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Satellite imagery reveals massive earthworks of Tama-tli near Murphy, NC

Satellite imagery reveals massive earthworks of Tama-tli near Murphy, NC


A NASA satellite image, recently embedded into the ERSI GIS software has captured the dark footprints of massive earthworks, where the Itsate Creek town of Tama-tli once stood and later the Cherokee village of Tomatla was situated.  Tamatli was on the Nene Hvtke Rakko  (Great White Road) which was built by the Parakusiti (High King) of Apalache in Northeast Georgia to connect Chiaha in the Great Smoky Mountains with the Gulf Coast. In the famous Migration Legend of the Kaushete People,  the Kaushete-Creeks followed this road, while fleeing a drought in eastern Tennessee, from the Little Tennessee River in the Great Smoky Mountains southward to settle on the Ocmulgee River with the Koweta Creeks, north of Macon, GA.  US Highway 129 generally follows the route of the Great White Road through North Carolina, Georgia and Florida.

The Tomatla Archaeological Zone is about a mile from the Cherokee Valley Casino.

Etymology:  Tama-tli means “Trade – Place Of” in northern Chontal Maya.  It was a pigeon language, spoken by Itza merchants and mariners, which mixed Itza with Nahuatl, Totonac and Huastec.  The equivalent word in Nahuatl is Tomatlan.  It is the name of an ancient town of Aztec origin in Jalisco State, Mexico.

It is astonishing how the time of year and weather conditions can alter the information available on satellite imagery.  Complex earthworks in a 170 acre archaeological zone have sudden become visible.  Only the 575 feet long mound is faintly visible on Google Earth satellite imagery.

Many of the earthworks do not show up in another satellite image. Otherwise the photo is very clear.

The Andrews Valley between Murphy and Andrews, NC was almost an ideal location for pre-industrial agriculture.  The top soil is very deep and fertile.  The northeastern end of the valley gets 66 inches of rain a year, while the southwestern end get 54 inches of rain a year. The Andrews-Murphy-Hiawassee, GA-Blairsville, GA area is colder in the winter than Etowah Mounds, but still would have had an adequate growing season for corn. The river contained freshwater mussels and fish.  The valley is surrounded by forests that would have been rich with game and edible nuts.


The Ortona Site in Florida contains long, low mounds (left) plus many curvilinear earthworks. There may be a connection to Tama-tli,

The geometric earthworks on the west side of the archaeological zone are very similar to some of those at the Ortona Town Site near Lake Okeechobee in South Florida.  This may be significant.  In their first meeting in early 1733 at the proposed site of Savannah,  Mikko Tamachichi (Tomochichi in English) told Supervisor James Edward Oglethorpe that his ancestors had originally crossed the ocean from a land in the south.  They first lived in a town next to a great lake in southern Florida.  They then emigrated northward to a swampy land with many reeds.  They then moved northward again to the mouth of the Savannah River, where they were allowed to settle by the Apalache.  He said that from Savannah they spread northward up the Savannah River and into the mountains.  Tamatli was obviously a site where his ancestors established a regional trading center.

From Hwy. 129-74, the Tomatla Mound appears as a long, low berm in the otherwise flat terrain.

The large flat area on the right in the bend of the Valley River is obviously a proto-Creek town site.  Almost all proto-Creek towns were placed in such locations.  Today, they are typically bordered by stands of river cane.

It is not clear what the dark lines on the right side of this image represent.  One set appears to be a rectangular fort.   In the 1980s, geologists studied an gold mine in Tomatla, NC.  Trees, growing in the mouth of the cave, were dated to about 1600 AD.   Thus, the rectangular pattern may represent an Early Colonial Period fort. Other dark spots appear to be small mounds or the footprints of large buildings.

View of the Valley River from a Native American village site in Andrews, NC.

Who built these mounds and when?

Those are very good questions.   I strongly suspect that many different peoples have lived at this site, during the past 12,000 years.   The earthworks on the west side of the river may date from a different period than the town site on the right.  On the other hand, we know that the Apalache (proto-Creeks) often planned bi-nodal towns in which the elite lived in a different precinct than the commoners.

One thing is for sure.  Cherokees did not build these mounds.  In 1913,  Archaeologist Robert Dewar Wainwright excavated three mounds in the Andrews, NC area.  In his book about his archaeological excavations in Andrews,  Wainwright wrote:  Much material has been gathered here, especially these so-called traders’ beads. Evidently the Cherokees camped on the old Mound Builders’ fields very often. No knowledge as to who were the builders of these mounds can be obtained, the Cherokees informing me that they were there when their people came to this section of the state.

At the very least, this beautiful and very visible archaeological zone should be placed on the National Register for Historic Places.   Being so close to other tourist destinations, it would make an ideal location for utilizing archaeology as an asset for developing increased heritage tourism in Western North Carolina.   There is no telling what lurks under the ground here.


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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.



    The season and weather definataly makes a difference in the satellite images. I went to google map to see my hometown county in south Alabama. I was really inter in seeing the Alabama River and all the creeks around the river. Well evidentaly the image was taken in the Spring. The river and the whole area around the river was flooded .

    • Travis, You know the funny thing is that I have been looking at satellite images of the Andrews Valley for years, but this is the first image that revealed those amazing earthworks.


    I wonder if you could contact Google and see if they could give you access to different images they may have from dif times? That would be very valuable, esp. to you ,it would seem.

    • I primarily use ERSI, which is a higher resolution version of satellite imagery, used by urban planners, architects and archaeologists. They do keep files of the satellite images, so regional planners can keep track of urban growth and changes.


    Richard, I was just in Murphy NC and the only Native American site that was promoted were the Casinos. There should have least been a highway marker to describe the area’s rich history. What a missed opportunity.

    • I agree. There is so much history under the ground of the Andrews Valley. You can feel it.


    Looks like a drainage ditch,


    Richard, This is very interesting. I have 44 acres 4 miles upstream (as a crow flies) on the Valley River at the intersection of NC Hwy 141 and Fairview Rd. It’s mostly mountain terrain but I’m sure the natives fished, hunted and gathered nuts on it. I’m going to look at the site in this article a lot closer the next time I drive by there.

    • Ron, your land is chock full of Native American sites. The chances are very good that you have one or more mounds on your property. They were plowed down by farmers, but still can be seen as dark spots on satellite images.


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