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Beehive Shaped Tombs or Ovens

Over a century ago archeologists from the Smithsonian Institute discovered enigmatic cemeteries filled with beehive-shaped stone tombs in Caldwell County, North Carolina, Sullivan County, Tennessee and Licking County, Ohio. They seemed to belong in Bronze Age Greece or Ireland. Early white settlers in northwest Georgia also encountered similar structures and thought they were Creek Indian pottery kilns.

The Americas have two sets of histories. One version marginalizes the thousands of years before the arrival of Columbus, when 70 to 100 million humans occupied the two continents. The highly varied cultures of the indigenous peoples are clustered into regional groups. History textbooks tell students that all peoples within each of these regions shared similar lifestyles at any given time.

The Anasazi stone apartment buildings, the Southeastern mound builders and perhaps, the wooden houses of the Pacific Coast peoples are given special attention then the books move on to the arrival of the Spanish Conquistadors. High school and graduate level anthropology texts alike consistently avoid discussion of ancient ruins and artifacts that don’t fit into a simplistic model of the past.

The true pre-Columbian history of North America is much more complex and not fully understood. Students typically will not read about circular stone astronomical observatories, built on Canadian prairies 5,500 years ago; the large terrace complexes in northern Georgia; or the fact that 1500 years ago southern Florida was densely populated by sophisticated towns that were interconnected by canals and raised causeways.

Another hidden fact from North America’s past is that domed structures built of stone have been identified in several locations within the eastern United States. Three of the complexes were excavated and documented by employees of the Smithsonian Institute, who were not formally educated in archaeology. However, the sites cannot be discounted as being fantasies created by these non-professionals. They were quite real, but also generally forgotten by contemporary archaeologists.

Example of an "outdoor oven" which was present at Fort Caroline

Example of an “outdoor oven” which was present at Fort Caroline

The first mention of a domed stone structure in North America was in 1658. French ethnologist, Charles de Rochefort, wrote that in 1653, while exploring the Georgia Mountains, Englishman Richard Briggstock observed a mountaintop temple with a dome built of stones. The location was probably Fort Mountain in Union County, GA about 6.5 miles across the Nottely River Valley from the Track Rock Terrace Complex. The supposed site of the temple is now a pile of loose stones. The site is about 40 miles east of the better known Fort Mountain that is now a Georgia state park. It has many more stone ruins than Fort Mountain State Park.

The second description of domed stone structures was made in 1871 by pioneer anthropologist, Charles C. Jones, Jr. He said that when Anglo-American settlers first entered the Etowah River Valley in northwestern Georgia during the late 1830s and 1840s, they observed numerous bee hive shaped stone structures scattered about the fertile river bottomlands. The stones were held together with fire hardened clay mortar and apparently had be formerly plastered with clay stucco. Whole and broken pottery was found inside and around the bee hive structures, but no human remains. The departing Cherokees told the settlers that the enigmatic structures were there when they arrived in the region after the American Revolution.

Apparently, all or most all of the stone domes had been converted to chimneys and foundations in the previous three decades. Jones did not mention personally inspecting one. Instead he quoted credible plantation owners, who had viewed the structures. He interpreted them as being pottery kilns that were constructed by same native people, who built nearby Etowah Mounds.

It is possible that these were kilns built by Native Americans, but contemporary archaeologists have never found evidence of beehive shaped kilns near other indigenous town sites. However, the shape and construction of the structures were identical to medieval cooking ovens, lime kilns, coke ovens and iron furnaces in Western Europe. Dozens of identical structures were built by French and Spanish colonists along during the 1500s and 1600s. (See image on right, above.) Where rock was available, they were built out of field stones or quarried stones, then plastered with clay.

Discoveries by Smithsonian Institute

Caldwell County, NC "Beehive" Stone Tombs

Caldwell County, NC “Beehive” Stone Tombs

During the 1880s, when the last Western Indian tribes were being herded onto reservations, the Smithsonian Institute embarked on a massive archaeological survey and excavation program throughout the eastern United States. It was headed by Cyrus Thomas, a self-taught geologist, ethnologist and entomologist. The men assigned to supervise individual digs generally had substantially fewer qualifications than Thomas. Much irreparable damage was done to hundreds of archaeological sites around the United States, but at least the Smithsonian began a tradition of creating systematically organized reports on those excavations.

Cyrus Thomas grew up near Kingsport, TN then moved to Illinois when he saw the Civil War approaching. Kingsport is in the extreme northeastern tip of Tennessee. With virtually no knowledge of Southeastern indigenous languages or history, he embarked on a mission to prove that the Cherokees had built most of the mounds in the Southeast. At the time, it was a popular belief that the Lost Ten Tribes of Israel built the mounds. His excavations proved to the satisfaction of other scholars that the mounds were constructed by American Indians.

Mound excavation teams under the supervision of Thomas discovered cemeteries composed of beehive shaped stone tombs in the county where Thomas grew up, in central Ohio near Columbus, and in Caldwell County, NC. The Caldwell County site is the best documented and most enigmatic.

Caldwell County is located in western North Carolina, about 60 miles northeast of Asheville. It contains a section of the Blue Ridge Mountains, the Upper Piedmont and the ancient Brushy Mountains. The county seat is Lenoir.

Caldwell County is rich in natural resources. Magnetic iron ore was mined here and smelted in the late 1700s and early 1800s. Gold has been mined in Caldwell County since 1800. The few remaining Yuchi Indians, who lived in that region of North Carolina, told the first wave of Anglo-American settlers that in the ancient past, white men had come from the south with horses and pack mules. They extracted a metal from the rocks, using hot fires.

Thomas also excavated beehive shaped structures along the Ohio River that were composed entirely of clay. Because of their shape, he interpreted them to be Cherokee burial tombs just as had interpreted the stone domes in Tennessee and North Carolina. However, these structures were virtually identical to the cooking ovens of at French-built Fort Caroline and Spanish missions along the South Atlantic Coast, where no stone was available.

The Smithsonian Institute’s laborers excavated a low mound near Lenoir. Fieldstone domes were just beneath the surface. In the center of cemetery was a large beehive shaped stone structure containing a standing seven feet tall skeleton. Surrounding the large dome were several small field stone domes. They were the same size as a metal smelting furnace during the Middle Ages. However, Thomas didn’t note that. Within the small domes were bundles of bones. There were some skeletons in the soil between the domes, plus artifacts that the workmen interpreted as being American Indian in origin. There was also one rectangular stone sarcophagus.

One more category of grave offering was found that totally complicates the scene. Simple iron tools and weapons were found both in the large tomb and accompanying some of the skeletons. The surviving photographs look like the primitive iron implements created in Early Iron Age Britain and Ireland, not Colonial Period artifacts.

The iron artifacts completely befuddled Cyrus. The burials looked very ancient. However, he assumed that the iron artifacts could have only been obtained in trade with the English at some time in the late 1600s or later. That meant that all the “Cherokee” bee-hive shaped tombs and burial mounds dated from the Colonial Era. It was a conundrum that later, professional archaeologists just didn’t want to think about.

Alternative Interpretations

17th Century Kilns - SW United States

17th Century Kilns – SW United States

In the decades that have followed Cyrus Thomas’s publication of the Caldwell County excavation, amateur historians have latched onto the description of the seven foot skeleton and attributed the construction of the tombs to a race of giants. Actually, seven foot Muskogean Native Americans were quite common in earlier times. Such skeletons have been found in several mound sites in the Southeast and in indigenous cemeteries in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley. The leader of Creek Indian military forces in the American Revolution was seven feet tall and in his 90s. Being so tall made such men easy targets for muskets, so a disproportionate number of “Native American giants” were killed off before passing on their genes.

There is not a single surviving account of a Spanish, French, English or Dutch explorer describing a Native American tomb built in a beehive shape out of stones. The Caldwell County tumuli may date from the Colonial Period, but there was virtually no new indigenous stone architecture in the 1600s and 1700s.

Bronze Age Tomb - Western Ireland

Bronze Age Tomb – Western Ireland

During the Bronze Age and Early Iron Age in northwestern Europe, beehive shaped stone tombs were common place. Many survive today in Ireland. Unfortunately, no forensic anthropologist examined the skeletal remains at the Caldwell County site to determine if they were American Indian or Caucasian. That is assuming that back in the 1880s, physicians knew the differences. Apparently, the skeletons and most, if not, all of the artifacts found at the site have been lost. Radiocarbon dating was not to be invented for another 63 years. The stone tumuli probably no longer exist either.

It is possible that the original burial consisted only of the tall skeleton, and the site became a sacred place to bury leaders afterward. The small domes could be Native American imitations of European metal furnaces. In fact, all the stone structures could be imitations of dome shaped furnaces that Early Colonial miners left behind on the landscape. However, that speculation would not explain the beehive shaped stone structures in northwest Georgia and northeastern Tennessee, which apparently did not contain iron artifacts.

All of the burials within stone tumuli could have been Europeans. Throughout the Bronze Age and into the Iron Age, northwestern Europeans continued to utilize some stone tools and weapons because bronze and the earliest iron were relatively costly to acquire. This would have been especially true for Europeans stranded in the New World.

Until another example of beehive shaped stone architecture is found intact somewhere in the Midwestern or Southeastern United States, accompanied by ancient artifacts, the discussion of these enigmas must remain in the realm of speculation and theory. This is a situation that is often the case when attempting to unravel North America’s secret past.

Who knows what we will discover next!

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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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