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Archaeologist Arthur Kelly and the Maya Blue Connection

Archaeologist Arthur Kelly and the Maya Blue Connection


Four years ago this week, the Department of Earth Sciences at the University of Minnesota received two samples of materials to be chemically analyzed.  One was a plastic bag of processed attapulgite from a single mine in Georgia.  The other parcel was a sample of 1,400 year old Maya blue stucco from a temple at the famous Highland Maya city of Palenque in Chiapas State, Mexico.

The Minnesota scientists were about to play scientific Russian roulette.  Of all the deposits of attapulgite in Georgia and the Florida Panhandle, plus all the hundreds of ancient Maya cities and towns . . . what where the odds of matching that particular mine with one temple in one Maya city?   Not very likely.

A few days later, scientists at the University of Minnesota’s Nuclear Magnetic Resonance Laboratory compared the sample of attapulgite from a single mine near Attapulgus, GA with a sample of Maya Blue stucco from a single building at Palenque.   There was a 100% match.  There was a whole lot of the Peach State on ancient buildings in Southern Mexico.

There is a story behind this story however.   It links one of the most famous North American archaeologists of the 20th century with the Maya Blue Connection.


A Chontal Maya sea-going sailboat was a true ship, built out of planks in the same manner as a Viking Longboat. It was also about the same size as a Viking Longboat.

We know all there is to know

The year is 1947.  While folks in the Southwest were repeatedly claiming to see strange objects in their skies, the nation’s leading experts on American Indians were meeting at Harvard University.  The scions of their professions had decided that they knew enough to classify the Native American history of the Eastern United States.  The assembled body voted to announce that there were four discrete periods  in the past. . . Paleo-Indian, Archaic, Woodland and Mississippian.  It was called Mississippian, because advanced Indian culture began at Cahokia, near the banks of the Mississippi River in Southern Illinois.

They went further . . .  The earliest humans to enter North America were the Clovis People. They were not quite sure how long ago . . . maybe 6,000 BC?  The earliest mounds were built in Southeastern Ohio, because it was north of the Mason-Dixon Line.  Ohio was also where the first creation of pottery and cultivation of plants occurred, since Northern Indians were smarter than Southern Indians.  The first large scale cultivation of corn, beans and squash occurred in Southern Illinois for the same reason, plus the fact that Illinois and Iowa grew a lot of corn.  The Swift Creek Culture originated in New England, because there are Ivy League universities there, and later migrated down to the Macon, GA area.

Awhile back I found a copy of the original brochure given to visitors at Ocmulgee National Monument throughout the 1950s and early 1960s.  It states that the area around Macon was first occupied by Swift Creek Culture peoples from New England.  Then “Master Farmers” from the Middle Mississippi Valley migrated to the Macon Area and began construction of the mounds. Of course, we now know that the mounds at Ocmulgee were begun around 150 years before those at Cahokia!

No one brought up the subject of how Lima Beans traveled through the air 3,600 miles from Lima, Peru to St. Louis, Missouri.  Actually, recently plant geneticists have determined that the corn grown by indigenous peoples in the Southeast also came from South America, not Mexico.  Oh ye ignorant peons, thou must have faith in the superior intellect of the great wizards of the Kingdom of Anthropos!

The good folks at Cahokia sent out missionaries down the Mississippi River and to such places as Ocmulgee to teach the simple Southern savages a superior, more peaceful way of life.  The second generation of missionaries journeyed from towns like Ocmulgee to other, more backward, regions of Dixie. In no time, everyone was growing corn, beans and squash.  A good time was had by all.

The esteemed intellectuals should have postponed their meeting a few years. In 1946 Dr. Willard Frank Libby of the University of Chicago had published his theory on radiocarbon dating.  At almost the same time as their meeting, Libby performed the first experiments that proved his theory.

Duh-h-h . . . so then why does the Second Chief of the Muscogee-Creek Nation have a Maya political title?  Inquiring Native American minds want to know!

Arthur Kelly (center) was apparently the inspiration for Indiana Jones.

Arthur Kelly (center) was apparently the inspiration for Indiana Jones.

The Georgia River Basin Survey

It was also in 1947, the Dr. Arthur R. Kelly received an invitation from the University of Georgia to come back to Georgia and form a Department of Anthropology.  Much of the funding of the department would come from a contract with the US Army Corps of Engineers.  They needed archaeologists to survey a dozen large reservoirs, scheduled for Georgia.  Lake Lanier was to be the largest man-made reservoir in the world. These public works projects were the fruits of having a four term president, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, as a part time resident of the state.

In 1900, Arthur Randolph Kelly was born in a small town in East Texas.  In 1921, he obtained a bachelors degree in Education from the University of Texas.  Perhaps, that is why he was an exceptional teacher as anthropology professors go. He then went off to Harvard to obtain  masters and doctorate degrees in Anthropology.  After graduation from Harvard, he taught anthropology at the University of Illinois until the Great Depression forced the university to lay him off, due to lack of students.

In 1933, Arthur Kelly was hired by the National Park Service and Works Progress Administration (WPA) to supervise the archaeological excavation of Ocmulgee National Monument.  The following year, he was one of the principal founders of the Society for American Archaeology.  Once established in Georgia, he founded the Society for Georgia Archaeology. As the reader will later learn, there is unimaginable irony in that accomplishment.  During World War II, he was the Superintendent of Ocmulgee National Monument.  After peace returned, he became Chief Archaeologist for the National Park Service.

As Department Chair, Kelly became director of the River Basin Survey Project, which contracted with the US Army Corps of Engineers to carry cultural resource surveys of planned reservoir basins. This included all historic and prehistoric resources, not just American Indian sites.  The team’s first project was at the proposed Allatoona reservoir on the Etowah River, northwest of Atlanta.  Project archaeologist, Joseph Caldwell (Smithsonian Institute) discovered several styles of pottery and architecture than had not been seen in Middle Georgia, where Ocmulgee National Monument is located.  Already, archaeologists working in the Southeast had figured out that the Native American history in the Southeast was quite a bit more complicated than what the Harvard conference attendees assumed.

Their next project was the survey of the proposed basin of Lake Seminole, which is at the confluence of the Chattahoochee and Flint Rivers.  This project began in 1948.  Radiocarbon dating was not available to Kelly since it was really in its experimental phase.  The technology would not be fully reliable until after 1955.   

Pottery styles that appeared out of nowhere

Most of the pottery and potsherds that Kelly’s team unearthed along the Lower Chattahoochee and Flint Rivers was typical of what Kelly had seen, while chief archaeologist at Ocmulgee National Monument or else what other archaeologists have found in northwestern Florida.  However, some bowls, figurines and cylindrical seals seemed to have come from somewhere else, or possibly were artistic traditions that archaeologists had not labeled and dated.  They were associated with Woodland Period occupations from about 200 AD to 800 AD.   They seemed to belong to the Mississippian Period.  Kelly assumed that eventually transitional forms of this style of ceramics would be found elsewhere.

The same pattern continued as Kelly supervised other teams and other planned reservoirs along the Lower Chattahoochee throughout the 1950s and early 1960s.  There were a few artifacts that just did not seem to “fit in” to the pattern of Woodland Period Culture. These maverick artifacts were concentrated at the Mandeville Site on the Chattahoochee River and along the Flint River on a 14 mile corridor upstream from the Chattahoochee River.

mandeville-swiftcreekThere was another mystery at the Mandeville site.  During the 1930s, Kelly had excavated a Middle Woodland (200 AD-600 AD) village on Swift Creek near Macon, GA.  Its occupants produced a beautiful style of pottery, created by slapping carved wooden paddles against damp clay vessels.  Kelly called the people, who produced this pottery the Swift Creek Culture.  At the time he assumed that the Swift Creek Culture began near Macon, but he could not find any pottery that was half way between older styles and “full blown” Swift Creek artistry.

Kelly was astonished to discover at the Mandeville site the oldest known Swift Creek pottery. It was also some of the most ornate and at the southern tip of the Swift Creek Cultural Zone.  What was even more perplexing was that this ornate form of Swift Creek pottery initially represented a small percentage of ceramics produced.  The majority of pieces continued to be in the indigenous Deptford style for some time.  However, as Swift Creek became the dominant pottery style, it also became less ornate. 

In other words, a relatively small group of new town residents had introduced this new pottery style.  They had developed this style somewhere else.  Since Mandeville was on the southern tip of the Swift Creek cultural area, Kelly speculated at the end of his report on the Mandeville site that the origin of Swift Creek pottery would be found in Florida.  That has never happened.  The Swift Creek pottery makers came from somewhere farther south than Florida.

Kelly continued to work at other sites in Georgia throughout the 1960s, culminating in the 9FU14 village site on the Chattahoochee River, next to Utoy Creek and Buzzard Roost Island.  At the time, with a radiocarbon dates of 200 BC-450 AD . . . making it the oldest known permanent village in North America. Three decades later, Poverty Point, LA would prove to be older, but in 1969, 9FU14 thoroughly shook up the orthodoxy of North American archaeologists.

During that decade, Georgia archaeologists developed a more complete understanding of the chronology of pottery styles in the region.  The “maverick” ceramics, found by Kelly in the vicinity of Fort Gaines, GA;  Munnerlyn’s Island (Site 9DR2),  Okafunee (Site 9DR3) and the Mandeville (Site 9CY1) still did not belong to any known indigenous style. In the spring of 1969, Kelly publicly announced in an interview by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s John S. Pennington his belief that these artifacts either came from Mesoamerica or were copies of Mesoamerican artifacts.

mesoamericanheadI got to see some of the maverick artifacts and photos of some others in the late winter of my Sophomore year.  This was before the public announcement.  I took a bus from Georgia Tech to Downtown Atlanta where Georgia State University’s Anthropology Department was located. I interviewed for a non-paying job that involved drawing a inked site plan of the Indian village on the Chattahoochee River.  My only motivation for doing free work was that there were only 128 coeds at Georgia Tech, while there were about 7,000 at GSU.  However, after completion of the drawing, Kelly sent me a check for $25, which is equivalent of about $125 today.

Both Kelly and the GSU professor were very amiable.  They took time out from whatever they were working on to explain the styles of potsherds that were scattered across the office desk. Kelly told me, “Since you are an architecture student, you will be interested in what I have found through the years. I think that these artifacts came from Mexico or are copies of artifacts from Mexico.”   He pulled a box of artifacts and photos from a drawer.

I didn’t pay much attention to his explanations of the suspected Mexican artifacts, since I didn’t see how anything having to do with long dead Indians had any relevance to my future career as an architect.  In retrospect, though, after the fellowship in Mexico and a lifetime of study, I would say that he found Chontal Maya artifacts from Tabasco State, Mexico.

Kelly’s peers in the archaeology profession were outraged because he had not subjected his theories to peer review and began questioning his sanity at professional get-togethers.  Of course, they would have thoroughly trashed his theory, if given the opportunity.  By late 1969, Kelly was forced to resign from the faculty of the University of Georgia’s Department of Anthropology because of his publicly stated belief that Mesoamericans visited Georgia.  Although still highly respected elsewhere in the United States, Kelly lived the last ten years of his life as a pariah in Georgia.   Dr. Kelly died in 1979.

The Mayas In Georgia Heresy

We flash forward to the year 2012.  After announcing the Track Rock Terrace Complex in December 2011, I had planned to turn over a 32 page technical report to the archaeologists and get back to building up my architecture practice again.  I could see no economic benefit in me being involved with the site any further. 

However, by late January 2012, I was shocked to discover that leaders in the Georgia Council of Professional Archaeologists and Society for Georgia Archaeology, plus some pseudo-professional Federal law enforcement agents had embarked on a personal and professional slander campaign, targeting only me.  Like most American politicians these days, they had no specific proof to refute how I interpreted the site . . . like why that area of Georgia was named Itsapa (Place of the Itza)  . . . but instead were carrying out a political attack campaign.  Many of those involved had not even seen the Track Rock site and none had visited an Itza terrace complex in Mesoamerica.

I had no hope of getting my professional practice going again unless I discredited the slander campaign.  Thus, I wrote a comprehensive book, with little hope of gaining much income or attention from it. At the same time, the archaeologists’ national negative publicity campaign caught the attention of film companies associated with the Travel, National Geo, PBS and History Channels.  The Travel Channel filmed the Track Rock site on March 1 without much ado. 

I began working closely with the History Channel People, putting in a lot of time that was never compensated.  In fact, I ended up being the only person on the cast, who was not compensated.  I postulated that a chemical test of mica in Maya buildings would prove the connection between the Mayas and the Southern Appalachians.  The Mayas used vast quantities of mica in their stucco, murals and cosmetics, but there are no significant mica deposits in Mexico south of the western flanks of Pocatepetl Volcano near Mexico City.  On the other hand, mica is endemic in North Georgia and the highlands of the Carolinas. 

Jon Haskell, an archaeological documentary film maker from Carmel, Indiana suggested that at least some of the famous Maya Blue pigment may have been made with attapulgite from Georgia.  Georgia, by far, has the largest attapulgite deposits in the Western Hemisphere . . . perhaps the world.  There is very little attapulgite in Southern Mexico or Guatemala.  I thought Jon’s idea was a “long shot,” but added that possibility to the last chapter of my book.

The film company, associated with the History Channel, worked at my cabin for over eight hours in early July, but ended up using about five minutes of the interview.  The only person there, who took me seriously, was the program’s host, Scott Wolter. 

I heard very little from the film company until early one Sunday morning in mid-October when Scott Wolter called me up to tell me the results from the test of the attapulgite. The mineral sample was from a mine very close to where Dr. Kelly had found “maverick” potsherds.  The first thing that came to my mind was, “I hope that Arthur Kelly is up there in heaven watching his disdained theory being proved correct.”

I didn’t even know that the History Channel planned to test Georgia attapulgite.  I also did not know until the Sunday morning telephone call that a very famous Mexican archaeologist, Dr. Alfonso Morales, had backed up everything I said in my book.  Morales told Wolter that it was a fact, not a theory, that the Mayas made many journeys to Georgia and Florida.  Apparently, Morales believed that there was a very strong possibility that they mined attapulgite in Georgia.  This is probably why the History Channel went to the added expense of testing samples of Maya Blue and Georgia attapulgite.  However, the History Channel wanted samples from many Maya cities and buildings, but apparently only got one.


It so happens that the nearest point with navigable water for Chontal Maya sea-going cargo boats is exactly where Dr. Kelly found some of the maverick ceramics in a Woodland Period town . . . Munerlyn’s Island.  However, smaller deposits of attapulgite are actually near the island.  They may have been the actual sources of attapulgite, used in Palenque.

There is something else interesting about the Palenque-Georgia connection.   The only place where Yaupon Holly grows naturally outside the Southeastern Coastal Plain is in the vicinity of Palenque.  Yaupon Holly is what the Sacred Black Drink is made from.  Both the Creeks and the Conibo People of Eastern Peru consume this heavily caffeinated  tea made from the leaves of a thorn-less holly tree.  Both peoples call it by the same name . . . ase.  Most people in Latin American, however, call it mate.

Oh . . .  did I mention that the Conibo People still use Swift Creek Pottery designs in their clothing?   They were making Swift Creek Style Pottery long before it was made on Swift Creek in Georgia.


Wouldn’t you love to have a time machine?



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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, There was a Yuchi Native town in that area known as “fowl town” embedded in the swamps by at least the 1830’s. The river that separated Thomas / Grady Co. was called the Yuchi creek at on time and perhaps it was the Yuchi people that were mining the “Maya Blue” mineral all along in that area? Perhaps this color tint was also used for some of the temple mounds. Do the Yuchi also called “the round house people” state that they build any of the Temple mounds of Georgia?
    North and across the Flint river the Desoto Spanish of 1540 noted that another native people still used the “keyhole type houses”: “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.”

    • Those Uchee moved into SW Georgia in the mid-1700s after their land on the Ogeechee River was ceded to Great Britain. Same thing for the Hitchiti speaking tribal towns. Until the 1700s, the area was occupied by Chickasaw, Florida Apalachee and Apalachicola.


    There is a Swift Creek site not far from Emory in Atlanta. People in a particular neighborhood have collected artifacts for decades. I enjoyed this article immensely. Where can we purchase your book?


    nice to see someone with gonzas take up for doc. kelly. i was a business student that doc allowed to take the se archaeology class in the fall of ’64. i also took 2 more of doc’s classes. he was the only professor at georgia that ever tried to get me to enter a profession- archaeology. seems like with viet nam and all, my heart was always with anthropology in one way or another. here is sit 50 or more years later surrounded by 12,000 year old points etc still wondering what it all means. the worst thing one can be is some one who has beliefs before future acceptance. like the english archaeologist archaeologist who said the maya codexes would never be broken, or the french bureaucrat that allowed champellion to discover any thing in egypt that would conflict with catholic doctrine. i remember doc and his thoughts about mesoamerican influence in the southeast. it seems like now, one of the theroies is that the muscogee originally came from meso ameica,,,,,,, boy things have changed.. yea, i rember doc and his son-in-law joe caldwell. ron black… bba & mba

    • Thank you for writing us. It means a lot to Dr. Kelly’s family and me that someone remembers that Dr. Kelly was speaking the truth and was crucified by his fellow archaeologists for doing so.


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