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Why the Chattahoochee sites conflict with archaeological orthodoxy

Why the Chattahoochee sites conflict with archaeological orthodoxy

POOF’s series on the Chattahoochee River began in February 2016 in the Nacoochee Valley of the Southern Appalachians.  It is a seven mile long valley that is crammed with village and town sites dating back to the Early Woodland Period, but only two large mounds.  We are now concentrating on an archaeological zone in Southwest Metro Atlanta that is crammed with village and town sites of equal age and density as the Nacoochee Valley, but with no large mounds.

Readers may be wondering why these archaeological zones are so different than what one reads about the Native American history of the Southeast in university-published anthropology books.   To understand the situation, we will have to go back to the late 20th century.

What distinguishes the sites discovered by Robert Wauchope along the Chattahoochee Valley is their age and size.  In the Nacoochee Valley,  in the vicinity of Lake Lanier and in Southwest Metro Atlanta, he found large communities with mounds that dated from the Early Woodland Period.

When  Wauchope was exploring North Georgia in 1939,  Southeastern Archaeology was in its infancy.  Many of the assumptions about the Southeast’s Pre-European history were in the realm of folklore and definitely biased by a disdain in the North for all things south of the Mason-Dixon Line.  Wauchope would not publish his report on the 1939 study until 1966.  The profession was still digesting what had just been found at Ocmulgee National Monument.  In fact, the curation of those artifacts would not begin for another 70 years after their excavation.

In 1947,  archaeologists from around the nation met at Harvard University to create an orthodoxy about the Native American history of the Eastern United States.  At the very same time,  Willard Libby and James Arnold were inventing radiocarbon dating at the University of Chicago, but they would not publish their experiments in the Journal of Science until 1949.   The Harvard Conference therefore adopted the following dogmas:

  1.  The earliest mounds and pottery were in Ohio and associated with the Adena Culture.
  2.  The first cultivated gardens were in Ohio and associated with the Hopewell Culture.
  3.  The first permanent villages were in Ohio.
  4.  The first large scale agriculture and large platform mounds occurred at Cahokia in Southern Illinois.
  5.  Agriculture, corn, beans, squash, mounds and permanent settlements were introduced into the Southeast by immigrants from Cahokia no earlier than 1000 AD and probably after 1200 AD.

One would think that during the next 20 years, the flood of radiocarbon dates coming from Southeastern mound sites would have radically changed the orthodoxy of the profession, but it didn’t.  Even today,   many prominent Midwestern archaeologists are completely unaware that “Mississippian” cultural traits appeared at Ocmulgee 150 years before they appeared at Cahokia.  “Mississippian” cultural symbols appeared at the Ortona site in South Florida as early as the 500s AD.

If they only knew what would happen in the 21st century

The year is 1969.   I was selected by Dr. Arthur Kelly to make a precise inkline  site plan of the 9FU14 village site.   No money was involved, but I volunteered in hope of meeting some Liberal Arts coeds, since there were only 128 female students at Georgia Tech.  I was a sophomore in architecture.

One Saturday afternoon in the spring of the Summer of Love,  a Georgia State art student (who was also of Creek descent) and I were measuring the house footprints at the 9FU14 site.   A few Georgia State anthropology students were working at a mound near the river.   Dr. Arthur Kelly,  the director of the dig and of the Department of Anthropology at the University of Georgia, had gotten us started then driven off to a meeting somewhere.

A car soon drove onto the site with three middle aged professors and another man in his early 20s.  One introduced himself as archaeologist Roy Dickens.  I believe the other two, somewhat older, professors, included Joseph Caldwell, but they didn’t introduce themselves.  They did not talk very much.  The young man was described as an “about to graduate PhD candidate at the University of North Carolina.  I believe he was Charles Hudson because in a few months, Dr.  Kelly would be fired,  Joseph Caldwell would replace him, and Charles Hudson would be hired to fill the vacant slot.

Because of our age, Native American physical features and the fact that neither of us were in anthropology,  the four men treated us like ignorant peons.  They stood very close to us and openly mocked Dr. Kelly with exaggerated laughs.  Some of the technical terms, we didn’t understand, but we certainly understood the gist of the conversation.

Dr. Kelly had obtained radiocarbon dates for charcoal samples in the hearths of the houses.  They ranged from 200 BC to 450 AD.   Kelly had announced that this was the oldest known permanent Indian village.  It was at that time.  Actually, very few Ohio Hopewell houses have been found and their villages were not permanent.  Adena village apparently were also seasonal.

Kelly had also told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution  that the only way that such a large village could remain at the same location for six centuries was agriculture.   However, at the time, his profession believed the orthodoxy that there was no agriculture in the Southeast until corn leaped 2000 miles from Mexico to Southern Illinois around 1000 AD then missionaries from Cahokia later introduced it to the ignorant, backward Indians in Dixie.

The archaeological team had found very few corn kernels.  Pollen analysis was in its infancy.  However, Kelly had found many seeds of what at that time was assumed to be varieties of wild plants, plus four varieties of morning glories were growing in that section of the Chattahoochee Valley that had sweet potato roots.  Even South American sweet potatoes are a selectively cultivated variety of morning glories.

The Georgia State students learned that they could “trip out” on the psychedelic seeds of these morning glories.    Kelly postulated that the staple crop in the Chattahoochee Valley was the sweet potato, augmented by several indigenous seed and root plants.  He also speculated that the morning glory seeds were used in religious ceremonies.   You have to understand that discussions about “getting high” saturated the media and  American mindsets at that time.  Today, that makes quite a lot of sense, but back then . . .

His professional peers howled at that announcement.   They already questioned his sanity because he had announced that several artifacts he found at the Late Woodland Manville Site and near the attapulgite mines along the Chattahoochee River appeared to be either from Mesoamerica or copies of artifacts from Mesoamerica.

The professors knew for a fact that there was no reason for Mayas to be on the Chattahoochee River or near an attapulgite mine.   What use would the Mayas have for attapulgite?

Roy Dickens peered over my shoulder and blurted, “That’s Cherokee.  This place is nothing but a satellite village of the Cherokees at Etowah Mounds.  It’s no earlier than 1000 AD . . . more likely 1200 AD since there is a mound here. “

During the excavation of Etowah Mounds in 1955 and 1956  by Arthur Kelly,  Lew Larsen and Joe Caldwell,  Dickens was a graduate assistant.  The archaeological team constantly bickered as to “whether Etowah Mounds was built by the Creeks or the Cherokees.”   This would be a ridiculous debate today, but back then Caldwell and Dickens led the pro-Cherokee faction. 

Caldwell later changed his mind after discovering that the Tugaloo Site was occupied by ancestors of the Creeks from 800 AD to around 1700 AD.   However, Dickens dedicated his life to proving that the Cherokees built all the mounds in the Southeast’s interior.  Today when the Eastern Band of Cherokees make strange pronouncements such as “All archaeologists agree that they have lived in the same location for 11,000 years and built most of the mounds in the Southeast,”  they are really just quoting Roy Dickens. 

Dickens then said to the other men, “Now you see why I brought you here.   Kelly’s a loose cannon and has got to go. ”   The men walked off, laughing,  toward the mound.

A few weeks later,  a stone hoe would be stolen from the Manville Site boxes at the Laboratory of Archaeology at the University of Georgia then slipped into the mound at 9FU14.   At the time, Joseph Caldwell was director of the lab and another future department director, David Hally was the upper level student assistant.  You will never guess, who the underclass student assistant was.

In our next POOF article, you will learn about what was learned by the archaeologists and students at 9FU14 and how it relates to archival and linguistic studies done by the People of One Fire.

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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.



    Knew Richard from high school and his early days at Ga Tech. Not surprised at the direction his life seems to have taken. Great!!! And, great article!

    • Hey Linda!
      Well I am surprised at the direction my life has taken. Never dreamed that I would be 100% in I guess what should be called Prehistoric Architectural Preservation. I don’t do any digging, so you can’t even call me a pseudo-archaeologist. Now I am trying to think which Linda you are. That is not your maiden name. There were three Lindas in my neighborhood. In an article published on Monday, I will tell what Susan Muse’s life path was. Our two life paths converged near the end of hers.


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