Richard Thornton | Mar 17, 2017 | 1
Multiple Indigenous Stone Structure Sites Confirmed in Eastern Alabama
Stone cairns, mounds, effigies and terrace walls have been confirmed in the Alabama counties composing the southern tip of the Appalachian Mountains and Foothills. These sites are in Lee, Chambers, Tallapoosa, Randolph, Clay, Calhoun and Cleburne Counties. Their greatest concentration is along Chatahospee Creek in Tallapoosa and Lee Counties. Chatahospee is a Muskogee word that means “Stone Walls.”
The first and last nationally published archaeological report on any of these sites was in 1909. The archaeologist assumed that these were indigenous structures and went to the trouble to study them in detail. His findings might explain the purpose of the literally thousands of cairns in Northeast Alabama, North Georgia and elsewhere.
On October 15, 2015, the Chattahoochee Valley Historical Society held a public meeting at the library in Valley, Alabama to announce the on-going study of a Native American stone structure complex north of LaFayette, AL in Chambers County. An archeologist, employed by the federal government, had agreed to examine the site. The following text was included in the advertisement of the program:
“About a decade ago a member of The Chattahoochee Valley Historical Society Board of Directors followed a clue found in printed material in the Cobb Memorial Archives to rediscover a mysterious site of stones long ignored and almost forgotten by the inhabitants of Chambers County. The Board member with family made lengthy treks through cottonmouth infested swamps to reach and walk over the undisturbed site. In the nineteenth century this odd array of stones covering acres of land next to a creek was approachable by field roads and was visited by picnic parties of school children and families.”
“Since the rediscovery of the site, the CVHS Board has identified the landowner and secured permission for access to the sight for purposes of study and documentation. Teresa Paglione, as a professional archeologist, was asked by the Board to provide leadership in documentation of the site. The landowner is committed to protecting the site because of its unique value in understanding the history of Chambers County and this region. The location of the site and name of the owner will not be publicized and access to the site is made by permission of owner through CVHS officers. A rattlesnake has been observed in the stones.”
“The LaFayette Ceremonial Stone Complex consists of a single massive linear stone row in somewhat of a crescent shape-with both ends leading downhill to a creek. Across from this linear stone work and the creek are at least 49 stone piles. Archaeologists are certain that Native Americans erected these stone works but when they were constructed is not easily documented. Dozens of these works have been identified in North Alabama. The LaFayette Ceremonial Complex is the largest known work of this type so far south in the topography of our state. This stone work and site date from perhaps a thousand or more years ago. The historic Native Americans would have recognized these ancient sacred sites, given them names and may have contributed to the works.”
Immediately after the CVHS program, a geology professor at Auburn University and five Creek descendants in Lee and Russell Counties contacted me . . . all with the same message. There were many stone structure complexes in eastern Alabama, but the archaeologists were ignoring them . They wanted me to survey those counties and document the sites . . . for free, of course.
The geology professor was particularly frustrated. He had been subscribing to POOF for three years and knew that I had said that many of the stone structures long predated the arrival of Itza Maya refugees. However, just mentioning my name to his friends, who were anthropology professors, would cause them to go into blind rage. He could not get them to look at the POOF website or the book that I wrote on the Track Rock Terrace Complex. He said that they even refused to watch the History Channel program about the Mayas in Georgia. So they were still unaware that University of Minnesota scientists had proven that Maya traders and miners had come to Georgia for many centuries.
I told the people who contacted me that I constantly get asked to do free work around the Lower Southeast, but just could not afford it. Since the 2008 clobbered the construction industry, I have barely survived on an extremely modest income by growing much of my food. All my architecture and historic preservation clients went bankrupt. I suggested that they organize a group to document these sites, using Google Maps and conventional photos, if allowed on the properties. They agreed to do so. Meanwhile, I would look for archaeological reports in the past that verified that these were indeed prehistoric ruins.
There is another problem involved here. I do not disturb archaeological sites. While practicing architecture In Virginia, I always relied on highly competent archaeologists to tell me what was under the ground or inside a man-made earthwork. We worked together as a team. I was shocked when I returned home to the Deep South and found that the archaeologists here refused to work with historic preservation architects and engineers, who are professionals with special skills and education that they don’t have.
So . . . even if the Alabama volunteers and I documented these stone sites, Alabama archaeologists would immediately say that we was not qualified to do so and that the stone structures were not Native American. A few years ago, an anthropologist, who taught classes within the Geology Dept. at Jacksonville(AL) State University excavated a mountaintop stone structure site. His report got very little attention outside of NE Alabama because of the department in which he taught. I am not certain that even Teresa Paglione is being taken seriously by her peers, because she works as a Cultural Resource Specialist in the US Dept. of Agriculture.
We already knew that there were many stone structure sites in the Georgia counties immediately east of these Alabama counties. However, only one has been designated an official archaeological site. Georgia archaeologists seem to ignore them like the plague.
The volunteers did not actually do a comprehensive countywide survey of East Alabama, but by contacting history buffs and outdoorsy folks in several counties, they were able to develop a more complete picture of what might be found in the region. Almost none of these sites have official archaeological site numbers. The stone mounds and cairns are endemic in the region and strongly resemble those in the Atlanta Area. There are several terrace complexes, but they are not as large as the ones in Georgia. There are also several sites like the one examined Ms. Paglione, which seem to be religious shrines rather that functional structures.
So the problem was still one of credibility. No PhD in Anthropology had declared these dozens or hundreds of stone structure sites to be of Native American origin. It was the same problem that we are having in getting National Register of Historic Places protection for stone structures in West Georgia.
Then last week, I stumbled upon a reference in an archaeological report in Georgia from the 1920s, which referenced an archaeologist working in Columbus, GA area around the turn of the century. He had published a report that included discussions of stone cairns and mounds in Alabama in the first issue of American Anthropologist magazine in April 1909.
Paul Brannon turned out to be a professional writer turned archaeologist, back in the era when there were very few people with advanced degrees in Anthropology. The chief archaeologist at the Smithsonian Institute was a self-taught expert on the insects of Illinois. Government employees were hired back then, based on being Union veterans and being a member of whatever political party was in power.
Unlike the archaeologists of future generations, Brannon was especially interested in the stone structures of East Alabama. He documented their locations and excavated them in 1905. Both the mounds and the cairns of that region were definitely Native American structures. Brannon found that stone mounds were used for burials and included grave offerings. The stone cairns contained much charcoal and small bits of bone. Apparently, they were used for cremations of bodies. In other words, they were funeral pyres.
Brannon also excavated the Abercrombie Mound and Village site near Phenix City, AL for several years. The mound was begun around 900 AD and thus is Alabama’s oldest known Mississippian Culture site. Its early artifacts are very similar to those from the same period at Ocmulgee National Monument in Macon, GA.
Brannon’s investigations were based on the earlier work of one of Alabama’s pioneer archaeologists, Dr. William L. Broun, the President of the Alabama Agricultural and Technical College between 1882 and 1902. That school is known today as Auburn University! Broun systematically excavated earthen and stone mounds in East Central Alabama in order to prove that they were built by ancestors of the Creek Indians, not Welsh Prince Madoc’s followers or the Lost Tribes of Israel.
Thus, two of Alabama’s pioneer archaeologists were aware of the abundance of stone structures in East Central Alabama and proved that they were constructed by Native Americans. This fact confirms that at least the majority of stone structure complexes, being identified by volunteers in that region are indeed prehistoric archaeological sites, deserving of protection through historic designation.
Goat Rock Gorge Archaeological Zone
In 1909, Paul Brannon spent a considerable period of time near the confluence of Wacoochee Creek and the Chattahoochee River. This location is scenic Goat Rock Gorge, where the Chattahoochee River cuts through the most southerly vestige of Pine Mountain, before heading southward to the Gulf of Mexico. Georgia Power Company built a dam at the southern end of the gorge in 1911.
Brannon excavated a 50 feet+ diameter mound that was veneered with large stones . . . some of them weighed over 200 pounds. Adjacent to the burial mound was a large prehistoric cemetery. It is unlike that a village was here because the terrain is so rough.
The shrine seems to be the ancient boundary between to ethnic groups. Goat Rock Mound is the most southerly stone veneered mound. There are stone cairns on the hilltops overlooking the gorge, but apparently none farther south. In contrast, the region from the Flint River in Georgia westward to the Coosa River Valley in Alabama is chock full of ancient stone structures.
While excavating some of the burials at the Goat Rock Cemetery, Brannon found several forms of burials and styles of burial goods that varied according to their depth in the ground. This suggests that while cultural traditions and possibly even ethnic groups changed over the centuries in Eastern Alabama, the stone structure sites remained in use.
There is still much that is unknown about the people who created these enigmatic stone structure sites in the Lower Southeast. Unfortunately, archaeologist Teresa Paglione is an exception. Because so many archaeologists in the lower Southeast ignore these sites or try to lump them into existing labels based on pottery styles, very little new knowledge is being acquired. Meanwhile archaeologists in Maryland, Virginia and West Virginia have labeled the builders of stone cairns, mounds and walls as a distinct indigenous culture, distinct from indigenous peoples living elsewhere in the Southeast.
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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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