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What happened to the artifacts at Santo Domingo State Park near Darien and Brunswick, GA?

What happened to the artifacts at Santo Domingo State Park near Darien and Brunswick, GA?

A Call for the Public’s Help

The artifacts include bronze swords, daggers, axes and hammers, plus Spanish & French items from the 16th century.

Artifacts exhibited over 75 years ago in a museum on the Georgia Coast have suddenly become extremely significant.  They will change several chapters of the history books.   Ed Reilly of the People of One Fire is spearheading an effort to find these artifacts and put them back on display at the mouth of the Altamaha River, where they were found.  These precious vestiges of the past have to be somewhere!  If you have knowledge concerning their possible whereabouts, please put the information below as a comment or write us at  We cannot publicize Ed’s email address because of spammers.  POOF’s server computer has a much more sophisticated security system.  Also, please email this article to anyone who you think might have information on the artifacts. 

It should be noted that bronze axe heads and implements have been found by professional archaeologists at other locations in Georgia.  They were in stone covered mounds near the Oconee River or one of its tributaries in Northeast Georgia. This is highly significant because all were found within the boundaries of Georgia’s most advanced indigenous culture, the Apalache . . . who gave us the name of the Appalachian Mountains.  The Oconee River is one of the two major tributaries of the Altamaha River. 

In most project reports,  the bronze implements were listed without comment by the archaeologists.  Undoubtedly, the authors did not want to be involved in an academic controversy . . . knowing that bronze axe heads meant that either Europeans were in the Southeast long before Columbus or that the Apalache had advanced skills in metallurgy. 

In 1951, Peabody Museum (Harvard) archaeologist, Phillip E. Smith, discovered a cache of bronze and iron axe heads in a stone covered mound near the Oconee River in Greene County.  He speculated that they were implements obtained from the Spanish and then later deposited as grave offerings.   HOWEVER, the Bronze Age ended in Iberia around 600 BC.

Image made from the International Space Station of the mouth of the Altamaha River.

Photo made from the International Space Station of the mouth of the Altamaha River.

Santo Domingo State Park was the second state park in the United States.  The oldest one is Indian Springs State Park near Jackson, GA.   It was named after the 17th century Spanish Mission of Santo Domingo de Talaxi, which at the time, Georgia historians believed was located on the site.  They assumed that the tabby ruins were the mission, but in reality these were vestiges of one of the first sugar mills in the United States.  They dated from the 18th century, but nevertheless, are today viewed as being extremely historic.

The park was located on the northern edge of Glynn County, Georgia and overlooked the South Channel of the Altamaha River.  The Antebellum Period Altamaha-Brunswick canal passed through the park.  Near the water’s edge were the trapezoidal earthworks that were visited by botanist William Bartram in 1776 and described as “an old French or Spanish fort from the 1500s.”    These earthworks are still visible today . . . especially with infrared imagery.  Under the ground of the former park, infrared imagery reveals the footprints of a maze of Native American, European Contact Period and Colonial Period structures.  However, no one in the mid-20th century realized that they were there.

The land for the park was donated to the state by Guy Woolford, who along with his brother, Cater, founded the Retail Credit Corporation.  The company is now known internationally as the Equifax Corporation.   A museum (photo above) was built in the first phase of the park’s development to house Native American and European artifacts found along the mouth of the great Altamaha River. As will be explained below, the artifacts have extraordinary significance, but were not understood over a half century ago.

Old post card from the 1940s

Old post card from the 1940s

The demise of Santo Domingo State Park

During the early days of the Franklin Roosevelt Administration, this state park was nominated to be a unit of the newly created National Park System.  That was the park’s downfall.  The National Park Service sent a young man, who was totally unqualified to assess the significance of a multi-cultural, multi-time period archaeological zone.  Unfortunately, Georgia academicians  and government officials were so awed by his title of being an archaeologist, employed by the Smithsonian Institute, that they didn’t check his credentials.  It is a tragedy that we live with today.

In 1933,  Dr. Arthur Kelly was desperate to hire a professional staff for the excavation of Ocmulgee Mounds National Monument in Macon, GA.  At the time, there were very few professional archaeologists in the entire Southeast and none were willing to give up tenured faculty positions for the meager wages being offered by the WPA. As his next-in-command, Kelly hired Georgia Tech graduate and civil engineer,  Joe Tamplin and taught him archaeology.   The contemporary generation of archaeologists have conveniently forgotten that most of the actual archaeological work at Ocmulgee was done by a Rambling Wreck from Georgia Tech, who had absolutely no educational background in anthropology.  Thirty-seven years later, Dr. Kelly told the author that one of his great regrets in life was that the administrative responsibilities over numerous sites, which the National Park Service gave him, left very little time for him to personally being involved with the actual excavations at Ocmulgee.  To learn more about Joe Tamplin, go to The Forgotten History of Ocmulgee .

At the age of 23, Mississippian James Ford, applied to work as a technician on the excavation.  He only had three years of general Liberal Arts education, but had worked with a team of professional archaeologists one summer at a site in the Southwest.  Dr. Kelly placed the young man under the supervision of Joe Tamlin.  Tamlin then assigned Ford to excavate a minor mound . . . which turned out to be the so-called Ocmulgee Earthlodge . . . the premier attraction of the national monument.   Ford knew absolutely nothing about the architecture of the Creek Indians.  Neither he nor Kelly made any effort to contact Creeks concerning the interpretation of the structure.  So he labeled the ruins, “something like a Mandan Earthlodge.”  It was standard Creek chokopa, not an earthlodge, but we are stuck to the misnomer to this day.

Kelly was shorthanded when the National Park Service asked him to examine Santo Domigo State Park’s grounds.  He dispatched Ford, who was the low man on the totem pole.  Ford inspected the tabby ruins and took samples of the surviving tabby materials.  He also dug several test pits where he found numerous Native American artifacts, bits of 16th or 17th century European china, spoons, iron-or-steel tools and buckles, plus bronze weapons and tools.  Curious about the bronze artifacts, he was shown numerous bronze swords, daggers, axeheads and shield handles that others had found during the years around the mouth of the Altamaha River.

Two frames of a National Park Service film made while James Ford was studying the tabby ruins at Santo Domingo State Park.

Two frames of a National Park Service film made while James Ford was studying the tabby ruins at Santo Domingo State Park.

Ford was unaware of the earthen ruins of a European fort on the site.  He looked at them from about 100 feet away, but did not bother to measure them or look at aerial photographs.  He labeled the fort “an old Indian burial mound of little significance.”   Seventy-eight years later, this earthwork would be found to be identical in size and form to a Spanish fort built on Parris Island, SC in 1566.

Ford did not send any of the European artifacts to the Smithsonian Institute to be examined and dated!  In his report, Ford labeled the iron and bronze artifacts as “items dropped by 16th century Spanish soldiers, who camped on the banks of the river.”  Say what?   The last time that any bronze swords or axes were utilized in the Iberian Peninsula was around 600 BC.   No one at the Smithsonian caught the mistake.  Also, no one in the National Park Service thought it was significant that 15th and 16th century domestic items such as plates, spoons, cups and earthenware storage jugs were found on the banks of the Altamaha River.   Believing that he had not found anything of significance, all the artifacts that Ford unearthed, were given to the new Santo Domingo Museum, where they were washed and put on display.

Experts on tabby architecture dated the material samples to the 1700s.  The Smithsonian Institute’s archaeologists and the management of the National Park Service concurred with Ford’s recommendation that Santo Domingo State Park did not contain the tabby ruins of a mission.  Just before World War II,  the National Park Service sent a letter, drafted by James Ford, which labeled the park a site of insignificant historical importance.

This is an astonishing statement considering the density of Native American and European artifacts that Fort unearthed.  However, the fact that Ford then was only 25 years old, not a broadly educated anthropologist with a PhD and still very ignorant of Georgia’s history, explains his mistake.   After World War II  Ford went on to get bachelors, masters and doctorate degrees.  He became a highly respected member of his profession.

The tabby ruins were not those of the mission, but Ford’s extremely negative description of the park so disheartened state officials that they closed the beautiful park in 1947 and converted it into a orphanage for boys, who lost their parents in World War II.  That facility was in a few years given to the Southern Baptist Convention, who made it an orphanage to handle the orphans at their Hapeville, GA orphanage were displaced by expansion of the Atlanta Airport.   When the orphanage closed, the main buildings were leased to a series of occupants, who used it as a mental or behavioral rehabilitation facility.

So where are the artifacts?

To date,  Ed Reily has not been able to find any mention of the artifacts that were on display at the museum.  The museum closed about 69 years ago, so almost all of the people directly involved with it are now deceased.    However,  the People of One Fire strongly suspects that these artifacts were put into boxes and stored somewhere.  Some may have been put on display at other museums.

Why all the interest in these Bronze Age and 16th century European artifacts?    The tract of land on which San Domingo State Park sat exactly matches the descriptions of the locations Fort Caroline, built by the French in 1564 and Fort San Mateo, built by the Spanish in 1566.  The surviving earthworks exactly match Spanish forts of that period.  Infrared imagery revealed a large Native American town of unknown age on other parts of the tract.  There are many other building footprints of unknown age.  Could they predate Columbus’s voyage?  We don’t know.  Are they the ruins of the first attempt by the Spanish to colonize North America in 1526?   The ruins of Pueblo San Miguel de Gualdape are somewhere in the mouth of the Altamaha.  Of course, 18th century sugar and rice mills are of incredible historical significance today.  This place really should have been a National Park.


Near Visible Light infrared image of earthworks at edge of San Domingo State Park. They exactly match a fort built at the same time as Fort San Mateo on Parris Island, SC.

Near Visible Light Infrared image of earthworks at edge of San Domingo State Park land tract. They exactly match a fort built at the same time as Fort San Mateo on Parris Island, SC.

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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.



    Another great article Richard! Thanks!

    • Thank you. I am really hoping that we can spread the word so far that someone will be able to tell us where they are. Do you realized the implications of a Bronze Age naval base on the coast of Georgia?


    Richard – Perhaps you should suggest to Ed Reilly that an effort be made to locate any trash / waste disposal sites near the museum structure. My guess is that most of the artifacts were “trashed” when the museum was cleared, perhaps renovated, for the orphanage. Pottery, porcelain, wood shards would have been deemed of no value by those folks who could not see the historical significance of the site. I would also guess that the bronze artifacts may have “gone home” with someone working at the site. However, looking at the satellite image, I can see that this suggestion may be impractical. Nevertheless, it is something to think about.


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