Select Page

Etowah Mounds . . . facts that you will never see in a museum or book

Etowah Mounds . . . facts that you will never see in a museum or book

Images Above:  Note that the artists created “Native Americans” who bear no resemblance to the ancestors of the Creek Indians in either facial features, hair style or clothing.   This sort of stuff gets really frustrating.

(left) This Etowah Museum exhibit was based on a totally fictitious account of the Etowah marble statues in a 1991 article in National Geographic Magazine, written by photographer-archaeologist, George Stuart.  Stuart repeated the fairytale given him by an anthropology professor at the University of Georgia without fact-checking him.    As a teenager, George worked at the Etowah dig one summer.  However, he was not there when the statues were unearthed in the second year of the dig.  I don’t know why he published the fabricated story of the statues being buried in haste at the top of the mound, but this generation of archeologists think it’s the truth.  The statues were actually found at the base of Mound C  in a partially collapsed log building, next to a stone temple. 

George Stuart and I first became friends in 1984, when he interviewed me and photographed our farm in the Reems Creek Valley,NC for a book on the Appalachian Mountains.  After we moved the operation to the Shenandoah Valley at his suggestion, it was George, who was instrumental in me having so many architecture clients among the staff at the Smithsonian, National Geo and Library of Congress.   I didn’t catch his mistake until I re-read the original archaeological report in 2014.

(right) This painting bears little resemblance to the actual architecture and site plan of Etowah Mounds National Historic Landmark.  The scene completely leaves out a very large building excavated by archaeologist Lewis Larson in 1955 near the mounds.  However, it is this illustration which typically accompanies archaeological reports for sites in the Etowah Valley today.


Etowah Mounds National Historic Landmark is one of the premier Native American archaeological sites in the United States. It draws visitors from all over the world and is located within the largest National Historic District in the United States.  One would think that it along with Ocmulgee National Monument,  118 miles to the southeast, they would be showcases for archaeological research like Moundville National Historic Landmark.  Moundville is a working laboratory for the Department of Anthropology at the University of Alabama. Such is not the case for either Etowah or Ocmulgee.

Unfortunately, for much of the time since the purchase of land by the State of Georgia in the mid-1950s 1955,  Etowah Mounds has generally ignored by regional archaeologists.   They seem to think that they know everything there is to know.  Then . . . when some research is done there, it always produces surprising new information.

There is another problem.  The archaeologists, who have worked there in the past were not from there.  Most were from other parts of the nation.   As you will learn in this article, the unfamiliarity of archaeologists with local history, geology and even past activities at the mounds has cause the profession to misinterpret several important aspects of this very important archaeological zone. Unfortunately, the mistakes have been fossilized into facts. 


Satellite image of Etowah Mounds Archaeological Zone. Those light colored circles and ovals on the south side of the Etowah River are the footprints of mounds or clay pads, on which the houses of the elite were built.  The stream joining the Etowah is Pumpkinvine Creek.

Throughout their history in the latter half of the 20th century and into the 21st century,  both Ocmulgee National Monument and Etowah Mounds National Historic Landmark have languished between chronic under-funding and sudden, catastrophic usages as political footballs.  For example, Richard Nixon moved the Southeastern Archeological Center from Ocmulgee to Tallahassee, FL in 1973 in order to punish Georgia for having a senator on the Watergate Commission. 

Beginning in 1998 powerful economic interests in northwest Georgia were trying to get a North Carolina Cherokee casino in their region.  The Clinton Administration laughed the Georgia state officials out of Washington, when the proposed to lease for a dollar a year, the entire Etowah Mounds National Historic Landmark to a private foundation with a Cherokee name, in order to make Etowah Mounds a Cherokee archaeological site.  Georgia officials also wanted environmental laws waived so a gated subdivision for millionaires could be built in the flood plain next to the boundaries of the mounds. Etowah’s Creek Indian site manager was fired, so the museum not would seem to be “Creek.”  However, the idiotic proposal almost became a reality after George Bush was elected president. Federal employees, who opposed the project were summarily fired.  The Muscogee-Creek Nation finally stopped this nonsense, but the funding, staff and operating hours for Etowah Mounds were repeatedly cut afterward to make it look like a “loser.”

This generation of archeologists differs from their giants in the past because they are intellectually inbred and have little contact with other disciplines.  Remember,  Arthur Kelly hired a civil engineer from Georgia Tech to supervise excavations at Ocmulgee.  As a result, they have grossly inflated self-image of their own intellect and education.  Students are brain-washed into only quoting anthropological authority figures as references, no matter the topic.  Those of you, who have read my books probably noticed that I try to get as broad a range of references as possible, in order to capture the truth.  Lordamercy!   I don’t just quote architects and urban planners! 

Georgia archaeological reports consistently use bogus translations of Creek words by early 20th century ethnologist, John Swanton, rather than paying $25 for a Creek dictionary.    Many archaeological books and reports quote Kentuckian, Charles Hudson . . . a graduate of the University of North Carolina . . . for their description of the geological history of the Etowah River Valley, instead of consulting a booklet published by the State Geologist of Georgia.  Hudson didn’t know diddlysquat about the subject.  These archaeologists would have been far better off stopping a person on the streets of Cartersville, GA for the information.  They didn’t and so grossly misinterpreted the first phase of Etowah’s occupation.

There is another problem, though.  It is the secretiveness of the archeological profession in several parts of the Southeast and dysfunctional manner in which knowledge about Native American sites flows to the public.  The archaeologists are so secretive that they don’t even know what each other is doing and what has been done the past.  That is clearly proven in the analysis below.  A tiny self-appointed feudal clique within the profession controls what information flows to their vassals and to the thralls in the general public.  All Native American heritage sites are viewed as their private feudal domains.  You think I am exaggerating?   Remember in 2012, when an editorial by an anthropology professor in the American Institute of Archaeology Journal called me “an ignorant peon?”

Analysis of a contemporary archeological report

A recent archaeological report, for a site in the Etowah River Valley was chosen for analysis.  This archaeological investigation was carried out with state of the art techniques and technology.  It was generously funded by the State of Georgia and the state employees administrating the contract were professional archaeologists.  However, when one suffers through 585 pages of horrific English syntax, designed to make the reader think that the authors were brilliant intellectuals . . .  it is realized that the report failed to answer four of the most important questions that define the discipline of anthropology . . . Who lived here?  How did they live?  What did their community look like at street level?  What can be learned from this investigation that can be applied to our society?

I am using Etowah Mounds National Historic Landmark as a classical example of how leaving anthropology, history, architecture and geology out of archaeological investigations leads to inaccurate interpretations of Muskogean town sites.  I lived near Etowah Mounds for 3 1/2 years and later contracted with the Muskogee Creek Nation to build a 6 ft. by 8 feet model of the town in its second phase, based on infrared imagery and an underground radar survey of the whole site in 2006 and 2007.

One of my favorite architecture professors at Georgia Tech,  Julian Harris, designed the Etowah Museum.  He arranged for Lew Larson and Arthur Kelly to give our class a tour of the site.  Afterward, Larson and Kelly gave us copies of their original report and for unknown reasons, I have kept it all these years.   That is why I can fact check the current generation of archaeologists. 

Can you believe that the authors of the report below didn’t even read the report written by the three nationally famous archaeologists, who excavated Etowah between 1955 and 1956?  Instead,  they quoted what a University of Georgia professor said 40 years later about what Larson, Kelly and Caldwell had said.  That prof got it all wrong!  I have the Larson-Kelly-Caldwell report.  Let’s see . . . What did that particular professor (now retired) call me?  Oh yes, he called me a danger to the archaeology profession in 2004.   He’s right. Rambling Wrecks have a low tolerance for caca de toro.

I must confess! I got one thing very wrong.  Mound A . . . the big one . . . was originally a very different form and had three ramps.

Case Study: Etowah Mounds National Historic Landmark

In their presentation to our Georgia Tech class, both Lew Larson and Arthur Kelly were completely open in their regret that only a minuscule area of Etowah had actually been excavated by professional archaeologists.  They did not pretend to know what they didn’t know and expected many surprises when the remainder of the town was thoroughly studied.  However, I do not remember them even mentioning that there was a huge archaeological zone on the south side of the river;  that amateur collectors had pilfered the site throughout much of the 1800s or that most of the mounds visible in the early 1800s were gone.  These omissions are not mentioned in their report, either.  Larson and Kelly were honest people and highly intelligent, but not perfect.  They made no effort to learn the three Creek languages and our complex cultural history, thus made mistakes themselves in interpreting ancestral Creek towns.

Etymology:  The original name of Etowah was Etula, which is an Itza Maya and Itsate Creek word meaning, “Principal Town.”  The Muskogee-Creek derivation of Etula is Etvlwv.   Etvlwv now means a “tribal town.”   This “Maya thing” is not “a bunch of crap” as the former president of the Georgia Council of Professional Archaeologists stated to the Trail of Tears Association.

Geological History:  Both original towns of Etula and Itzasi (Lamar Village at Ocmulgee National Monuement) were settled at about the same time (c. 1000 AD)  in horseshoe bends in their respective rivers.   The Etowah River then flowed immediately north of Mound A in a swale that can be seen today.  Most of the original town of Etula is now on the south side of the Etowah River or else was located where the river channel is now.  In 1973, National Park Service archaeologists found “Etowah I” pottery at the lowest levels of the Lamar village and radiocarbon-dated that layer to around 990 AD.  Thus, it is probable that the same ethnic group settled both towns.

Around 1200 AD, there were horrific floods on the Etowah and Ocmulgee Rivers.  Evidently, there was a  massive storm that plastered that part of the Southeast.   Flood waters wiped out both towns and cut channels across the horseshoes.  Itzasi became an island, while the heart of Etula was washed away and the remainder of the town site was cut in half. 

The current town site was almost complete surrounded by swamps until the mid-19th century.  The town would have been an almost impregnable fortress.  There was a narrow causeway leading from the town gate on the north side to higher land.  The swamps extended northeast and along the river for over a mile.    This information has never been incorporated into the exhibits at the Etowah Museum and certainly does not appear on Etowah Mounds official painting above.  

Much of  Cartersville near the Etowah River was still undeveloped because of the swamps until very late in the 20th century.  There is a network of drainage canals interlacing the area, which keep it from returning to swamps.  The last swamp was not drained until 2001.  That development now has a lake running through it.  None of the archaeologists, who have worked at Etowah in the past 20 years even noticed the drainage canals or their implications.

In 1886, another massive flood swept over the Etowah town site.  A section of the acropolis, plus several small mounds near the river were washed away.  Much of the remainder of the town site on both sides of the river was covered in alluvial sand.  In 1996,  while working on his dissertation, archaeologists Adam King found that the actual base of Etowah Mound A was 15 feet below the current surface.

1818-EtowahMounds-DetailOriginal form:  Dr. Elias Cornelius, a Natural Science professor at Yale University, visited and surveyed the Etowah Mounds site in 1818.  The site was covered in trees, 40 to a 100 years old, which gives us the approximate date of its last occupants . . . not 1585 as is stated in most anthropology books.  The last occupants were probably Highland Apalache or Conchakee.  I will explain why, below.  Mound A was a very different shape, plus had about 18 feet more earthen structure on top.   With the additional 15 feet now hidden, that means the mound was originally about 100 feet tall . . . not significantly shorter than Monk’s Mound at Cahokia.

Cornelius noticed ancient clay stuccoed, fieldstone pottery kilns scattered about the Etowah Valley near old clay barrow pits.  They contained broken “Indian” pottery, not European or North American ceramics.  So . . . the ancestors of the Creeks did fire pottery in kilns, after all. Cherokees living in a village, where the Roselawn Mansion is now located in Cartersville stated that the kilns were there when they arrived in the region about 25 years earlier.  They also said that no Cherokees ever lived near the mounds because the woods there were filled with spirits.

Amateur collectors:  Soon after the Tumlins acquired the land that included Etowah Mounds, they began allowing amateur collectors to dig anywhere for $200 a day . . . a princely sum in those days.  The money was used to build canals to drain the swamps and develop their plantation.  The form of Mound A that we see today, was the result of artifact miners digging away the old ramps and building new ones in order to get mule wagons up near the top to chop away at the hexagonal or round top that no longer exists.   So . . .  the scattered artifacts and bones, which are described in the report I analyzed had nothing to do with the chronology of Etowah, as speculated by archaeologists, but were the result of a century of grave robbers, ripping out the contents of mound to get to trophy artifacts. 

Smithsonian Expedition (1884-1886):   Cyrus Thomas, the State Insect Specialist for Indiana, was hired to be the head of the Archaeological Section of the Smithsonian’s Bureau of Ethnology.  He had no education in anthropology or training in the excavation of Native American towns, but was hired because of being in a high position with the Republican Party.  He hired his unemployed cousin, John P. Rogan, who had no qualifications for anything, but happened to be an unemployed, Republican Union veteran, living in the South.  The Smithsonian Institute, during that era, did not hire Democrats, Confederate veterans, American Indians or African-Americans. 

In addition to excavating the upper portion of Mound C at Etowah,  Rogan accompanied Thomas on a journey across North Georgia, where they poked and prodded through several other mounds in search of trophy artifacts.  Most of these mounds no longer exist, so the records of Thomas are all that we know about these sites.

Rogan will go down in history for the association of his name with the famous Rogan Copper Plates, but he was in fact, a sleeze-ball.  He was eventually fired for not producing enough trophy artifacts for the Smithsonian to give to wealthy donors and members of Congress. Thomas re-hired Rogan to supervise the excavation of the infamous Bat Creek Mound in southeastern Tennessee.  However, he was fired again for the same reason.  The archaeologists’ version of history, posted in Wikipedia, states that he moved back to his hometown of Bristol, TN and got a job as a clerk at a hardware store . . . then disappeared from history.   NOT TRUE!

I know what really happened because I was the architect for the restoration of the 1888 Rogan Building on West Main Street in Cartersville, GA. I also have a copy of a letter that Rogan wrote to Thomas after he was fired the second time.  In the letter, Rogan stated that he had met a woman in Cartersville and was moving back there.   What Rogan didn’t say was that he had squirreled away a whole bunch of money while digging a Mound C in Cartersville . . . obviously from selling artifacts. 

Upon arrival in Cartersville, Rogan immediately purchased a prime piece of commercial real estate and a fine house on the street going out to Etowah Mounds.  He then hired an architect and soon constructed one of the largest brick buildings in Cartersville.   Rogan Hardware was the larges mercantile store, north of Atlanta in Georgia.  For decades, Rogan advertised in newspapers that “he was available for gentlemen of means to guide them on the excavation of Indian mounds in North Georgia.”   

EtalwaStoneTabletIn 1925,  archaeologist Warren K. Moorehead showed up in Cartersville to renew excavation at Mound C.   Rogan gave him a tour of the archaeological zone and then assisted Moorehead in finding skilled local laborers to do the excavation work.  Note: All this information is in published sources, but no one prior to me has both lived in Cartersville and drawn lines between the points.

Warren K. Moorehead (1925-1926):  There is very little knowledge about the thousands of artifacts removed from Georgia by the Smithsonian and later by Moorehead.   Most long ago disappeared into private collections.  At least, Moorehead sketched or photographed most of his.  Otherwise, we would not known that Etowah’s soldiers wore leather helmets with copper crests – like Bronze Age Europeans – carried large shields and fought with swords similar to those used by the Aztecs.  When is the last time that you saw an “Injun” in a museum dressed in this manner?  

All the artifacts in the museum and most of the speculations by archaeologists today came from this minuscule section of the archaeological site, excavated 1955-56.

All the artifacts in the museum and most of the speculations today came from this minuscule section of the archaeological zone in 1955-56.

Larson-Kelly-Caldwell Expedition (1955-1956):  When word got around in Cartersville that the state government planned to buy the portion of the Tumlin Plantation within the defensive ditch of Etowah Mounds, nearby property owners panicked.  Five mounds were bulldozed on the south side of the Etowah River that were part of the first phase of Etowah’s occupation.  Other mounds were bulldozed on nearby Petit and Pumpkinvine Creeks.  There were even some mounds bulldozed 12 miles away in northern Bartow County. 

Larson’s team concentrated on Mound C.   Kelly asked that the turf be removed in the area between the three visible mounds and also on the plaza area east of Mound A.   Revealed on the plaza were the footprints, very close to the surface, of an entirely different style of architecture consisting of round houses about 32-40 feet in diameter and some fairly large rectangular buildings.  Kelly dug some test pits at the round houses and found Late Lamar artifacts . . . typical of the 1600s and early 1700s.   He labeled these structures the Fourth Occupation of Etowah Mounds.  The Highland Apalache elite and the Apalachicola Creeks lived in large round houses.  The Apalachicola are shown on French maps living in the Etowah River Valley in large numbers until most of their towns moved to English West Florida in the late 1760s.   

You will NEVER see the Fourth Occupation mentioned in any archeology book or online reference.  The reason?   In the 1990s several of the most powerful members of the Georgia Council of Professional Archeologists were on the payroll of developers wanting to build Cherokee casinos in North Georgia or even on contract with the Eastern Band of Cherokees.  If there were Creeks living on the Etowah River in the 1600s and 1700s . . . which in fact they were . . . then the Cherokees were not there.  A royal proclamation was issued in 1996 by the Georgia Society of Professional Archaeologists stating that the Fourth Occupation didn’t exist.  Therefore, this generation of underlings have erased it from their memory banks. 

Just prior to the announcement in 1998 of a proposed Cherokee casino in northern Bartow County, a second royal proclamation was issued which said that there were only two proto-Creek occupations at Etowah Mounds . . . ergo the Cherokees were living there when De Soto came through in 1540.  This one didn’t fly, so what you are told now is three occupations, ending around 1585-1600.   

Kelly also led the excavation of a large rectangular communal building on the south side of Mound A.  He described in detail in his report, but it also has been erased from all exhibits in the museum and in contemporary books published by archaeologists.  I am not sure why this building has been concealed, because it has nothing to do with putting a Cherokee casino in Bartow County. 

Footprints of Colonial Period round houses at Etowah

Footprints of Late Lamar (Early Colonial Period) round houses at Etowah.  They are much more distinct in infrared imagery.


Critique of current archaeological report:  Most of the archaeological zone, including massive Mound A, has never been excavated.   Larson and Kelly concentrated on Mounds B & C plus the land immediately adjacent.  There were originally a minimum of 14 mounds.  Yet, the authors made all sorts of interpolations from this limited knowledge, plus did not seem to know that the site was on both sides of the river and originally had many more mounds, which have never been studied.   The following are excerpts describing Etowah from a recent report funded by the State of Georgia and authored by a member of the Georgia Council of Professional Archaeologists:

Although Mississippian occupation at the Etowah site began during the Early Etowah phase (A.D. 1000-1100), King (2003:86) noted that there is little archaeological evidence of a multi community chiefdom in existence during this phase, since the only mound site in the valley with a known Early Etowah component is the Etowah site.

WRONG!  Robert Wauchope identified several town sites in the Upper Etowah River basin with mounds and Etowah I occupations.  One of the mounds is still 40 feet tall.  Wauchope’s book was published in 1966 and for certain is in the libraries of most archaeological consulting firms.  All these sites have official state site numbers, so there is no excuse for being unaware of them.  It was so ingrained in the writer to replicate exactly what an authority figure said, that he or she didn’t even bother to check the facts.

As mentioned above, a lack of burials and no evidence for exotic, non-local materials or objects in Early Etowah phase contexts at the Etowah site has been interpreted as a lack of institutionalized social ranking.

BASED ON WHAT INFO?   None of Mound A, the oldest mound, has been studied.  Most of the land north of the current channel of the river has never been excavated.  None of the land on the south side has been excavated, except for one chokopa (rotunda).   Most of the original town was on the current south side of the river or else was washed away when the river changed its channel.  How could one possibly pretend to be scientific when the virtually none of the original town of Etowah has been studied?

This final burial contained the marble statues of a man and woman broken from being tossed into the pit together, a disorderly scatter of the remains of multiple individuals, and prestige goods. In addition, a scatter of human bone and other grave goods continued down the Mound C ramps. King (2003:80-81) argued that the hasty construction of Mound C may have been performed under duress, shortly before the palisade burned and the mortuary temple on Mound C was sacked by invaders.”

TOTAL MALARKEY!  As mentioned at the beginning of the article,  the “tossed in a pit” story was a fairytale told by George Stuart in a National Geographic Magazine article, based on what he was told by a professor at the University of Georgia.   The professor’s lie could have easily been negated had ANY archaeologist in the past 20 years read the actual report from Lew Larson.    The “scattered artifacts” were the result of almost a hundred years of grave robbers and glorified grave robbers (Rogan and Thomas) pilfering the mounds, looking for trophy artifacts.  Now we have the archaeologists going out into lala land . . . the mess left by grave robbers has been turned into an attack by a invading army.

Did you notice that the anthropology profession has been so corrupted by feudalism that they equate democracy and economic equality with cultural backwardness?  They really have no clue about the cultural heritage of the Creek Indians, do they?

It is obvious that there are at least two generations of archaeologists out there today, who received multiple years of brain-washing, rather than an education.  They were not trained how to think and analyze complex facts.   Those who obeyed blindly the edicts of their overlords were rewarded with graduation and that is how they behave today.  Perhaps part of the cause is that directly opposite to the situation in Europe and Mexico, the descendants of the people who lived in these Native American towns were excluded from their study . . . until the People of One Fire came along. 

Archaeologists . . . it is not about you!   It is about us and our ancestors.



The following two tabs change content below.
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.



    “Archaeologists . . . it is not about you! It is about us and our ancestors.”

    Well. Said.


      Etowah was my first mound site experience. Thanks for shinning a light on the true history of the site.

      It would be great to see all known artifacts grouped together somewhere.

      Thanks for all you do & share with us.


Leave a reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Subscribe to POOF via Email

Enter your email address to subscribe to this website and receive notifications of new posts by email.

Join 843 other subscribers

The Information World is changing!

People of One Fire needs your help to evolve with it.

We are now celebrating the 11th year of the People of One Fire. In that time, we have seen a radical change in the way people receive information. The magazine industry has almost died. Printed newspapers are on life support. Ezines, such as POOF, replaced printed books as the primary means to present new knowledge. Now the media is shifting to videos, animated films of ancient towns, Youtube and three dimensional holograph images.

During the past six years, a privately owned business has generously subsidized my research as I virtually traveled along the coast lines and rivers of the Southeast. That will end in December 2017. I desperately need to find a means to keep our research self-supporting with advertising from a broader range of viewers. Creation of animated architectural history films for POOF and a People of One Fire Youtube Channel appears to be the way. To do this I will need to acquire state-of-art software and video hardware, which I can not afford with my very limited income. Several of you know personally that I live a very modest lifestyle. If you can help with this endeavor, it will be greatly appreciated.

Support Us!

Richard Thornton . . . the truth is out there somewhere!

Pin It on Pinterest