A Mayan Connection . . . the Ocmulgee Earth Lodge that Wasn’t
PART FOUR OF THE MAYAS IN NORTH AMERICA SERIES
The Creek chokopa (chukofa in Oklahoma) is an Itza Maya word, which means “warm place.” The chokopa was NEVER an earth lodge.
When perusing the archaeological reports of the Southeastern United States and the newsletters of state archaeological societies, one frequently finds excited archaeologists exclaiming that they found an earth lodge on their site. If the “earth lodge” is in North Carolina or eastern Tennessee, the archaeologist describes it as the oldest known Cherokee earth lodge, because it is located in North Carolina or eastern Tennessee. Since the Cherokees invented earth lodges, they then extrapolate the discovery to prove that the Cherokees built Ocmulgee Mounds.
An earth shelter (aka earth lodge) is defined as a type of architecture in which earth has been packed over the walls and roof of the structure. This earth is then buttressed by either adobe blocks or thick slabs of grass sod. An earth lodge would be impossible to construct in the humid, rainy climate of the Southeastern United States without the use of modern building materials . . . period.
A earth-bermed structure is a type of architecture in which earth has been packed against only the walls of the structure. This form of building has a conventional roof. It would have been possible in a pre-industrial society in the Southeastern United States, but the earth berm walls would have to be constantly repaired after rains, unless the walls were buttressed with thick grass sod. Also, with no water barrier, the interior of the structure would tend to be damp and moldy during wet weather.
Well, we have a problem. The enthusiastic proponents of earth lodges in the archaeology profession apparently don’t know that there are NO indigenous grasses in the Southeastern United States, which produce sod. All of the grasses seen on Southern lawns, except Bermuda grass, are descended from wild grasses in the Old World . . . mostly from Steppes of Russia. The wild grasses on the Western Plains, which were used to build earth lodges and the sod houses of pioneers will not grow in our climate.
Even if they did grow in our climate, they would leak water incessantly onto the structure and interior of the building unless modern waterproof materials provided a moisture barrier. Termites and fungi would turn the wooden structure into sawdust in a matter of few years. In the meantime, the occupants would be miserable and probably die of fungal pneumonia. The Ocmulgee Earth Lodge you see is a reinforced concrete structure that was sealed with a thick layer of bitumen. Back the 1930s, they didn’t have sheet plastic moisture barriers.
Wouldn’t the EXPERTs know better about such things?
So . . . the reader is probably wondering why the National Park Service and all archaeologists continue to call the famous Ocmulgee Earth lodge, an earth lodge, after 82 years, if it was never an earth lodge? The answer is “The Emperor Has No Clothes Factor.” However, the specifics of this factor are different for the National Park Service and the archaeology profession.
The National Park Service
Here you have a case of bureaucratic inertia and administrative ignorance. A former historian at Ocmulgee National Monument confided in me that he quickly realized that the Ocmulgee Earth lodge was never an earth lodge. However, when he raised this situation with his superiors, he was told to shut up. The cost of new signage and revising exhibits in the museum was prohibitive because of steadily worse budget restrictions.
As for the NPS administrators . . . let’s look at the Fort Caroline situation. In 1950, Congressman Charles E. Bennett of Jacksonville, FL submitted a bill that would create a Fort Caroline National Monument at the site of some insignificant Confederate earthworks, near the mouth of the St. Johns River. National Park Service administrators balked because they knew that NOTHING supported that location . . . no maps, no artifacts, no eyewitness accounts. However, Bennett supported President Truman’s actions in Korea so the NPS was forced to accept a compromise of naming it the Fort Caroline National Memorial. The federal government then promised to pay for extensive archaeological studies to locate the actual fort after the Korean War ended.
All historical maps (that’s from Spain, France, England and the Netherlands) show Fort Caroline to be on the Altamaha River in present day Georgia. The National Park Service, State of Florida, local agencies and philanthropists have probably spent close to a million dollars on archaeological, historical and architectural research since then, yet have found absolutely nothing that backs a St. Johns River location for Fort Caroline. The St. Johns River was not even navigable for sea going ships until just before the Civil War.
In 2011, I asked former NPS Director Roger Kennedy, why the National Park Service keeps on going along with the charade. During 2010 and 2011, I did field research for Roger and also prepared the graphics for his book on Greek Revival Architecture. Tourists are not told that the Fort Caroline they see is 1/12th scale model of Fort Caroline, built in the 1960s . . . except the architects mirror-imaged the original plan in order to put the fort’s entrance near a parking lot.
Roger responded, “What? That’s not the real Fort Caroline? No one ever told me that . . . even when I visited there.” Keep in mind that Roger was for many years, Director of the National Museum of American History before being appointed National Park Service Director. He also wrote several books on architectural history before dying of cancer in September 2011.
The secret history of the Ocmulgee Earth Lodge
Exhibits at the Ocmulgee Museum give visitors the impression that a team of the nation’s most brilliant archaeologists worked together there for years to unravel the past. Yes, some very famous archaeologists worked at Ocmulgee, when they were young, but never together at the same time . . . and in some cases, before they had ever even been enrolled in an anthropology class!
Arthur Kelly was a highly educated archaeologist with a few years of practical experience behind his belt, but he was the “Lone Ranger” at Ocmulgee for many years. The WPA did not give him sufficient funds to hire any other experienced archaeologists. Initially, in 1933, he picked Joe Tamplin, a recent graduate from Georgia Tech in Civil Engineering, who couldn’t find any other job, and Frank Lester, who had flunked out of the University of Tennessee, while a Liberal Arts undergraduate . . . and also needed a job.
Tamplin became the Supervising Archaeologist, while Lester was his assistant. Both Tamplin and Lester were in the field most days, but had to supervise numerous individual digs. Throughout much he 1930s, Joe Tamplin was the only person with a college degree, working in the Ocmulgee Archaeological Zone, other than Arthur Kelly . . . and Kelly was gone much of the time.
In other words, Joe Tamplin was the Number Two man at the massive Ocmulgee Archaeological Project and the person, who actually supervised the project day to day. While at Ocmulgee, he passed his licensing exam as a Professional Structural Engineer.
Most books and articles on Ocmulgee NM, written by late 20th century archaeologists, do not even mention Tamplin. I found his name mentioned briefly in Ocmulgee Archaeology, 1936-1986 . . . described by David Halley as “a foreman” at Ocmulgee, who attended the celebratory banquet at the end of the main excavation program. An article in an archaeological journal listed his name as “a senior laborer,” who was invited to a 1974 to speak to a archaeological conference on Ocmulgee.
Why would a laborer be invited to a celebratory banquet for Georgia VIP’s and to speak at a professional conference, sponsored by the National Park Service? Obviously, the archaeologist-authors were trying to de-professionalize the man. Now where have we seen that before?
After a few months into the project, James Ford applied for a job at Ocmulgee. He had attended Mississippi State College for three years then dropped out. For the next three years, he assisted archaeologist Henry B. Collins at archaeological sites in Mississippi and near Barrow, Alaska.
In 1934, shortly after Ford arrived in Macon, Arthur Kelly assigned 23 year old James Ford to excavate a low mound, southeast of Mound D, under the supervision of Joe Tamplin. The site turned out not to be a conventional mound, but the ruins of a round wooden-framed building. Ford dug through a layer of clay then encountered the charred timbers of the building’s rafters then a then layer of clay and finally a deposit of charcoal before reaching the floor. The periphery of the floor was a raised clay platform with 52 seats. From a platform on the end of this circle, opposite the entrance, a clay raptor or vulture extended toward the center of the structure.
The arrangement of the ruin seemed very similar to the Inuit earth lodges that Ford had helped excavate in northern Alaska. He immediately interpreted the ruin as a Mandan earth lodge and postulated that the Ocmulgee was the original home of the Mandan Indians.
It should be emphasized that at this point Ford and Kelly knew diddlysquat about the cultural history of Georgia’s Creek Indians. Their name is not even brought up in the paucity of writings by Kelly and Ford in the 1930s that still survive.
During the 1930s, Kelly made no effort to do any research on Creek Indian architecture, nor did they discuss their discoveries with Creeks living in Georgia, Alabama, Florida or Oklahoma. Had they at least read the accounts of William Bartram in the Creek Country, they would have immediately recognized that Ford had unearthed a proto-Creek chokopa. Dr. Kelly told me that despite being the Director of the University of Georgia’s Anthropology Department, he really was only vaguely aware of the name, Creek Indians, until Georgia acquired the Etowah Mounds site in the mid-1950s. Until then Georgia archaeologists defined indigenous ethnicity in terms of pottery styles. Actually, they still do. However, in doing their research prior to working at Etowah Mounds, Arthur Kelly and Lewis Larson realized that the Creeks, not the Cherokees, were the descendants of the mound builders. Archaeologist Joseph Caldwell would bitterly disagree with them until 1958.
In 1776, Bartram actually sketched a chokopa on the Ocmulgee River, south of Macon. It was essentially a giant teepee. A clay berm at the base of the giant teepee acted as a buttress for the giant timbers and insulated the occupants inside. Lathing and clay plaster was applied to the interior of the conical frame to make it air tight. The structure was roofed with thatch, which shed water away from the wood structure and interior.
The Creek chokopa, as one might expect from its name, was virtually identical to the temples of the deity Kukulcan, built by Maya commoners. Kukulkan was the deity of merchants and the wind. These cone shaped structures made a sound like someone blowing a jug, when the wind blew.
Had Kelley or Ford discussed their project with Creek or Seminole elders, they would have learned that it was an ancient Creek custom to burn wood structures that were too deteriorated to continue usage. The charred and burned timbers were then covered with a clay cap to symbolically “bury” a dead building.
Soon after completion of the Okmulgee Earth Lodge project, Ford left Macon and returned to study geology at Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge. He received an AB from LSU in 1936 then spent the rest of the year surveying archaeological sites along the northern coast of Alaska.
Ford returned to Georgia in 1937 to carry out several small projects for the National Park Service and the State of Georgia. The first one was the design of a restored “Ocmulgee Earth Lodge” to be a key exhibit in the planned Ocmulgee National Monument. He designed an Inuit earth lodge over the original ornate floor of the structure.
Being a competent engineer, Joe Tamplin instantly realized that it was impossible to build the wooden Inuit structure in Georgia, sketched by Ford and expect it to be functional. It would leak like a sieve.
Instead, Tamplin designed a reinforced concrete shell. Wooden tree trunks were set inside the shell and the interior of the concrete was coated with clay-cement stucco. From that day forward, all visitors assumed that what they saw was what was there . . . because “experts” had designed this exhibit.
Eighty years later, it is almost impossible to get archaeologists to admit that Ocmulgee Earth Lodge was always a myth . . . created by a young man, who might have been bright, but lacked the broad education necessary to interpret historical architecture.
Now you know!
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