Richard Thornton | May 9, 2017 | 23
The Demise of Archaeology on the Chattahoochee River in Alabama and Georgia
(Photo Above) This satellite image represents about 1/4th of a massive complex of mounds and town sites from several time periods in southeastern Alabama. It was briefly visited by artifact collector-grave robber-pioneer archaeologist Clarence Bloomfield Moore in 1907. When he couldn’t immediately find the trophy artifacts that he was looking for, he moved his steamboat on up the river. The archaeological zone has largely been forgotten since then.
In the autumn of 2015, the People of One Fire embarked on virtual canoe trip down the Chattahoochee River . . . from its source on the eastern flanks of Brasstown Bald Mountain, 550 miles generally southward to its delta on the Gulf of Mexico. While paddling past the almost continuous town and village sites in Metro Atlanta, POOF hit an all time new high for readership, 77,108 in one month! Atlantans were astounded that so much of their region’s Pre-European history was documented by two nationally famous archaeologists then forgotten in the past 50 years.
Our canoes have been parked at the River Walkway in Columbus, GA for awhile. We are now paddling on southward. You will be learning the little known facts about Fort Mitchell near Phenix City, AL in a couple of days. One of the many surprises that you will learn in that article is that a fairly large Creek town grew up around Fort Mitchell. It was described by the Marquis de La Fayette in 1825. Ten years later that Creek town would become the nation’s first concentration camp. Anonymous Creek graves dot the landscape around Mt. Mitchell . . . and they have never been mentioned.
One thing has become perfectly clear. Archaeological study of the Chattahoochee River Basin pretty much ended in 1979. In fact, very few people are alive today, who were alive when most of the Chattahoochee River archaeological sites received their first and only cursory visit by a professional archaeologist. All of the known “mound sites” between Columbus and the Gulf of Mexico were briefly visited by Clarence Bloomfield Moore in 1907. Between 1959 and 1961, the US Army Corps of Engineers paid for a few of those mounds, that were about to be inundated by lakes, to be excavated by archaeologists . . . but not the whole village sites. No Native American town site, south of Fort Benning, has ever been fully excavated by a professional archaeologist.
Keep in mind that very few of the Historic Period Creek towns on the Chattahoochee River contained mounds. Therefore, they have traditionally been ignored by archaeologists. In most cases, their locations are not even known, except for vague information contained in Colonial Period maps. Over and over again these towns sites have been covered by the waters of Southern Company (Georgia Power) and US Army Corps of Engineers reservoirs without the least bit of archaeological study.
There are two exceptions. In 1958 the United States Army funded the excavation of Yuchi Town by Sgt. David Chase and Dr. Harold Hoscher of the Smithsonian Institute. This archaeological site is located on a remote section of Fort Benning that is in Russell County, AL. From 1966 to 1969, Harold Huscher of the Smithsonian Institute was paid by the Corps of Engineers to excavate what traditionally called “The Burnt Village” . . . before it was covered by the waters of West Point Lake.
There has never been a comprehensive survey of all Native American sites between Columbus-Phenix City and the Atlanta Metro Area. Locals know of many Creek town sites in that corridor that don’t even have archaeological site numbers. Fortunately, what is likely the largest Pre-European town site in this corridor is now within the boundaries of Chattahoochee Bend State Park.
In 1939 the famous archeologist, Robert Wauchope, carried out a comprehensive survey of all the Native American archaeological sites between the source of the Chattahoochee River in the mountains and Annewakee Creek in Douglas County, GA (SW Metro Atlanta). Most of his excavation time, however, was spent in the Nacoochee Valley adjacent to the headwaters of the Chattahoochee River. His discoveries there were spectacular, but Wauchope moved away a little over a year later. By the last quarter of the 20th century a new generation of archaeologists in the Southeast had pretty much forgotten what Wauchope discovered. As POOF discussed in an earlier article, almost all the town, village and mound sites that Wauchope documented and gave site numbers to are left out of publications by the University of Georgia’s Department of Anthropology. Ironically, Wauchope was UGA’s first anthropology professor!
Between 1951 and 1954, another nationally famous archaeologist, Joseph Caldwell, was hired by the US Army Corps of Engineers to excavate the Summerour Mounds and Booger Hollow Mound near Buford Dam that were scheduled to be inundated by Lake Lanier. Some archaeologists remember the Summerour Mounds, but the much older Booger Hollow Mound has been completely forgotten.
In 1969, another nationally famous archaeologist, Arthur Kelly, was paid by the Great Southwest Corporation to supervise the complete excavation of Site 9FU14, a 2200 year old town site, discovered by Wauchope. However, his work was stopped before he could excavate the mound and no report was published afterward. This revolutionary archaeological investigation would have been completely forgotten now had not I been hired as a Georgia Tech architecture student to prepare the site plan.
Between 1978 and 1979, the Carter Administration funded archaeologists to carry out a survey of the Chattahoochee River between Morgan Falls Dam and the I-75 Bridge to locate both Native American and 19th century archaeological sites. This was a part of the creation of the Chattahoochee National Recreation Area. In 1985, an archaeologist, employed by Cobb County, GA did a survey and some test digs, where a trunk sewer was planned in the National Recreation Area.
In 1999, a team of faculty and students from the University of Georgia spent two days on the Kenimer Mound in the Nacoochee Valley, carrying out a topographic survey and digging test pits. Their report never mentions the half dozen, contemporary village sites WITH MOUNDS, adjacent to the Kenimer Mound, which were excavated by Robert Wauchope. They described the Kenimer Mound as being in an isolated location with no villages nearby! Ironically, Wauchope didn’t know that the Kenimer Mound existed. It is so large that he thought it was a natural hill.
In 2004, a team from the University of Georgia returned to the Nacoochee Valley to survey the village around the famous Nacoochee Mound. Again, their report did not mention the three village sites, excavated by Wauchope that were adjacent to the one they surveyed.
The situation today
There are many hundreds of Native American archaeological sites on the Chattahoochee River that have only been studied by either Clarence B. Moore in 1907 or Robert Wauchope in 1939. Well over fifty Creek and Chickasaw town names appear on 16th, 17th, 18th and early 19th century maps along the Chattahoochee River that have never been documented or assigned official archaeological site numbers. There is much that we still do not understand about the Pre-European history of the Lower Southeast. Resumed professional investigations of these semi-anonymous sites could well answer those questions.
The construction of a chain of dams, locks and reservoirs along the Chattahoochee River in the 1950s and 1960s destroyed many Native American sites, but many more remain in fairly good condition, except for damage from floods and plowing, Fortunately, the Creeks were called the Creeks, because they built their towns in flood plains, where intensive development is not normally allowed. Six Flags Over Georgia is an exception. It was built over a town with three mounds, which was discovered by Robert Wauchope. A surprising number of Native American sites still remain in the flood plains of he Chattahoochee River in Metro Atlanta . . . especially on the Northside.
Another big exception is Helen, GA. Between 1969 and 1973, all archaeological sites discovered and documented by Robert Wauchope in Helen and Robertstown, immediately to the north, were destroyed without any archaeologists, Native Americans or historic preservationists saying a word. Few people knew these ancient sites existed because Wauchope didn’t publish his book on his work in Georgia until 1969! The most tragic loss was a 2800 year old town with at least two mounds in the flood plain of the Chattahoochee River in Robertstown. It was bulldozed to make a gravel parking lot for a flea market. Think what an asset to Helen’s tourism it would have been . . . one of the oldest town sites north of Mexico . . . and in a flood plain where permanent structures couldn’t be erected anyway.
There is a direct relationship between the demise of archaeological studies in the Chattahoochee Valley and the economic decline of the Middle Class in those two states. Florida still is very strong in archaeological research and the preservation of Native American sites. Its Middle Class has also not lost as much ground economically as in these two states. Apparently, it was the Middle Class in Alabama and Georgia that supported most the allocation of government funds for the study of Native American sites and state acquisition/operation of Native American heritage sites. Currently, Alabama and Georgia politicians perceive that the people pulling their strings are not terribly interested in such things.
What seems to be the only short term option for “getting back into the saddle” is for Native Americans, plus those Alabamans and Georgians who appreciate their states’ Native American heritage, to be more public and vocal on cultural heritage issues. Politicians will feed the fledglings in the nest, who chirp the loudest.
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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.
Latest posts by Richard Thornton (see all)
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- The Secret History of Northeast Alabama - May 22, 2017
- Outstanding website created by Alabama Office of Archaeological Research - May 20, 2017