Many obsidian artifacts discovered in Georgia’s Nacoochee Valley
Obsidian is a natural volcanic glass that produces blades sharper than stainless steel.
About a year ago, the People of One Fire reported that archaeologist Garth Norman, who has been working at Maya city sites for over 55 years, glanced down at the ground at the edge of a gravel parking lot next to the Sautee Nacoochee Community Center and spied an obsidian flake. This was extraordinary. Although a small amount of raw obsidian has been seen at the Pigeon Mountain Volcano about 100 miles to the west in Northwest Georgia, any obsidian artifact found east of the Rockies in the United States is assumed to have been brought there from somewhere else. The existence of one obsidian flake could be a fluke. However, yesterday it was learned that property owners of archaeological zones in the Nacoochee Valley had found many obsidian blades and points, plus the detritus left over from working obsidian.
The presence of obsidian artifacts is is highly significant. It is strong evidence that the Nacoochee Valley had trade connections with distant regions of North America or Mesoamerica . . . plus its residents knew how to work raw obsidian cores into precision weapons and tools. Obsidian is much more difficult to work than flint or chert.
Until the mid-1720s, the name of the massive Proto-Creek town where Sautee Community sits today was Itsate . . . which means Itza (Maya) People. The indigenous name of nearby Helen, Georgia was Choite . . . which means Cho’i (Maya) People. The Itzas lived in the Chiapas Highlands, while the Cho’i lived in the lowlands of Chiapas and Tabasco.
Much of the Nacoochee Valley is a National Historic District, but the valley is much more than that. It is a continuous archaeological zone of national or international significance, containing multiple cultural occupations going back to the Ice Age. Digging into the ground there is like digging in urban locations in Europe or Central Mexico. Each foot deeper takes the archaeologist farther and farther back in time. Archaeologist Robert Wauchope found several villages that were occupied from around 1000 BC to around 1700 AD. Their cultural traits evolved like towns in the Middle East. He also found 35 Clovis points accidentally, while looking for “mound builder” village sites.
Newcomers arrived from various parts of the Americas and intermarried into families of earlier arrivals. However, the villages seemed to have never been actually abandoned. In the late 1500s, French Huguenot, English Protestant and Spanish Sephardic refugees began arriving in the valley. They intermarried with the local Muskogean families, in the process producing a chapter of American history that has been kept out of the history books. A group of families from Burke County, NC bought much of the valley from the few Native Americans still living there in 1821. Burke still is a center of amateur gold mining in North Carolina. A few years later, the nation’s first major gold rush began in the Nacoochee Valley.
Bitter experiences with archaeologists in the past
The residents of the Nacoochee Valley have bitter memories of past visits to their valley by archaeologists from other areas of the state and nation. Some internationally famous Native American artifacts have been unearthed there, but very few are even now in the State of Georgia. Some are on display in the Smithsonian’s Museum of the the American Indian, but most have disappeared into private collections of wealthy families in the Northeastern United States or even into the pockets of Georgia archaeologists . . . including the very same ones, who were so proficient in yelling out personal attacks and professional slanders during the Track Rock Terrace Complex controversy.
George Heye excavated the famous Nacoochee Mound down to the ground level in 1916. Thousands of artifacts were taken back to New York City, not to be seen again. In 1939, Robert Wauchope excavated dozens of sites in the Nacoochee Valley over a one year period. He took the thousands of artifacts back to the University of Georgia with the promise that they would be returned to the owners. Wauchope soon thereafter moved away from Georgia and never lived there again. He took the Nacoochee artifacts with him to first, North Carolina and then, Louisiana. No one knows where they are now.
A team of archaeologists from the University of Georgia obtained permission to survey the Kenimer Mound several years ago. The property owner told me personally that she has specifically forbidden them to dig in the mound or on her surrounding property. This order was in writing. The academicians ignored the legal document and dug numerous pits into the mound and surrounding area. They took all the artifacts back home. The lady asked me if the artifacts were not her personal property. I said, “Yes m’am they are.”
Yesterday, I was given a tour of the restoration work at a late 19th century farm northeast of Sautee. It is an indescribably beautiful place. On the way back I stopped at the Old Sautee General Store to buy Swedish Farmers Cheese. Some local residents recognized me and pounced on me. They very quickly wanted to make sure that I was NOT an archaeologist. These angry people did have serious gripes.
First, they told me that two North Carolina realtors, who were members of the Eastern Band of Cherokees, had been snooping around the valley trying to buy mounds . . . in particular, the Kenimer Mound. They described the two semi-Indians as being cocky. The purchasing agents were bragging that they were going to keep the crazy people in Georgia from claiming that the Mayas came here. The two hicks seemed to have forgotten that they were talking to “crazy people from Georgia.” All those residents, who surrounded me, are in complete agreement with the Creek Indians that Maya refugees did settle in the Georgia Mountains.
Then the Nacoochee Valley residents told me that several years ago, when the Hardman Farm State Historic Site was being planned for the western end of the valley, a group of Georgia archaeologists, who did not work for the state government per se, but included some professors, approached the pioneer families of the valley. They wanted to “borrow” their Native American artifacts to put on exhibit at the Hardman Farm. At the end of the temporary exhibit, all artifacts would be returned to the owners.
Most of the families refused to let go of collections that their ancestors had been building up since the 1830s. Some families, out of let’s say, “patriotism,” DID loan their artifacts to the academicians. Ten years have passed and they have never seen the artifacts again. Those, who contacted the University of Georgia or the State Historic Preservation Division were told that “no one knew anything about artifact collections being loaned to the state government for the Hardman Farm.” In other words, their prized family possessions have just disappeared into thin air.
I tried to convince the local residents that we Creeks and Uchees here in Georgia were their neighbors and friends. We had no interest in taking away anybody’s artifacts. We merely wanted to answer the question, “Who are we?”
Archaeologists will be needed soon to investigate the many archaeological sites being found by local residents, hikers, LIDAR and satellite imagery. It is our hope that we can find truly professional archaeologists, who have the personal integrity and humility to treat the the residents of the Nacoochee Valley with respect . . . for a change. It would be wonderful, if we could find Muskogean archaeologists . . . but they are a rare commodity.
The Sautee-Nacoochee Community Association is involved in an extraordinary variety of activities that seem more typical of an incorporated city of 35,000. They include an outstanding folk pottery museum, dancing classes and dances, an visual arts museum, performing arts & plays, frequent musical concerts, historic preservation and living history farmsteads. They are a private organization and so, are not supported by local property taxes. Anything that you can do financially or physically to assist their programs would be greatly appreciated.
Their website is: http://snca.org/snc/home.php
SAUTEE NACOOCHEE CENTER
P.O.Box 460 • 283 Highway 255 North
Sautee Nacoochee, Georgia 30571
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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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