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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.

14 Comments

  1. josephlayden@gmail.com'

    I went and visited it yesterday after reading this article. It has indeed become a swamp, but I can see a series of mounds. I can’t see through to the big central mound until I get some knee high snake boots, but I can make out the shape on Google Earth. Also, in the area behind it that is labeled the “Blackshear” community on Google Earth, I see what looks like very precise irrigation canals. They are overgrown with trees, and this system may extend into part of the Bilbo area. How do I find out if there were ever any plantations there? Could it be that the lake became a swamp, and now it’s dried up even further to expose more of the features of the land?

    Reply
    • Lyon,

      I don’t know. I have never been to the site. Gene Waddell told me about it, but he is in monastic seclusion right now in Italy, trying to get a book ready for publishing. I have learned a lot more about South Carolina’s Native Americans thanks to books given me by Gene, but it is not the same thing as here, where I am living among town sites, built by my ancestors.

      Reply
  2. josephlayden@gmail.com'

    Richard,
    re really going to like the shape of the mound- I think it is the Maya-Creek Mother Goddess.
    I took some photos from Google Earth and filmed the area today. I have posted the Google images on my blog along with the Mother Goddess art you have provided, as well as a link to this article.
    The effigy you see is from Google Earth 1994. The dark areas are the low points that are filled with water. The city has pumped sewage inside the outer ring of the circle in years past.
    We filmed the outer two rings today- the space between them is filled with water and trash. There are homeless tents on many of the outer mounds. I don’t think anyone has noticed that this mound depicts a figure. It is hard to see unless you are looking from above through a black and white filter, such as with Google Earth from 1994-2003. Also, all of the shots since 2003 have been during times of full foliage. Right now the trees growing on the mounds are barren, and so a cropduster might come in handy. Maybe a drone will do the job….

    http://prehistoricfantasy.blogspot.com/2016/03/bilbo-mound-savannah-maya-in-georgia.html

    Reply
    • Lyon,

      The Creek Confederacy came into being 1717. There were about 24 ethnic groups that came together eventually. The members of the confederacy were monotheistic, but it seems to be pretty obvious that some of the branches had Mesoamerican religions originally.

      Reply
    • Isn’t the Bilbo Mound located in a golf course. You might be seeing the fairways and putting greens.

      Reply
  3. josephlayden@gmail.com'

    No the Dulaney and Brewster Hill mounds are on the Savannah Golfcourse, but the Bilbo has always been swampland as far as the records show. We found the location by comparing your photos to some historic mounds of Savannah. I am working with a retired history teacher who participated in some digs at Ellis, Skidaway, and Wilmington Island.
    We are tour guides here in Savannah, and I am a prehistoric fiction writer who’s research has been focused more on South-East Asia and China, and certain cultures which Oppenheimer also links with the Maya.
    The trenches between the Bilbo mounds are about 30 feet across and filled with about 3 to 4 feet of water, but you can clearly see the shapes visible from Google Earth from the outer perimeter.
    WE may take the maze to the center in a kayak before the place becomes Zika virus central.
    They are widening President Street at present but it doesn’t look like they will not disturb the mound.
    This is easily as important as Serpent Mound or the Nazca figures and the property is owned by the city. Run-off from the road construction is also draining into the trenches between the mounds, and it looks as if sewage was pumped in the past. It really needs to be drained, cleaned up, and protected. We are going to make some phone calls tomorrow.

    Reply
  4. josephlayden@gmail.com'

    No the Dulaney and Brewster Hill mounds are on the Savannah Golfcourse, but the Bilbo has always been swampland as far as the records show. We found the location by comparing your photos to some historic maps of Savannah.
    I am working with a retired history teacher who participated in some digs at Ellis, Skidaway, and Wilmington Island.
    We are tour guides here in Savannah, and I am a prehistoric fiction writer who’s research has been focused more on South-East Asia and China, certain cultures of which Oppenheimer also links with the Maya.
    The trenches between the Bilbo mounds are about 30 feet across and filled with about 3 to 4 feet of water, but you can clearly see the shapes visible from Google Earth by standing on the outer perimeter mound. there is a foot trail atop it accessable from the railroad track. The curves and edges you see in the Google Earth images are clearly visible at ground level.
    We may follow the flooded maze to the center in a kayak before the place becomes Zika virus central in Spring.
    They are widening President Street at present, but it doesn’t look like they will disturb the mound.
    This is easily as important as Serpent Mound or the Nazca figures, and the property is owned by the city. Run-off from the road construction is draining into the trenches between the mounds, and a late 1800s era drainage pipe has been run through the outer mound. It looks as if sewage was pumped through in the past. Across president street is the water reclamation plant.
    This site really needs to be drained, cleaned up, and protected. We are going to make some phone calls tomorrow.

    Reply
  5. josephlayden@gmail.com'

    I don’t know if it is truly the shape of the Rain Goddess, but when I saw it on Google Earth I immediately thought of those drawings from the America Unearthed episode.
    It could also be a depiction of a monkey or a man.
    The foliage obscures the true view, but hopefully kayaks and drones will help us to better determine the true shape.
    Am I right to assume a mound as old as Bilbo might have been made by the ancestors of the Uchi and the first of the three migrations from South America/Central America to the mouth of the Savannah River?

    Reply
  6. josephlayden@gmail.com'

    My partner Richard Hodges just obtained a detailed report of the mound from 2009. I found nothing about this study in all my searches, but a local retired archeologist has given us a complete copy…more to come.

    Reply
  7. stephen.duplantier@gmail.com'

    Saw a report recently on linguistic connections between Chitimacha in coastal Louisiana and Chontal– I hope I am remembering correctly. Will send reference when I find it.

    Reply
    • Hey Stephen

      One of POOF’s founding members, Dr. Deborah Clifton, is a Creek-Choctaw anthropologist in Louisiana. She has been telling us for sometime about the Chitimacha-Chontal Maya liguistic connection. Like the Creeks, the Chitimacha have a tradition that a long time ago, “Sun Lords” from the south arrived in their land and taught them advanced knowledge. Probably, you ran across an article by or about Deborah. Thanks for telling us about this.

      Reply
  8. crubio10436@gmail.com'

    I don’t find it in any way amusing that such ancient monuments of our civilization are disrespected and abused in such horrible ways by the settlers.

    Reply
  9. Peopleofonefire@aol.com'

    Unfortunately, it is a story that has been repeated over and over again in the United States.

    Reply

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