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William Bartram apparently found evidence of biochar agriculture in Southeast

The soil of the Rembert Mound Complex in Elbert County, Georgia  on the Savannah River has long been gone . . . hauled away to enrich gardens and cultivated fields in the region.  However,  the original appearance of the earthworks, as described by William Bartram, sounds very much like Amazonia and dissimilar to typical Muskogean towns of the mound building eras.

The site included a massive spiral mound that was 40-50 feet high and about 2-300 yards in circumference.  This structure would have dwarfed the Great Spiral Mound at Ocmulgee National Monument.

The Great Spiral Mound at Ichesi (Lamar Village) is about 1/3 the size of the spiral mound on the Savannah River.

The Great Spiral Mound at Ichesi (Lamar Village at Ocmulgee National Monument) is about 1/3 the size of the long gone spiral mound on the Savannah River.

The Irreverent Observations of Bubba Mythbuster

Season 1 – Episode 5

Biochar agriculture is a technique in which charcoal, kitchen wastes, urine and ceramic potsherds are added to soil to cause a very special bacteria to grow.  This bacteria can literally turn red clay into fertile black loam.  The Track Rock Terrace Complex also is an example of biochar agriculture.

In 1773, a young William Bartram accompanied a party of surveyors and Creek Indian leaders on a jaunt across Northeast Georgia.  They were surveying a boundary line for the land recently ceded by the Creeks at the Treaty of Augusta.   The Creek leaders eventually became impatient with the amateurish British surveyors’ mistakes.  A Creek talliya or architect-engineer-surveyor demanded that he be allowed to finish the survey, and if his work was proven to be much more accurate, he would be paid what the British surveyors were supposed to get.

The amused British officials agreed after seeing the “strange” instruments that the talliya planned to utilize.  They assumed that he would look like a fool.  Instead the talliya produced the most accurate survey that the officials had ever seen in the colonies and the crafty Creek gentleman made himself a bundle of British pounds sterling!

After the survey, Bartram traveled to Fort James at the confluence of the Savannah and Broad Rivers. The fort’s commander invited him to visit massive earthen ruins six miles northward.  The land where the ancient town had once stood was being farmed by Creek families who had moved upstream from Palachicola around 1751, claiming that the town was ancestral Georgia Apalache land.

In an earlier POOF article, we explained that the ethnic name Apalache is actually an Anglicized form of a Panoan word from eastern Peru.  That linguistic source is very pertinent to this article.

Bartram described the complex as the central spiral mound surrounded by smaller conical mounds.  Up and down the Savannah River were four-sided agricultural platforms anywhere from four to ten feet high and at least 100 yards long.

What particularly intrigued Bartram was that the earthworks were constructed from black, loamy soil, not clay, sand or shells as he had seen elsewhere in the Southeast.  The Creek farmers were getting yields of 100-120 bushels of corn per acre on the agricultural platforms and spiral mound.  This was an astronomical figure for that era when 30 bushels per acre was considered a bumper crop.

Bartram and mid-19th century observers commented that there was no evidence of a town being located around the earthworks.  The location was prone to violent floods in the spring when the Snowy Mountains (Southern Blue Ridge) melted.   Of course, Bartram did not say, “Aha! I have found an example of biochar agriculture.”  However,  the fact that the earthworks contained only, unnaturally black and fertile soil is strong evidence of that.  The exact same characteristic is found in the earthworks of the Upper Amazon Basin and eastern Peru.

In 1886, much of the soil had been hauled off when John P. Rogan and Cyrus Thomas of the Smithsonian Institute excavated a small section of the large spiral mound. Nevertheless, they found a treasure trove of exquisite artifacts.

In 1939,  archaeologist Robert Wauchope analyzed the artifacts found by the Smithsonian, plus those found by nearby residents in their cultivated fields.  They ranged in age from around 1000 BC to 1700 AD.   By then the largest mounds and agricultural terraces were barely bumps in the landscape.

There is a humorous anecdote to this news story.  Don’t pay too much attention to the article on the Rembert Mounds in Wikipedia or even professional archaeological reports about it.   In 1948, archaeologist Joseph Caldwell was hired by the US Army Corps of Engineers to excavate what they thought or he thought was the last remaining Rembert Mound.  The upper end of Clarks Hill Reservoir were about to inundate it.  It was a single mound about 1.5 miles north of the Broad River.  Remember the real Rembert Mounds were about 5.8 miles north of the Broad River.   Local folks called that mound the Broad River Mound.  It was a single Late Mississippian-Lamar Culture platform mound.

Unfortunately,  the real Rembert Mounds are now covered by Lake Richard B. Russell, so you can’t go see where them either.  They were pretty much gone by 1939, so there would have been nothing much to see.   However, locals know where the town site for Rembert Mounds was.  It was on a promontory overlooking the mounds and the reservoir.  They still go there from time to time to look for potsherds and “arrowheads.”

Looking for mounds in all the wrong places  . . .  wonder if Carrie Underwood wants to work that theme into a country-western hit?

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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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