Archaeological studies of the stone architecture in the Southeast, well . . . they just got “forgotten”
A husband and wife team of archaeologists, who specialize in the Pueblo and Anasazi Cultures of the American Southwest, wrote POOF, asking how the large complexes of indigenous stone architecture could be completely overlooked by their peers in the Southeast. They also wondered how the obvious Mesoamerican influence on indigenous sites in the Southeast could be denied.
The high civilizations of Mesoamerica were much closer, distance and time-wise, to Muskogean towns that they were to Chaco Canyon. There has been no significant opposition within the archaeological profession to the belief that Chaco Canyon had cultural connections to Mesoamerica.
When they asked these questions at professional conferences, the Southeastern archaeologists bristled and refused to respond to them.
Yes, it is rather odd that the contemporary archaeological profession seems to have no trouble believing that indigenous peoples in the Southwest had contacts with Mesoamerica, but has a hissy fit when the same explanation is discussed in the Southeast. Several stone architecture complexes WERE visited by European explorers and traders, plus, much more recently by professional archaeologists. The following is a chronology of those visits to stone architecture sites by archaeologists.
The Cities of Gold
The origin of the “Cities of Gold” myth that early European explorers thought to exist in the Southern Highlands was the Kingdom of Apalache in Northeast Georgia. The Apalache coated the clay stucco on their temples and elite housing with gold-colored mica flakes. The mica caused the structures to glisten like gold. In fact, the Apalache believed that gold-colored mica was a form of gold. These buildings were constructed of stacked stone on the side of mountains and hills. The commoners lived in separate villages along the rivers and built their houses with wood frames, covered with wattle and daub (clay reinforced with wood lathing.)
1. 1873 – Charles C. Jones: The pioneer of Southeastern archaeology, Charles C. Jones, Jr. wrote, “When English speaking settlers came into the Southern Piedmont and Mountains, they encountered stone structures throughout the landscape. There were many stone walls, stone altars (cairns) and even the ruins of stone buildings. Within a generation most of the stone structures were gone and almost forgotten. They had become foundations, chimneys and the walls of new buildings. No one knew who had built these mysterious structures.”
“It was supposed that such things could not have been built by Indians, since it was thought that American Indians were too primitive to create such architecture. It was supposed that perhaps the Spanish or Prince Madoc built them.”
The stated purpose for Jones writing his landmark book, Antiquities of the Southern Indians, was to prove that the mounds and stone structures found in Dixie were built by indigenous peoples, not colonists from the Old World. Both Jones, and a contemporary in Tennessee, Gates P. Thruston, speculated that the most sophisticated buildings and pottery may have been created by advanced Native Americans, who migrated into the region from elsewhere, but who had “died out” by the time English colonists arrived.
2. 1883-1889 – Smithsonian Institute: Cyrus Thomas, chief archaeologist for the Smithsonian Institute, and James Moody, an ethnologist with the Smithsonian, supervised a cursory archaeological survey of North Georgia. Thomas noted the locations of many stone rings and cairns that are no longer visible or at least cannot be found. The Smithsonian survey mentioned that there were many stone walls in North Georgia near stone cairns and stone circles, but assumed that frontier farmers had built the walls.
Thomas ran out of time and so asked Moody to travel down from North Carolina and survey some mounds. Moody was not an archaeologist and knew practically nothing about Georgia’s Native American history. He had spent several weeks interviewing North Carolina Cherokees, concerning their traditional oral folklore. He therefore labeled any Native American archaeological site in North Georgia, which he visited as being “Cherokee.”
Thomas presumed that the ancestors of the Creeks built these structures and noted that Cherokees in the early 1800s had told white settlers that they didn’t know who built the mounds in either North Carolina or Georgia. One sees both points of view in articles published by Thomas and Moody for the Smithsonian publications of that era.
3. 1940 – Robert Wauchope: For the last time, many stone structures in North Georgia received professional archaeological analysis immediately prior to World War II. Archaeologist Robert Wauchope became the University of Georgia’s first archaeology professor and simultaneously directed a WPA funded archaeological survey of North Georgia. Wauchope noted some locations of stone ruins, but generally did not speculate who built them.
Wauchope made no mention of Track Rock Gap in his report on Union County, GA. Evidently, if he was even aware of the stone ruins, he assumed that they were too large and sophisticated to have been built by American Indians. He spent the largest proportion of his time that year in the Nacoochee Valley. Ironically, he excavated a series of village and mound sites that ring the Kenimer Mound, but was not even aware that the Kenimer Mound was there. At that time, the ruins of a large stone temple were still on top of the Kenimer Mound.
There are also two large terrace complexes on the sides of the Nacoochee Valley, which apparently Wauchope assumed were built by 19th century farmers. However, Wauchope DID study the massive ball court in Sautee and give it an archaeological site number. Unfortunately, in the 1970s, the State of Georgia’s Department of Transportation didn’t check the archaeological site files and built a highway across the northeast corner of the ball court.
Also unfortunately, Wauchope skipped Jackson County and most of Gwinnett County, where the greatest concentration of stone ruins are located. Since they are near the University of Georgia, he planned to return the next year and finish up. Instead, he accepted a position at the University of Kentucky. Ironically, after World War II, Wauchope became best known for his studies of Maya sites. There is no published evidence that Wauchope ever went back to Georgia to study the Mesoamerican connections there.
4. 1956 – Phillp Smith: Archaeologist Phillip Smith of the Peabody Museum of Harvard University surveyed several stone structure sites on mountaintops in Alabama, Georgia, Tennessee and Kentucky. At most sites in Alabama and Georgia, he dug test pits, prepared a precise land survey, but did not fully excavate any of the ruins. The sites included famous sites such as the Old Stone Fort in Tennessee and Georgia’s Fort Mountain, plus many sites little known, even within the archaeology profession. Smith visited the ball court in Sautee, but was puzzled as to what it was used for. The most thoroughly studied stone structure complex was on the top of Aleck Mountain, southeast of the Track Rock terrace complex. Smith speculated that these structures were built by Native Americans, but was not certain.
5. 1969 – Arthur Kelly: One of the famous archaeologists, who excavated Etowah Mounds and the Director of the Department of Anthropology at the University of Georgia, Kelly later found artifacts along the Chattahoochee River near attapulgite mines, which he thought were either made in Mesoamerica or copies of artifacts made in Mesoamerica. By accident, he became aware of a cluster of large stone architecture sites within a few minutes drive of the University of Georgia. Most of these archaeological zones did not even have official site numbers. He initiated plans to excavate them, but was soon sacked because of his public statements concerning the discovery of Mesoamerican artifacts on the Chattahoochee and Flint Rivers.
6. 1978 – William Jefferies: Archaeologist William Jefferies of the University of Georgia excavated stone mounds within two archaeological zones in Monroe County, GA. He noted a concentration of stone mounds, cairns and walls in the Oconee River Valley. His report included an overview of many stone structures in the Southern Piedmont and southern edge of the Blue Ridge Mountains. He did not discuss any terrace complexes.
Perhaps one of the most bizarre understatements in the history of American archaeology is found in Jefferies’ report on the excavation of a stone mound that he placed in the Woodland Period. He nonchalantly mentioned that he found two bronze axes of European design in the mound. Europeans stopped making bronze tools around 500 BC!
7. 1991 – Jack Wynn: Archaeologist Jack Wynn of the US Forest Service prepared a booklet for the University of Georgia’s Department of Anthropology on Mississippian Period archaeological sites in northern Georgia. The report did not discuss any of the stone architecture sites, including the ruins at Track Rock Gap. However, many of them by that time had official archaeological site numbers.
8. 1990s – Metro Atlanta : Real estate developers in Gwinnett and Cobb Counties (North Metro Atlanta) purchased large real estate tracts that contained stone cairns, stone rings, retaining walls and building ruins. Their desire to bulldoze the ruins provoked a series of legal battles and a bitter confrontation between two factions within the archaeology profession. One believed that Native Americans built the stone structures. The other believed that farmers clearing fields built the cairns, stone rings and terrace walls. Keep in mind that many of the cairn complexes in North Georgia contain over a hundred cairns.
Scott Hudgens, a history lover and the developer of one of the nation’s largest shopping malls wanted to save a terrace complex, located on the site of the planned mall. However, to justify its preservation financially, he would be a need to have professional archaeologists declare the stone walls to be historically significant, so the developer could donate a historic preservation easement and take a tax deduction. Three archaeological teams were hired in succession. None would declare the stone ruins to be historic. The terrace complex was covered with dirt and made into a parking area.
Neither of the factions did their homework. There were several eyewitness accounts of European traders or colonists living in proto-Creek Indian towns. Just because a European artifact was found in the midst of stone ruins, did not mean that they were built by Europeans.
Gwinnett County elected officials became frustrated because they could not find any archaeological firm or professor, who would put a “historically significant” label on the stone ruins sprawling across a massive tract of land in the northwestern part of the county that was slated for development.
Rather than see what was obviously to them, a very ancient town and ceremonial site, the County Commissioners purchased the entire tract of land from the developer and made it a regional park. That park is probably the location of Melilot, the capital of the Apalache Kingdom. Melilot contained a European colony from 1566 to the early 1700s.
9. 2001 – Johannes Loubser: South African archaeologist, Johannes Loubser, was retained by a neighborhood group in Union County to map and study the Track Rock terrace complex in Union County, GA. The project was endorsed by the U. S. Forest Service. The half square mile archaeological zone was entirely on federal land, managed by the USFS. A substantial contribution to the professional fees was made by the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians.
Loubser did not realize that the Track Rock petroglyphs and nearby terrace complex were inside the boundaries of the Creek Confederacy until 1785. Coosa’s (Upper Creek Indians) continued to live along nearby Coosa Creek even after the title of the land changed hands. Some of their descendants still live in this location.
As a result of the funding from the Cherokees and unfamiliarity with the cultural history of both the Creek Indians and Mesoamerica, Loubser examined archaeological sites 45 to 75 miles away in North Carolina to compare with Track Rock, rather than examining the 14 designated mound, village and stone structure archaeological sites within Union County – where Track Rock Gap is located. One former Etowah I Period town site with mounds and another mountainside stone structure complex can literally be seen from the top of the Track Rock Terrace Complex. There is also another cluster of petroglyphs on the edge of Thunderstruck Mountain about four miles west from Track Rock Gap. It was also not mentioned. Loubser described the glyphs, which are also found on proto-Creek art in several parts of Georgia as “graffiti by bored Cherokee hunters.”
Loubser prepared a scaled site plan of the 200+ stone structures within his designated study area, but was apparently not aware of several dozen more terraces outside its boundaries. He dug test pits at two locations and sub-contracted the soil and radiocarbon analysis to New South Associates, Inc., an archaeological firm in the Atlanta Area.
New South Associates determined that the oldest soil layer in agricultural terrace was deposited around 1018 AD. The last deposit on this terrace was around 1500 AD. Napier, Etowah Complicated Stamp and Etowah Plain Redware potsherds were found in the test pits. They were dated to as early as 750 AD and 1000 AD respectively. Loubser described these classic Georgia pottery styles as being typical of the Cherokees in North Carolina. The Cherokees were no where around when this pottery was made.
The mixture of top soil, charcoal and potsherds found at agricultural terraces at the Track Rock terraces is prime evidence of biochar agriculture, but none of the archaeologists involved with the project had any experience in Mesoamerica, so therefore did not recognize the evidence.
Astonishingly, in 2013, the Georgia Council of Professional Archaeologists adopted a bizarre, lengthy resolution stating among many other things that the 300+ agricultural terraces at Track Rock Gap were burial sites, not agricultural terraces – most likely of great Cherokee chiefs. The resolution illustrates how far detached from reality this group of archaeologists has become. They apparently are not aware that there are over a dozen other terrace complexes in Georgia, deep within traditional Creek territory.
In his 2001 report, Loubser stated that there was inadequate evidence to discern what ethnic group built the terraces. He now states in public and in writing that the terraces were built by the Cherokees as locations for performing sacred dances and that the other stone structures are the grave markers of great Cherokee chiefs.
Meanwhile . . . in their continuing obsession to become sofistikated Injuns like the Creeks, the Tribal Cultural Preservation Office of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians in North Carolina adopted a shell gorget, commonly known as the “Etowah Princess” and unearthed at Etowah Mounds in Georgia, as their logo in 2013.
In 2015, the new Cherokee-English Dictionary has a gorget, unearthed near Wetumka, Alabama, as its book cover. This design also happens to be the official seal of the federally-recognized Alabama-Coushatta Tribe! The gorget is described in the book’s preface as traditional Cherokee art.
10. 2002 – National Park Service: The Southeastern Regional Office of the National Park Service in Atlanta, intrigued by the Track Rock terrace complex, issued a “Request for Proposals” to carry out field surveys of all known fieldstone Native American sites in the North Georgia Mountains. The RFP required individuals with the physical condition to climb remote mountains to measure and photograph structures. The second aspect of the proposal requested a scaled location map, created by CADD software, compatible with AutoCAD. The firms submitting proposals were small archaeology and historic preservation architecture firms in the Atlanta Area – evidently with staff members, who liked to rough it.
About a month after the deadline for submitting proposals, the RFP was withdrawn and replaced with another one. The only difference in this RFP was that it required the use of Bentley Systems software for preparation of the location map. Bentley Software was the most expensive CADD software in the world. It was then mainly used by defense contractors, the aerospace industry, Haliburton Industries and international engineering firms that did work for the Department of Defense.
All the original firms were forced to drop out, because the cost of the software exceeded the professional fees that would be paid them. Apparently the contract based on the second RFP was never authorized because the bids from international corporations greatly exceeded the budget.
11. 2007 – Harry Holstein: Dr. Harry Holstein, an anthropology professor at the Department of Physical and Earth Sciences at Jacksonville State University, near Anniston, AL directed the study of fieldstone ruins of Calhoun County, AL. The most spectacular of these complexes is located on Skeleton Mountain, southeast of Anniston, at an elevation of 1,700 feet above sea level. It has been labeled Archaeological Site 1-CA-157. The Skeleton Mountain site contains the same architectural features found at several sites in the Georgia Mountains to the east. However, the report about the Skeleton Mountain does not even mention several similar sites just across the state line in Georgia.
12. 2013 – Sandy Creek Terrace Complex: After reading articles about the Track Rock Terrace Complex, historic preservationists in Clarke and Jackson County, GA attempted to persuade anthropology-archaeology professors at the University of Georgia to examine several stone terrace complexes in their counties. One of the largest sites is a county owned park and only six miles from the university’s campus. The professors refused to visit the sites, stating that “they didn’t want to be associated with the Maya thing.”
A team from the People of One Fire inspected a 2000+ acre archaeological zone in Jackson County that contains numerous stone walled agricultural terraces, stone cairns, oval stone mounds and the ruins of rectangular stone buildings. There is also substantial evidence of Colonial Period gold smelting activities.
The ruins are in the drainage basin of Sandy Creek, which is a major tributary of the Oconee River. The ruins also adjoin an ancient Native American trade path that connected the Dahlonega gold fields with the head of canoe navigation on the Oconee River.
Sandy Creek Park is jointly owned by Jackson and Clarke Counties, but the stone ruins are in Jackson County. The terraces identified by Clarke County preservationists in their own county were obviously created by mechanized equipment in the 20th century. During the Roosevelt Administration, Southern farmers received financial assistance, if they terraced sloping cultivation fields.
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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.
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