Focus on NE Alabama, NW Georgia and SE Tennessee in 2017
In 2015, we sailed down the Atlantic Coast from Winyah Bay, SC to Key West, Florida and analyzed the known Native American sites along the way. In 2016, we paddled down the Chattahoochee River from Helen, GA to Apalachicola, FL and again furnished readers with many surprises . . . the spectacular, but generally forgotten, discoveries of the famous 20th century archaeologists, Robert Wauchope and Arthur Kelly. As readers might have already guessed, we will be canoeing and hoofing it around a fascinating region that contains several National Historic Landmarks, yet many Native American occupation sites that are little known. There are many unanswered questions.
Why the People of One Fire continues to publicize Native American heritage sites
For those of you who are new arrivals to the People of One Fire, what I generally do is analyze the available information about designated archaeological sites with a special emphasis on site planning, architecture, linguistics and eyewitness accounts in colonial archives. In the 21st century, we have the extreme advantage of high resolution satellite photographs, infrared imagery and LIDAR scans. It is much easier to visualize the “big picture” and also see the footprints of structures in the landscape.
The architecture and planning professions have developed much more sophisticated means of handling and analyzing large amounts of data than is utilized in anthropology. The primary reason is that if mistakes or omissions occur, human lives are at stake. That one mistake can result in someone being killed, the perpetrator in being fired or the employer facing a massive liability suit. If an archeologist makes a mistake, he or she merely spews forth perjorative labels toward his or her critics, then moves on to make the mistake again.
The surprising discoveries that POOF has made in the past two years typically involved important information gained by the original archaeological team being lost to future generations . . . not an intentional effort to conceal the facts by the people excavating the site. Intellectual fraud has indeed occurred in recent years, mainly when funding for the work was supported by casino revenue. However, for the most part, the mistakes are errors of omission and overt conservatism, not technical mistakes . . . unless you consider labeling a standard Creek word “an ancient Cherokee words, whose meaning has been lost.” 🙄
The reason that Creek Indians and Creek descendants have become much more pro-active in recent years is because the possessive attitude of many archaeologists toward Creek Heritage Sites is directly contributing to their destruction. If anyone has the right to claim cultural possession, it is the descendants of the people, who occupied these towns.
The problem is that when archaeologists become so secretive that even most of their peers don’t know the existence of an archaeological site, there is a grave danger that the site will be destroyed. Public officials, Native Americans and the community-at-large do not find out about the ancient Native American site’s existence until ground disturbance and building permits have already been issued . . . classic example, the Oxford, Alabama Mound that became land fill for a Sam’s Warehouse.
I have seen this happen over and over again. When I was Principal Planner of Cobb County, GA, twelve burial mounds in a single year were illegally bulldozed by land speculators or developers, just prior to applications for ground disturbance permits. Most were in flood plains, where no construction could occur anyway. Several were not even listed on the state archaeological site files, which I had in my possession. Now even county planners are not allowed to have the site files in their possession.
Just this past year, we showed readers satellite images of an entire town site with multiple mounds on the Flint River, being progressively bulldozed to create a corporate corn farming operation. The site had been surveyed by a team from the University of Georgia about 23 years ago and had been added to the state archaeological site inventory. That turned out to not mean diddlysquat. The owners were some wealthy Atlantans seeking federal tax credits for furnishing grain to make ethanol alcohol. That particular county didn’t even have a planner and several years ago, the regional planning agency for that section of Georgia fired its historic preservation planner in order to save money. It is illegal to bulldoze Native American burials without the remains being relocated by archaeologists. However, no one was watching the chicken coop.
The Forgotten Bilbo Mound
One of the best examples of the current “flaws in the system” for retaining factual information on Native American sites is the Bilbo Mound in Savannah. In 1959, highly respected Louisiana archaeologist, William Haag, excavated this mound east of Downtown Savannah. Haag is best known for his pioneering work at Poverty Point in northeastern Louisiana. His work always had a reputation of being technically sound, even if his many detractors denounced his interpretations. As Louisiana’s first State Archaeologist, he was instrumental in Poverty Point being designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Haag initially determined that the Bilbo Mound was a man-made island in a man-made pond, but the site seemed so old that it was impossible to determine the mound’s original shape. Initial excavation of a test trench revealed that the mound had grown accretionally over many centuries.
There was a distinct boundary between burials containing potsherds and those with ceramics. Haag theorized that this was an ideal situation to determine the advent of pottery-making in North America. The radiocarbon date for charcoal within the lowest pot or what is called the ceramic horizon, was around 1800 BC! Haag continued to dig down through the multiple burials until he reached virgin soil. He obtained a radiocarbon date for preserved several wood particles in the lowest accretional soil. They all came back with an approximate age of 3545 BC.
When Haag published a professional article on the Bilbo Mound dig, he was attacked on all sides by his peers. In 1947, the profession had adopted an official policy at a conference at Harvard University, which conflicted with his findings. You see that it was a known fact that the oldest mounds and oldest pottery were in eastern Ohio. This policy was adopted prior to the availability of radiocarbon dating. The first experiments in this dating technique were carried out in 1947.
According to highly respected Savannah archaeologist, Antonio Waring, the primary justification for Haag’s site report being blocked from major professional journals was that the dates were impossible. Waring visited the site and found Haag’s methodology sound. About 30 years after Waring’s death in 1964, c. 2300 BC would be generally accepted as the beginning date for pottery in the Savannah Area. Also, about that same time, Watsons Brake, a circular earthwork in Louisiana would be radiocarbon dated at 3450 BC.
Haag tucked in his tail, ceased spreading information about the Bilbo Mound and concentrated on the Poverty Point site. He was again attacked for early radiocarbon dates there. However, after about twenty years his peers grudgingly accepted the early dates for Poverty Point. Nevertheless, the oldest known architecture in North America, the Bilbo Mound, has been completely forgotten.
When trying to find the actual location for the Bilbo Mound, I contacted the regional agency responsible for protecting historic and prehistoric sites in the Savannah Area. Its personnel had never heard of the Bilbo Mound. A staff member explained to me that they only had lists of properties on the National Register of Historic Places. Savannah’s copy of the state archaeological site inventory had been taken away long before he was hired. Thus, what should be a National Historic Landmark and the location of a state historic marker, remains incognito.
I wrote a very short article for Wikipedia on the Bilbo Mound. It consisted entirely of direct quotes from William Haag’s report and a later mention of his excavation by Antonio Waring. The article was removed in less than a day after nine persons, describing themselves as professional archaeologists, posted challenges. The article had nothing to do with me or the People of One Fire, yet all the sarcastic comments were personal attacks, such as “author is a known charlatan” . . . “poorly researched article” . . . “keep this nut off of Wikipedia” . . . “no evidence of Mesoamericans in Savannah” (huh?) . . . “pseudo-archaeologist,” etc. So much for science.
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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.
Latest posts by Richard Thornton (see all)
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