The entire debate between absolute historic preservation and increased historic knowledge hangs on one word contained in the deed for the Nikwasi Mound, that being the word “explore.”
Steven Rice, curator of the Macon County Historical Museum, says that the town’s current beautification plans are a direct violation of the property deed. “The deed is very explicit on what can and cannot be done,” Rice said. Town officials state that no definite plans have been made yet.
The deed, which was drawn up in 1946, clearly states that the Nikwasi Mound “shall be preserved for the citizens of Macon County and for posterity, and the same shall be kept as it now stands and shall not be excavated, explored, altered, or impaired in any way or used for any commercial purpose ...”
According to strict definition, to explore means to “range over an area for the purpose of discovery or to look into closely or to investigate or examine.”
By every letter of the law, the Nikwasi Mound can only be maintained as it already is and cannot have anything done to it.
The town is spending a lot of money to maintain the site of the mound. According to Franklin town alderman Bob Scott, the town has considered cheaper, more efficient ways to do the same job, including replacing the top ground with astroturf so it would not have to be mowed.
Yet, even Scott conceded that this was a clear violation of the deed’s provisions, so they are looking at other alternatives.
Various beautification campaigns have also been under consideration. The town considered planting native vegetation around the mound. “That was not feasible, however,” said Scott, “because of the cost and, historically, the vegetation had not been there before.” This also would have been a direct change to the mound, which is prohibited by the deed.
Some of the other options that the town has been considering are not as clearly prohibited according to the deed. Scott said that he would personally like to see some of the signs in that direct area, including DOT signs, removed and put up a couple more interpretive signs with a small parking area near the mound for visitors.
While ideas like this seem good in theory, are they a violation of the deed? Scott pointed out that you have to look at the intention of the plans. He said that his plan would be limited to beautifying rather than modifying. And since they would not be changing the mound itself, Scott did not think that the plan would be prohibited.
For his part, Rice said that he believes that there are several things that have been done to the mound in recent years or that are being considered that go against the deed. He explained that there were actual Cherokee Indian rocks at each corner of the mound’s property and the town, for whatever reason, decided to replace those rocks. Rice pointed out that those were authentic Native American rocks, and they added to the significance of the mound.
Scott could not comment on this particular issue because he was not certain of the rocks’ origins and did not know the full details.
Moral issues come into play that add to the confusion over the matter of the Nikwasi Mound as well. The deed is an old document and the definition of the language used in the deed has changed over the years.
Therefore, what the town originally meant for simple preservation purposes when they drew up the deed takes on a whole new meaning in today’s world, especially where technology is concerned. There are new methods of exploration that are not invasive to the site.
About a year ago, the geology department at Western Carolina University, headed by Blair Tormey, did a study of the mound by means of ground penetrating radar. Rice said even this was a violation of the deed because it was “exploring” the mound regardless of the findings.
Anne Rogers, head of the archeology department at Western Carolina University, said that the mound had already had a little excavation done to it in the 1800s, prior to the deed. Rogers was neutral on the debate issue. However, she did not see a problem with exploration as long as it was scientifically conducted, maintained historical accuracy and did not damage the site.
The ground penetrating radar technology would be perfect because it would give the people more information about the site but would still preserve it as it was. She said that it is “essential to preserve the history of the mound.”
But what of that history? Scott said that they are not sure who actually built the mound, although there is evidence that the Cherokee tribe did use it. By finding out more about the history behind the mound it would actually increase the value and significance of the mound to residents and visitors alike. “I would be in favor of any study that was done in an orderly and scientific manner,” Scott said.