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Etowah’s Great Mound originally looked very different than today!

Etowah’s Great Mound originally looked very different than today!

It’s a dirty little secret!  What everyone thinks is the shape of the Great Mound at Etowah is entirely wrong.  The Etowah that Smithsonian Institute archaeologists encountered in the 1880s has been extensively altered in the decades before the Civil War and a flood in 1886.


Historic preservation architects are trained to do meticulous research before preparing restoration drawings or in this case, construction of a massive town model that is eight feet long and six feet wide.   I was working on a project that would be on public display long after I was in heaven. Because of the fact that some of my ancestors could have helped build these structures , there was even more incentive for perfection . . . but ultimately, I screwed up.

No one has ever caught the mistake, because they made the same assumption as me  . . . that the appearance of the mounds seen in 1884 by Cyrus Thomas and John Rogan of the Smithsonian Institute were the result of modest erosion on earthen structures, which were abandoned around 1600 AD.  We were oh so wrong.


Just to be certain,  I read and re-read the accounts of Etowah Mounds by pioneer archaeologist,  Charles C. Jones, Jr.  The landmark book on Southeastern archaeology by Jones was published in 1873,  but he had actually studied Etowah just before the Civil War.  Jones paid a civil engineer to prepare a site plan of Etowah.  It was the most accurate portrayal of the site before the late 20th century.  It also included mounds that were covered by silt or destroyed in the Great Flood of 1886.  There were actually 18 mounds on both sides of the Etowah River.


Note that this site plan prepared for Charles Jones shows the ramp going all the way to the top, whereas today the ramp is lower and there is about a 12 wall of dirt blocking access from the ramp to the top. Obviously, more amateur digging occurred after Jones visited the site in 1860. Officially, there has been no significant excavation of Mound A by professional archaeologists.

The engineer’s site plan showed bulges on the west, north and south sides of the great mound and a somewhat different appearance to the south ramp on the mound.   I assumed that the bulges were mistakes, since “they didn’t make sense.”  However, otherwise, my model above matches Jone’s drawings, not what you see today.   The bottom 15 feet of the mound are concealed by silt deposited in the 1886 flood.   The flood also washed away about 20 feet of the soil of the original town, closer to the river.

The big surprise

While writing a Native American history of the Etowah Valley for Access Genealogy in 2014, a stumbled upon an extraordinary fact that has been completely ignored by Southeastern archaeologists for the past 155 years.  The Etowah Mounds site was visited and measured by Yale University Natural Science professor, Elias Cornelius in 1818.   At the time, the entire village site was covered in trees from 100 to 40 years old.   The three Cherokee men, who accompanied him to the ruins said that Cherokees had never lived there because it was haunted, when they arrived in the region about 25 years earlier.

The mound had a very different shape than either in 1860 or today.  As can be seen below, it had three ramps and an additional level on top, which was ROUND.   Furthermore,  Cornelius explored what appeared to be a basement to the last temple, which had tunnel access from the north and south.  The largest mound at Troyville Mounds in northern Louisiana also had a round mound on top.


I contacted a former full time ranger at Etowah Mounds to see if he knew about the original shape of Mound A.   He told me that he had never seen the drawings by Professor Cornelius, but that the staff had known for some time that the Tumlin family, owners of the property from the 1830s to 1955,  had charged $200 a day to art collectors to excavate at will on the archaeological site from the 1830s until the 1870s.  The ramp that Jones saw and that is even larger today, was a construction ramp built by laborers working for the various people, who rented the archaeological zone by the day.

There is no telling what was taken out of that mound.  However, this might explain the numerous statues that are floating around the United States, which supposedly came from Etowah Mounds.

Between the concealed 15 feet at the bottom and the 20+ feet cut off the top during the 1800s, a surprising fact is revealed.  Etowah Mound A was originally about 110 feet high or the same height as Monks Mound at Cahokia.  However, it was far better engineered.  Even today,  Mound A has some of the steepest slopes of any Native American mound.  On the other hand,  Monks Mound has been chronically plagued by subsidence.

Learn something every day!



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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 – Perhaps you are aware of the following and may well be more knowledgeable about the issue than I.

    Back sometime in the period between the late1960s through the 1980s some state or federal (or both) agency took exception the way in which the Corps of Engineers was operating the hydro-power plant at Allatoona Dam on the Etowah River. Specifically, the claim made was that fluctuating releases from the powerplant were the cause of alleged increased bank failure and erosion at the Etowah Mounds State Park site. Please be aware that this was occurring during the time in my career when I had departed Mobile, with a short stopover in Philadelphia, then on to an extended career in the Ohio River Division Office in Cincinnati. Consequently, I never witnessed the problem at the park and was only vaguely aware that the issue had been raised. Someone at the park should have some information about what changes in the river bank configuration occurred at that time and how the plan-form of the river channel of today may differ from the past. In other words, did the Corps manage to stabilize the channel before any noticeable change took place, or did the river “eat” significant amount of the river bank before stabilization works were put into place?

    Please let me know what you have heard about this issue.


  2. As mentioned in the previous article, Glenn, all full time , career employees of Etowah Mounds lost their jobs between 2006 and 2009. I will try to find that former ranger and ask him about this. Even today there is visible erosion on the banks along the Etowah River near the mounds.


    Richard, do you know of any of the other Native North/ South Americans temple mounds that incorporate “Pi” (3.14) in their design? Thanks again for your articles.

    • The Great Spiral Mound at Ocmulgee National Monument is round. There was an identical mound at a town site near Elberton, GA on the Savannah River until the early 1800s. It was destroyed by newly arrived settlers from Virginia, who spread is soil on their farm lands. The Tanasi/Taensa mounds in Tennessee and northern Mississippi were always round.


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