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Excavating a Lost World 10 miles from Downtown Atlanta

Excavating a Lost World 10 miles from Downtown Atlanta

Between around 800 BC and 1600 AD there was a 32 mile long continuous chain of towns and villages along the Chattahoochee River in Metro Atlanta.  Several of those towns survived until 1818, when the land beneath them was ceded by the Creek Confederacy.  One of those ancient towns, Sandtown, survived until 1827, when the last Creek land in Georgia was ceded.   This was the cradle of Muskogean Civilization . . . and yes, it was a civilization.

For a brief moment in time, 1968 through 1969,  a world famous archaeologist and a team of enthusiastic Georgia State University students raced to peel back the secrets of the past before the landscape would be covered with up to 20 feet of red Georgia clay.    What they learned should have radically changed the understanding of the Southeast’s Native American heritage, but it was concealed for 40 years.


  1. The late Arthur R. Kelly was born in Hubbard, Texas. After graduating from Harvard in 1929, he taught for three years at the University of Illinois, but  spent most of his adult life as a nationally famous archaeologist in Georgia.  He was a co-founder of the Society for American Archaeology and the founder of the Society for Georgia Archaeology.  He died of a heart attack in 1979.
  2. 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.
  3. Part Two of This Series
  4. Part Three of This Series

  The last Sunday before the bulldozers arrived

The year is 1967.   The Rev.  Paul Harwell of Red Oak United Methodist Church in southern Fulton County was of Creek descent.  More than that . . . he had studied anthropology in college and worked on a archaeological site in the Nazca Plain of Peru.  Archaeology and history had continued to be his avocation.   He took on the role of a Creek Uncle and led teenagers of the church, who were also of Creek descent, on tours of our heritage in Georgia.

The report by Archaeologist Robert Wauchope about his year long study of Creek heritage sites in North Georgia had just been published.   Native Americans and historic preservationists alike were outraged to discover that the Texas developers of Six Flags Over Georgia had been allowed to bulldoze an ancient townsite with four mounds without the least bit of archaeological study.

Then popular Atlanta Journal Constitution columnist,  John Pennington, announced that state officials had pressured Fulton County to waive all environmental controls to allow a consortium of  real estate developers to bulldoze about 7,000 acres of the Chattahoochee River’s flood plain, south of Six Flags.  The vast tract included numerous Indian mounds and a Civil War battlefield.

On a Sunday afternoon in the summer of 1967,  Rev. Harwell drove  his teenage offspring and I to the confluence of the Chattahoochee River and Utoy Creek.   Giant earth movers would start destroying the landscape on Monday.   He wanted to show us the Civil War fortifications and the site of Sandtown village, before they were destroyed.

There really was not much at Sandtown to see.  The landscape looked like a World War I battlefield from all the pits dug by artifact poachers.  Only one mound was still visible on the north side of Utoy Creek and it had been plowed down to being barely a bump in the landscape.  There were other bumps on the south side of the creek, but according to a just published archaeology book, these were probably natural features, created by innumerable floods.

Paul showed us the spot where a teenage Confederate sniper had been summarily executed after being captured by Union cavalrymen, because he had 14 notches on his rifle stock. He showed us the breastworks along the river and creek, plus an unnatural hill that others called an Indian mound, but Paul thought was an artillery emplacement.

Paul also showed us the rusting barbwire fence line in a pasture at the northern tip of Sandtown, which marked the last northern boundary of the Creek Nation between 1821 and 1827.  One side was lower than the other, because it had been plowed longer.

Being that we were Creeks,  we felt a ancient spiritual presence at Sandtown.   However, it was a sad presence.  Mother Earth was tired from 140 years of abusive farming, and now was about to be raped.

While we walked over the surface of the land south of Utoy Creek, I picked up a bag full of shiny, black potsherds that had complex, three dimensional designs on them.  This was Swift Creek pottery, but we teenagers didn’t know anything about that.  The experience was just a break between the more serious demands of dating,  sports and classes – in that order.  Of course, I had no idea that this afternoon jaunt, so long ago,  would radically change the direction of my life.


Robert Wauchope at Sandtown

The year is 1939.    Immediately after graduating from Harvard,  Archaeologist Robert Wauchope, was hired by the WPA to supervise a survey of all archaeological sites in North Georgia.  At the same time, he would become the first anthropology professor at the University of Georgia.

It is obvious that at the beginning, Wauchope had no clue about the monumental scale of Native American occupation in North Georgia.  The region had barely been mentioned, while he was at Harvard.   He quickly realized that it would be absolutely impossible to survey and probe all the sites in one year.   It was really a task requiring five or more years.

Early on in the process,  Wauchope was startled to discover that the seven mile long Nacoochee Valley was one continuous archaeological zone that had been occupied from the Ice Age onward.   He spent much of 1939 there, then raced to complete the survey of the other 53 counties.  It was impossible.

In Metro Atlanta he discovered a 32 mile long corridor of ancient archaeological sites.  With time running out, he chose two, Sandtown and the Vandiver Mound site across the river,  to thoroughly study.   Wauchope was surprised to discover that the about 60% of the potsherds at these town sites came from the Early and Middle Woodland Periods, a time in the past when he had been taught that Indians didn’t even live in permanent villages.  Yet the Sandtown site also contained all styles of pottery found in North Georgia between about 1000 BC and 1700 AD.

Wauchope intended to come back on weekends and in future summer breaks to finish up his contract.   That didn’t happen.  War had broken out in Europe.  The WPA program was cancelled, when the federal government began shifting resources to the defense industry.   Then Wauchope was offered the directorship of the archaeology lab at the University of North Carolina.   He left Georgia with his survey incomplete and his report unwritten.  After Pearl Harbor, he was “volunteered” into the OSS, forerunner of the CIA,  which was filled with Harvard graduates.

Wauchope would not return to Georgia to start finishing his report until 1959.  The report was submitted to the Society of American Archaeology in 1966 and published later that year in book form.

In 1939 and 1940,  Atlanta was the darling of the world because of the popularity of “Gone With the Wind.”    Had the report been published then,  most of the Chattahoochee River Corridor in Metro Atlanta would have probably become a national park.   The whitewater section of the river did become a national recreation area in the 1970s,  but the long section containing non-stop archaeological sites, is now irreversibly developed.

Arthur Kelly at Sandtown

As a public relations gesture to assuage the immense environmental damage about to be done to the Chattahoochee River Valley,   Great Southwest Corporation made a great to do over the announcement in 1968 of an archaeological dig at the site of Sandtown.  Dr. Arthur Kelly, Director of the Department of Anthropology at the University of Georgia, was hired as the director of the dig.   Kelly had become nationally known for his supervision of the archaeological work at Ocmulgee National Monument in the 1930s and since then for his work in river valleys about to be flooded by lakes.

Since Kelly had academic responsibilities,  Larry Meier was hired as the project foreman.  Meiers did not have a PhD in Anthropology, but had become well known in Georgia for his work along the Chattahoochee River near Columbus, in particular the raising of a Confederate ironclad.   Most of the laborers were to be anthropology students at Georgia State University, which is located in Downtown Atlanta.

Executives of the Great Southwest Corporation let it be known that they were making a great sacrifice by not bulldozing the Sandtown archaeological site until after Kelly’s team was finished.   The archaeologists were expected to be off the site by December 1968.

In fact, the time allotted was grossly insufficient to excavate the entire town site in order understand its complex and long history.  The project was initially viewed by everyone concerned as a publicity stunt of little significance that would give field experience to Georgia State anthropology students.

Without a complete excavation, which probably would have taken several years, it would be impossible to determine the site plans of  the town’s  numerous occupations during the previous 2,800 years. Otherwise, the most they could expect to accomplish was duplication of Robert Wauchope’s findings, with perhaps more information on the structural details of houses.  Much of the students’ time was spent in a Mississippian Period part of the town, that Wauchope didn’t study.

From the beginning, Kelly noticed that there was a concentration of Woodland Period potsherds on the surface on the south side of Utoy Creek.   Wauchope had labeled the areas of exposed pottery on the south side of Utoy Creek as archaeological sites 9FU13 and 9FU14.   However, Wauchope never dug any test pits or trenches in this area. His book, published 30 years later didn’t even make it clear, where these theoretical archaeological sites were.

The problem was that throughout the two mile long corridor of dense surface artifact deposits,  the time periods were mixed up.  Numerous floods on the Chattahoochee had picked up artifacts from multiple locations and deposited them downstream in sandy alluvial soil.   The Early and Middle Woodland potsherds, Kelly was seeing could be the remnants of villages miles upstream.

Kelly directed the students to drop what they were doing and move across Utoy Creek to do a test dig.   Once through the approximate foot of alluvial sand, they hit the mother lode . . .  strata of soils stained by the very early occupation of the site.  This was a village site, much older than the Mississippian strata they had been exploring on the south side of Utoy Creek.

Kelly immediately went to the management of Great Southwest Corporation and asked for extension of his contract to begin exploring the unknown village site.   They balked.  This smelled like trouble . . . a project that could drag on for a year or so . . . serious archaeology.    During that time, the earth movers would have to leave a 20 foot hole, where the natural landscape remained.   They couldn’t build the spur railway that was to parallel the river.

Rejected by the real estate developers,   Kelly went to John Pennington.  Not only was Pennington a highly respected journalist, but also an astute historian.  Also, back then journalists in Atlanta held political power that was gained in their decades of battles with the segregationists.  The columnists of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution were celebrities whose prestige far outshined rock stars.

Pennington called in the battleships . . . Atlanta architects Ike Saporta,  Julian Harris and John Portman, plus historian, Franklin Garrett.  Saporta was president of the Atlanta Archaeological Society, the founder of the Metropolitan Atlanta Planning Commission and a Georgia Tech professor.  Harris had designed the Etowah Mounds Museum and constantly used Creek mofifs in his buildings.  He was also professor at Georgia Tech.   Portman was one of the most famous architects in the United States.  The daring designs of Portman and Structural Engineer T. Z. Chastain in Atlanta were covered by the national media like today they cover trips of spoiled 20ish Hollywood starlets to rehabilitation clinics and DUI trials.

Pennington wrote an article on the newly discovered village next to Sandtown and the local TV stations then conveniently interviewed Saporta, Harris, Portman and Garrett on the matter.    The Texans backed down and agreed to extend the contract for a few more months.   There was a condition.  Work would stop at the Sandtown site and it would be immediately covered with fill clay.    There would be no site plan of Sandtown.


Additional students and volunteers were recruited.   To save time, bulldozers were used to scrape off the alluvial and top soils.  Minimal  efforts were made to salvage the artifacts in them.  The members of the team began frantically working seven days a week as giant earthmovers worked just a feverishly around them to raise the level of the land 20 feet above flood level.

In our next article . . . the people working on archaeological site 9FU14 discover something totally unexpected that will eventually turn the anthropology books upside down.   In the meantime,  the students party all night and Kelly’s enemies in the archaeology profession plot his downfall.   The complete destruction of his career is averted because he needed someone to gather pieces of pottery from the banks of Utoy Creek to make a Shard Boat . . . whatever that is.


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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.



    Very cool post. I own the land that is pictured in the photo from 1930s. I can tell by the field, the bend in the river, and the bluff opposite the field. We plowed last year and after a light rain you could just bend down and pick up pottery and flint. Very cool.

    • Thank you John for writing us. Would it be possible for you to send us photos of the pottery that you found in the field?
      We might be able to tell you something about it.

      POOF’s email address is

      Richard T.


      I would love to walk this land sir. I have many artifacts and do not intend to sell them only to enjoy their beauty.


    I was a senior at South Cobb HS in 1967 and fished and hunted that area along Utoy creek. Sad that I had no idea what lay beneath my feet and the damage Six Flags Inc. would do.


    Extremely interesting!


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