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Georgia Tech Engineer Supervised Excavations at Ocmulgee National Monument

Georgia Tech Engineer Supervised Excavations at Ocmulgee National Monument

Not only were the large round houses that Dr. Arthur Kelly found at the oldest levels of Ocmulgee National Monument left out of the version of its archaeology that the public sees,  but the important role played by the man responsible for supervising day-to-day excavations has been “edited out” of contemporary accounts of this massive archaeological project.   Most of Ocmulgee’s  archaeological excavations occurred between 1933 and 1935.

Most Macon, Georgia residents today probably wonder how Joe Tamplin Boulevard got its name.  Obviously,  civic leaders thought he was “someone special” at some time in the past.   Mr. Tamplin played a major role in making Macon what it is today.

(Photo Above) YES,  the outfit worn by Arthur Kelly is identical to that worn by Indiana Jones, 50 years later!  In this photo are three of the most famous North American archaeologists of the 20th century . . . Arthur Kelly,  James Ford and Gordon Wiley.   Frank Lester is on the extreme right.   The man next to him is probably Joe Tamplin, but this is not certain.


WPA workers excavating a trench at Ocmulgee National Monument in 1934.

In 1935,  Garrard and Isabel Patterson of Columbus, GA repeatedly pressured National Park Service archaeologist,  Arthur Kelly, to send one of his archaeologists at Ocmulgee National Monument to Columbus, because “there were also many Indian mounds and towns there on the Chattahoochee River. ”  Kelly eventually assigned a young man, named James Ford, to  survey the Columbus sites.  At the time, Ford only had about a three year liberal arts education and no degree, so he was the “low man on the totem pole.”

Apparently, Ford wanted to get back closer to his home in Mississippi and so was re-assigned by the NPS.   Kelly then wrote the Pattersons that he only had two archaeologists left on his staff, Joe Tamplin and Frank Lester.  He added that Tamplin was also an engineer and a graduate of Georgia Tech, while  Lester had “attended” the University of Tennessee.

Lester had been in charge of the excavation of Mound D and revelation of the corn rows under the mound.  As the junior archaeologist remaining, he was eventually sent to Columbus.

Say what?  The only other professional with a college degree on the Ocmulgee staff other than Dr. Kelly, during its peak years of work between 1933 and 1935, was also an engineer?   His existence had seemingly been erased from history.

Most books and articles on Ocmulgee NM, written by late 20th century archaeologists do not even mention Tamplin.  I found his name mentioned briefly as “a foreman” at Ocmulgee, who attended the celebratory banquet at the end of the main excavation program.  An article in an archaeological journal listed his name as “a senior laborer” who was invited to a 1974 conference on Ocmulgee.   Why would a laborer be invited to a professional conference?  Obviously, the archaeologist-authors were trying to deprofessionalize the man.

Finally,  I found a book written by a Midwestern archaeologist on archaeologist James Ford, who didn’t know that he was supposed to deprofessionalize Tamplin.   He was described as “a structural engineer, employed by the National Park Service, who in 1937 prepared the structural plans for the “Earth Lodge,” after James Ford had sketched out what he wanted.   However, that statement did not explain what Joe Tamplen was doing Macon.  The text seemed to say that Tamplen had taken the train down from DC.

Eventually, on an old National Park Service document, I found the man’s true role in this landmark archaeological project.  He was second in command to Dr. Kelly.  Kelly was often called away to his office in Macon or other cities.   Joe Tamplin supervised the daily excavations in Ocmulgee National Monument.

Tamplin continued his career as a professional engineer . . . probably because there was a whole lot more job security in it.   Just like architects can specialize in historic and prehistoric preservation, civil engineers can do likewise.   He would have been the man to go to when a client encountered a very old structure.

Why the contemporary crop of anthropologists would erase Joe Tamplin’s existence is anyone’s guess.   Most likely it was an effort to make themselves seem intellectually superior to other professionals.

And now you know!


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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.



    “One of the saddest lessons of history is this: If we’ve been bamboozled long enough, we tend to reject any evidence of the bamboozle. We are no longer interested in finding out the truth. The bamboozle has captured us. It is simply too painful to acknowledge, even to ourselves, that we have been taken.”
    -Carl Sagan

    • I am not sure whether this was a bamboozle or a “selective” retelling of history in order for the public to have a misunderstanding of the past. Well . . . maybe that is a definition of bamboozle also. However, the fact that the Macon city government named a major roadway after this engineer indicates that in the past Macon residents knew the truth.


        I misinterpreted the meaning of ‘contemporary’ in your last paragraph; I thought it was referring to why todays anthropologists don’t recall Tamplin.

        Still, that Tamplin’s peers would attempt to erase the guy from history (bamboozle) seems strange to me. Trying to accurately understand a culture from artifacts found must be an extremely difficult undertaking, and require a great deal of open-mindedness and groupthink. I would think there would be more camaraderie and professional respect between those slogging through the pits. They must have been quite close-minded to not suspect those to come later to uncover such derelictions of peer recognition.

    • Evidently, because Tamplin was a professional engineer with a degree he became the site supervisor during the times when Kelly was away. Lester had an unspecified number of quarters at the University of Tennessee, so he could not be really considered a professional engineer. Kelly would loan out Lester to other cities, but he wanted to keep Tamplin on the Ocmulgee site. Both men were clearly considered archaeologists by Dr. Kelly. He had trained them and labeled them as such in the correspondence with the folks in Columbus. I was hoping that someone like you would have the time to research this further. Thanks!

    • Thank you for doing this research. I have to give first priority to income producing activities. I edit the POOF newsletter without compensation.


        Thanks for the feedback. I look forward to reading your blog each day and find the subject intriguing. Please know I was not challenging anyone or anything, you know far more about this than I could ever imagine. Research is a pastime for me and wanted to contribute.

    • I don’t know, if that is true are not. There were many references to him in the Macon newspaper during the 1930s, but once World War II began, he seems to have disappeared. Like most other young men, he probably entered the military.


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