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Mystery Walls on Armstrong Mountain

Sunday Gazette-Mail
April 19, 1970


Mining

Smaller Parts of Mystery Walls Reported Unharmed

By James A. Haught

MONTGOMERY – The largest and most dramatic segment of the Armstrong Mountain “mystery walls” has been destroyed by a strip mine, but several smaller segments remain unharmed.

That’s the verdict after two dozen archeologists, state officials and coal executives inspected the location of the state’s most baffling prehistoric ruin.

During a state-organized expedition Friday, the experts offered these opinions:

  • The stone-works probably were built around 300 A.D. – a century before the fall of the Roman Empire.
  • They probably never were a complete, 10 mile-long enclosure, as often reported. Scientific surveys have established only six short segments of stone ridge.
  • The structures – composed partly of stones that had been carried some distance up the mountain – apparently were used for some primodial religious rite.

    Debate has been going on for more than a month over how much damage was done to the archeological site by strip mining and timbering. The mining was performed by Eagle Coal and Dock Co. as a contractor for Hawks Nest Mining Co. Rep. John Slack Jr., D-W. Va., was vice president and a major stockholder of the Eagle firm during the years of the stripping.

    The Reclamation Division of the Department of National Resources organized Friday’s inspection in an effort to learn the extent of harm to the prehistoric site. Invited experts gathered at the base of the mountain east of Montgomery and were driven to the top in five four-wheel-drive vehicles.

    The safari paused in a large strip mine pit. The professional and amateur archeologists consulted their charts and decided that the largest and most significant of the stone-works had been on the exact spot, but now was obliterated.

    Reclamation Division Chief Ben Greene, addressing the group through an electric bull horn, pointed out that the stripping was done in 1964 and 1965 before his agency existed. State laws at that time didn’t include any restrictions to prevent strip mine firms from causing such damage, he said.

    Sigfus Olafson of Madison, president of the West Virginia Archeological Society, took the bull horn and recounted his studies of the “mystery walls.” He said the segment where the group stood had been 30 feet wide at its base and about five feet high.

    “This was the big one, the most massive,” he said. “The others were small. You could just tell they were human works, and that was all.”

    Olafson, a retired coal official of Icelandic descent, said the Armstrong Mountain stone-works probably date to about 300, A.D., in the same era as the Hopewell People, of whom traces have been found from Ohio to Georgia.

    “There’s little or no possibility of this (the Armstrong Mountain walls) being more recent than 1,600 to 1,700 years ago,” he said.

    OLAFSON SAID the walls obviously were built by people who lived in a prehistoric village at the base of the mountain. They evidently carried stone from various parts of the mountain to the top to the top and built the structures for some religious purpose, he said. There’s no possibility, he said, that the walls might have been used as fortifications or livestock fences or any other secular purpose.

    Gordon Billheimer of Montgomery, vice president of Hawks Nest Mining Co., took the bull-horn and asked how the archeologists knew the walls were so old. Maybe they were only 200 years old, he speculated.

    State Archeologist Bettye Broyles of Morgantown replied that recent Indians never built that radioactive carbon dating of any such stone structures, and a Hopewell site in Tennessee has fixed its age at around 300 B.C.

    Billheimer spoke in defense of his firm. He said the coal operators didn’t intend to cause any harm to the archeological site. If the firm had been aware of the location or appearance of the “walls,” it would have avoided them, he said.

    State archeologists had written to Hawks Nest Mining Co. and asked the strippers to avoid the walls, and the firm promised it would.

    Billheimer said the Eagle Coal and Dock Co. workers were instructed “to avoid any walls” – but they didn’t realize the stone-works were only loose scatterings of rock in many places.

    “We thought the walls were walls, and continuous,” he said. “But I couldn’t see any, and the men couldn’t see any. It was a lack of information on our part…Nobody wants to deliberately destroy anything like this. It was ignorance on my part and on the men’s part…You’re expecting too much of us. How would we know?

    Mrs. Broyles commented that the mining firm was innocent, since it didn’t realize it was damaging anything. She said archeology fans and state officials were guilty for not marking and preserving the site.

    Billheimer pointed out that no efforts have been made to preserve the prehistoric village at the base of Armstrong Mountain, which dates back as far as the walls. The village site now is a ball diamond, he said.

    “It’s the general attitude of the American people,” Olafson commented. “We’re lucky the pyramids are in a backward country like Egypt. If they were in the U.S., they would have been dismantled for railroad ballast or bridge abutments by now.”

    The expedition combed the top of Armstrong Mountain and found two of the smaller “wall” segments unharmed. Archeological society president Olafson said at the end of the day that he thinks one smaller wall in addition to the large wall has been destroyed, and the other four small segments remain.

    Members of the party discussed possible ways to coordinate knowledge so such accidental destruction won’t happen to other sites.

    “This has taught us all a lesson,” Mrs. Broyles remarked.


    Native Americans