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Ruins in Georgia and South Carolina

In 1873, pioneer anthropologist, Charles C. Jones, published his landmark book entitled, Antiquities of the Southern Indians.” Jones made several intriguing statements in his book, which subsequent generations of archaeologists have often ignored. One of them was that early settlers in the southern tip of the Appalachian Mountains and Piedmont had encountered stone retailing walls, stone monuments, walled ceremonial sites and the ruins of stone buildings throughout the region. However, read virtually any authoritative reference on the indigenous peoples of North America today and it will most likely state that unlike the peoples in Mexico and South America, the Southeastern Indians did not build out of stone.

Since late winter of 2013 volunteers in the People of One Fire have been documenting stone Pre-Columbian architecture in their communities. In addition, some retired Native American school teachers have been tediously going through all the archaeological reports they could find, to identify previously studied sites with stone architecture. It is not known if they are grading the reports for spelling and grammar! The volunteers obtain the precise latitude, longitude and altitude of the stone ruins which appear to be Pre-Columbian then take photos. The archaeological sites are not disturbed in anyway.

Peabody Museum Study

buildingruinsIn 1950, archaeologist Phillip E. Smith of the Peabody Museum of Harvard University excavated several stone architecture sites in northeast Georgia then wrote a report about them. He discovered a circular, mountaintop shrine on Aleck Mountain in Habersham County that aligns with the winter solstice sunrise at the top of Brasstown Bald Mountain.

Smith then traveled southward along the Oconee River Basin through the Georgia Piedmont where he briefly inspected many more sites with stone veneered mounds and stone cairns. He soon realized that a unique culture had occupied this region. He recommended that this Native American province be studied comprehensively rather than via the piecemeal approach that is typical Southeast archaeology today.

Phillip Smith was apparently the first and last archaeologist to examine the massive Sandy Creek Archaeological Zone in Jackson County, GA near the headwaters of the Oconee River. The zone contains hundreds of stone retaining walls, stone veneered mounds, stone cairns and the ruins of rectangular stone buildings.

In 1985, the Southeastern Archaeological Conference held a symposium on what it called “rock pile features.” The conference concluded that most of these structures post-dated Anglo-American settlement and therefore were not significant. That was a good solution to the inability of Southeastern archaeologists to understand them. Since they were not significant, they didn’t have to think about them anymore. That solution has generally been the status of these structures for the past 30 years.

Contemporary Archaeologists

A surprising number of Southeastern archaeological sites with stone architecture have been professionally studied. In general, the information gained from these studies has not influenced orthodoxies about eastern North America’s past. The two major exceptions to this situation are the archaeological programs at Jacksonville State University and the South Carolina Institute of Archaeology and Anthropology. Jacksonville State’s archaeologists are continuing to study the enigmatic stone walls and effigies in the mountains near its campus in northeast Alabama.

Although best known for its work at the 16th century Spanish town of Santa Elena and the Ice Age stone tool shop site near Topper, SC, the SCIAA sponsors a diverse program of investigation. In 2006, Dr. Adam King of the SCIAA discovered an up to six feet high stone retaining wall around the massive plaza at Etowah Mounds in northwest Georgia. He has incorporated this discovery in his continually expanding investigation of the town’s architecture. On nearby Ladds Mountain are the stone ruins of what appears to be an oval-shaped stone observatory or ceremonial site. Much of this site was damaged in the mid-20th century by a highway contractor, who used the stones to make gravel.

The stone walls in and near Etowah Mounds are highly significant because the original town at this archaeological site was begun at virtually the same time as the current oldest radiocarbon date at the Track Rock Terrace Complex in the north central Georgia Mountains. An important omission in the 2001 archaeological report on the Track Rock ruins was that it did not mention any of the contemporary Native American town sites with mounds that were literally in sight of Track Rock or Brasstown Bald Mountain. The people in these communities were making the same pottery and art, plus building the same houses that was being produced at Etowah Mounds. Archaeologists have always associated these “Etowah I” sites with the occupation of the great town on the Etowah River.

The SCIAA has also studied two stone architecture sites in northwest South Carolina. One is in Abbeville County, the other in Pickens County. According to South Carolina archaeologists, Tommy Charles,the Abbeville site consists of circular stone walls around hills, plus some piles of stone. There was a source of copper nearby. SCIAA archaeologists have found no evidence that these walls were built by Anglo-American settlers. The Pickens County site consists of parallel fieldstone retaining walls going up the side of a mountain. Again, the SCAIA staff feels that these structures pre-date the English colonization of South Carolina. More intensive studies are needed at these two sites before anything more definitive can be stated.

Pine Mountain, Georgia

Several People of One Fire members live in the vicinity of Pine Mountain, in west central Georgia. Pine Mountain is the remnant of a mountain range which predated the Appalachians. It is surrounded by the gently rolling terrain of the Lower Piedmont. However, where the Flint River cuts through the mountain is scenery and terrain more similar to the Blue Ridge Mountains 130 miles to the north.

Of particular interest to researchers is The Cove. It is an isolated pocket in the mountain created by the Flint River Gorge. It is also a treasure trove for Native American artifacts. An advanced indigenous culture thrived here for many centuries. In the vicinity of The Cove are hundreds of stone cairns and walls. Cairns, such as those in the picture above, also dot the ridge line of Pine Mountain. The purpose and original appearance of the ridgeline cairns has received very little thought. There is something unique about these rocks. Many have been worked into rectangular shapes. They were probably quarried.

People of One Fire member, Ginger Zachrey, hiked the Creek Trail on Pine Mountain in order to document the largest concentration of ridge line cairns. She stated that there are no signs that explain their function or origin. Local tourist literature suggests that they are “burials of important Creek Indian chiefs.” When originally built they may have been cylindrical in form and functioned as signal or ceremonial pyres. Such fieldstone pyres are common place in the highlands of Mexico and Central America. Fieldstone pyres and altars in more arid locations still maintain their cylindrical form.

Cohutta Mountains

There are many archaeological mysteries in and near the Cohutta Mountain National Wilderness Area. Along the Cohutta’s western escarpment are the stone walls of Fort Mountain. Within the Cohutta’s rugged terrain have been found stone ruins and ceremonial sites, which currently defy explanation.

Around 2003 a retired archaeologist from Florida discovered a large, triangular stone fort in the Cohutta National Wilderness Area. He told his wife that in and around the fort, he found both Creek Indian Lamar Style pottery and what appeared to be 16th or 17th century European potsherds. He has since died and his widow does not know where the ruins are.

This summer, People of One Fire member, Julia Sennette, discovered a ceremonial site in the Cohutta Mountains that will change the archaeology books. Within the site are several monoliths. At least two have been quarried into geometrical shapes. They are stelae and are still standing. One of the stelae has a straight groove carved into one face. The surfaces of the stelae are covered lichen. They may or may not have more inscriptions on them. POOF members have instructions not to disturb structures in any way. The study of the stelae will require technical specialists.

Where God once lived

The “Big Kahuna” of the stone architecture sites in the Georgia Piedmont is still being kept under wraps. When the region in which it is located was ceded by the Creek Confederacy to the United States in 1785, two surveyors measured the 450 feet diameter ceremonial site in detail, plus the many quarried stone monuments on it. Most of the monuments contained glyphs that included arrangements of crescent moons and the sun. Some of the monuments contained a writing system that the surveyors had never seen before.

Creek Indians living near the site told the visitors that the location was the most sacred of all their worship sites. According to Creek tradition the Master of Life (God) arrived at this spot from heaven. He stayed with the Creeks for awhile and taught them their decimal numerical system, precise solar calendar and advanced math. Then one day he disappeared. The elaborate ceremonial site was constructed as a landing place he returned to them. America does, indeed, have a secret history.

A lot of folks are gonna be shaking their heads on this one.

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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.



    I got a chance to explore the Key Largo Temple Mound a few weeks ago when visiting the keys. It’s been really desecrated but I got some decent photos (possibly the only ones in existence). It’s speculated to have once been a fairly large limestone coral crab effigy with extended ramparts. Come to find out there used to be several coral walls in the keys with one still withstanding at Lignumvitae Key that’s over a thousand feet. I can only imagine what the Key Largo Temple must have looked like pristine, white coral shining under a full moon in the starlight. It must have been wondrous and possibly a relation to the constellation of Cancer.


    Richard, thanks for the great website! I live near pine mountain, and have often hiked the pine mountain trail. (I have seen some the cairns and hillside platforms mentioned–very interesting!) Is there anyway I could contact the member that found cairns on the ridge line? I would love to compare notes! Anytime I find sites in the woods I treat them with respect, and dont disturb them. (I pride my self in being a “leave no trace” hiker) I love that area, and would really like to know more about its distant past! Thanks and keep up the great work!

    • Actually, you can be a big help to us by documenting all the Native American stone structures that you encounter in your area. The lady who photographed one stone pile never contacted us again. What we need is descriptions, dimensions and GPS coordinates of all stone structures that will be placed on a GIS base map that will be copied to the National Park Service. Thanks for writing us.



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