Richard Thornton | May 9, 2017 | 23
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.
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
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.
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!
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
Lewis H. Larson
I 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.
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