Big Canoe’s Spectacular Stone Cairn Complex
At the southern end of the Blue Ridge Mountains is one of North America’s most spectacular complexes of stone cairns. It is perched high on a mountainside in the Big Canoe Resort Community in Dawson and Pickens Counties at the northern edge of Metropolitan Atlanta. It is now called Indian Rock Park. In cooperative effort between Cranston Engineering, the Big Canoe Development Corporation, community residents and two archaeologists, the site was preserved for all time. This historic preservation project occurred in the same era that several stone cairn complexes and a stone terrace complex were destroyed by less enlightened developers in other parts of Metro Atlanta.
People of One Fire explorers, Ed Reilly and George Mathews, have been studying this cairn complex during the past few weeks. The work continues. Immediately, after going on site, however, they realized that there was much more to this archaeological site than people had assumed in the past. The cairns were probably used in mortuary rites, but the shrine also had many astronomical features.
Stone cairns can also be seen on mountain ridges and other mountain slopes in other areas of Big Canoe. There is an ancient stone circle on a mountaintop to the southeast and beyond that mountain is the Amicalola-Upper Etowah River Valley with towns that were first settled in the Early Woodland Period (1000 BC – 0 AD). There are also mounds and a large town site in the nearby Long Swamp Creek Valley. Obviously, these towns, villages and ceremonial sites were created by a distinct, mountainous Native American province that somehow is not even mentioned in contemporary anthropology books.
In the late 20th century, as stone cairn complexes began showing up on tracts of land, destined for development in the Metropolitan Atlanta Area, they became the subject of many bitter debates among Southeastern archaeologists. Many contained no potsherds with English names and so the majority in their profession decided that they couldn’t possibly be the product of indigenous activities.
The discovery that stone cairn complexes on undeveloped land in Gwinnett County could be prehistoric shrines, created a series of controversies that the media fanned. After three archaeology firms in succession refused to label the vast stone ruins on the Little Mulberry River as being of historical significance, a frustrated Gwinnett County Board of Commissioners declared the site historic themselves and bought up the land for a regional park.
Stone cairns in the Potomac and Shenandoah Valleys
In recent years, Virginia and West Virginia archaeologist have more closely analyzed cairn complexes at the northern end of the Blue Ridge Mountains at the edge of the Shenandoah Valley and in northeastern West Virginia. They found that most cairns contained almost microscopic bits of bone dust and charcoal . . . the remnants of human cremation. Many centuries of rainfall had washed away most of the bone and charcoal particles that would have been clearly visible to the naked eye. The archeologists created a new cultural name for the builders of these cairns.
There is another explanation for the lack of artifacts within many Georgia cairns . . . Native Americans had no reason to put arrowheads and bits of pottery in a stone cylinder meant for processing human bodies.
In many parts of the Mesoamerica and South America cylindrical stone cairns were plastered with clay. The clay stucco still survives in hot arid climates, but has washed off on the eastern slopes of the Andes, which gets exactly the same amount of rainfall as the Southern Highlands. The use of these cairns varied among cultures. Some were used to expose human bodies to vultures. Others were used to cremate human bodies, while in more bloodthirsty cultures, they were places of human sacrifice.
The terrain of the Big Canoe Complex is a natural amphitheater, facing the azimuth of the Winter Solstice Sunset. The slope is gentlest on the lower side of the area where the cairns are located. The mountainside becomes increasing steep as one goes up in elevation.
Apparently, the mountainside was originally pastureland in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Most of the hardwood trees seem to date from the latter half of the 20th century
Eighteen stone cairns are visible in what initially appears to be a random pattern. Others are scattered on ridge tops throughout the development. Prior to any development occurring, the famous archaeologists, Clemmons de Ballou and Joe Caldwell visited the site on July 21, 1972 in the company of the civil engineers and representatives of the owners. The two archaeologists studied the archaeological site and made recommendations for its preservation. Grading contractors, under the supervision of Cranston Engineering, carefully avoided possible archaeological sites and structures, so they could be preserved for all time. Several years later, an archaeologist employed by the State of Georgia revisited the archaeological zone and made more recommendations concerning its preservation.
Some are cairns clustered within a few feet of each other. Reilly and Mathews used cellular phones to calculate their locations. The cell phone apps turned out to be only accurate with a 20 feet tolerance, but still, looking at the preliminary site plan suggests that these cairns may have mimicked the star patterns of constellations in the sky. More precise surveying equipment will be utilized in the near future to obtain precise latitude, longitude and altitude.
While the jury is still out about the pattern of cairns, Ed Reilly has absolutely proven that the site itself had astronomical functions. Not only does it face the Winter Solstice Sunset, but the sun sets between two peaks to the southwest just on that day. He will go out again on the Spring Equinox and Summer Solstice to determine if there are any other alignments. Once precise measurements are obtained for the cairns and they are attached to a three dimensional terrain model, the combined model will be loaded into a computer program, which analyzes a building or an archaeological site for its relationship to the movements of the sun, moon, planets and stars.
There was a very practical reason for orienting Muskogean buildings and shrines to the heavenly bodies . . . the measurement of time. Remember these people probably did not have clocks! Creek Indian astronomers were considered priests (wana) and were called Keepers of the Day. The Keepers of the Day kept the calendars accurate for political leaders, plus had the very important responsibility of telling farmers, when to plant their crops.
Cranston Engineering Group, PLC of Augusta, GA – the consulting engineers for Big Canoe – graciously provided me with a digital topographic map of the Big Canoe area, prior to any construction taking place. Also, utilized for this phase of the project were ERSI’s Satellite Imagery and World Topographic Viewer for GIS programs. Surprising observations were immediately made.
The terrain and orientation of the Big Canoe Cairn Complex are almost identical to that of the Track Rock Terrace Complex in Union County, GA and the Rich Mountain Terrace Complex, north of Big Canoe in Gilmer County, GA. All three are oriented to the Winter Solstice Sunset and are framed on both sides by small streams cascading down the mountainside.
There is a large terrace above the cairns. Above the terrace, the terrain becomes steeper as it rises to a U-shaped terrace, again almost identical to the modified terrain at Track Rock Gap. It is quite likely that at some point in the past there were agricultural terraces above the cairns, supported by log walls. POOF explorers have found several terrace complexes in Northern Georgia in which most of the terraces were created by log walls, long turned to saw dust or else they had no support at all.
Notice in the terrain map at the top of the article that the Big Canoe cairn complex is at the same latitude and the Harben Mound in the Amicalola Valley. This is unlikely to be an accident. The mountains in and around Big Canoe were apparently a sacred area for the towns and villages that were situated in the surrounding foothills and stream valleys.
A line perpendicular to the terrace above the cairns was digitally extended out into infinity. This is the azimuth angle of the Winter Solstice Sunset. The line passes over the ruins of the great city of Teotihuacan in Central Mexico. Is just a coincidence? . . . maybe not. Regular POOF readers will recall that I discovered a perfect alignment of major towns and hilltop stone circles that extended 315 miles southward from an astronomical observatory on Ladds Mountain in Cartersville, GA to the mouth of the Apalachicola River in Florida.
We will be able to tell readers more about the layout of the Big Canoe Cairn Complex, once the three dimensional computer model is completed. However, it can be said with certainty now that there was an important and ancient province, ancestral to the Creek Indians in the southern tip of the Blue Ridge Mountains that somehow flew under the radar of academia.
Photos of stone cairns at Big Canoe
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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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