Richard Thornton | Mar 17, 2017 | 1
Eliminating the duh-h-h factor from Southeastern archaeology
Radical changes are needed in the mentality and content of university anthropology programs in the Southeastern United States, if this occupation is to achieve the truly professional status of its counterparts in Europe and Latin America. Above all, the specialists of anthropology, known as archaeologists, must learn how to provide SERVICES to the public in a multi-disciplinary, multi-cultural environment.
Archaeologists do not “own” the knowledge about indigenous peoples of the Americas. The descendants of the peoples, who built those towns and made those artifacts, are very much alive and equally intelligent as the specialists, who excavate the past.
My first and last attendance at a meeting of the Southeastern Archaeological Conference (SEAC) occurred a little over a decade ago on the campus of the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. The conference was supposed to be about 16th century Spanish exploration and colonization of the Carolinas, plus the cultures of their Native American occupants. Not one speaker was either Hispanic or Native American.
The straw that broke the camel’s back for me and a female Colombian archaeology professor, sitting beside me. was the Saturday morning “highlight” of the conference. For an entire morning, we endured a bitter debate between professors representing the North Carolina and South Carolina “football teams” as to whether a town with a Creek name, Kofitvchiki (Cofetachequi) was Cherokee or Catawba. She had already been at the conference for a day and was livid because only a couple of the speakers could even pronounce Spanish words properly. I quickly became outraged because the senior professors from the Universities of North Carolina and Georgia were calling towns with Creek names, Cherokee towns.
The North Carolina archaeologists had already embarked on their quest to make their state’s only federally recognized tribe, the master indigenous race, second only to their European patrons. (Because of intense opposition from Cherokee bureaucrats within their agency, the BIA still refuses to give federal recognition to the largest Native American tribe, east of the Mississippi – the Lumbees.) Like most Southeastern anthropologists, their perspective of the past was tainted by an obsession that the tribes that existed in 1836 were the same ethnic groups that existed prior to European contact.
However, the North Carolina academicians’ provinciality was carrying this quest to an even lower level. Somehow, on this illogical journey, they came to see glorification of the Cherokee Tribe as equivalent to enhanced contemporary status for their state.
The first step was persuading anthropology professors in the Southeast to label all town sites in the Southern Highlands – ”the Appalachian Summit Culture.” In the late 1970s, the North Carolina General Assembly passed a law that officially labeled all Native American artifacts in their mountains as being made by the Cherokees or the ancestors of the Cherokees. Therefore, in North Carolina, Appalachian Summit = Cherokee.
What the North Carolina archaeologists were already trying to do at this SEAC meeting was to extend the label of “Appalachian Summit” to include most of the “Mississippian” town sites in Ohio, Kentucky, West Virginia, Virginia, South Carolina, eastern Tennessee, northern Georgia and northern Alabama. If this malarkey was then replicated in enough books and web sites, the glorious day would come when the general public would accept the myth that Cherokees built most of the mounds in the Southeast as established fact and western North Carolina would be the center of the world. Of course, the 180 degree opposite of that statement is the actual fact. The core ancestors of the Cherokees were most likely in southern Ontario, when those mounds were built.
A few members of the audience at the conference tried to present logical challenges to the quite illogical mentality of the majority, but they were pounced upon like a pack of wild dogs on a kitten, caught in the wrong place and the wrong time. My new Colombian friend and I observed behavior that one might expect from arrogant, preadolescent brats – what is now called “teenage bullying” . . . name calling, belittlement, shunning and demonization . . . the same stuff that we saw during the “Mayas in Georgia thing” in 2012.
Duh-h-h factors in other states
We don’t want to just pick on North Carolina. However, labeling the Coweeta Mound (half mile from Georgia) a Cherokee Mississippian town site with ”a Cherokee name of unknown meaning,” IS about as dumb as it gets . . . especially since the report by the archaeologists, who excavated this village site, even admitted that the houses were like those in proto-Creek towns in Georgia and nothing like historical Cherokee villages.
The work of archaeologists in Louisiana, Kentucky, West Virginia, Maryland, Arkansas and Missouri seem to come closest to the real world. However, Louisiana archaeologists bristle, when you ask what Maya blue stucco was doing on the mounds at Troyville.
The manifestations of the Duh-h-h Factor can be found in the mentalities of archaeologists in other states too. Most Florida archaeologists refuse to recognize the intense interrelationships between the indigenous peoples of their peninsula and peoples to the south.
Alabama and Mississippi archaeologists often conceptualize their past in terms of the federally recognized tribes in their respective states. You would never know that the Chickasaws once occupied the northern fourth of Alabama or that most of the Creeks didn’t arrive in Alabama until after the American Revolution.
South Carolina maps label a vast area of their state as “Cherokee” when most South Carolina Cherokee villages had Creek names and were located ONLY on the tributaries of the Savannah River in the extreme northwestern corner of their state. South Carolina archaeologists also are prone to label all Injun words either Catawba or Muskogean , when the vast majority are neither.
Descriptions of Tennessee Mississippian town sites continue to say that they were founded by immigrants from Cahokia, when many of their Mississippian mounds predate the mounds at Cahokia. Tennessee officials are under increasing pressure from the Eastern Band of Cherokees to label the mounds in eastern 2/3 of the state as Cherokee, when these regions were occupied by Chickasaws until the 1700s.
Most Virginia archaeologists refuse to recognize the existence of Adena, Hopewell and Mississippian mounds west of the Blue Ridge Mountains in their state. The Shenandoah Valley was densely occupied with villages containing platform mounds until the late 1660s, when the colony sponsored massive Native American slave raids. Their archaeologists are struggling with their orthodoxies, because a terrace complex similar to those in Georgia has been found in the northern Shenandoah Valley, with only slightly younger radiocarbon dates than the Track Rock Complex in Georgia.
What it means to be a professional
A professional is a person who has special skills and education, which enables her or him to serve others. The United States is about the only developed nation that does not require a professional license issued by a government agency in order for one to be labeled an archaeologist. Archaeology is a technical specialization of the discipline of anthropology. Almost all states have laws that prohibit excavation of ancient burial sites by anyone but a professional archaeologist. However, virtually no state sets the specific standards that define what a professional archaeologist should know in order to carry that title.
For example, in most European countries, an archaeologist must pass a licensing exam on the cultural traits and appropriate investigative techniques for a specific cultural period in order to be the supervising archaeologist at a excavation of a site produced by that specific culture. A specialist on medieval English communities wouldn’t dream of presenting himself or herself as an expert on Bronze Age villages in Skåna Province, Sweden. Well, the Swedish government would not allow it.
We live in a multi-disciplinary world in which most efforts require teamwork from a wide range of people with specialized skills. If a mechanical engineer tells me that I did not allow enough space between floors for the air supply plenum, I don’t call him or her a self-styled engineer or a pseudo-architect. I change my design to include the necessary space. Conversely, if I tell the mechanical engineer that the location of a furnace will create a fire hazard or interfere with emergency exits, the engineer will modify the plans to eliminate the problems.
The Kenimer Mound
The situation with the Kenimer Mound in the Nacoochee Valley of Georgia is a good example of what is not a professional approach to understanding the Native American history of the Southeast. In 2006, I stumbled upon a brief mention of two Georgia archaeologists visiting a mysterious mound in the Nacoochee Valley in 1986. They were not sure, in fact, if it was a mound.
A couple of years later, an archaeological report for a two day investigation of the site in 1997 was published online. A small team from the University of Georgia had walked the site, measured it with surveying equipment and on the second day, dug some post holes and test pits, where they obtained artifacts – mostly potsherds from the Late Woodland – Napier Culture. No archaeological work has been done on the Kenimer Mound since then.
The 1997 report described the Kennimer Mound as an unexplained enigma. It said that no other known mound had been sculpted from a hill and that it was isolated with no other mounds or villages nearby. The mound was interpreted as a Late Woodland ceremonial site that drew visitors from a region.
When I read the statement in the 1997 report that the five-sided mound was sculpted from a large hill, I was absolutely astonished. You see, that is exactly how the Itza Mayas built the earthen platforms for their temples dedicated to the sun god. One of the many things that Gringo archaeologists don’t seem to know is that the Itza, Chontal and Tamaule Mayas only built earthen mounds during the Classic Period (200 AD-900 AD). However, it seemed so implausible that an Itza mound would be in the Georgia Mountains, I kept my observations to myself.
THEN in 2010 and 2011, I stumbled upon a legion of Itza place names and Itza type structures when camping my way across the mountains of Georgia and North Carolina. I had to completely rethink my presumption that the first evidence of the Creek’s partial Maya heritage would be somewhere on the Atlantic or Gulf Coastal Plains.
I made an appointment to meet with the lady, who owned the tract containing the Kenimer Mound in 1997. She was shocked when I showed her the University of Georgia archaeological report. She said that her written permission for the archaeological team to survey the mound absolutely forbade any excavations.
The lady added that officials of the Eastern Band of Cherokees have expressed interest in purchasing the mound, since it is a “Sacred Cherokee Site.” They have been introduced to local community leaders by a man, originally from Florida, who wants to build a Cherokee gambling casino next to the mound. All of the archaeologists, who were spokesmen for “Maya Myth-busting in the Mountains,” have or have had business connections to those wishing to build a Cherokee casino in North Georgia.
Much more research then went into forgotten archaeological reports from Western North Carolina and North Georgia. Few mounds have been excavated in western North Carolina. The investigations were either carried out at the dawn of archaeology or in a framework of “since it is in North Carolina, it must be Cherokee.”
The situation was different in North Georgia. In 1939, the famous archaeologist, Robert Wauchope, spent a considerable period of time excavating villages and mounds in the flood plain of the modern day hamlet of Sautee, where the Kenimer Mound is located.
The Kenimer Mound was not isolated as described in the 1997 report, but in the midst of a Native American metropolis with multiple neighborhoods, perhaps a dozen mounds, hundreds of Itza style stone box graves and a huge Itza style ball court. In fact, the name of this town had been Itsate, until it was captured and sacked by the Cherokees in the mid-1720s. Itsate means “Itza People” in Itza Maya. The landscape around the Kenimer Mound had been intensely occupied for at least 1500 years, maybe 2,500 years.
The 1997 archaeological report stated that there was no evidence of a temple structure on the mound or evidence of “Mississippian” artifacts in the mound. The archaeologist did not do his homework. I learned from long time residents of the Nacoochee Valley that the ruins of ancient stone buildings had been on top of the mound until the 1970s. A Florida transplant used the stones to build the foundations and chimneys of his new home. He then scooped up the topsoil on the top and sides of the mound to use as land fill on his tract.
The University of Georgia archaeologists, who visited the Kenimer Mound in 1986 and 1997, seemed completely unaware that the FOUNDER of their department, Robert Wauchope, had produced many pages of reports on his excavations of sites that surrounded the Kenimer Mound on all sides. The speculation of the massive Kenimer Mound being a isolated structure was produced in an information vacuum.
Many of the readers will recall what happened when I mentioned in a 2012 POOF report that the Kenimer Mound was yet more evidence that Itza Maya refugees had settled in the Southeast. Georgia archaeologists had a hissy fit. None of those who visited the Kenimer Mound in 1986 and 1997 had any educational or professional credentials in Mesoamerican Architecture. If they didn’t know it already, they could have easily learned that I studied Mesoamerican architecture in Mexico.
If an archaeologist informed me that I had misinterpreted the details on a restored building, the first thing I would have done is to ask for drawings or photographs with which to correct the problem, if there was one. Instead, what we saw is the same type behavior that I observed at the SEAC conference over a decade ago.
Archaeology is already the least paid and most unemployed occupation in the United States that requires an advanced degree. If Southeastern universities continue to turn out graduates, who are taught to interpret the past based on what their professors dictated to them, rather than on deductive reasoning, those with that mentality will soon find themselves deemed irrelevant. Real professionals from other universities will take their place.
This editorial kicks off a new series of articles on “The Peopling of the Southeast.” Much of the content will be theoretical, because no one has perfected a practical time machine. However, with the collaboration of the newly discovered colonial era documents, we can come much closer to the truth.
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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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