Richard Thornton | Jun 3, 2017 | 15
The King Site . . . a Mysterious People in the Coosa River Valley
“Those who control the present, control the past and those who control the past, control the future.”
George Orwell in “1984″
There are some missing pages in the history of Alabama. It is increasingly clear that the sad Creek People of the Coosa Valley, who were being marched at bayonet point in 1836 to the Indian Territory, after being promised in 1832 that they could stay in Alabama forever, if they accepted an allotment . . . were not the same indigenous people, encountered by Hernando de Soto in 1540.
There is an enigmatic archaeological site just three miles east of the Alabama-Georgia Line in Northwest Georgia that was heavily publicized between 1970 and 1992 . . . then “non-personed” (in Orwellian language) around 1996, when powerful economic interests decided that they wanted to build a North Carolina Cherokee gambling casino in Northwest Georgia. Geographically, and probably, ethnically, this site is associated with Northeast Alabama. However, because of that artificial state line, Alabama academicians didn’t discern its implications. The multiple newspaper articles and TV news reports gave the public in Georgia a very different impression of the village that what is written in the formal report, written by the University of Georgia archaeologists.
The King Village, archaeological Site 9FL5, has been known to Rome, GA area residents for over 130 years. The catastrophic 1886 flood cut away the banks of a horseshoe bend in the Coosa River about 12 miles west of the city, exposing many Native American artifacts. The storm waters also piled several feet alluvial soil on the inside of the horseshoe, covering the evidence of what is most like a much larger town site.
In 1939, the De Soto Trails Commission designated Rome to be the location of the famous proto-Creek Indian town of Chiaha. Downtown Rome did contain a large proto-Creek town with mounds, but its geography bears no resemblance to that of Chiaha. Chiaha was described as being on a long island in a broad, fast-moving white water river, downstream from the confluence of three whitewater rivers and at the feet of extremely tall mountains. Downtown Rome developed at the confluence of the Etowah and Oostanaula Rivers, which form the Coosa River. The Coosa then cuts through some tall hills and flows southwestward past mountain ridges into Alabama.
In the 1960s, the people of Rome suddenly embraced the Native American peoples, who once occupied their land. In 1964, a group of artists in the Rome Area started the Chiaha Arts Festival at Riverside Park near Downtown Rome. Initially, it had a Native American, in particular, Creek Indian, theme to it. Now it is known as the Chiaha Harvest Arts Festival and features a wide range of visual arts, plus regional musicians.
In 1969, the Celanese Fibers Corporation gave the plantation house built around the log home of Cherokee leader, Major Ridge, to the Rome Chapter of the Junior Service League. After being restored, in opened as the Chieftains Museum in 1971 . . . a year after archaeological work was getting underway at the King Site.
The Major Ridge Home is now on the National Register of Historic Places and has been designated a National Historic Landmark. The King Village Site has no special historic preservation status other than being listed in the Floyd County Comprehensive Plan as an important cultural heritage site.
To create the site plan on the left above, I used architectural software to integrate the archeologist’s sketch with an ERSI topographic map. By matching the latitude and longitude provided in the archaeologist’s report, I was able to determine the distance from the original river bank before Weiss Lake was constructed. 3D CADD was then used to place 3D computer models of the buildings in the village on top of their foot prints in the archaeologist’s sketch plan. The buildings in the northwest part of the village are probable, but speculative.
Archaeological work at the King Site
Beginning in 1970, Shorter College in Rome sponsored excavations at the exposed archaeological site. However, most of the archaeologists and many of the students involved came from the University of Georgia, which is 120 miles southeast of the site. The supervising archaeologists were Pat Garrow of Shorter College and David Halley of the University of Georgia.
Intensive excavation was carried out from 1970 to 1972 and then again between 1991 and 1992. On both occasions, the archaeological investigations received extensive publicity in newspapers and local TV newscasts of the region. In between, the search to determine the route of the De Soto Expedition (1539-1543) was frequently in news. Like the 1939 route, the new route for De Soto still followed the Coosa River. However, Rome was no longer the location of Chiaha. Throughout most of the remainder of the 20th century the public was shown a sketch of the village, which showed it to be a semi-circle (See image at right). Apparently, this presumption changed after the 1991-1992 investigation, but the semi-circular village plan “hung around for over 25 years,” until the water color seen below began circulating around the web around three years ago.
Numerous academic papers and some doctoral dissertations were written on the King Site because it is one of the very few Mississippian Period archaeological sites in the Southeast that have been excavated sufficiently to determine a town plan. The village was always described as “a typical Lamar Culture – Proto-Creek site, which was probably visited by the Hernando de Soto and Tristan de Luna Expeditions. From this assumption all sorts of interpolations and speculations about the Creek People as a whole were presented by the students and professors. Those speculations have now become facts in many references. It made perfect sense. The village was located in what all assumed was a region traditionally occupied by the ancestors of the Creek Indians.
During the late 20th century and continuing up to last month, my knowledge of the King Site was limited to what the news media told us. It was a relatively small village with perhaps 50 houses. It was constructed in the early 1500s and abandoned in the late 1500s. It was described as a satellite village of the great town of Kusa (Kaushe in the Creek languages), which was about 72 miles upstream on a tributary of the Coosa River.
The King Site is also unusual because it is one of the very few town sites in the Southeast in which a professional artist was retained to prepare high quality water colors of the community as it once appeared. Apparently, the art was funded by the US Army Corps of Engineers. The sophisticated painting is the same style as the one done by Martin Pate for the Ruckers Bottom archaeological zone. My mother’s family lived at Ruckers Bottom. Pate enjoyed a 20 year association with the National Park Service.
Martin Pate his wife now live near Newnan, Georgia. You can learn more about his beautiful art at: Martin Pate Studio Website
A commercial client has been funding architectural and remote sensing analysis of all known archaeological sites in the Lower Southeast for the past four years. The articles, satellite images and architectural renderings will be posted on the “Mother of all Southeastern archaeology websites.” These studies have been the sources of most of my articles in the People of One Fire. There have been a lot of surprises over the past four years as I analyzed archaeological reports with the detail and precision that is expected of a Registered Architect. The King Site is one of those big surprises.
When reading the actual archaeological reports on the King Site . . . not what newspaper reporters, TV newscasters or anthropology students tell us, I quickly realized that this was NOT a Muskogean village. Neither the architecture nor the village plan were typical of that constructed by the Uchee, Highland Apalache, Kusate or Koweta Creeks. As can be seen above, the actual site plan of the village was different than that portrayed on the water color rendering, commissioned by the US Army Corps of Engineers. Note that the large communal building is in the northeastern corner of the plaza, not in the center of the village. The actual chokopa was square, not rectangular.
The archaeologists had underestimated the population of the village. Its houses were large enough for extended families or groups of families. The women in this village may have made pottery similar to that at the capital town of Kusa, but they lived in very different style houses. The Kusate upstream lived in houses identical to those of the Itsate or the Itza Mayas, living in the suburbs of Chichen Itza, which only were large enough for nuclear families.
These houses were not the integrated structure, prefabricated, basketweave construction of Creek and Itza Maya houses. According to the archaeologists, the floors of the King Site houses were recessed 12-24 inches below grade. The excavated soil was packed against the exterior walls like Pueblo pithouses and Mandan/Arikara/Hidatsu earth lodges.
Like the houses of the Pueblo People and the Mandans, there were four posts in the center of the house that carried most of the roof loads. This four post framing was identical to the chokopas (rotundas) built by ancestors of the Creeks, but the Creek chokopa was typically round, not square. However, both Pueblo pithouses and Mandan/Arikara/Hidatsu earth lodges are supported by four posts. Originally Arikara earth lodges were square and therefore identical to the King Site houses, except that they had sod roofs, not thatch roofs. There is no native grass in the Southern Highlands, capable of producing sod!
A majority of houses at the King Site had a tunnel entrances on a corner like the Itza Maya chiki’s seen at Etowah Mounds and other Proto-Creek towns in the Southern Highlands. Some had entrances in the middle of one side, while a few had off-center entrances. The archaeologists found raised lips at the junctures between the entrances and the main houses. Presumably, these were to keep water from flowing in the sub-grade house floor.
Over and over again over the past 12 years, I have read the puzzlement of archaeologists in their reports, when they encountered the footprint of a structure, which was the scale of the house, but had no hearth. They speculate on a variety of other uses, since they think that by definition a house must have a hearth. The enigmatic structures typically have thin walls . . . often consisting of nothing but posts and vertical river cane . . . or else more stout walls only on three sides. Both at the Long Swamp Creek town site (9CK1) and at the King Site (9FL5) the archaeologists found such structures, clustered with other domestic buildings and correctly guessed that they were summer houses.
While on my fellowship and deep in the jungle of eastern Campeche, I stumbled upon an abandoned Maya village. For inexplicable reasons I photographed the dilapidated structure on the left, without knowing what it was. The hovel had no relevance to the Mesoamerican Architecture course, I was supposed to teach the following year. Perhaps, I thought it was funky or artistic or . . . groovy.
When the building was in good maintenance, the vertical river canes apparently were close enough together to discourage mosquitoes and other nasty critters from entering the house. After the Mexican Revolution (1910-1920) the government subsidized the cost of mosquito netting and metal screening for summer houses. So this Maya summer house was probably built in the 1920s or earlier.
The chokopa or rotunda in this village was square, not round. It was approximately 49 feet on each side, thus containing 2400 sq. ft. of clear floor space. The Okmulgee “Earth Lodge” (NOT an earthlodge) contains 1,100 sq. ft. of clear floor space. Thus, the innovation of having a square communal building was a more efficient use of wood framing. The King Site chokopa was in reality a super-sized King Site house, but archaeologists found another interesting feature. It contained bleachers, created by terracing. Archaeologists found evidence of benches in the soil, plus 14 male skeletons.
The entrance of the chokopa at the King Site is oriented to the azimuth of the Winter Solstice Sunset. This is unusual for Georgia. All of the major temples in Georgia had that same orientation between around 900 AD and 1250 AD. However, there was some sort of religious or political revolution, which separated the Middle Mississippian from the Late Mississippian or Lamar Culture temples. Kusate (Lamar Culter) temples in North Georgia, western North Carolina and Southeastern Tennessee were consistently oriented East-West. Tamatli and Apalachicola temples in southern Georgia and Alabama were oriented to True South during that era.
It has always been an enigma why the Muskogee Creeks of East Central Alabama and West Central Georgia called their “Creek Square,” a Chuko Rakko or “Big Square.” Most of the branches of the Creeks in Georgia, South Carolina, SE Tennessee and western North Carolina were not Muskogee Creeks and did not build Creek Squares. More common in Georgia are large oval or rectangular plazas, surrounded by public buildings. However, the name make sense now. Apparently, the concept in eastern Alabama of a large, square communal building with a roof evolved by the 1700s into a square defined by bleachers with overhangs. Tuckabatchee (village on right) was located a few miles above where the Tallapoosa River joins the Coosa River . . . near Wetumka, Alabama.
The village plan
The layout of the King Village Site is unlike any I have previously studied in the Lower Southeast. Even in Woodland Period towns in the Creek’s ancestral lands, one does not see communal buildings or principal mounds located on the northeastern edge of an asymmetrical, approximately oval plazas. The plaza appeared to have “just happened” over time, rather than being the result of a formal plan as was typical in proto-Creek towns. However, there was one feature of the plaza that suggested, it was planned . . . albeit along different parameters that proto-Creek towns.
Archaeologists found an approximately three feet deposit of decomposed wood in the center of the plaza. They interpreted this a the residue of a three feet diameter tree trunk that had been hauled from somewhere else and set into a pit in the center of the plaza. This interpretation is highly unlikely since the Southeastern Indians did not have the technology to cut down precisely a three feet diameter tree . . . haul the massive structure for a considerable distance . . . then erect it in a pit. A sufficient large body of men, numbering in the hundreds may have been able to haul the log on skids, but this was not a large village.
I Googled for references on the internet for three to four feet circles of decomposed wood and found them in archaeological excavations of Mandan and Arikara villages. However, they were not created by massive logs, but by much smaller logs bundled together. These log shrines were established whenever a village was founded. They are highly significant for understanding the origins of the Mandan people. They will be discussed in more detail in a sequel article about the Mandans.
However, in the process of reading the articles about the log shrines, I noticed something astonishing. Many Mandan, Arikara and Hidatsu villages had a remarkably similar layout to that of the King Village on the Coosa River. There super-sized earthlodge for communal activities was the same size as the one at the King Site and was typically located in the northeast corner of the central plaza.
In the final part of this series on the King Village Site, Origin of the Mandans, People of One Fire will examine what is currently known about where the Mandans lived in the past and how it relates to this mysterious village in the Coosa River. You will be surprised.
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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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