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More Dirty Little Secrets at Etowah Mounds

More Dirty Little Secrets at Etowah Mounds

In 2015, the Apalache Foundation carried out an intensive archival and geospatial study for the Native American History of the Etowah River Valley in Northwest Georgia.  The reports were published in early 2015 by Access Genealogy (  They include detailed notes and reference citations. The following article is an excerpt from one of those reports, minus the citations.

What we uncovered was a surprising history of rampant “grave robbing” and very dubious archaeological work in the late 1800s that have been cleansed from contemporary accounts of Etowah Mounds in references and archaeological texts.  In fact, it is very obvious that contemporary archaeologists are completely unaware that activities in this large archaeological zone during the 1800s radically affected the interpretation of the town by modern archaeologists. 

1818-EtowahMounds-DetailAs mentioned in an earlier POOF article, Mound A had an entirely different shape and was at least 28 feet taller in 1818 than in 1955 when comprehensive, professional studies of Etowah Mounds began.

Cyrus Thomas was born in 1825 in Kingsport, TN. He briefly was a lawyer, county clerk and Lutheran minister, but was unsuccessful in all three activities. He avoided being drafted into either the Confederate or Union Army by being in a section of Tennessee, controlled by the Union Army, and also by being a very active member of the new Republican Party.

Between 1869 and 1873, he served on three scientific expeditions, exploring the west, including the Hayden Expedition, which documented the proposed Yellowstone National Park. He was known as an entomologist (insect specialist) by this time and was appointed Professor of Natural Science at Southern Illinois University – despite the fact that he had no academic credentials in this area. Three years later he was appointed Chief Entomologist for the State of Illinois.

Thomas never had a formal education in anthropology and very little field experience in archaeology. Nevertheless, because of his political connections, he was appointed Chief Archaeologist for the Smithsonian Institute in 1882.  So a caveat must be applied to the term, “professionally supervised.”

John P. Rogan, conducted the first archaeological excavations at the Etowah Mounds for the Smithsonian Institution with the help of local laborers.  Rogan had only a modicum of elementary education and no education in anthropology, Native American history or ceramics. He was supervised by his cousin from Tennessee, Cyrus Thomas. The primary tools utilized by this team were shovels and picks. Pottery was often broken by these tools before it could be removed with a hand spade.

Rogan discovered a set of copper repoussé plates, several of which portray an eagle dancer or multiple eagle dancers.   A few have a dancing female as a subject. She is wearing the headdress of a Maya  god, Kukulkan (Quetzalcoatl) priestess.   This is the design that the Eastern Band of Cherokees Tribal Cultural Preservation Office adopted as their logo in 2012, in order to “prove” that the Cherokees built the Track Rock terrace complex and Etowah Mounds.

Commoners were buried in the floors of their houses. The significance of these cultural traditions are discussed in another article.

Most of the plates were found within stone box burial sepulchers in Mound C. The sepulchers were created with “flag stones” composed of metamorphic rock. Stone box graves typify the Early and Middle Mississippian burials at Etowah Mounds. This is highly significant, as will also be discussed later.

One of two "birdman" copper repousse plates found by John P. Rogan at the Etowah Indian Mounds site in Alabama in 1883.

One of two “birdman” copper repousse plates displaying an “Eagle Man” – found by John P. Rogan in Mound C at the Etowah Indian Mounds  in 1885.  Rogan found many more lesser known copper plates that contained a variety of designs.  There were distinct changes in the artistic styles of these plates in various levels of Mound C, which strongly suggest that artistic tastes evolved over time.

This famous copper artwork, known as the Rogan Plates, is now on display at the Smithsonian’s Museum of the American Indian in Washington, DC or at the Peabody Museum at Harvard.  Rogan was dispatched by Thomas tested seven other archaeological sites in Georgia in Bartow, White, Habersham, Forsyth, Rabun, Elbert, and McIntosh counties in Georgia, plus the Bat Creek Mound in Polk County, TN.

Rogan was essentially looking for museum quality artifacts and skeleton burials as was the modus operandi of archaeologists of his day. His work ceased at Mound C of Etowah, when Thomas felt that all the interesting parts of the mound had been explored. His archaeological work lacked the methodic, cautious methodology that is considered mandatory today. He completely ignored stratigraphy and provided very little information in his final report.

At the base of Etowah Mound C was a building with fieldstone walls. Rogan did not mention this, but we know that he encountered these stone walls, because four decades later, Lewis Larsen, a professional archaeologist, photographed a surviving stone wall prior to demolishing it.   Strangely,  Larsen only mentioned the stone structure in one sentence out of his entire report . . . as if it was irrelevant, or not even of Native American origin.    Five decades later,  archaeologist Adam King would discover that the entire plaza in front of Mound A at Etowah was supported by a fieldstone retaining wall.

Yet today, virtually all archaeological texts state that the Indians in the Southeast did not build structures with stone walls.  This foolish belief was the excuse used in recent decades by Southeastern archaeologists for ignoring stone architecture and viciously attacking anyone, who suggested that any particular site with stone architecture was built by indigenous peoples of the Americas.

Rogan was taken off work at the Bat Creek Mound by Cyrus Thomas in May 1886, ostensibly for not producing many museum quality artifacts.  Three weeks later another cousin of Thomas, John Emmert, found the “Bat Creek Stone” in this same mound. The Hebraic script on the stone (whether real or fake) was interpreted as being ancient Cherokee by Thomas.

This interpretation seems odd now, but up until the late 20th century many people, including archaeologists, believed that the Cherokees had always been literate, not just after Sequoyah.  Because they always had been literate, it was assumed that they built all the mounds.  No one bothered to translate the meaning of words, so many generations of archaeologists in the Southeast were educated to believe that almost all indigenous place names were “ancient Cherokee words, whose meaning has been lost.”   This pervasive myth explains why many people, particularly in South Carolina, called themselves Cherokee, when they were actually another from another tribe.

Rogan resigned from the Smithsonian, once he knew that Thomas would give him no more assignments.  He went to work as a partner at a mercantile store in Cartersville. Where did he get the money to invest in the business and in 1888 build Cartersville’s largest commercial building on the road leading to Etowah Mounds?

Since Rogan came from an impoverished background, it is a legitimate question. Apparently, there was a woman in Cartersville, who had caught his fancy. The History of Bartow County, GA states that he was married with a daughter in 1890.  When archaeologist Warren K. Moorehead arrived in Cartersville in 1925, to do more excavations on Mound C,  John Rogan offered his services in getting the Peabody Museum archaeological team oriented.  Moorehead accepted . . . assuming that Rogan was a famous, professionally trained archaeologist.   The author was the architect for the restoration of the Rogan Building in Cartersville in 2000.

Whether or not, Rogan, while employed by the Smithsonian Institute, sold artifacts, which he unearthed to collectors, is currently an unanswered question. However, it is quite likely that Rogan supplemented his income, during the decades that followed, by excavating the many mounds and burials in North Georgia to obtain artifacts for collectors. He may have continued digging at Etowah Mounds.  Rogan periodically placed ads in North Georgia newspapers offering to be a guide “for men of culture and means, who wish to excavate Indian mounds in North Georgia.”

It is quite likely that Rogan was responsible for removing the upper third of the Nacoochee Mound in 1891 and selling the artifacts to collectors.

1883-7 ~ Cyrus Thomas, field survey of Tumlin Mounds

Beginning in 1883, the Tumlin Family allowed the Smithsonian Institute’s Bureau of American Ethnology to survey and partially explore Mound C under the direction of Cyrus Thomas. The official story seen in most references and a state historical marker is: “Being great protectors and conservationists, Georgia Secession* Roberts Tumlin, along with her son, Lewis Henry Tumlin, Jr. did not allow the site to be disturbed, especially the burials.”  *Secession was the lady’s actual middle name!

The truth is diametrically opposite.  Almost from the beginning of their ownership of Etowah Mounds in the 1830s,  the Tumlin family leased out the archaeological zone to grave robbers, art collectors and antiquarians alike.  The going rate in the 1850s was $200 a day! That was a lot of money back then.   Etowah was essentially a profit making gold mine whose rare commodities were indigenous artifacts.  As will be explained later, there is extensive circumstantial evidence that the Etowah Mounds site was again dug up by amateurs after the team from the Smithsonian Institute left Georgia.

At least some of the grave robbers sold to local buyers.  Otherwise, virtually all the artifacts excavated at Etowah Mounds would now grace the mansions of wealthy New England families or the shelves of the Peabody Museum and Smithsonian Museums.

Cyrus Thomas had been supervising excavations at Etowah Mounds since 1885, which John P. Rogan doing most of the field work.
Cyrus Thomas believed that the Cherokees built all the mounds in the Midwest and Southern Highlands.  He developed this belief without consulting Colonial Period maps, particularly the French ones, which clearly showed that eastern Tennessee, western North Carolina and northern Georgia was long occupied by Muskogean, Yuchi and Shawnee peoples for two centuries before the word Cherokee appears in European maps and archives. The following are his introductory statements:

The iron implements which are alluded to in the above-mentioned articles also in Science,* as found in a North Carolina mound, and which analysis shows were not meteoric, furnish conclusive evidence that the tumulus was built after the Europeans had reached America; and as it is shown in the same article that the Cherokees must have occupied the region from the time of its discovery up to its settlement by the whites it is more than probable they were the builders.”

“Additional and perhaps still stronger evidence, if stronger be needed, that the people of this tribe were the authors of most of the ancient works in western North Carolina and eastern Tennessee is to be found in certain discoveries made by the Bureau assistants in Monroe County, Tennessee.

Thomas believed that the Cherokees built the mounds in the Midwest during Prehistoric times then relocated to the Southern Highlands after the De Soto Expedition and built the mounds there. He used two pages to present the primary evidence that proved his theory.  Essentially, it was that Cherokees were known for making well-crafted stone pipes. Stone pipes are found both in Midwestern mounds and Southern mounds. Therefore, the Cherokees built the mounds in both regions.

Many historians and anthropologists disagreed with Thomas.  They felt so strongly about the matter that they published an opposing argument in the Fifth Annual Report to the Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution (1884-84). These scholars far outnumbered Thomas and were much better educated. They showed obvious artistic similarities between artifacts recovered outside the region where the Cherokees ever lived and also those artifacts known to have been produced by the Creeks.

Unfortunately,  in the late 20th century their evidence would be forgotten among certain academicians in the Southeast.  If one studiously traces back the spider’s web of academicians citing each other as references over the generations,  the trainload of fraudulent history stops at the depot named Thomas and Rogan . . .  a self taught insect expert and his elementary school educated cousin.

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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.



    Very intersting. So the Northerners or “carpetbaggers” as my grandmother called them looted the Southern Native American sites then wrote them out of the history books that they published. It seems very arrogant that the lies they print are on the very bones of those they deny exist. The greedy are dependent on public ignorance for their continued holocaust against Native Americans. Thank you for work here, it can make a difference.

    • That pretty much hits the nail on head. Most of the “nice stuff” taken from Etowah is in Northeastern Museums.

      The only exception are those beautiful marble statues found in 1955.




    Richard, True… the temple sites all over the world have been looted not just in the U.S. Clearly history “is a tale of lies told by the victorious”. The real history of the South is that many people were dragged off to their doom by a few greedy families that got very rich in the 1600-1700’s time period.
    As noted by the Norse explores of the 1000-1300 AD time period they encountered “white men” (“Duhare” people), “Alba-ama”, African peoples and Native American peoples on the coastline of Eastern America.
    Also, “Beehive type tombs”, “Dolmen” altars stones (W. Bartram), stone pillars, have been found from this country and all the way to the Middle East. Theses are “Amorite/Hittite” Neolithic (5000-2500BC) type items noted in some parts of the South.


    You write some of the best and most informative posts online that I’ve seen, Richard. Thanks. Always enjoy reading.

    • Well thank you sir! One of these days my architecture practice will be alive again, so I won’t have much time for Native American history. Until then I am trying to write and research as much as possible.


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