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Lost Itza Maya Style Ballcourt Rediscovered After 62 years

While employed by the WPA in 1939 Archaeologist Robert Wauchope traversed the Georgia Mountains to identify its archaeological treasures. This would be the first and last time that the region would be comprehensively studied by an archaeologist. While cataloguing a legion of mounds and stone box graves in the Nacoochee Valley, he was show a large U-shaped earthwork in the village of Sautee. He had no explanation for the structure, but found some Native American potshards on the site, so gave it an official site number.

Years later, Wauchope became an expert on Mesoamerican structures. By then, he would have recognized the structure as looking like an Itza Maya ball court. Of course, he would have known that the presence of a Maya ball court in the Peach State was impossible and so thought it a fluke.

Ball court at Chontalpa, Chiapas State, Mexico

In 1951 Archaeologist Phillip Smith of Harvard University’s Peabody Museum returned to the Nacoochee Valley. At the time, the charming move, “I’d Climb Highest Mountain,” starring Susan Hayward, was being filmed there. Even in 1951, none of the roads off the main highway were paved. Families up in the coves still did not have electricity. It is a different world today.

Smith also visited the U-shaped earthwork in Sautee and was also puzzled by the structure. His report gave a little bit more information. It was located behind the Nacoochee Valley Volunteer Fire Department.

For the past year, we have been trying to find that U-shaped earthwork. The trouble is that no one could remember where the volunteer fire department was in 1951. A month ago I thought that I searched all of the Sautee National Historic District, but could find no U-shaped earthwork. THEN the White County GIS department ran a Lidar scan of Sautee.

The ball court was in my face all the time. It was so big that I actually stood in it a month ago and didn’t know I was there . . . and the remains of the court are spectacular. Twentieth century road construction cut across one corner, but three terraces for the spectators are still visible.

Ball court in Sautee-Nacoochee Valley National Historic District – Georgia

The playing area is about the same size as the ball court at the Track Rock terrace complex . . . 108 feet wide and 216 long . . . that’s 100 x 200 Muskogean feet. The court is 1268 feet above sea level. The highest spectator terrace is at 1292 feet.

While we were using my GIS surveying device to measure dimensions and grade changes, a group of kid were playing soccer on that same 1200 year old ball court. Miriam Silver took photos to preserve that amazing scene for posterity.

When the first Europeans arrived in the Nacoochee Valley, the town around the ball court was named Itsate. The name was changed to Chote in the 1720s, when the Cherokees captured the Nacoochee Valley. When Creeks gained back the valley in 1754, they changed the name to Sawate (Sautee). The name stuck after the Cherokees were given back the valley in 1785. Of course, Itsate is what the Itza Mayas called themselves.


Sautee is probably the oldest, continuously occupied, community in North America, north of Mexico.

How about them thar apples!

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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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