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Houses will tell us who came from Mexico and when

Houses will tell us who came from Mexico and when


I found my lost 1970 Mexican Journal in Granny Ruby’s old dresser!

Photo at top of article:  I stayed in this Maya house, while exploring eastern Campeche . . . the Cerros de Puuc region.

Even by the time I first was in Mexico, traditional villages near Mexico City were often only used for dates, parties and weddings.


Wednesday, a friend in POOF helped me move bedroom furniture from my rental storage bin to this house, so for the first time in almost nine years, I am reaching into a dresser, not a plastic container, to obtain clean clothes.   Because it dated from the 1800s, I never used Granny Ruby’s dresser for clothes before, but as a showpiece in our 1770 Virginia house to make the interior look authentic.  To my surprise, it contained the detritus of my life between age 18 and 25 . . . in strata like an archaeological site.  The journal is fascinating because it is filled with observations from Dr. Román Piña Chán or by me, which would have seemed irrelevant to my architecture practice until 2012.  Interspersed are paragraphs with increasingly romantic descriptions of the times together of Alicia and I.   I had forgotten that we went to see Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid at the Teatro Zona Rosa.  When we came out of the movie theater, it was sprinkling rain . . . so we skipped along the broad sidewalks of the Zona Rosa, holding hands and singing the movie’s theme song, “Raindrops falling on my head.”  The next day, I added an entry to the previous day’s events . . . “I think I am falling in love!”

A brief paragraph marked my visit to a large terrace complex, identical to the one at Track Rock Gap.

Dr. Piña Chán said something very interesting during one of our first meetings together.   After reading the two books I had given him on the ancestral mound builders of the Creek Indians, he told me that there was something very unusual about the “Indios in Georgia.”   Our architecture was like that of southern Vera Cruz, Tabasco and Chiapas . . . but not the Classic Period Maya cities of the Lowlands.  In contrast, our art was almost identical to that of the Toltecs in Central Mexico.  Our pottery? . . . other than the Plain Redware . . . it was different than anything in Mexico and seemed to come from a place far away . . . but that did not seem possible.   I now understand that he meant eastern Peru, but he never mentioned that location specifically.  

I noted stone terrace walls on Cerro Gordo above Teotihuacan, but did not realize their significance until 2016.  One could see on satellite imagery that the entire eastern side of the mountain was covered with terraces.

The famous archaeologist told me later that the best way to identify the ethnic identity of an unknown culture, was its residential architecture, not its pottery.  When one people conquered another, many of the men would be killed or enslaved, but the women were kept as wives and concubines.  There would be an immediate change in housing styles, but the women would continue to make the same style of utilitarian pottery.  Pottery styles could evolve over time, but often one saw a changing proportion of different pottery styles over time.  This is exactly what one finds in major Proto-Creek towns such as at Mandevile, Ocmulgee,  Irene Island, Hiawassee Island and Etowah Mounds.

The Eastwood Town Site was excavated by archaeologist Robert Wauchope in 1939.

The Eastwood Site ~ Sautee, Georgia:   Very few people, including archaeologists and local residents of the Nacoochee Valley, are aware that the oldest known Chickasaw village is located immediately west of the Kenimer Mound.  Its two mounds, excavated by archaeologist by Robert Wauchope are now the bases of a house and barn.   Satellite images made in the late fall and early spring will pick up some of the oval house footprints, but otherwise, this important archaeological site is invisible and anonymous.

The Eastwood Site contains all the architectural elements that can be found in all Chickasaw villages up until the early 1800s.  These elements are (1) An oval town plan, (2) an symmetrical, oval plaza, (3) houses shaped like medicine capsules with off-center doors, and (4) a square communal building with a large central timber column.   Without the availability of radiocarbon dating, Wauchope dated the village’s founding to the early Late Woodland Period (600-700 AD).  It was abandoned about a century after large numbers of people settled in the Nacoochee Valley, who built houses similar to those in the suburbs of Chichen Itza before 1000 AD.  Chichen Itza was taken over by a hybrid Toltec elite around 1000 AD. 

I have been puzzled for sometime as to why the early Chickasaws, when they ended their eastward migration in Georgia, stopped building round houses and switched to what became their signature architecture.  The Kenimer Mound, which is identical to the pentagonal mounds built by the Itza and Kekchi Mayas, probably had something to do with it.  However, Itza houses looked like houses in the first occupation of Etowah Mounds . . . not medicine capsules. 

A forgotten bus journey across southern Mexico

Experiences that at the time seemed of little importance to the prime directive of my fellowship, now are extraordinarily important.  Rather than flying back to Mexico City from Villahermosa,  I decided to zigzag my way across the landscape from Palenque to Mexico City in Second Class buses.  I could kick myself now for only taking a few photos.  Would you believe that one of those buses followed in reverse the route of the Creek Migration Legend along the “Bloody” River?  I was at the foot of the Orizaba Volcano and didn’t take a slide, because there were no buildings visible.  Of course, I would not even know about the Creek Migration Legend for several decades. My thinking at the time was that since Georgia Tech was paying for the film and development, I should only make slides of important examples of architecture.  I did take a few photos of typical indigenous houses, but no nature scenes.  I personally purchased high quality color and black & white print film for documenting the social and romantic events while in Mexico. I used some of the black & white film to make “artsy” sepiatone type photos of people and old buildings.

As you can see above,  I did note the drastic change in the domestic architecture of various geographical regions in southern Mexico.  Everyone of these architectural styles that I photographed or sketched can found in the Creek-Chickasaw Homeland between 600 AD and 1800 AD.  In my notes, I found a reference to houses built out of vertical logs on the edge of Chiapas Highlands near the El Chichon Volcano.  The temple at the base of Mound C, which contained the two famous marble statues, was constructed with vertical wooden posts and saplings.  Some had corner doors like the houses in the first phase of Etowah Mounds. 

In the second photo above, the photo below and in the righthand sketch, one style of housing used saplings mixed with relatively narrow tree trunks that could be easily cut down with a stone axe.  Another style utilized hand-split vertical boards.  Another used river canes that were woven together.   Another used wattle and daub.   Thus for at least 1500  years, each indigenous ethnic group built the same style of house . . . generation after generation.  You see that style house in the Southeastern United States?  You know which band of immigrants brought it with them.  Prior to the infusion of cultural ideas from Mesoamerica, all proto-Muskogean houses were ROUND.

As it turns out, my first time in Mexico marked the end of an era.   Soon, construction of traditional indigenous housing would cease in most of southern Mexico, except in “eco-villages” built especially to attract tourists.   In 1973, the Yom Kippur War resulted in an explosion of oil prices.   Mexico and its nationalized oil company, PEMEX, reaped a whirlwind of US oil dollars during the 1970s.   President Jimmy Carter’s plan for making the United States energy independent would not be implemented until the George W. Bush Administration.  The US is now an energy exporter.  However, during that glut of oil income, the Mexican government poured money into rural areas.  Most regions switched to the construction of concrete block houses with electricity and sometimes even running water.  By now, most of the traditional houses I observed have rotted away due to lack of maintenance.  They are gone with the wind.

Styles of Indigenous Houses in Southern Mexico


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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.

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