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Mysterious Stone Building in Southwestern Georgia

Mysterious Stone Building in Southwestern Georgia

The Native American archaeological sites of Decatur and Early Counties, GA were in one of the areas of the state, receiving special attention by the investigative team hired by the History Channel for the upcoming debut of America Unearthed. (Channel H2 ~ December 21, 2012 ~ 10:00 PM EST – 11:00 PM CST) This building is not part of the TV program. I stumbled upon it while reading an archaeological survey prepared by the late Arthur Kelley. The Decatur County Historical Society kindly provided me with substantial historical background, but the building still remains an enigma.

When visited by William Bartram in 1776, the ancient, oval building was 15 feet long and 9 feet wide. It was constructed out of quarried stones of varied size, and laid with lime-based mortar. The roof consisted of corbelled stones and had no internal support. At that time, it was still in use, but Creek Indians accompanying Bartram did not know who had built it.

A Mysterious Stone Building in Southwestern Georgia

This vestige from the past illustrates the limitations of architectural analysis. On many sites, architects can provide the public with amazing insights into a building’s pedigree, but without the range of scientific tests available from the professions of archaeology and geology, it is often impossible for architects to determine who built the structure and when it was built.

The year is 1776. Botanist William Bartram is on the leg of his grand journey through the Southeast. While the guest of the British Army commander in Pensacola, Province of West Florida, he learned that the Continental Congress had signed a Declaration of Independence. What had been viewed by the British Crown as sedition by some colonial rabble had turned into a full blown revolution. Bartram was racing home to be with his family in Philadelphia. In a few days, he would join his Creek Indian friends and Georgia militia in a successful ambush of some British Rangers from East Florida.

Shortly after paddling across the Chattahoochee River, Bartram’s Native American friends showed him a stone building perched on a terrace overlooking the confluence of a creek with the Flint River. The old trade path from the Creek village of Attapulgus terminated at the Flint River’s opposite side. The Creek Indian village of Pucknawhitla (Poknvhitli [Birds-nest-builders People] in Itsate Creek) was located a couple of miles upstream. Bartram’s Creek Indian companions did not know who had built the structure, but it was still being used, apparently to store valuables and gun powder.

Bartram had embarked on his journey to study the exotic flora and fauna of the Southern colonies, but had become fascinated with its indigenous inhabitants. He was astonished, after traveling through 150 miles of the Georgia frontier, to see precisely planned Creek Indian towns laid out in grid iron patterns with streets, plazas, public buildings and sporting fields. Bartram’s interest shifted to architecture as his sketch pads were filled with drawings of the different architectural traditions of various branches of the Creek Confederacy. However, this building was nothing like what he had seen elsewhere. No contemporary Creek buildings were constructed of quarried stone and lime mortar.

After the Revolution, West Florida, which included the Florida Panhandle and much of southern Alabama, reverted back to nominal Spanish ownership, but the interior was controlled by the Creek Indian Confederacy. The United States declared war on Great Britain in 1812. The government of the Creek Confederacy declared its loyalty to the United States. Although officially neutral, Spanish officials allowed British agents to instigate a faction of Creeks, primarily living in Alabama and Spanish West Florida, to rebel against their leadership. An Itsate-Creek (Hitchiti) village in Decatur County did side with the rebels, who were labeled “Red Sticks.” This civil war quickly spiraled into a war involving the U. S. Army.

No major battles of the Red Stick War occurred near the stone building, but nearby Fort Hughes became a staging area for campaigns against the Red Stick Faction. In 1814, the Treaty of Fort Jackson, the Muskogee-Creek members of the Creek Confederacy gave away the section of southwest Georgia that was occupied by Itsate-Creeks, even though most had been loyal to the United States. This caused many Itsate Creeks to become hostile and align their towns with the Seminole Creek faction.

In 1817, military campaigns began against the Seminoles, who then lived in southern Georgia and northern Florida. Fort Scott was built in the general vicinity of the stone building. In April of 1817 an army, led by General Andrew Jackson, stopped at Fort Scott on the way to fight the Seminoles in Florida. There were skirmishes near Fort Scott.

Visitors to the building in the 1800s gave the same general description. It was oval in shape. Its maximum dimensions were 15 feet by 9 feet. It had a corbelled (arched) stone roof. The floor was recessed two feet into the ground.

In his landmark book on the Southeastern Indians published in 1873, Charles C. Jones discussed on page 209 the fact that in many parts of Georgia, especially the mountains and upper Piedmont, ancient stone walls and building foundations could still be seen. Most of these ancient ruins were destroyed in the mid-20th century to make crushed stone for highway construction. The assumption by many people that a stone building couldn’t have been constructed by an indigenous people was wrong.

J. A. Youmans of Waycross, GA, who first visited the site in 1900, provides some more details for the building. He wrote, “The structure was built by excavating a hole in the rock about six feet deep. The walls were about eight or nine feet from the bottom floor. This was built out of a mixture of limestone and flint rock, and appeared to be cemented with some kind of powder that I think was cement rock beat up into a powder. I cannot see that this was used as an oven at any time, as the same did not show signs of fire. There was no door at this time, but the opening was about 28 inches by 72 inches. There were steps cut into the stone at the doorway. ”

Youmans’ comments provide more details, but also create more questions. How could the building have a six feet high door opening and steps cut into stone, if six of its nine feet of interior height were underground? Perhaps this quote is a 100 year old typo. Lime based mortar turns into a white powder after many centuries of exposure to the elements. Crude, hydrated lime plaster was utilized by the American Indians of southeast Georgia to plaster their wattle & daub houses. However, at the time of Spanish colonization efforts in the 1600s, local Natives did not have metal tools capable of quarrying six feet down through solid limestone, or even two feet. The six feet depth sounds suspicious under any circumstance, given the two feet depth described by all others.

The old stone building remains an enigma

Settlers poured into the region after Florida officially became part of the Union in 1821. The stone building became known as “Jackson’s Oven.” Frontiersmen believed that the structure was a bread oven, built to feed Jackson’s troops. This interpretation is impossible. In this era, bread was baked in cast iron ovens. His troops had no time to quarry the limestone, make the mortar and lay the rocks before racing to Florida to confront the Seminoles. Furthermore, it is highly unlikely that anyone in the U. S. Army knew how to build a corbelled vault out of stones of varied sizes.

Some local historians have suggested that it was a granary. However, all Creek granaries, going back a thousand years were two story structures, built on timber posts. They had vented walls. Corn and beans would have molded in a few days within the dark, hot, humid conditions of the stone structure.

The stone building near the Flint River also enters into the legend of the Welshman, Prince Madoc, who supposedly entered North America through Mobile Bay, Alabama then traveled to the mountains of Georgia to build mountaintop structures. Believers of this legend propose that some of Prince Madoc’s followers established a small village around the stone building.

Those historians more knowledgeable of the past have suggested that the structure was built by the Spanish. The Spanish claimed the Chattahoochee and Flint River Valleys until the mid-1700s, but did not permanently settle the region because of the extreme hostility of the Creek Indians. Until the construction began at Fort San Marco at St. Augustine in 1672, the Spanish had not constructed any stone masonry buildings in the province of La Florida. Lacking firing holes for arquebuses, the relatively small building would not have been of any obvious use for the Spanish and would have been very vulnerable to impacts from solid cannon balls. A collapsing stone roof would have instantly killed the occupants.

It is unlikely that any Spanish mason in La Florida would have even known how to build a corbelled stone roof. The ancient peoples Europe did. The Maya Indians did. The Native peoples of the Andes Mountains did, but not the Spanish of the Renaissance.

The building near the Flint River does strongly resemble the oval temples in the Maya city of Coba. Also, there were thousands of oval, stone walled houses in the Puuc region of the Yucatan Peninsula, but those that survive today have thatched. The building in Georgia is similar to the beehive houses that the Gaelic peoples built in Ireland and Scotland. What it most resembles, though, are the Christian burial crypts built in Ireland between 600 AD and 1100 AD. They also were cut about two feet into stone then roofed with corbelled stones. On the other hand, it could be a Maya royal tomb built in the shape of a Maya house.

By the late 20th century, the old stone building was a ruin with walls barely reaching above ground level. A brief archaeological survey of the proposed basin of Lake Seminole followed authorization of the Jim Woodruff Dam and Lock Project by Congress in 1946. However, no archaeological investigation was carried out for the ancient ruins. They were probably bull-dozed prior to the reservoir being filled with water as a safety precaution.

Put on your thinking caps for this one, y’all!

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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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