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Occupation of Etowah Mounds site actually dates to at least 1000 BC

Occupation of Etowah Mounds site actually dates to at least 1000 BC


The original location of the town was on the south side of the Etowah River, but the river channel shifted during a massive flood around 1200 AD. Etowah Mound A originally was on the northern tip of a horseshoe bend.  Next time that you are at Etowah Mounds take a close look at the terrain.  There is an old river channel that makes arc through the entire site, just north of Mound A.

Over and over again, the People of One Fire has published the amazing discoveries of archaeologists Arthur Kelly,  Robert Wauchope, Joseph Caldwell and Lewis Larsen in the mid-20th century that somehow got forgotten or changed in the 1990s and early 21st century. This is another example. 

In 1939, Robert Wauchope found artifacts, dating from the Late Archaic Period (c. 1500 BC?) to the late 1600s on the south side of the Etowah River.   Visitors to the Etowah Mounds National Historic Site are told today that newcomers arrived around 1000 AD to a virgin site.  They are also told that there were three distinct occupations at that location, which ended around 1550-1585 then the town site was not occupied again.  Not so! 

All current archaeological texts state that Etowah was uninhabited between the period between 1200 AD and 1250 AD.  That may not be the case at all.   During that period the area where the three large mounds now sit was an island in the midst of wetlands.  Probably, it was not until around 1250 AD that the new channel deepened enough to drain the current site of Etowah Mounds sufficiently to build on.  Since so little archaeological work has been done on the south side of the river, for all we know, there may have been a continuously occupied town there for many centuries.

View of the confluence of Pumpkinvine Creek with the Etowah River from its north bank . . . note the fish trap!

Visitors to the Etowah Mounds museum are not made aware of how little of the large archaeological zone has actually been excavated by professional archaeologists.   Massive Mound A has never been professionally excavated.  Most of the archaeological work has been concentrated at Mound C and Mound B and the space in between, plus the ramp on the east side of Mound A.  When archaeologist Lewis Larsen started on Mound C in 1954, all of the mound above the existing grade had been removed by the Smithsonian Institute in the 1880s and the Peabody Museum’s, Warren K. Moorehead in 1925.  Since Wauchope’s visit in 1939, the only professional work on the south side of the river was a few years ago, when a chokopa (rotunda) was excavated by some Georgia archaeologists . . . still incorrectly calling it an earth lodge.

In 1884, there were at least 12 mounds on the south side of the Etowah River.  Five were near the Etowah River.  The other seven were spaced up the flood plain of Pumpkinvine Creek.  In 1886, a year after the Smithsonian Institute archaeologists left Etowah, a devastating flood swept through the Etowah Valley . . .  scouring away mounds on the north side of the river, gouging out a section of the acropolis on the north side of the river and depositing 15 feet of sediment over much of the archaeological zone that you see today. 

Several of the other surviving mounds were unprofessionally excavated in the late 1800s and early 1900s . . . probably by John P. Rogan.  He returned to Cartersville after being fired a second time for not producing “trophy artifacts” at mound sites and soon built what was then Cartersville’s largest commercial building.  At least two near the river were bulldozed by their owners around 1952, because they were afraid that the State of Georgia would “seize” their property and include in the planned state historic site.

Robert Wauchope

Wauchope apparently only spent a few days on the south side of the Etowah River and was not allowed to explore some of the properties there.  He did not direct his laborers to dig long trenches, which would have revealed more about the history of the archaeological zone.  Nevertheless, what he found should have radically changed the understanding of Etowah Mounds and resulted in a large tract of land being purchased along Pumpkinvine Creek.

Unfortunately,  Wauchope’s book on the exploration of North Georgia was not published until 1966 . . . ten years after Lew Larsen and Arthur Kelly finished work on the north side of the Etowah River.   An orthodoxy was already established concerning the age of Etowah and Southeastern archeologists REALLY don’t like to change their minds after an orthodoxy is established.  Unfortunately,  local officials forgot the discoveries of Wauchope in 1939 and allowed subdivisions to be developed in the area during the past 25 years.  Now it is too late to save the entire archaeological zone.

In a layer of alluvial sand,  Wauchope found some heavily worn, fiber tempered Archaic Period potsherds.  He was not certain where they had been originally deposited and so did not attempt to interpret them.  At the base of an oval mound, destroyed by John P. Rogan,  Wauchope found Dunlap cord-marked potsherds, dating from the very Early Woodland Period (1000 BC – 700 BC?).  In higher layers of soil, he found Deptford Early Woodland potsherds (700 BC-400 BC?),   Cartersville Check Stamped potsherds (400 BC-200 AD), Swift Creek Complicated Stamped potsherds (200 AD – 600 AD), Woodstock Stamped potsherds (800 AD – 1000 AD),  Etowah Complicated Stamp potsherds (1000 AD-1200 AD), Savannah Stamped potsherds (c. 1250- 1350 AD), Early Lamar stamped and incised potsherds (1350-1600 AD) and Late Lamar incised potsherds (1600 AD-1700 AD). 

I marked on a GIS satellite map the locations where Wauchope found either mounds or Early Mississippian Period potsherds.  I then calculated the approximate area containing those potsherds.  The occupied area of the Early Mississippian town covered about 220 acres . . . mostly on the south side of the river or where the river is flowing now. The Etowah Mounds State Historic Site covers about 80 acres.  So the original town was probably bigger than the town, which constructed the larger mounds.

No wonder our Itstate ancestors named the town, Etula . . . the big town.  The word, Tula, itself was the original name of Teotihuacan.  Like Teotihuacan,  Etula was built in the midst of marshes and wetlands. 

Model of Itchesi (Vchesi in Muskogee) at the Mound Building in Okmulgee, Oklahoma ~ Richard L. Thornton, Architect

Twin towns of Etula and Itchesi

In 1973,  archaeologists employed by the National Park Service carried out extensive excavations at the Lamar Village Site in Ocmulgee National Monument.  Our ancestors called this town on an island, Itchesi, which means “Descendants of the Itza.”  Although exhibits in the Ocmulgee N.M. museum state that the Lamar Village was founded around 200 years after the Ocmulgee Acropolis was abandoned, that is not true.

The NPS archaeologists found that the former horseshoe bend had been frequented by Archaic and Early Woodland peoples.  A small Swift Creek Culture village had been located there.   Then the archaeologists began digging a trench into Mound A at the Lamar Site.  Etowah Complicated Stamp potsherds at the base of Mound A.  Charcoal there was dated to around 990 AD.  In other words,  Itchesi and Etowah Mounds were founded at about the same time by the same people.

The NPS team then began studying the geological history of the Lamar Village.  For much of its history, it has been a swampy area.  It still is.   During the Woodland and early part of the Mississippian Period (1000 BC – 1200 AD) the location had been a horseshoe bend.   Then around 1200 AD, a massive flood overran the entire village and coated the land in muck.  A new channel was cut across the neck of the horseshoe bend.  The archaeologists had checked with geologists and learned that there was evidence of catastrophic flooding in the Lower Southeast around 1200 AD, but being unaware of Etowah Mounds’ secret history, did not make the connection to Etula being made an island by the same storm event.

Probable site plan of Etula during the Early Mississippian Period ~ There may have been large mounds where the river now flows.


It does make perfect sense, however.   Robert Wauchope found significant evidence of an ancient settlement site on the south side of the Etowah River, which had grown into one of the largest indigenous towns north of Mexico during the Early Mississippian Period.  Because of the shift in channel of the Etowah River, the northern tip of the original town became the heart of the Middle Mississippian town.  Below are some schematic plans of Etula, showing its evolution over time. 








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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 cool to see. Thanks for sharing.


    Would you happen to know more on Henry Tarle Skawee McGee/McGhee? He lived near Coon creek & Hitower River. Other than the siver mine. Was he a Cherokee or Creek? I’ve been looking for weeks & I am struggling.

    • Raccoon Creek is just down stream about 3 miles from Etowah Mounds. McGhee is a prominent SW Alabama Creek family name, but as for this man, I would not really know. There was a Creek village named Euharlee that remained at a location near Raccoon Creek after the land was given to the Cherokees. So it is possible that McGhee lived there. These are all speculations.


        Thank you so much!!


    Richard, Another island city at one time (1200 AD) was the first Olmec’s main city (1200 BC) and the Mexah’s (Aztecs) (1300’s AD) as well. Perhaps some connections with those peoples….The written script given to the English in 1635 was perhaps Olmec and could have some old Danish “symbols” as you have noted, found in Georgia and with the (I AM MA) Maya people of the Yucatan? Did Toma-cha-chi call his ancestors the “I-AM-MA”…if he did he is connecting himself and his people with the Yucatan Maya.
    The Maya kingdoms lasted 3 thousand years…the Toltec’s in Mexico ( 300 years?)…Apalacha / Chiska (Tsiskua) Kingdom perhaps (1000 years). Do you have the date for the oldest artwork of the Apalachi / Chiska braves dancing?

    • I don’t have any dates on that gorget. The archaeologists, who excavated it just treated it as art, not scientific evidence. The Mayas did not call themselves the Mayas. Maiami was a province in northwestern Yucatan at the time of the Spanish Conquest. The Spanish used that word to label all the people in that part of the world.


    Did you know that the Etowah Mounds are VERY near one of the only commerical Barite deposits in the south east. Theay are littleral less than a mile or two downstream from the mines

    • Yes, I do. I lived in Cartersville near Etowah Mounds for four years. Immediately next to the barite are commercial ocher mines.


    MrT., I am from Monroe Co Alabama. There was an old village on the Al River in Monroe co at Claiborne, called Piache. Desoto stopped there on his travels. Do you happen to know anything about Piache and its people? I have just found the word means “little tree(s)Thanks alot

    • Hey John

      Who told you that it meant tree? Tree in Muskogee is eto. A little tree would be etosena. Clairborne was later on a Muskogee speaking area, but evidently it was not back in 1540. I couldn’t find any Muskogee word similar to piache or pia.


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