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The famous marble statues of Etowah Mounds . . . what you were never told

The famous marble statues of Etowah Mounds . . . what you were never told

They say if you tell a tall tale enough times, it becomes the truth.  That certainly seems the case these days in the world of Southeastern archaeology.   What began as a tall tale in an issue of National Geographic Magazine in 1991 has now completely permeated the “body of knowledge” to the point that the academicians, who represent themselves as being “experts” on Etowah Mounds, replicate it in their publications as a known fact, not needing a specific citation.

Again, we will see that Life is Indeed a Tapestry.  Unknowingly, my own life was interwoven into the events that created the tall tale, so that one day in the 21st century, I would know it for what it was.


Go to virtually all references, including Wikipedia.  Look up a description of the famous marble statues at Etowah Mounds in Cartersville, GA.   You will be told that shortly before the second abandonment of Etowah Mounds around 1375 AD,  the leaders of Etowah hastily “buried” the two statues in a pit because they are angry at the leadership.   While lowering the statues into their grave, they fell.  The second statue struck the first one and chipped it.

Some articles include an alternative, minority opinion that the statues were actually buried by the enemies of Etowah, when they sacked the city.  It is true, that ancestors of the Creeks would bury the statues found in an enemy town to ritually kill the ancestral line of the enemy king.  The Mayas did this also.

The diorama of this dramatic event is the centerpiece of the Etowah Mounds Museum seen above in the heading.  It was stated as fact by a very popular article in National Geographic Magazine, written by a senior editor from the Southeast, who actually worked at the Etowah Mounds dig as a teenager.  A legion of dissertations, theses and professional papers have been written that use this event as a starting point for investigating the sudden burning, sacking  and abandonment of Etowah Mounds, until it was reoccupied by another people about 25 years later.

George Stuart (1935-2014) photographer & archaeologist - courtesy of the National Geographic Society

George Stuart (1935-2014) photographer & archaeologist –  National Geographic Society

The National Geo article

In October 1991,  National Geographic Magazine published “Etowah: A Southeastern Village in 1491.”  The author was George Stuart, the extremely talented senior photographer and staff archaeologist for National Geo.   Stuart had worked at Etowah in the summer of 1955.  This would lead to him being hired as a cartographer for a National Geo expedition at a Maya city in Yucatan and an extraordinary career with the magazine. He would ultimately obtain a PhD in Anthropology at UNC-Chapel Hill and write eight books on the Mayas or other peoples in the Americas with his wife, Gene or his son, David.

If the name David Stuart sounds familiar, he is the archaeologist, who as a teenager became the first person to translate the Maya writing system.  While living with his parents on archaeological sites, he taught himself so well that he became the master.  David Stuart has been named one of the seven great innovators in archaeology by the Smithsonian Institute.

Stuart interviewed anthropology professors at the University of Georgia for his article.  Apparently, that was the source of the story about the statues being buried.  The National Geo article was the first time that this story had ever been published, however.

The article including several dramatic paintings of Etowah Mounds as it supposedly looked when occupied.   All were grossly inaccurate in their portrayal of the town plan, architecture and the appearance of the occupants.  The artist apparently used the Lebanese actor, who portrayed Corporal Max Klinger in “Mash” as his model.

The National Geo article caused an explosion in visitation to Etowah Mounds, from people all over the world.  The State of Georgia was so impressed that it committed a sizable budget to remodeling the museum.  The spruced up museum featured the grossly inaccurate National Geo paintings with the one of the statues being dropped being made into a diorama.  Since then the paintings have become “facts” and the real archaeology forgotten.

And now for the rest of the story

In my Junior Year at Georgia Tech,  architecture professor Julian Harris led us on field trip to visit Etowah Mounds.  He was the architect for the museum and brought along his two friends,  Lewis Larson and Arthur Kelly, who had been the lead archaeologists for the big dig at Etowah in 1955 and 1956.  I already knew Dr. Kelly from doing some drafting for him.  Needless to say, it was an extraordinary experience, even though, obviously, touring the archaeological site would have no impact on my future. LOL

Lewis H. Larson Archaeologist (1927-2012)

Lewis H. Larson – Archaeologist  (1927-2012)

Lew Larson gave us copies of his report on the excavation. I have no clue why I kept it forever, but its contents would suddenly be useful,  when I was contracted to build a model of Etowah Mounds for the Creek Nation in 2007.   Eight years later, its contents would become priceless, when I was doing research on the Etowah Valley for Access Genealogy.

Glen Crannoc Farm in the Reems Creek Valley, NC

Glen Crannoc Farm in the Reems Creek Valley, NC

In the mid-1980s,  George Stuart (1935-2014) accompanied the author of a National Geo-Smithsonian book on the Blue Ridge Mountains, to my farm in the Reems Creek Valley north of Asheville.  The farm was featured in the book.  Stuart was so impressed with the area that he later bought a home in nearby Barnardsville and retired there in 1998.  He did not mention to me his background in archaeology, but much of our conversation while he was touring the farm was about the Mesoamerican artifacts on display in our living room.

The next week, Stuart briefly returned to our farm to give me autographed copies of the books on the Mayas that he and his wife wrote.   I was totally floored when I found out that he had actually been the photographer and often the author for all those famous National Geo articles on the Mayas.  I am not worthy!

The Tipton-Thornton Farm (1752-1770-1988) ~ Shenandoah Battlefields National Park

The Tipton-Thornton Farm (1752-1770-1988) ~ Shenandoah Battlefields National Park

We stayed in contact.   When our cheese creamery moved to the Shenandoah Valley, George opened doors for me professionally.  Most of my architecture clients in Virginia were senior personnel at the Smithsonian, National Geo, National Park Service and Library of Congress.   I was regularly invited to chic parties in Sandy Springs, Leesburg, Georgetown and Alexandria, with the understanding that a large cooler of our goat cheese would accompany me.

In the summer of 1991,  National Geo was working on articles, possibly a book, on the Civil War in the Shenandoah Valley and Blue Ridge Parkway.   Our farm was the site of the Battle of Toms Brook, between Gen. George A. Custer, USA and Gen.  Tom Rosser, CSA.  They had been roommates and best friends at West Point.

George dropped by while other staff members were photographing our house and farm.  He told me about the forthcoming big article on Etowah Mounds.  He knew that I would be interested, since I was a Georgia boy.  He showed me photos of the art work for the article.

He was an archaeologist.  This was the National Geo, so it had to be the truth.  Besides, I knew very little about my own Creek heritage at the time, even though I lectured periodically on Mesoamerican architecture at universities in DC.

In late September 1991,  Chef Julia Child, co-founder of The American Institute of Wine and Food, presented me a plaque at Union Station in Downtown Washington, for owning the Outstanding Regional Food Producer in 1991.   George showed up, grinning ear to ear,  at the ceremonies to hand me an autographed copy of the October issue on Etowah Mounds.  That was the last time I saw him.

And then-n-n in late 2014

In late 2014,  I was working on a series of research reports for the Etowah Valley.  I could find absolutely no primary material on the mid-1950s excavations by Lewis Larson and Arthur Kelly at Etowah Mounds . . . only versions by young academicians, who would not even be born for three more decades.   They said that there was nothing available on the dig that was written personally by Lew Larson.  They were wrong!   Lew Larson had handed me his report!

Just on a hunch, I spent the better part of an afternoon, rummaging through my rental storage bin, until I found a box containing memorabilia from my college days.  There it was:

Excavations at the Etowah Mounds in Cartersville, Georgia
1955-1956 seasons
Lewis H. Larson

EtowahExcavation2I read down through paragraph after paragraph that had been forgotten by subsequent generations of archaeologists.  I came to the section on the famous marble statues.   They were not the only statues unearthed.  Other stone statues had been found in flagstone lined crypts within Mound C . . . very strange, these people buried statues.  Where are the other statues?  They are not in the museum.

Then came the shocker.   The two marble statues were found at the very end of Etowah’s excavation at the base of Mound C . . . after George Stuart had already gone back to school.   That is why George took the word of the University of Georgia professors as the “gospel truth.”   The sham put over the public is far worse than that, though.  The famous statues appear to portray a man and woman, wearing the turbans of Maya commoners, who founded Etula (Etowah).

The statues had been found on the decomposed remnants of a wooden alter, which was inside a better preserved wooden temple, which was next to a stone temple.  Mound C had been built on top of these buildings.  Over a thousand year period, the wooden alter had rotted thus causing the statues to drop down to the floor of the temple.   The massive weight of the earth in the mound above the temple had caused its rafters to collapse onto the statues.

The statues absolutely did not date from when “Etowah was burned” – in fact Larson said nothing about Etowah being sacked and burned.   He just said that construction stopped on the big mound around 1375 AD.    He did mention  that it appeared to be the custom for people to buried in the floors of their own houses and then the house burned on top  of the grave.  Construction definitely stopped on the big mounds, at least for awhile,  but we can’t necessarily say for certain that it was sacked or completely abandoned.

When one has walked among giants,  mental midgets are of no consequence.

And now you know!


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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.



    so good! thanks

  2. You know I just happened to know the truth about this particular story because of a chain of events stretching over decades. It makes me wonder how many other things that we see in museums or read in books is not true.

    Thanks for you kind comments.


    Richard, then are they saying that they never got a copy of Lewis H Larson’s paper/book or that it was never published for public consumption?? And if it was published why did they not know of it? This is downright disgusting to see when people who are holders of History know so little about the objects for which they are responsible to teach others about. Also, the fact that George Stuart was there did he ever write anything or take photographs of the dig when he participated during the school break?? It would be interesting to know if he in fact did and where are they now.

    • I don’t know Michelle. Etowah Mounds is considered one of the most important archaeological sites in the United States. There is absolutely nothing about Etowah online or published by the three famous archaeologists, who supervised the excavations in 1955 and 1956 . . . Lewis Larson, Arthur Kelly and Joseph Caldwell.


    Seems there were many statues taken from the mounds. I remember some photographs in an old book. Georgia Antiquities,
    I believe was the title Sir. The former family that owned the site and farmed it many years used to have some statues slightly different poses too. The house was robbed and burnt during the civil war days. There was some black and white photographs taken during that dig. I’ve seen them somewhere. But then again, i have visited those mounds many times since the 60’s. thanks much

  5. Suzanne, I can’t find out anything about the other statues. Drawings of several of them are pictured in books published in the 1950s, but they do not give a source or say where the statues are now . . . only that they came from Etowah Mounds.


      I just used to not only visit but stay all day and bring others.
      There was a out of print book. I want to say at North Georgia College in Dahlonega library. But that was the ’80’s.
      For instance, the last visit there, the statues had been removed for ‘cleaning’ and replaced by plaster. But many locals spoke of the other statues back in the ’60’s. I was told Smithsonian took them all. And the skeletons and many other things.
      but I can only repeat what others told me when asked Richard.

      • Maybe that’s what happened to the statues. They went to the Smithsonian. They are definitely not on display at the new Museum of the American Indian. That is my big gripe. Hundreds of thousands of Southeastern Native American artifacts are in boxes in the basements of Northeastern museums. No one can see the artifacts. Why not return them to where they came from?


          The bigger question is who or how they obtained permission to move them elsewhere. It’s not been that long that full skeletons were on display. The 70’s I think.
          Now if you are someone else who might represent the Creek might start an inquiry, but then again, nothing any Indian says matter much.
          But that was what I was told. Moved to the museum to be cleaned. Never will I forget my anger over this. Like more grave robbers. In suits and ties, no less.
          Good luck with your pursuits Sir.
          I am ordering many of your books. Just to read what you have found. Thanks much

          • Suzanne, all of my books before 2012 are obsolescent. The architectural renderings are still valid. I have produced well over 2,000 renderings for these books. However, I didn’t dream that we would find the first evidence of Itza villages in the Southern Appalachians and it didn’t even dawn on me that there was earlier a major South American presences in the Lower Southeast, until I read Charles de Rochefort’s 1658 book in 2013. Think of the older books as historic landmarks. “The Forgotten History of North Georgia” is being updated and expanded every year. I am not ready yet to write another book on the Maya immigration or to fully understand the South American peoples. Think how many discoveries we have made since 2011! Who would have thought that I would have found the lost Migration Legend? Thanks for your support.

            Richard T.


    I have read some good reviews Richard.
    The one called the Apalache looks good to me.
    I do know something about the foods and native plants.
    My brothers used to buy ginseng among many other things, like raw pelts from trappers. And I grew up hearing things about the poor being yellow from eating so much but I do believe the context will be there.
    I’m very excited by your writing and research Sir.
    especially since it is right where I was born.

    • Yes, The Apalache Chronicles is fairly up to day. It was one of the two books, along with Itsapa, the Itza Mayas in North America, that made everything before then obsolescent.

      The Forgotten History of North Georgia is by far the most current. I just republished it two weeks ago! LOL


    Richard, what a fantastic article! You’ve got my mind ablaze. What do you suppose became of the other later period statues? More shicanery in acedemia? (Sold?)
    Many Thanks, Thunder Eagle
    Grady Vickery, Dahlonega

    • Thank you sir! I think the statues went into private collections of donors to the museums.


    Once again you have proven history can be rewritten from both sides. I have been reading your articles and have noticed as new information comes out you will quickly incorporate it if the evidence backs it up. In other words you will say I’m wrong if you are wrong and are open to new ideas. If more professers took this approach all of sience would benefit. Thank you for all your work,it is being noticed.

    • You better believe it Wayne. As I told another reader . . . my books before 2012 are obsolescent and basically historical landmarks with nice architectural renderings . . . call them Maya stellae. LOL It seems like every few weeks, I learn something new that negates what I thought were the facts the day before.

      Until early 2014, it never dawned on me that the Middle and Late Woodland cultures in the Lower Southeast may have been sparked by peoples from South America and the Caribbean. The hint has been around for about 20 years. Botanists have known for some time that the varieties of Indian corn, from which modern commercial corn varieties were developed, came from South America. The were the result of the original Mexican corn being cross-pollinated by one or more wild grasses that grow in the temperate regions of the humid Andes Foothills . . . almost the same climate as the Lower Southeast and where these South American immigrants came from. Thanks


        I have just recently relized how much of a crossroads the SEhas been. In the last month i have been to Track Rocks,Sandy Creek ,and Little Mulberry Park. All i can say is why has this been sweep under the rug? In other contries new archology findings are news. They seem more willing to change their views when new evidence is found. Some times it defies logic, after all science is dynamic as long as new evidence is found, no matter the subject.


    By the way, i hope the garden is going well. I am working on mine using some of the biochar techniques. I hope my heirloom plants will do better with some organic additives..


    It’s quite interesting that they buried their dead under their houses because this is a practice also used by the Pengtoushan culture in China and the earliest Mesopotamian agricultural sites, too. Oppenheimer sees a single source for the spread of agricultural revolution and these cultures share other aspects with the Mesoamerican agricultural civilizations.


    Ii have notice that the smithsonian “buries”any new discoveries such and the egyptian caves found in 1915, skeletons of giants found in many us graves. also how about burroughs cave. I have seen dozens of the artifacts from that site. I have always been intrigued about the etowah statues.

    • The Smithsonian Institute has a mixed record on such things. Their archaeologists made major discoveries at Maya sites in the late 20th century. Archaeologists, funded by the Smithsonian and National Geographic Society have been at the forefront of investigating early mankind in the Americas . . . and then one learns horror stories of facts being hidden and discoveries being covered up. My only explanation is that it must have something to do with the internal politics of anthropologists and archaeologists.

      Thanks for writing us. Richard T.


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