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A Mayan Connection . . . the Ocmulgee Earth Lodge that Wasn’t

A Mayan Connection . . . the Ocmulgee Earth Lodge that Wasn’t



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. 

View of the Ocmulgee “Earth Lodge” from the swale that separates it from the museum.

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.

William Bartram’s 1776 drawing of Creek towns in Middle Georgia . The chokopa is in the bottom center (brown ink).

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. 

The design of the chokopa was based on very precise Euclidean geometry.  A cube becomes a pyramid, which becomes a cone.



Now you know!


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Richard Thornton is a professional architect, city planner, author and museum exhibit designer-builder. He is today considered one of the nation’s leading experts on the Southeastern Indians. However, that was not always the case. While at Georgia Tech Richard was the first winner of the Barrett Fellowship, which enabled him to study Mesoamerican architecture and culture in Mexico under the auspices of the Institutio Nacional de Antropoligia e Historia. Dr. Roman Piňa-Chan, the famous archaeologist and director of the Museo Nacional de Antropologia, was his fellowship coordinator. For decades afterward, he lectured at universities and professional societies around the Southeast on Mesoamerican architecture, while knowing very little about his own Creek heritage. Then he was hired to carry out projects for the Muscogee-Creek Nation in Oklahoma. The rest is history. Richard is the Tribal Historic Preservation Officer for the KVWETV (Coweta) Creek Tribe and a member of the Perdido Bay Creek Tribe. In 2009 he was the architect for Oklahoma’s Trail of Tears Memorial at Council Oak Park in Tulsa. He is the president of the Apalache Foundation, which is sponsoring research into the advanced indigenous societies of the Lower Southeast.



    Richard, When I visited the Ocmulgee National Monument a few years ago they had a impressive collection of stone tools that had been used by the peoples that had lived at the same location over the ages. That “Earth lodge” looked like someone had copied a Irish Earth temple at that time to me. Do you know if any Native people of the South that remembered “Kukukan” by the 16-17th century? The Apalacha Kingdom people were worshiping a Sun deity according to Mr. Briggstock of 1653 but there was some Maya people that still lived in the South Eastern part of the state according to 15th century maps.
    Kolomoki (300-700 AD) was one location that had a serpent in it’s plaza design and corner door houses of the later common people of Chichen Itza city… implying that some of the people that lived in Chichen Itza could have migrated there from S.W. Georgia. The Teotihuacan empire peoples also venerated a serpent deity / King, used Maya blue, Mica products of Georgia? and most likely traded with the Kolomoki people that mined “Maya blue”. Kolomoki became deserted at the same time when the Teotihuacan city collapsed in the 7th century.

    • Actually, most of the Creeks in Georgia were Maya descendants. Until the 1790s, more people spoke Hichiti (Itsate Creek) in Georgia than English, Muskogee or Cherokee. The Lamar Culture, which is the anthropological name for the Apalache Kingdom, established monotheism throughout its realm. By then the Itsate Creeks had dropped their Mesoamerican religion and also worshiped the Master of Breath. Did you catch that the Kaw People have this same religion? Evidently, they were in Georgia when the religious change occurred.


        Richard, Thanks for your articles. The Native people of Kolomoki, S. W Georgia could have been culturally connected or part of the Teotihuacan trade empire that both collapsed in the 700’s? The next Kingdom to rise in Mexico were the Toltec’s groups of peoples who, based on Mexican lore, some arrived by boats in the 700’s from the East (perhaps with the long bow weapon) from Kolomoki, Georgia. The Paracussis Nobles stated they were culturally connected to some people of Mexico, had built a trade road there, and a city in Mexico. This seems to imply that the Paracussis, Kaw (Kusa) and Issa (Itza) Native peoples were some of the groups that helped create the Toltec Kingdom and the Chichen Itza city that seems to be culturally connected to the Toltec’s Kingdom. Both the Eagle, the snake and Vulture symbols are well noted among the Native peoples of Georgia and the Toltec peoples of Mexico. Large groups of Maya peoples seem to have arrived to Georgia during the 800-1100 AD resettled by the Toltec Kingdom time period. The Paracussis of Georgia (originally of Peru (Para) continued to worship the Sun until the 1500’s.

        • I think you are right . . . but how do we prove it? Perhaps we need more comprehensive DNA studies and get collaboration from the INAH in Mexico. Maybe I can build up the status of POOF to the point where INAH would consider helping us.


            Richard, Your already doing a Great job with your articles!!!…perhaps some of the Native peoples could help? The next big move would have to do with collection of DNA from the living and remains of Native people of both the US and Mexico. Of course there is already ample evidence of cultural connections, artwork, farming technology which you have found of Peru, Mexico and the US. As far as changing minds at the Universities? that will require the DNA proof, a better understanding that Native merchants / peoples were able to sail the Seas much earlier than the 1400’s. The South was already a “melting pot” when the Spanish marched though. Many had arrived from South America long ago: A-Capa-achi-ki (Acapachiqui) sounds like a Peruvian word to me. One of Desoto’s men wrote North side of the Flint river:

            “…On the other bank we found a province, which is called Acapachiqui, very abundant in food of that which the Indians ate. We saw some towns of the province, and others we could not see because it was a land of very great swamps. Here we found a difference in the houses of the Indians; we found them as caves below the ground, while up to there they were covered with palms and straw.”


    Your interior image of the building is extremely interesting, because it is virtually identical to the interior of a restored structure at Aztec Ruins National Monument, Aztec, New Mexico. Locally referred to as a “Great Kiva,” matching buildings are also found at other major archeological sites in the region, such as Chaco Canyon, where one was completely destroyed by fire. At this time I make no assertion about possible cultural connections, but I must ask about a very important detail; your CG image could be interpreted to imply that the columns (and maybe walls?) were constructed of successive layers of uniformly cut wood poles laid alternately crosswise, using some earthen binder (like adobe) to hold them in place. Do we have any evidence on this point?

    • The columns were ornately carved hardwood tree trunks. The walls were plastered clay covered with woven split cane mats. The vertical rafters supporting the cone shaped roof were Long Leaf Pine. The interior finish of the open roof was lathing made from split river cane, plastered with cane. Our knowledge of this style of architecture comes from eyewitness accounts in that they were still being built until the Trail of Tears Period.


    Any thinking adult must agree when they visit this site that the explanation given is a guess at best but i felt like obvious deception when visiting this site as well as the tumlin mounds. My question is why is the lighting inside the “earthen mound” red and black light?

    • There are all sorts of details left out in the presentations of both the Ocmulgee and Etowah Museums. The main exhibit in the Etowah Museum, showing the two statues being dropped in haste into a pit on top of a mound, is total fiction. Archaeologists found the statues in a collapsed temple at the base of Mound C.


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