving to his father, who believed it was an important archaeological find and should be sold to the Archaeological Society of Virginia. Society members, William Moseley and my father, archaeologist Floyd Painter, conducted a reconnaissance of the immediate area and found no associated artefacts. Painter published a paper on the find in the Quarterly Bulletin of the Society in 1958 soon after the discovery. He was even moved to write a poem about the ‘Nottoway Stone Image’, as he called it, since his literary sensibilities were stirred by the mystery of the single artefact.

He kept the low-grade iron ore (‘bog iron’ or goethite) carving in a duffle bag from his Army days in his bedroom for decades, intending that the carving would eventually be placed on display like many other artefacts he had studied. Many years later, my sister, brother and I inherited the stone image and it is on long-term display at the Isle of Wight County Museum located approximately 48.2km from its discovery place (Fig. 2). My father’s poem is displayed alongside it.

Fig. 2. The entrance to the popular Isle of Wight County Museum boasted many vibrant colours in spring 2019. (Credit: The Isle of Wight County Museum.)

It is a popular piece and modern archaeological methods have been employed since 1958 to try to determine its provenance. Thus far, there are as many unanswered questions as there are answered. Was it carved by Native Americans? Did slaves from Africa create it? What was its purpose?

Consultation with Tracey Neikirk, the curator of the Isle of Wight County Museum, yielded some additional information about the Nottoway Stone Image and the area in which it was found. She shared the following observations during our interview regarding the artefact:

“Discovered in a field just west of the Nottoway River, this stone, made of low-grade iron ore and weighing 19.5 pounds, has a unique carving on one side. Some archaeologists have dated the piece from 8,300 to 1,600 BC while other archaeologists have dated it as 19th century. Without other objects found nearby as reference, dating is a guess. The immediate area where the stone was found was the seat of the Iroquois-speaking Nottoway Indians, known also as Cheroenhaka (Nottoway), and within the limits of their reservation still in existence in 1825.

The area is called Indian Town to this day. The stone could have been carved by African slaves. Modern research shows that many slaves came directly from Africa, even as late as the early 1800s when importation was made illegal. Numerous African tribes have traditions of carving effigies in wood and other materials. Southampton County had 7,756 slaves and some free African Americans by the time of Nat Turner’s 1831 rebellion.”

Goethite or limonite bog iron results from concretions in iron rich soils present in anoxic soil conditions. It is named ‘bog iron’ because of its association with bogs and other wetland habitats where soil is saturated within 45.7cm of the soil surface.  Limonite and goethite containing bog iron is porous and rust coloured, and is the result of the concentration of iron oxide as water percolates through ferruginous layers of soil and clayey layers in freshwater marshes, bogs and forested wetlands where the upper 45.7cm is saturated for most of the year and the water is low in oxygen (Fig. 3).

Fig. 3. This stand of loblolly pines in Courtland, Southampton County is only a few kilometres from the site where Lloyd Bryant found the Nottoway Stone Image. (Credit: Deborah Painter.)

In oxygen rich soils, soils have smaller iron concretions, as the iron-rich groundwater solution seeps into the open air and decomposes (Fig. 4).

Fig. 4. These wetlands are contiguous to the Nottoway River at Courtland and very likely feature bog iron. (Credit: Deborah Painter.)

The more water-logged the soil, the larger the concretions. Goethite or limonite bog iron becomes massive when it forms a thin layer at the bottom of the wetland. The solution is usually thick with vegetable matter, as it slowly exposes itself on or near the surface with the help of ground water movement. (Fig. 5).

Fig. 5. In soils here in the Nottoway River floodplain as well as elsewhere, iron can concentrate and then oxidise in greater amounts than in well-aerated soils. (Credit: Deborah Painter)

In these circumstances, decomposition occurs rapidly and the solution forms a reddish material with high iron concentrations. It also becomes hard as it precipitates. Generally, bog iron forms over a twenty-year span. Sometimes it forms lumps of large size, such as the piece found and shaped by an artist of many years past. Carved into the rough shape of a human head and given human features, the piece of bog iron was eventually abandoned or lost in a forest, to be discovered in the mid-twentieth century by Lloyd Bryant.

Bog iron was once commonly used in the early years of European colonization. From 1621 to 1622, a thriving iron works industry existed in the Richmond area approximately 88km north of Courtland. Falling Creek Iron Works used a bloomery, that is, a furnace not much larger than the ones used by farriers or blacksmiths, to process bog iron, the only iron available in that region. The reason for its short period of operation is an attack by Native Americans of the Powhatan tribe that killed 22 workers and their family members.

The inscrutable Nottoway Stone Image presents a real challenge that is typical of an artefact that has no others in association. For the vast majority of discovered artefacts, the archaeologist can at least form an educated opinion of the cultural and ethnic identities of their creators. However, in the case of the stone image found near Courtland, the ethnic and cultural identity of the artist or artists are probably lost to history.

“The stone face and its origin
may forever remain an enigma,
but will always be
an object of wonder,
something to stir
the imaginations of men.”
FLOYD EUGENE PAINTER,
ARCHAEOLOGIST, 1958

About the author

Deborah Painter is an ecologist and general environmental scientist specialising in transportation and industrial development planning to minimise deleterious environmental impacts. She lives in the United States.

References

Drewry, William Sidney. 1900. The Southampton Insurrection. The Neale Company, Washington, D.C. 200 pages.

Geist, Christopher. The Works at Falling Creek: https://www.history.org/Foundation/journal/Autumn07/iron.cfm

Iron in Colonial Virginia: http://www.virginiaplaces.org/geology/iron.html

Iron in Virginia: http://www.miningartifacts.org/Virginia-Mines.html

Johnson, F. Roy. 1970. The Nat Turner Story. Johnson Publishing Company Murfreesboro, North Carolina. 240 pages.

Neikirk, Tracey. Personal communication.

Painter, Floyd E. 1958. The Nottoway Stone Image. Quarterly Bulletin of the Archaeological Society of Virginia Volume 12, Number 3, March 1958. 22-24.

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