BRYSON CITY, N.C. (AP) _ About 10 years ago, Tom Belt pulled off a winding two-lane highway just south of Great Smoky Mountains National Park. He gazed down at a farmer's field. And there, for the first time, he beheld his ancestral home.
It was just as his grandmother had described, in Cherokee, when he was a child in Oklahoma. The sprawling, fertile valley enclosed by tree-covered mountains. The notch in the hills where the sun rose in summer. The river flowing beyond the trees.
This was Kituhwa, the birthplace of Cherokee civilization, the place where God's laws were presented to the people, his grandmother had said.
And rising gently from the valley floor was the mound, covering the hearth that was the first earthly home of fire after it was given by the Creator. Belt said he believes the sacred flame still burns there.
``Everything that I am is tied up on this property,'' said Belt, 50. ``This is the cradle of our culture. This is where we began.''
Now the land is under Cherokee control again for the first time in 175 years. And the Eastern Band of the Cherokee, which bought the property in 1996, is pondering what to do with it.
Belt thinks it should be revered, turned into a park and maintained for the public, like Stonehenge.
But a few months ago, recalls tribal councilman Larry Blythe, another man looked over the same 309 acres.
He was a golf course developer. And his reaction to the land was basically, ``Man, it's ready to go.''
Others have ideas of their own. A resort. A cultural center. Maybe the land should be left as it is. Or maybe the farming going on there now is less respectful than a carefully planned golf course could be.
To help the tribe decide, its deputy historic preservation officer, Brett Riggs, is leading a four-month archaeological study of the land to locate culturally valuable areas _ graves, old homesites and the like. He'll report to the tribal council in August.
It's already clear, he said, that even for Cherokees who reject traditional beliefs like Belt's, Kituhwa remains an irreplaceable part of tribal heritage.
And for the most striking finding, his team didn't even have to dig.
The Kituhwa site (commonly pronounced ``gah-DOO-ah'') is a patchwork of fields and gardens leased to members of the Eastern Band. Some small parcels grow tomatoes and squash; larger fields are turned over to hay, tobacco and feed corn. A huge rusting shed _ actually an old hangar _ stands near the road.
And all around are the mountains packed with trees. ``You feel as though you're contained within it, sort of cradled by the whole thing,'' Riggs said the other day as he stood in a dirt field seeded for hay.
People have inhabited this rare and inviting stretch of flat land by the Tuckaseegee River for at least 9,000 years, he said.
British traders came here around the end of the 17th century and traded hoes, knives, brass kettles and other items for deerskins. The traders often took Cherokee wives and reared families here, bringing in hogs, chickens and European crops.
Kituhwa was the largest and most important town in the valley in the early 18th century, with 183 residents in 1721. At its height, around 1750, Kituhwa probably stretched more than a mile along the valley, with 40 to 50 houses spaced some 50 to 100 yards apart, connected by footpaths that ran through gardens and fields of corn.
But in 1761, British troops burned Kituhwa down and slashed hundreds of acres of corn with their broadswords. It was part of an expedition to destroy resistance among the Cherokee, their former ally.
Kituhwa rebuilt. But like the dozen or so other towns targeted by the expedition, it never fully recovered.
Gerald Schroedl, in blue shirt and red bandanna, walks with brisk determination in straight lines back and forth between spindly stalks of corn. In his right hand is a baton, its beeping and clicking acting like a metronome to set his pace. He holds it firmly down, like a heavy bucket of water.
It is a gradiometer, a device that senses vanishingly subtle differences in magnetism in the top one yard or so of soil. Schroedl, an anthropology professor at the University of Tennessee, is tracing a gridlike pattern across the field. The baton takes 1,600 readings per grid square, each square's side measuring about 22 yards.
Schroedl is looking for the magnetic signature of burnt earth, such as in a hearth or a house that burned down. And by covering about 40 acres in this way, along with limited careful digging, he and Riggs hope to lay out a rough map of Kituhwa as it existed around 1750.
The gradiometer's latest test results, displayed on the professor's laptop computer, show it will take some work to get a meaningful map. Some sharply defined spots are probably recent farm debris. In an image from a previously recorded grid, two arcs might be traces of stockade walls; some other small blurs may be remains of burnt houses.
The most striking gradiometer images have emerged from Kituhwa's mound, a neatly mowed, green island in a shifting ocean of hip-high grass. The mound rises about 5 feet and spreads some 45 yards wide.
Scientists already knew what should be inside: the remains of generation after generation of the octagonal townhouse that served as Kituhwa's civic and spiritual center. It was built from wooden posts and saplings, and a plaster of clay with straw or grass.
In its hearth burned the sacred fire, where coals were taken to ignite fires in the townhouses of other towns during an annual ceremony in the fall. Every 20 years or so, the Cherokee replaced this building by burning it down and building directly on top of it, so that each townhouse would be incorporated in its successor.
And indeed, the gradiometer revealed two concentric rings that marked the remains of two generations of the townhouse, probably from the 15th or 16th centuries, Riggs said. Each ring measured about 20 yards across.
And in the center of the rings, a bright spot marked the ceremonial hearth.
``If everything looked like this,'' Schroedl said while gazing at the images, ``it would be easy.''
The mound used to be about 10 feet taller. But early in the 20th century, a farmer had the top removed _ probably destroying old townhouse remains _ to make the mound part of his cropland. The mound was growing corn when Belt first saw it.
About a half-mile west of the mound, at the edge of a field of rye tall enough to hide a car, Riggs is down on one knee in a shallow trench. He scrapes thin slices of dirt with a trowel, as if taking shavings of cheese.
The very dark earth is undisturbed by plow, showing the lush soil the early inhabitants of Kituhwa saw. Lighter streaks are the scars of plowing. And a mottling of orange is clay once packed on the roof of a home here around 1750, to keep sparks from the fire from igniting the wood structure.
With a trowel and kitchen spoon, Riggs exposes some glistening bits of black charcoal. They may be the remains of burnt timber.
It's tempting to think some of these burnt remains are the result of the destructive 1761 British expedition. But without evidence _ like a Highlander uniform buckle _ that has to remain conjecture.
Riggs and his largely volunteer crew aim to scrape just down to the earth untouched by a plow. They don't want to disturb historical objects, out of respect for traditional Cherokee beliefs. Their goal is to document the presence of a home here, as yet another marker from the past.
Elsewhere they have found remains of other homes and storage pits. And they've found 15 human graves outside the main part of the old settlement. Riggs suspects that 1,000 graves remain in the main part of the old settlement, and maybe hundreds more outside that area.
It's the graves, in part, that make tribal council member Blythe suspect that a golf course may not work here. Graves and the mound should be off-limits to development, he said.
But once Riggs' report is in, he's eager to see what can be done with the remainder of the land. For example, a dairy farm area, which contains several buildings, might offer enough land for a small outlet mall or a grocery store, he said.
Riggs said the dairy area land has been so chewed up by the farm that it's hard to believe any undisturbed remnants of Kituhwa remain. So some development there, maybe with a trail and exhibits for the rest of the property, might bring in some money and take the heat off for additional development, he said.
When the Kituhwa parcel was purchased for more than $3 million in 1996, Blythe said, ``there was some resentment in the tribe that we'd bought it if it's only going to be looked at.''
But ``we want to be sure anything we do is something we'll be proud of 50 years from now.''
The future of the site may be decided by tribal referendum. Myrtle Driver, 57, the tribe's cultural traditionalist, isn't confident tribal members will honor the site's importance.
``Most people don't give a damn,'' she said, waving an arm toward Kituhwa, across the highway from her office.
For many, ``they just don't know ... what it's like to be Cherokee. They weren't brought up with traditional values ... they were brought up in the white man's world. They don't know the language, they don't know the culture, they don't know the traditions.''
A reconstructed Cherokee village on the site would be a good idea, she said. But if the tribe decides on a more intensive development, she said, ``There's going to be consequences.''
She paused a moment. ``We'll see,'' she said. ``You just don't rape your mother.''
For now, the Kituhwa site is fairly quiet. The cawing of crows mixes with the lighter chatter of other birds. A tractor winds its way through a field.
Tall grass waves in the breeze. Wild raspberries wait to be plucked. Swarms of tiny insects, caught in rays of sunlight, shimmer like gray mists.
Every now and then, Cherokee children and adults come here with a small bag of earth from their homes. They put some into a turtle shell, and then pour it out on the mound.
The place of Kituhwa in the 21st century remains to be decided. But in the meantime, bit by bit, the mound is growing again.