Richard Thornton | Aug 9, 2017 | 5
Ever heard of the Bilbo Mound?
It appears to be the oldest mound in North America and contained some of the oldest pottery in North America. It slipped under the radar because of when it was excavated and a “Naw, that couldn’t be right” . . . 30 years later. You will never guess what all this has to do with the game of golf!
Again, special thanks to retired College of Charleston professor, Gene Waddell, who donated an out of print book, published by Harvard University, which provided us this fascinating information. Bilbo is the name of a type of Renaissance Era sword, manufactured in Portugal.
Between 1937 and 1941, archaeologist Joseph Caldwell led a team of graduate students and WPA- funded team of 100 African American women that excavated Native American mound sites across the landscape of the Savannah, GA area. Most of their time was spent on Irene Island, where there had once been a royal compound and very unusual mound. Irene Island was designated to be completely destroyed in order to expand the Port of Savannah. Irene was probably the site of the capital of Chicora. *
Near the tail end of the project, when the United States government was preparing for war with Germany, Caldwell spent a few days at an inconspicuous mound just east of downtown that he called the Bilbo Mound. The mound was originally built inside a round pond by adding more and more thin layers of dirt to the center. By the time, that British colonists arrived in 1733, the pond had become a swamp.
About all Caldwell’s team found were crude, fiber-tempered potsherds, greatly decomposed skeletons and some stone tools associated with fishing. It was assumed that the pottery was merely a later offshoot of Stallings Island pottery and was called Bilbo Pottery. At the time, there was no radiocarbon dating, so the collection of Bilbo artifacts were boxed and generally forgotten.
In 1957, archaeologist William Haag from Louisiana State University became interested in the Bilbo artifacts after Humble Oil Exploration Company began drilling a test hole near the archaeological site in search of petroleum. He dug some test pits to determine the chronology of the artifacts unearthed by Caldwell. There was no pottery below a level dated at 1,870 BC. Halfway down to the base from there was dated at 2,165 BC. The base of the mound was dated at 3,540 BC.
William Haag’s peers in the archaeology profession scoffed at his findings and they were ignored by professional journals. The archaeologists knew “for a fact” that the oldest pottery in North America had to be in Ohio and at that time, the earliest known Hopewell pottery had been dated at about 100-200 AD.
In 1977, the Peabody Museum of Harvard University published the professional papers of Savannah archaeologist, Antonio Waring. The editor, Stephen Williams, did include a mention of Haag’s radiocarbon dates, but added a note that they were impossible because it would mean that mound building began in North America 3,000 years before pottery making. At the time, no one had thoroughly studied the ancient pottery coming out of eastern Georgia and southern South Carolina.
In 1993, the University of Georgia’s Department of Anthropology published a book on the archaeology of the Georgia Coast. It briefly mentioned the Bilbo Mound and said that the mound was begun around 1,700 BC . . . 1,840 years later than Haag’s number.
In 1998, the initial construction of earthworks at Watson Brake, Louisiana was dated to about 3,400 BC. All references now state that Watson Brake is the oldest known mound in North America. Everyone has completely forgotten the Bilbo Mound because their predecessors assumed that it couldn’t be true in 1957.
In 1999, radiocarbon dates were obtained for Stallings Island potsherds excavated from Stallings Island, GA, on the Savannah River near Augusta. They were determined to date from about 2,200 BC or earlier. Stallings Island pottery from other sites on the Savannah have been found to date from at least 2,400 BC and possibly 2,800 BC. So in the 21st century academicians suddenly believed that Bilbo pottery was as old as Professor Haag said it was, but seem to have no clue that his much older dates for the actual construction of the original mound were intentionally left out of the books 58 years ago.
And now for a bit of golf trivia
Immediately east of the Bilbo Mound and swamp is Brewton Hill. It appears to merely be the sandy remnant of an ancient barrier island. However, it is a place of historical importance far beyond the four Native American mounds it supports. Would you believe that the first game of golf ever played in the Americas was on Brewton Hill?
During the last three years of the American Revolution, the British Crown garrisoned Scottish Highlander soldiers in Savannah. Savannah was completely surrounded by angry patriot troops so there was not a whole lot the Scotsmen could do for recreation. The began playing golf on the only piece of landscape under British control that was not pancake flat . . . Brewton Hill and it cluster of ancient Indian mounds.
This is the first record of golf being played in America. Even today, you will notice that many golf course designers intentionally create earthworks on the courses that resemble ancient burial mounds.
Apparently, some of the locals learned how to play golf from the Highlanders. We know that at least by 1794 the Savannah Golf Club was in “full swing.” The Indian mounds, Revolutionary War earthen fortifications and a 750 feet long Native American shell midden were used as golf game obstacles. Debutantes from Savannah society were having their parties at the clubhouse. Thus, Savannah not only gave us “Hark the Herald, Angels Sing,” “Jingle Bells”, the first steam powered ocean-going ship, the Girl Scouts, “Moon River” and the first nuclear-powered cargo ship, but America’s first golf course and clubhouse.
Even to this day, the daughters of “society” in small towns throughout the Southeast utilize the local golf course country club as their primary location for partying, showing off their bikinis and establishing their future pecking order.
And now you know.
*Post Script: In the spring of 1565, Captain René de Laudonière, commander of Fort Caroline, dispatched a barque 25 lieues anciens (52.5 miles) northward to pick up donated food for his starving garrison from the king of Chicola, whose capital was about 10 lieues anciens (21 miles) inland on a major river. In his memoir, De Laudonière specifically stated that Chicola was the same place that the Spanish called Chicora. It is about 52 miles from the mouth of the Altmaha River to the mouth of the Savannah River. It is about 21 miles from the mouth of the Savannah to Irene Island.
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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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