Richard Thornton | May 9, 2017 | 23
Who built this mysterious stone structure on the Flint River?
In early 2012, when the People of One Fire first became aware of this almost forgotten landmark in the extreme southwest corner of Georgia, it seemed to have no sure explanation. There was no other known structure like it in the United States.
Three years later, our knowledge of the past has so exploded that the enigmatic structure has too many explanations. Only a professional archaeological investigation will be able to reveal its secrets.
On the banks of the Flint River Channel of Lake Seminole lies a heap of quarried stones. Very few persons, outside the Decatur County, GA Historical and Genealogical Society, are aware of the ruin’s significance. A century ago, the oval footprint of its walls was still discernible. Two centuries ago, a considerable portion of the building’s corbelled stone roof was still visible.
One can peer down into the stone pile and see, what was once a basement! The few people that visit the ruin assume that any building with a basement must have been constructed by 19th century frontiersmen. Some descriptions in the past stated that part of the basement was at least six feet deep. The other part was said to be about two feet deep. The basement was cut out of solid limestone.
The quarried stone walls and corbelled stone roof seemed in 2012 to limit the candidates for the building’s constructors to either the Mayas or Irish. There are now many other possible explanations.
Apalache from North Georgia?
Several of the newly discovered Apalache town sites in Northeast Georgia contain buildings constructed of quarried stone. Eyewitness accounts of Apalache temples stated that they were built over natural or man-made caves. Mysterious religious rites were held in those basements.
An 1818 drawing of Mound A at Etowah Mounds shows that the last temple had a basement than could be accessed from tunnel entrances on the north and south sides. What archaeologists have been repeatedly labeling “rectangular earth lodges” were actually temples with basements.
Chontal, Itza or Puuc Maya?
In the original article on the building, I vaguely suggested that the Mayas could have built it. However, I could not offer a good reason for the Mayas to build an isolated stone temple in what seemed to be “nowhere’s-ville.” Nevertheless, minus the basement the structure, it was similar to the Early Classic Period temples in the Puuc Hills of eastern Campeche State. To this day, rural Maya houses in eastern Campeche have oval floor plans. They are also identical in form to the oval houses built to the west of the Kenimer Mound in Georgia’s Nacoochee Valley around 800 to 1000 AD.
On a sunny Sunday morning in October 2012, there was suddenly a really good reason for Mayas to be on that section of the Flint River. Scott Wolter, host of American Unearthed telephoned me excitedly. Scientists at the University of Minnesota had determined a 100% match between attapulgite mined in Decatur County, GA and the Maya Blue stucco at the famous Maya city of Palenque in the Chiapas Highlands. The mysterious structure was located at the logical location to load containers of attapulgite into sea-going Putan Maya freight boats.
On the other hand, this structure could have been a Maya royal tomb built in the shape of a Maya house. Maya temples normally did not have basements, but some were built over royal burials. The partial basement could have been the sepulcher.
During the mid-1960s, the famous archaeologist, Arthur Kelly, found several figurines, bowls and cylindrical seals in the general vicinity of this building, which he interpreted to be Mesoamerican in style. He speculated that they were either made in Mexico or were home-made replicas of Mexican art. Their style was quite similar to the ceramics made by Chontal and Itza Maya commoners.
Bronze Age, Iron Age or Christian Era Irishmen?
While this enigmatic structure does not exactly match any known Maya temple, it is identical to structures built in the past in northwestern Europe. The possibility of Bronze Age or Iron Age Irishmen being the builders was also considered back in 2012. The structure was similar to the beehive houses that the Gaelic peoples built in Ireland and Scotland during the Bronze Age. What it most resembles, though, are the Christian burial crypts built in Ireland between 600 AD and 1100 AD. Construction of these tombs also involved cutting two feet into stone then roofing with corbelled stones.
The first page of A History of Georgia (1847) by William Bacon Stevens states that there were people of mixed European and Native American heritage on the coast of Georgia when the first British colonists arrived in 1733. They spoke an old dialect of Irish Gaelic.
In his discussion, Stevens referenced journal entries from the 1100s AD, in certain French and Irish monasteries. The monks wrote that several large groups of Gaelic Christians journeyed across the Atlantic Ocean in the period from 1150 AD to 1180 AD to escape persecution by the Roman Catholic Church. They were transported to Whitmannsland by Scandinavian Christian mariners, who shared their beliefs. The Gaelic Christians practiced the beliefs and traditions of the original Christian Church. Their heresies included a married priesthood, praying directly to God instead of saints and a liturgy in Irish.
In 1935, Smithsonian archaeologist, James Ford found bronze and iron axes, hammers, wedges, swords and daggers in the peaty soil next to the south Channel of the Altamaha River in Georgia. He interpreted the artifacts to be debris left by late 16th century Spanish explorers. However, there were no bronze weapons made in Western Europe, after around 500-600 AD.
The stone building near the Flint River also enters into the legend of the Welshman, Prince Madoc, who supposedly entered North America through Mobile Bay, Alabama then traveled to the mountains of Georgia to build mountaintop structures. Believers of this legend propose that some of Prince Madoc’s followers established a small village in the location of the Decatur County structure.
Little is said in Medieval English literature about Prince Madoc. His name first became known to the general intelligentsia of England in 1587, when the brilliant Elizabethan scholar, Richard Hakluyt, expanded on previously published accounts of Madoc in his book on the explorers of the New World. Hakluyt used the story of Madoc as legal proof that England had discovered the New World before Columbus and therefore could claim all of North America. North America’s inhabitants were none consulted in this claim.
According to the legend, Prince Madoc left Wales with his colonists on 1170 AD. That date has largely been scoffed at by scholars during the past century, but they should have examined William Bacon Stevens’ research first. Madoc’s supposed departure date lies exactly in the middle of the period when French and Irish monks recorded that Irishmen were colonizing North America. Of course, Wales is separated from Ireland by a relatively narrow ocean channel.
That being said, it is far more likely that Madoc’s colonists would be associated with some of the iron artifacts found by archaeologist James Ford on the Altamaha River than the strange stone building on the Flint River. In fact, the ancient fortification that most closely resembles 12th century Welsh military architecture is Brown’s Mount near Macon, GA. It overlooks a tributary of the Altamaha River.
The peoples of the Andes also built round or oval quarried structures with corbelled stone roofs. These can still be seen today at Machu Picchu. In 2012, it seemed ridiculous to even consider Peruvian builders for the structure. Now it is known that people from northwestern South America had a profound influence of the Southeastern United States. They would have entered the Southeast at one of the major rivers flowing into the Gulf of Mexico or South Atlantic Coast. The question remains, though . . . Why would just one of these structures be known?
Description by William Bartram in 1776
Botanist William Bartram is on the last leg of his grand journey through the Southeast. While the guest of the British Army commander in Pensacola, Province of West Florida, he learned that the Continental Congress had signed a Declaration of Independence. Bartram was racing home to be with his family in Philadelphia. In a few days, he would join his Creek Indian friends and Georgia militia in a successful ambush of some British Rangers from East Florida.
Shortly after paddling across the Chattahoochee River, Bartram’s Native American friends showed him a stone building perched on a terrace overlooking the confluence of a creek with the Flint River. The old trade path from the Creek mining village of Attapulgus terminated at the Flint River’s opposite side. The Creek Indian trading village of Pucknawhitla (Poknvhitli [Birds-nest-builders People] in Itsate Creek) was located a couple of miles upstream. Bartram’s Creek Indian companions did not know who had built the structure, but it was still being used, apparently to store valuables and gun powder.
Bartram had embarked on his journey to study the exotic flora and fauna of the Southern colonies, but had become fascinated with its indigenous inhabitants. He was astonished, after traveling through 150 miles of the Georgia frontier, to see precisely planned Creek Indian towns laid out in grid iron patterns with streets, plazas, public buildings and sporting fields. Bartram’s interest shifted to architecture as his sketch pads were filled with drawings of the different architectural traditions of various branches of the Creek Confederacy. However, this building was nothing like what he had seen elsewhere. No contemporary Creek buildings were constructed of quarried stone and lime mortar.
Red Stick War
After the Revolution, West Florida, which included the Florida Panhandle and much of southern Alabama, reverted back to nominal Spanish ownership, but the interior was controlled by the Creek Indian Confederacy. The United States declared war on Great Britain in 1812. The government of the Creek Confederacy declared its loyalty to the United States. Although officially neutral, Spanish officials allowed British agents to instigate a faction of Creeks, primarily living in Alabama and Spanish West Florida, to rebel against their leadership. A Hitchiti – Creek village in Decatur County did side with the rebels, who were labeled “Red Sticks.” This civil war quickly spiraled into a war involving the U. S. Army.
No major battles of the Red Stick War occurred near the stone building, but nearby Fort Hughes became a staging area for campaigns against the Red Stick Faction. In 1814, the Treaty of Fort Jackson, the Muskogee-Creek members of the Creek Confederacy gave away the section of southwest Georgia that was occupied by Hitchiti -Creeks, even though most had been loyal to the United States. This caused many Hitchiti Creeks to become hostile and align their towns with the Seminole Creek faction.
In 1817, military campaigns began against the Seminoles, who then lived in southern Georgia and northern Florida. Fort Scott was built in the general vicinity of the stone building. In April of 1817 an army, led by General Andrew Jackson, stopped at Fort Scott on the way to fight the Seminoles in Florida. There were skirmishes near Fort Scott.
Visitors to the building in the 1800s all gave the same general description. It was oval in shape. Its maximum dimensions were 15 feet by 9 feet. It had a corbelled (vaulted) stone roof. The floor was recessed two feet into the ground.
Pioneer archaeologist Charles C. Jones, Jr.
In his landmark book on the Southeastern Indians published in 1873, Charles C. Jones discussed on page 209 the fact that in many parts of Georgia, especially the mountains and upper Piedmont, ancient stone walls and building foundations could still be seen. Most of these ancient ruins were destroyed in the mid-20th century to make crushed stone for highway construction. The assumption by many people that a stone building couldn’t have been constructed by indigenous people was wrong.
A visitor from Waycross, GA
J. A. Youmans of Waycross, GA, who first visited the site in 1900, provides some more details for the building. He wrote, “The structure was built by excavating a hole in the rock about six feet deep. The walls were about eight or nine feet from the bottom floor. This was built out of a mixture of limestone and flint rock, and appeared to be cemented with some kind of powder that I think was cement rock beat up into a powder. I cannot see that this was used as an oven at any time, as the same did not show signs of fire. There was no door at this time, but the opening was about 28 inches by 72 inches. Steps have been cut into the stone at the entrance. ”
Youmans’ comments provided more details, but also create more questions. How could the building have a six feet high door opening and sub-grade steps at the entrance, if six of its nine feet of interior height were underground? Perhaps the quote is a hundred year old typo.
Lime based mortar turns into a white powder after many centuries of exposure to the elements. Crude, hydrated lime plaster was utilized by the American Indians of southeast Georgia to plaster their wattle & daub houses. However, at the time of Spanish colonization efforts in the 1600s, local Natives did not have metal tools capable of quarrying six feet down through solid limestone. The six feet depth sounds suspicious under any circumstance, given the two feet depth described by all others.
The old stone building remains an enigma
Settlers poured into the region after Florida officially became part of the Union in 1821. The stone building became known as “Jackson’s Oven.” Frontiersmen believed that the structure was a bread oven, built to feed Jackson’s troops. This interpretation is impossible. In this era, bread was baked in cast iron ovens. His troops had no time to quarry the limestone, make the mortar and lay the rocks before racing to Florida to confront the Seminoles. Furthermore, it is highly unlikely that anyone in the U. S. Army knew how to build a corbelled vault out of stones of varied sizes.
Some local historians have suggested that it was a granary. They refer to the description of what early European explorers thought were round, stone granaries in southeastern Georgia and northeastern Florida. However, these indigenous peoples did not have access to any stone and such structures would have been highly vulnerable to rodents. All Creek Indian granaries, going back a thousand years, were two story structures, built on timber posts and had vented walls. Their corn and beans would have molded in a few days within the dark, hot, humid conditions of the stone structure.
Those historians more knowledgeable of the past have suggested that the structure was built by the Spanish. The Spanish claimed the Chattahoochee and Flint River Valleys until the mid-1700s, but did not permanently settle the region because of the extreme hostility of the Creek Indians. However, until the construction began at Fort San Marco at St. Augustine in 1672, the Spanish had not constructed any stone masonry buildings in the province of La Florida. Lacking firing holes for arquebuses, the relatively small building would not have been of any obvious use for the Spanish and would have been very vulnerable to impacts from solid cannon balls. A collapsing stone roof would have instantly killed the occupants.
It is unlikely that any Spanish mason in La Florida would have even known how to build a corbelled stone roof. The ancient peoples Europe did. The Maya Indians did. The Native peoples of the Andes Mountains did, but not the Spanish of the Renaissance.
By the late 20th century, the old stone building was a ruin with walls barely reaching above ground level.
A brief archaeological survey of the proposed basin of Lake Seminole followed authorization of the Jim Woodruff Dam and Lock Project by Congress in 1946. However, no archaeological investigation was carried out for the ancient ruins. Rumors abound that grading contractors working on the tree clearance for the reservoir scooped up most of the stones and sold them to builders for constructing fire places.
The only means to obtain a defining interpretation of this mysterious structure is to first relocate it and then bring in a team of professional archaeologists to study its environs. Artifacts left behind by the original builders or the uses of the building will propel its interpretation from speculation to fact.
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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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