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How could Southeastern archaeologists have missed an entire civilization?

How could Southeastern archaeologists have missed an entire civilization?

A Personal Commentary

Right now I am working on a comprehensive description of the Native American archaeological sites along the entire Chattahoochee-Chestatee-Flint-Apalachicola River Basin. This online publication will be the first complete portrayal of a section of the Creek Heartland that stretches 550 miles from north to south. 

The document is being is based on the published archaeological reports of professional archaeologists, supplemented with my own professional skills in regional analysis, site analysis and satellite imagery.  There will be well over a thousand high resolution satellite images, accompanied by GPS coordinates so that you can visit the places of our ancestors.

Archaeologist Robert Wauchope

WauchopeAt my side this month is Robert Wauchope’s monumental book, Archaeological Survey of Northern Georgia.  The book documents the only time in which one, highly competent, archaeologist personally surveyed a vast region of the United States, to determine the location of all known Native American archeological sites.  That occurred in 1939.  Wauchope was a South Carolinian with a newly minted PhD in anthropology from Harvard University.

His book is especially useful, because as Wauchope wrote, twenty years later, when he returned to visit Georgia with his family, the landscape was almost unrecognizable.  He experienced great difficulty even finding many of the sites that he had discovered because of new roads and subdivision developments. Many farms were now abandoned and overgrown with trees. Hundreds of important town and mound sites had been covered by the enormous reservoirs, created by the US Army Corps of Engineers and TVA during that period.

The book also is a time machine into the past where I can exactly see when Southeastern archaeologists made the fundamental mistakes that would cause them to fossilize an incomplete and inaccurate understanding of the past, half a century later.

Stone walls

The pioneer of Southeastern Archaeology, Charles C. Jones, Jr., published this statement in his 1873 landmark book:

“When English speaking settlers came into the Southern Piedmont and Mountains, they encountered many stone structures throughout the landscape. There were many stone walls, stone altars and even the ruins of ancient stone buildings. Within a generation most of the stone structures were gone and almost forgotten. They had become foundations, chimneys and the walls of new buildings. No one knew who had built these mysterious structures.”

“It was supposed that such things could not have been built by Indians, since they were thought too primitive to create such architecture. It was supposed that perhaps the Spanish or Prince Madoc built them.”

Wauchope encountered a massive complex of stone ruins on Mount Yonah, overlooking the Nacoochee Valley.  They included agricultural terraces, cairns, ceremonial walls and the ruins of both rectangular and round buildings. Both local farmers and Charles C. Jones called the place “an ancient Indian city.”

As explained in the introduction to his book, Wauchope personally could not believe that American Indians could have erected such structures, but in a brief paragraph in the section on the Nacoochee Valley,  Wauchope referenced the passage above by Jones and stated that out of respect for Charles C. Jones, he decided to give the ruins an archaeological site number.  However, he made no effort to document the ruins or even look for indigenous artifacts.

When surveying Union County, GA, Wauchope did not even visit the Track Rock petroglyphs and terrace complex.   There is no explanation for that omission in his book.  However, he did visit a similar set of ruins on Fort Mountain in southern Union County.   Again as in the Nacoochee Valley, he could not imagine Indians being able to create stone architecture, but gave the ruins a site number without describing them in detail.   This is a different Fort Mountain than the one which is a state park.  Actually, it has many more stone ruins than the better known Fort Mountain about 45 miles to the west.

Wauchope did admit that the many oval burial mounds, veneered with cobblestones, in Northeast Georgia could have been built by Indians.   He gave such mounds site numbers, but generally did not excavate them.  There was something about the presence of stones that made him avoid detailed investigations.

Absence of architecture in archaeology

Wauchope’s book is a treasure trove of visual information about the complete range of artifacts made by the ancestors of the Uchee, Chickasaw and Creek Indians.  No book, before or since, has contained drawings and photographs of such a complete range of pottery and stone artifact styles.  A reader is astounded by the beauty of many pottery designs that for unknown reasons have been left out of the museums.   One gets the distinct impression that what the Etowah Mounds Museum has on display are artifacts that no Northeastern museum or collector wanted.

The question is . . . “Where are Wauchope’s artifacts?

His book does contain some abstract sketches of building footprints, but has no chapter on architecture and town plans.  There are no drawings of mounds. Wauchope was clearly only interested in items that he could hold in his hands.  This is a personality trait that continues to this day among members of his profession in the Southeast.

The otherwise brilliant archaeologist could not imagine American Indians creating true architecture and therefore he did not recognize it when the evidence was encountered.  For example, when Wauchope was shown the massive U-shaped ball court with three levels of terraces for sports fans, in back of the old Sautee Voluntary Fire Department, he could not figure out what it was and could not imagine why Indians would want to construct such a large earthwork.  He reluctantly gave the earthworks a site number, however . . .  but with the caveat that “possibly early white settlers built this for some unknown reason.”

Only using other archaeologists as references

Even in the 1930s, archaeology students at Harvard were evidently being brainwashed into only using other archaeologists as references rather than doing thorough archival research as POOF does.  Wauchope used earlier archaeologists for interpretations of historical events, architecture and even translations of both Native American and European words.  This professional trait is responsible for more journeys into lala land than any other.

Wauchope also consistently interpreted artifacts and sites based on the published opinions of pseudo-archaeologists from the Northeast in the late 1800s and early 1900s, who were authority figures of their time, but didn’t know diddlysquat about the cultural histories of the Creeks, Uchees and Chickasaws.  If the first opinion is wrong, a 70 year long chain of PhD’s quoting that error, still does not make it correct.

Here is a prime example.   There is a chain of Southeastern anthropological dissertations and papers going back 40 years that created the myth of the “Pisgah Style” pottery of the Southern Appalachians being made by the Cherokees. Each generation of archaeologists cited the previous one as their references.  On a day, when it was snowing and I was feeling particularly nerdy, I decided to fact check all these academicians and go back to the original source of the heresy.

The oldest late 20th century professional paper that created the concept of Pisgah Phase Pottery was by archaeologist Roy Dickens.  As his archaeologist reference, which “proved” he was right, Dickens quoted George Gustav Heye in a book published in 1916.   George Heye was also quoted profusely by Robert Wauchope in his book.

1915 photo of George Hey at the famous Nacoochee Mound

1915 photo of George Hey at the famous Nacoochee Mound

With only a degree in the Classical Arts, Heye used his family’s wealth, made from late 19th century oil wells,  to finance mound robbing expeditions in the Southeast.  In the process of hiring professional archaeologists, he elevated his own status to being considered one.   It helped that he founded the Heye Museum, which is now is a branch of the National Museum of the American Indian.

Here is what Dickens quoted: “The ware in the Nacoochee Mound is of the typical Southern Appalachian form and style, in no particular respect different from that of other pottery made by the Cherokees in early times. 1 “   In other words,  all pottery in the Southern Appalachians was made by the Cherokees.

1  Holmes, Aboriginal Pottery of Eastern United States, Fifteenth Annual Report of the Bureau of American Ethnology, Washington, 1903; page 151.

The year 1903 was a long time ago, but I found that booklet.  Heye told a bald-faced lie that has been quoted by archaeologists as fact for a century.  This is what Professor Holmes actually said on page 151.  It was exactly opposite to what Heye had stated.

“Of these groups the Muskogeans probably have the best claim to authorship of this Southern Appalachian ware.” 

Holmes went on to explain that although popular opinion assumed that the Cherokees had lived in the Southeast since prehistoric times,  the evidence was overwhelming that all the prehistoric pottery in Georgia, Alabama, eastern Tennessee and western North Carolina was made by the same people and directly linked to that made by the Creek Indians in historic times.  In contrast, Historic Period Cherokee pottery was starkly different than earlier pottery styles.  Holmes concluded that the Cherokees had actually arrived in the South from the North in relatively recent times.

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.



    Brilliant work! Excellent scholarship! Please keep at it!

    Jim Del Duca
    PhD Student in American Studies
    Montana State University-Bozeman

    • Thank you sir. The difference is that architects are legally responsible for their work, so we have to assemble as much data as possible before making design decisions. I think that if archaeologists were more responsible to the general public and particularly the descendants of the people who lived in these villages, less booboos would be made.


    The slopes of Yonah Mountain have not been disturbed by settlers, excluding a few subdivision roads. The bottomlands along Duncan Bridge Road have been cultivated. If there are archectural structures by pre-colonial peoples on the slopes of Yonah Mountain, they should still be there. White Co. has been flown by Ladar and the White County Planning Department hasthedata. You may wish to contact the Planning Department for a ground-level scan to find any archectural structures.

    My work with traces of old Gold Mines reveal structures as small as 1 foot will show up.


    • They gave me the LIDAR scan of Sautee and I immediately found some structures mentioned by Wauchope that have been lost. It was a great help. At the time, the GIS director did not have anything for Yonah Mountain. I will check with them. Those ruins could be an incredible tourist attraction for White County.


    Notice that I did not use the word “Cherokee!”


    This is great stuff. Being that I live in the Chattahoochee-Flint-Apalachicola area, I am very interested what is to follow !

    Thanks Richard,

    Jamie Parmer

    • Thank you! We will let you know when they are online. It might take a couple of months.



    Bravo, Richard! So glad that someone cares enough to keep digging.


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