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The Nikwasi Mound . . . architectural analysis of an ancient landmark

The Nikwasi Mound . . . architectural analysis of an ancient landmark


The elders of Nucasee (now called Nikwasi) told William Bartram that several indigenous peoples had altered and utilized their mound, but no one now knew who originally built it.  The architectural evidence backs up their statement as did the Colonial archives and linguistic evidence in a previous article.  A Near Visible Infrared Light image revealed the terraces of a much older round mound, plus the ramp on the southwest side of the mound, which is not visible at ground level.  The image also revealed that the southeast (Cherokee) ramp is not centered on the oval structure.  Why would the Proto-Cherokees, who added this ramp to accommodate the entire village using the townhouse on top, not centered the ramp?  Actually, there is a very pragmatic reason.

Probable town plan of Nikwasi between around 1250 AD & 1600 AD

It is highly likely that mankind has been camping and later living, at this bend in the Little Tennessee River for many thousands of years . . . perhaps since the Ice Age.  During the time that there was a large town located here, it was an island.  There are vestiges of the other channel of the river still visible in the terrain.  It is not known if the other channel was the original path of the river or was created by a flood.

During the early stages of the community’s existence, the rich bottom land on this island, would probably have had sufficient area to provide most of the vegetables for the village. It is highly likely that one or more trade paths, both paralleling the river and crossing over the mountains into the Piedmont, intersected at this location.  Major roads cross there today.  These highways in the Southern Appalachians typically follow Native American trade paths.

Occupation of the site probably began many thousands of years ago as a seasonal camp site where members of bands fished, gathered mussel shells, picked berries and hunted.  Over many generations, a midden composed of mussel shells and refuse would have developed near the river.  In many cultures, either the midden was used for burials or an earthen burial mound developed nearby.  These were also landmarks, which declared “ownership” of the site for certain bands.

The oldest known pottery in North America is found along the Savannah River.  It is highly likely that ceramics technology reached the Little Tennessee River headwaters at an early date.  That is certainly the case along the headwaters of the Savannah, Chattahoochee and Hiwassee Rivers.  Until that time, the indigenous peoples relied on baskets and soapstone bowls for cooking and serving food.  The use of pottery would encourage the formation of permanent or semi-permanent villages.  It was impractical to carry large numbers of ceramic pots over mountain trails. 

During the Late Archaic (3500 BC-1000 BC) and Early Woodland (1000 BC-200 BC) the village at this location would have had a simple plan.  It probably consisted of a circle of small huts with one or two larger structures, sufficient in size to hold the adults of the hamlet for meetings or ceremonies.  In coastal Georgia, construction of ceremonial mounds began as early as 3545 BC.  It is not known when the first mounds were built in the North Carolina Mountains.  However, there definitely large ceremonials mounds as early as 800 BC on the headwaters of the Etowah, Chattahoochee and Savannah Rivers in Georgia.  The sources of these rivers are a relative short distance from the North Carolina state line. 

Excavation of the Biltmore Mound near Asheville in 2000-2001 provided an probably scenario for the first phase of the Nikwasi Mound’s development.  The Biltmore Mound was actually a large round communal building occupied between around 200 AD to 450 AD.  The archaeological team from Appalachian State University determined that the building was demolished and replaced at least once.  Clay was packed over the remains of the first building in order to create a platform for the second building.  This common technique is what created the appearance of a three feet high “bump” in a pasture on the Biltmore Estate.  

The earliest development of the Nikwasi Mound was probably identical to that of the Biltmore Mound.

The village on the Biltmore Estate was abandoned around 450 AD, but the one where Franklin, NC is located today, continued to be a popular location for human habitation.  Apparently, different ethnic groups would live there for several centuries and then move on.  Perhaps in some cases several ethnic groups live in the same region or one group became the elite of another.

Wooden structures generally only lasted 20-35 years.  Clay and sand would be placed on the ashes of the old building. The mound grew.


After several centuries the original humble building had become a landmark.


Then an entirely different architectural tradition arrived from the south. Temples were rectangular, but the mounds and plazas were oval.

Anthropologists call this tradition in the Lower Southeast, the Lamar Culture.   They called themselves Apalache.   Their elite lived in separate villages . . . or at least in separate neighborhoods of towns . . . from the commoner.   The stairs of temple mounds were accessed from the elite side of the mound.  There were two sets of plazas in these towns . . . one for the elite and one for the commoners.  In the Little Tennessee River Valley, it was common for stickball courts to compose a third plaza off to the side of the main commoner’s plaza.  The temple mounds typically contained two levels.  The lower level was for ceremonies that could be viewed by all of the elite, but not the commoners.  Set about 3-4 feet abover that terrace was the temple and house of the king.

Between 900 AD and 1375 AD, the principal temples in Proto-Creek towns face the Winter Solstice sunset.  This is the orientation of the Dillard Mound in Rabun County, GA and the Otto Mound in southern Macon County, NC.  The Winter Solstice marked the renewal of the Mesoamerican calendar.  After 1375 AD, most new mounds for Sun Temples were oriented to the east or west.  This is the orientation of the Nacoochee Mound near Helen, GA.  Some were oriented to the south, such as the Peachtree Mound near Murphy, NC and the Tomatla Mound in Tomatla, NC.

The cone shaped buildings were still being built for meetings of organizations and religious societies throughout this period, but they were no longer on mounds.  Itsate Creeks called these buildings by their Itza Maya name . . . chokopa . . . which means “warm place.”   Muskogee Creeks built similar buildings, but with lower pitched roofs.  They were called chokopas in Muskogee.

It is still not clear what exactly happened in the 1600s.  Did European plagues catastrophically reduce the populations of town or was the culprit either enemy tribes or slave raiders?   Did the Spanish gold and gem miners of the 1600 drive out most of the Native inhabitants from the Franklin, NC area?   Whatever the cause,  mound construction ceased and the populations of towns and villages plummeted.

When newcomers settled in the Franklin Area, they demolished the existing temple (if it was even still standing) and carried out a major reconstruction of the Nikwasi Mound. Initially they built a modest townhouse or communal building on the lower terrace of the temple mound. The soil from the upper terrace level was excavated and dumped on the southeast corner of the mound to create a ramp large enough for the entire village to climb easy.  At some time after the new ramp was constructed, a much larger townhouse was built on the northwest end of the mound top.

Whereas access to the temple had been limited to priests and certain leaders, the townhouse was a public building in which all members of the community could enter.  According to explorer and botanist, William Bartram,  the Cherokee townhouses were utilized for political meeting, religious rituals, dances and music performances, attended by the members of the community.

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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.



    Richard, did anyone find any circular stone house foundations like the Apalachi Nobles created in North Georgia with this town? William Bartram noted the Cherokee lived in long rectangular apartment buildings in 1775 but had a large circular building on an ancient mound that predated them there. The Creeks also lived in rectangular houses among the “Tokah” town in Alabama so perhaps the arrival of bronze axes use at that time for the South around the 13 century. This would be 3 hundred years after the peoples of Norway found the American landmass with current history and the find of the tin mine in South Carolina would have made that possible. The find of the island town called Normanville in Georgia on a 1526 map implies that Denmark had some trade towns in the South by that time.

    • Mark, the Nikwasi mound literally has commercial parking lots and buildings at its edge. The Eastern Band of Cherokees do not permit archaeologists to excavate mounds in North Carolina. On the other hand, the Muscogee-Creek Nation has exactly the opposite policy of funding archaeological work . . . as long as human remains are treated with respect.


    The Eastern Band of Cherokees is exactly who’s trying to “do something” currently with preserving this Mound and creating some kind of museum. Initially, I was sympathetic to their plan for things, vs the City. But, after reading some of your experiences with them (TEBOC)…….
    I’m wary and a bit suspicious now.
    But, I’m early to this area (moving up from the Savannah, GA area less than a year ago), to this wonderful region that I’ve been backpacking in for decades.
    So, I think I need more background and info.


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