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Satellite imagery reveals history of the North Carolina’s Nikwasi Mound

Satellite imagery reveals history of the North Carolina’s Nikwasi Mound


People of One Fire continues its series on the Native American history of the Upper Little Tennessee River Valley. This week we are focusing on the Native American sites in the Franklin, NC area, where there has been little archaeological investigation.

Late October to late December is THE very best time to find lost Native American mounds and structures.  This was a “trick of the trade” taught me by Dr. Arthur Kelly,  when he and Lewis Larson gave our architectural history class a tour of Etowah Mounds. This was an incredible opportunity to have the nationally famous archaeologists teach us.  When night time chills kill off the summer vegetation, species of cool weather, fertile soil grasses thrive.    The footprints of ancient structures and mounds are typically rich in humus, which causes the cool weather grasses to be especially noticeable.

The field trip was in the autumn before I even knew I would be getting a fellowship to study in Mexico.  Dr. Kelly’s endorsement played a major role in that surprise.  So at the time, his “trick of the trade” didn’t seem very useful to us wannabe Frank Lloyd Wrights.  However, a decade later, I was heavily involved in the preservation of very old American buildings . . . taking me to the threshold of archaeology.  On many a project, Dr. Kelly’s practical techniques enabled me to find lost out-buildings on Colonial farms, forgotten Hopewell Culture earthworks in the Shenandoah Valley or 19th century earthen fortifications.

The photo above is a high resolution NASA photograph of the Nikiwasi Mound in Franklin, NC.  I have tilted the orientation to fit a closer image on the page.  The mound today at ground level appears to be aligned to the NW-SE or Winter Solstice sunrise . . . with a ramp on the southeast end.  As you will learn, that was not always the appearance of this mound.

This is the original ERSI satellite image, showing its actual alignment. Note that in visible light, the ramp appears to be centered.

I also used a computer program that was created to aid the reading of ancient maps and drawings, to enhance the Near Visible Infrared Light wave bands.  The results were astonishing.

People, who visit the Nikwasi Mound, assume that it always had a large ramp on the southeast end.  As you can see, the southeast ramp was added by the Cherokees, using sterile soil.  The grass here is not quite as healthy, even though the public is not allowed to walk on the mound.   Also, as you can see in the photo at top . . . in reality the Cherokee ramp was NOT centered, but attached to the southeast corner of the southeastern side of the mound.

The lump on the top of the mound seen today was created by successive Cherokee townhouses in the 18th century.

Stages of the Nikwasi Mound

You can easily see with the Near Visible Infrared Spectrum that the Nikwasi Mound was originally terraced and was formerly two, very different geometric forms.

(1)  Originally a ROUND platform mound was constructed that about about 136 feet in diameter and 6 feet in height.  It is partially covered now by alluvial soil, deposited by one or more catastrophic floods.

(2)  A second ROUND platform, about 103 feet in diameter and 6 feet in height, was built on top of the original mound.

(3)  In the third phase, the mound was sculptured into an oval facing the Winter Solstice Sunset, the beginning of the Maya Solar Year.  The southwest slope of the mound was substantially a less steeper grade in order to make wooden steps up the mound practical.

(4) In the fourth phase, an additional 15 feet were added to the top. This may have been accomplished in two or more sub-phases. The additional height created a slope that was too step for constructing wooden steps up the mound’s side, so an earthen ramp, containing much humus or human detritus was constructed.  Notice how much darker the grass is on the older southwest ramp.  The ramp is not even visible at ground level.

(5) In the fifth phase, the Cherokees burned the Muskogean temples on the top of the mound.  They then pushed the debris to the northwest side of the mound and then shoveled the upper soil level of the mound to the northwest slope and little bit on the southeast corner of the mound top.  See the darker colors on the top of the mound on the right side.  However, to create a ramp larger enough for the entire village to climb up to a council house together, the Cherokees hauled in soil from elsewhere, which had less humus in it.  This earth-moving process created a platform wide enough for the town house.  The Cherokee town house was about 50 feet in diameter.  Very high magnification and enhancement of the original satellite image revealed its diameter.

The village and mound of Nuquosee or Naquesee in 1721.  It had 142 inhabitants.  Its current name, Nikwasi, never appeared in colonial archives.

(6) In the sixth phase, successive Cherokee townhouses during the 1700s built up a layer of detritus on top of the broader platform.  When their wooden structures decayed beyond repair, they were probably burned.  The ashes where then covered with a thin layer of clay, which served as the platform for the next townhouse.  After the Cherokees ceded the land around present day Franklin, NC in 1818,  the detritus created by their townhouses partially washed down the sides of the mound or were consumed by plants growing on the mound.  Grass has been planted on the mound by the City of Franklin in order to stabilize the natural erosion process.

(7)  In 1963, archeologists from the University of North Carolina’s Department of Anthropology, cleared the scrub from the mound and excavated a 5 ft. x 5 ft. test pit.   Although it is now claimed that the mound’s form was not altered,  the stark difference in the amount of infrared light absorbed by the two parts of today’s “Cherokee ramp” strongly suggests that someone added sterile clay and soil to the 1963 mound in order to create the current form and size of the ramp.

In the next article of this series on the Nikwasi Mound, POOF will examine the available archival and linguistic information in order to determine the history and plan of the original town on this site, which preceded the arrival of the Cherokees by several hundred years.  Readers are in for some really big surprises!




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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.

1 Comment


    Nice work!
    Can’t wait for your next article.


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