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Excavating a Lost World 10 miles from Downtown Atlanta – Part Two

Excavating a Lost World 10 miles from Downtown Atlanta – Part Two

Archaeologist Arthur Kelly discusses topics that were forbidden

Once the archaeologists and Georgia State University students had moved to south of Utoy Creek, it was a whole new ball game. Arthur Kelly’s team seemed to be headed toward making a new discovery that was newsworthy.  AJC columnist John Pennington sensed that and began to put updates in the weekday newspapers about the expedition’s progress. After the archaeological team had produced discoveries that seemed to be changing the history books, Pennington wrote feature articles in the AJC Sunday Magazine.  This was a big deal, because in that era more people in Atlanta read the Sunday magazine that watched the local evening news on TV.

Pennington probably had two motivations for maintaining an on-going drama over many months.  The publicity would discourage Great Southwest corporate executives from shutting down the project and might also persuade them to change their site plan to save the archaeological site.   Secondly, Pennington was providing readers an alternative to the bad news that flooded the news media.  The Viet Nam War was tearing the United States apart.

Pennington published a series of interviews with Kelly,  Georgia State University professors and sometimes, other University of Georgia anthropology professors.  Even though Kelly had been the department chair at the University of Georgia and still had a supervisory position, there was obviously major disagreements between him and his staff at UGA.


  1. The late John S. Pennington was the husband of anthropologist Marilyn Johnson. He was born in Andersonville, GA and had substantial Creek Indian ancestry.   He became a lifelong friend of President Jimmy Carter after proving Carter has lost his first election due to voter fraud.  He died of cancer at age 54 in 1980.

2. To read Part One of this article:    Arthur Kelly at Sandtown

3. To read Part Three of this article:  1969 – The Summer of Love

4. To read about the visit of three professors to the 9FU14 site:                Archaeological Orthodoxy


A village plan is revealed

Great Southwest Corporation was not going to allow Kelly’s team to dig just anywhere.  It was a nuisance to the grading contractors for them to be anywhere on the site.  Not only would they be unable to pile and compact fill clay over the archaeological site, but the workers had to leave a means for the archaeological team to get down to the original soil grade AND leave a place for them to park their cars.  There would soon be a 20 feet difference between the final finished grade and the archaeological site.

Therefore the archaeological team first dug test pits and trenches to determine the approximate size of the village.  Whether or not they included all of the village in the study area will never be known, but they were able to delineate the area that included a plaza ringed by houses, plus what was possibly a mound.

Once the alluvial and top soils were removed, the students carefully scraped away the next soil stratum until they revealed forms of dark soil.  The dark soil was the result of wood decomposing and charcoal from incalculable numbers of fires that had burned through the centuries in that village.  This was slow, meticulous work.  Tiny objects such as carbonized seeds might provide evidence that could radically change the understanding of the past.  However, all artifacts were important at this stage of the project, even tiny chips of flint left over from knapping a point or tool.

Eventually a plan for the village appeared as a result of all the hard work by the  Georgia State students.  A round plaza was surrounded by round houses.  At the northwest corner of the circular plaza was the mound of earth that Arthur Kelly suspected was a mound.

Even though local residents also called it an Indian mound, Robert Wauchope had speculated that it was actually a natural feature because the plan of the rise in the soil was an oval and it was rounded on top.  It did not have the pyramidal shape of most mounds that he had seen in the Southeast.  However, the fact that this oval related directly to the circular plan of the village, did make it appear to be mound.  Kelly was saving the excavation of the mound for last.

Arthur Kelly stands beside the house footprint that was next to the southeast corner of the mound. Note the concentric rings that were the result of multiple construction of houses. Photo by John Pennington.

Arthur Kelly stands beside the house footprint that was next to the southeast corner of the mound. Note the concentric rings that were the result of multiple construction of houses. The dark circle in the center is a hearth for cooking and warmth.  Also, note how close the earth moving activities were to the edge of the archeological site.  This photo was made by John Pennington of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, while he stood on the mound.

There was something especially remarkable about the footprints of the houses. Their posts were clearly visible in the soil, but also were the footprints of multiple houses at the same spot.  Apparently the older houses had smaller diameters than the later ones.

The oldest layer that was excavated at the village contained Late Deptford potsherds.  The next layer contained several types of Cartersville potsherds.  It is a style associated with the Early Middle Woodland Period today.  The upper levels contained Swift Creek style potsherds, which today are associated with the Middle Woodland Period and generally date from around 100 AD to 600 AD.

Kelly sent samples of charcoal found in some houses to a lab for radiocarbon dating.  They spanned the period between 200 BC and 450 AD.  There may have been older houses under the clay cap of the plaza, but the archaeological investigation was running out of time.  Those dates were sufficient to re-write the anthropology books.

In 1969, anthropology books taught that permanent Native American villages only appeared after the cultivation of corn, beans and squash began . . . or about 900 AD at Cahokia and later in the Southeast.  Kelly’s team had possibly found 2 or 3 primitive corn kernels in the entire village site.  They had found plenty of squash and sunflower seeds around the houses and cooking hearths, but most of the seeds they found were indigenous wild plants.  These were the very same plants such as pigweed, lambs quarters, wild barley, Jerusalem artichoke and morning glories that quickly choke Southeastern yards, gardens and farms, if they are not regularly weeded.  There is a reason why “they seem to like people.”

In interviews published in a weekday AJC, Kelly and a professor at Georgia State told John Pennington that they thought that the people of this village ate those wild seeds.  Perhaps they allowed these weeds to grow near the village.

Pennington then interviewed a professor at the University of Georgia about the seeds.  He said that the seeds had merely been blown on to the site by the wind.  There was obviously a major disagreement going on at the University’s Anthropology Department.  Kelly was their director.

Thirty-five years later, after great advances in the science of genetics, Kelly would be proven right.  In fact, the exact same “weed” seeds his team found proved to be the plants that Southeastern Indians began domesticating around 3500 BC or earlier.  There would have been no controversy on the subject in 2009.

The Booger Bottom Mound on the Chattahoochee River in North Metro Atlanta was slightly older than the 9FU14 village, but still occupied during the time that this village was occupied. Like almost all Early Woodland mounds in Georgia, Booger Bottom was an oval pyramid.

The Booger Bottom Mound on the Chattahoochee River in North Metro Atlanta was slightly older than the 9FU14 village, but still occupied during the time that this village was occupied. Like almost  all Early Woodland mounds in Georgia, Booger Bottom was an oval pyramid.

Mound C at Tunacunnhee in NW Georgia was an oval pyramid and veneered with limestone rocks. It was contemporary with 9FU14 after around 100 AD and abandoned about the same time as 9FU14.

Mound C at Tunacunnhee in NW Georgia was an oval pyramid, veneered with limestone ashlar. It was contemporary with 9FU14 after around 100 AD and abandoned about the same time as 9FU14 . . .  c. 450 AD.

Did Larry Meier “fudge” the mound?

By spring of 1969, Site Supervisor Larry Meier had led a team, which removed the alluvial soil from oval shaped mound near the river, to reveal a modest mound in the shape of a truncated pyramid with a ramp on its southeast side.   The work was done without close supervision from Dr. Kelly.  Often several weeks would pass when Kelly was unable to visit the site due to academic responsibilities or attendance at conferences.

The “finished” mound was oriented to the sunrise on the Winter Solstice and was the shape of several Early Mississippian mounds in northern Alabama, Georgia and at Shiloh National Military Park in Tennessee.  It was also the shape of many of the smaller Aztec pyramids.   In other words, it looked like what most people thought Indian mounds looked like in 1969.

What was shown to AJC columnist John Pennington in the spring of 1969 could have been the true form of the mound, but its integrity and age will never be known.  The mound was never excavated and dated.

Etowah I Style mound (c. 1050 AD) in the Nottely River Valley of Union County, GA. It was quite similar to the mound that Larry Meiers presented to the media at 9FU14.

Etowah I Style mound (c. 1050 AD) in the Nottely River Valley of Union County, GA. It was quite similar to the mound that Larry Meier presented to the media at 9FU14.

There is a problem with the mound’s form.   The mound’s location is integral with the site plan of the village so it apparently dated from the Early-Middle Woodland Period.  However, other truncated and ramped pyramids in Georgia, Alabama, Tennessee and Western North Carolina date from the Transitional and Early Mississippian Periods – 800 AD to 1200 AD.   All of the Early Woodland and Woodland platform mounds that were documented by Robert Wauchope in North Georgia during 1939 and Antonio Waring around Savannah were oval.

Most of the Middle Woodland Period (Swift Creek) mounds in North Georgia are also oval.  In fact, oval mounds again became the dominant form constructed by the ancestors of the Creeks in the Late Mississippian and Early Colonial Period.  This is known to the anthropology profession as the Lamar Culture.

In his ignorance of Muskogean Cultural History, Meier could well have sculptured an authentic, oval shaped Early Woodland Mound into what he thought a “mound builder” mound looked like.   Of course, an alternative explanation is that later occupants of the Chattahoochee Valley converted an ancient Deptford Culture mound into an Itsate mound.  We will never know the answer, but the fact is that a truncated pyramid is incongruous with the earliest, indigenous architectural tradition in Georgia.

Far out and funky

As soon as John Pennington publicized 9FU14 there were problems with night time and weekend poachers.   The Fulton County Police stepped up the patrols of the area, but the archaeological site was such a long way from any paved road, it was almost impossible to see the poachers, especially if they came in on motorbikes.  Night vision goggles were in their infancy and not available to law enforcement.

The Georgia State University students came up with a win-win solution that at least worked in mild weather.  They began camping out at the archaeological site on weekends and holidays.  Long hours of work on the site were followed by parties that lasted until the wee hours of the morning and cohabitation among the couples that formed at the site.  In fact, some of those couples are still married to this day.

It was the height of the Hippie Era and 1969 was the year of the Summer of Love.   Marijuana was endemic on the site, while several of the students regularly “tripped out.”   Someone on the site figured out that the seeds of the morning glories, which were endemic in that part of the Chattahoochee Valley were hallucinogenic.  Having access to Nature’s drug store on-site eliminated all costs and dangers of getting busted by the cops.

Arthur Kelly was amused by the situation, but also, having an inquisitive mind, investigated the morning glories further.  He directed the students with backgrounds in biology to dig up samples of the various types of morning glories so that they could be examined in lab.  Kelly had a hunch that there was a connection between the endemic morning glory patches in the Middle Chattahoochee Valley and the mystery of 9FU14.  You see . . .  the sweet potato is a member of the morning glory family.  The domestic sweet potatoes sold today in supermarkets are the descendants of a morning glory that grew in Peru.

NativeSweetPotatoFour of the varieties of morning glories in the vicinity of 9FU14 had roots that looked like large sweet potatoes, but had different colored flowers.  They differed from South American and cultivated sweet potatoes because they had a single root.  South American sweet potatoes have multiple roots.  Three of them were “bushy” like a domestic sweet potato. One had vines like most Southeastern morning glories, but also had a sweet potato root.  The seeds of all four were hallucinogenic.

Kelly directed the students to bake the roots.  The braver souls agreed to eat them, perhaps in hope that they would be hallucinogenic also.  The feral sweet potatoes were definitely edible, but not quite as sweet as a modern cultivated sweet potato.  Kelly described their sweetness as about the same as a banana.

Kelly then broke one of the most important laws of the Religion of Anthropology.   He discussed his theories about the wild sweet potatoes with John Pennington prior to presenting them to his peers for review and comment.   Kelly believed that sweet potatoes were the staple crop that made possible the presence of large, mound-building villages in Georgia 1500 years before the large scale cultivation of corn.

The public was fascinated by the AJC article about the wild sweet potatoes.  His enemies at the Universities of Georgia and North Carolina went ballistic.   The official orthodoxy was that sweet potatoes were introduced from South America by 18th century white planters in South Carolina to feed their slaves.

In an earlier article by John Pennington in the AJC on the artifacts found at 9FU14, Arthur Kelly had shown him a ceramic figurine from 9FU14 that had Mesoamerican features.  He then casually mentioned that he had found several artifacts through the years along the Chattahoochee River and near the attapulgite mines in Georgia that appeared to have been made in Mesoamerica or been copies of art made in Mesoamerica.

The comments on Mesoamerican contact were enough to propel many Southeastern archeologists into rage.  However, his public statements about sweet potatoes were the ammunition they needed to prove that Kelly was insane.  The scions of Southeastern archaeology met and they issued a professional death warrant for Arthur Kelly.   The very same archaeologists, who for the next four decades would dominate their profession in Georgia, hatched a Byzantine plot to assassinate the king.

Of course, we now know that Arthur Kelly was right on target with his theories.  The problem was that like all the other Caucasian archaeologists in the Southeast, he was completely ignorant of Muskogean languages and cultural traditions.  The Creek words for sweet potato, Sacred Black Drink (Yaupon holly) village chief and tobacco are used to this day in eastern Peru and the Upper Amazon Basin. Traditional Creek clothing, such as the long shirt, turban and ribbon dresses are worn to this day in Eastern Peru. The “Creek” Stomp Dance can be found throughout Central America and Northwestern  South America.

Apparently, also none of the Southeastern archaeologists ever read the chronicles of the Juan Pardo Expeditions.  In 1567, Pardo visited a village in South Carolina named Aho (Ajo in Spanish) which specialized in growing sweet potatoes.  Aho is the Creek and Southern Arawak word for sweet potato.

In Part Three, this author becomes briefly involved with the work at 9FU14 and in the process saves Arthur Kelly from felony charges.   Several of the professors and students at the University of Georgia had conspired to frame him for a crime that he didn’t commit in a complex scheme that was dependent on the public not knowing anything about archaeology. 


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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.



    I was there as a Georgia State student. Changed my life, but not in the way I’d hoped.

  2. Yes, you were. Unfortunately, I was too busy gawking at the beautiful, scantily clad Georgia State coeds to get to know you better. Bet one of them was your future wife. Wouldn’t it be wild, if someone would invent a way to travel through time.

    We could go back to 1968 and 1969. You could tell you to transfer to Georgia Tech because you were to become a successful land surveyor anyway. I would tell me to pay closer attention to the details, spend more time walking around the other nearby archaeological sites and take more photos! What I was seeing would have great significance in the 21st century.


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