The Oldest Pyramidal Mound North of Mesoamerica
Never heard of the Mandeville site? You will never get to visit these ancient mounds. Unfortunately, whatever is left of the two mounds at the Mandeville Archeological Site are under 40 feet of Chattahoochee River water at Lake Walter F. George (Lake Eufaula).
The Mandeville Site was occupied from around 400 BC to 540 AD. During that time, pottery associated with the Deptford, Swift Creek and Weeden Island Cultures were produced here. It was much later reoccupied by a people, culturally related to the massive Rood Landing town upstream from around 1400 AD to 1600 AD. A portion of the town may have also been occupied by members of the Creek Confederacy during the 1700s or early 1800s, but flooding has washed away evidence.
It is a story, repeated over and over again along the Chattahoochee River from the edge of the Blue Ridge Mountains to the Gulf Coast. Between 1947 and 1971, some of the nation’s most respected archaeologists raced to delve what information they could from ancient Native American town sites in the Lower Southeast. They were issued contract schedules by the US Corps of Engineers, which generally made it impossible for the archaeologists to fully discern the town plans. All these archaeological zones were destined to be covered in water from man-made reservoirs. The Mandeville Site was excavated in 1959 and 1960 by a team of archaeologists led by Arthur Kelly, James H. Kellar and Edward V. McMichael. Six decades later, the general public has forgotten that this ancient Native American town ever existed.
The March 22, 2016 issue of POOF discussed the Booger Bottom Mound under Lake Lanier. It is the oldest known platform mound in North America and dates from the very early Deptford Culture Period – c. 1000-800 BC. However, it is a truncated oval mound. During the period from around 1300 AD to 1600 AD, oval mounds were endemic in the ancestral Chickasaw-Creek territories of Georgia, eastern Tennessee, Northern Alabama, Western North Carolina and Western South Carolina. However, they are quite rare elsewhere in the Americas . . . except in the Chicha Valley, Peru. Oval mounds are ancient tradition of the Creek People, but they definitely do no reflect cultural exchanges with North America or Mesoamerica.
Pyramidal mounds long preceded the “Mississippian” Period in the Chickasaw-Creek Motherland
On the other hand, truncated pyramids first appeared in Southern Mexico and some sections of Peru around 3,000 years ago. Truncated pyramids are also associated with all the large Mississippian towns in the Mississippi River Basin . . . hence their anthropological name. The earliest “Mississippian” town in traditional Creek territory, Ocmulgee National Monument, began construction of a rectangular, pyramidal mound (Mound A ~ the Great Temple Mound) around 900 AD. However, at least four pyramidal mounds in Georgia predate the one at Ocmulgee by around 1200 to 800 years. They are at (1) Kolomoki Mounds in SW Georgia, (2) the Mandeville in SW Georgia, (3) 9FU14 sites on the Chattahoochee River in SW Metro Atlanta and at (3) the Leake Site on the Etowah River in NW Metro Atlanta. The Kenimer Mound also probably predated Ocmulgee’s Mound A by about 300 years. However, it is a pentagonal pyramid.
A popular myth that pervades both online references, such as Wikipedia, and even many professional papers by archaeologists, is that the construction of pyramidal mounds in the Middle Mississippian River Basin around 900 AD AD marked the beginning of the Mississippian Period. Archaeologists in other parts of the United States seem to be unaware of the early platform mounds in Georgia.
Those people who agree that Maya refugees fled to North America after the collapse of the Maya elite, typically use the “sudden appearance” of pyramidal mounds in Southeastern towns after 900 AD as “proof.” The reports from these often forgotten archaeological studies of Georgia river basins tell a very different story. It is highly likely that Highland Mayas from Southeastern Guatemala or Western Belize introduced the tradition of pentagonal mounds to the ancestors of the Creek Indians, but rectangular, pyramidal mounds had existed in the Chickasaw and Creek Motherland over a thousand years earlier.
Large pyramidal mounds were built along the Chattahoochee and Etowah Rivers hundreds of years before they appeared elsewhere in North America. Their construction dates coincide with the Formative Period in Mesoamerica . . . when even in Mexico, most “pyramids” were really pyramidal earth mounds.
Archaeologist Arthur Kelly discovered that Mound A in the southern end of the village began as the burials of two adults in flexed positions. These were simple burials, not ones typical of great kings. They appear to have been the leaders at the founding of the town. Accompanying the skeletons were beads, shell ornaments and Late Deptford Style pottery. The Deptford Culture originated in present day Savannah around 1200 BC then spread outward into the Southeast from there.
For a period of a few generations a typical Deptford Culture accretional mound grew above the burial. Strangely, no more human bodies were buried there . . . only the bits of bone and ashes resulting from cremations. THEN . . . around 250 BC . . . about the same time that the Pyramid of the Sun was begun in Teotihuacan in Central Mexico, this standard accretional mound was enlarged into a precise pyramidal mound. Kelly was absolutely sure of this. Dense clay was used to create the form. From then on, the mound was typical of mound built from 1200 to 1700 years later in the lower Southeast.
During the Woodland Period two more stages were added to the mound. These stages roughly corresponded to the Deptford, Swift Creek and Weeden Island Cultures. The Weeden Island Culture apparently originated in Northwestern Florida.
The mound’s expansion included sacrifices of increasingly more sophisticated artifacts such as Swift Creek pottery, copper pan pipes, shell ornaments, mica, crystals, Weeden Island pottery, plus celts and axes finely crafted from greenstone mined at the headwaters of the Chattahoochee in the Georgia Mountains. There appeared to be some more cremations, but most human ashes were now being deposited in a large conical mound 900 feet to the north of this mound.
In 1960, the archaeologists didn’t know this, but a large asteroid or comet struck the Atlantic Ocean at an extremely obtuse angle off the coast of Northern Florida. It caused a massive tsunami over 100 feet high to strike the coast from Cape Canaveral to Savannah. The highest tsunami debris ridges today are about 11 miles inland and 85 feet high near the mouth of the Altamaha River at Darien, GA. Much of Southeast Georgia was flooded. At the same time large volcanoes were erupting in Central America, Central Mexico and Iceland. A volcanic winter strangled the North Atlantic region for over a decade. This is why thriving towns in South Georgia were suddenly abandoned around 540 AD.
About 900 years after the Woodland Period town was abandoned, the site was reoccupied by immigrants from the large town at Roods Landing, upstream on the Chattahoochee River, in present day Stewart County, GA. The newcomers built a fourth stage on Mound A, but kept its original pyramidal form. Elsewhere in Georgia, oval and pentagonal shaped mounds were in vogue. During this period, the Moundville Site was the most southern location of the Lamar Culture, which was ancestral to the Creek Indians.
The mystery of Mandeville’s Swift Creek pottery
Some of the most beautiful and ornate Swift Creek pottery every known was found at the Mandeville Site. It includes the oldest and most southerly examples of Swift Creek pottery manufacture. Swift Creek pottery was traded throughout Eastern North America, but Dr. Kelly found proof that it was made at Mandeville, before it was made at the actual Swift Creek village site in Macon, GA or appeared in North Georgia at towns near present day Six Flags Over Georgia or in the Etowah Valley.
Kelly was convinced, however, that Swift Creek pottery was not “invented” at the Mandeville Site, even though the oldest examples were found there. The most sophisticated designs are the oldest ones. For several generations several potters at Mandeville continued to make the traditional Deptford Check Stamped pottery. Over time Native American copy cats, elsewhere in Georgia, simplified the original Swift Creek Style designs and tended to use most those motifs that were easiest to carve on wooden paddles.
Kelly speculated that the origin of Swift Creek pottery would someday be found by another archaeologist at a location much farther south, either in extreme Southwest Georgia or Northern Florida. In the 55 years since then, no older Swift Creek pottery has been found in the United States. However, there is older stamped pottery that is identical to the earliest Swift Creek pottery on the Chattahoochee River. It was 3,000 miles to the south in northeastern Peru. In fact, the descendants of the makers of that pottery, the Conibo People, still wear clothing with Swift Creek designs on the them.
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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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