Many of the most fundamental assumptions by the Anthropology profession concerning the Pre-European history of the Lower Southeast were developed during the mid-20th century as a result of a massive, federally-funded excavation of archaeological sites near Macon, GA. While today, anthropologists, museums and the National Park Service present a united front stating that the body of knowledge, which resulted from the Ocmulgee Bottoms studies, was the result of comprehensive analysis, plus well-thought out consensus by some of the most brilliant men of their time, the truth is quite a bit different.
It is true that many of the “archaeological giants” of 20th century America were at one time or another associated with Ocmulgee National Monument between 1934 and 1955. However, both the excavations and the manner in which their discoveries were interpreted were highly flawed. The excavations were carried out by hundreds of unskilled, formerly unemployed, laborers with minimal supervision. The excavations were interrupted by Pearl Harbor and never resumed. During the 1930s, the artifacts were placed on the days of their discovery into many thousands of boxes and never fully curated.
The most blatant flaw in the Ocmulgee Bottoms archaeological work was that professional orthodoxies were created without benefit of radiocarbon dating. Seventy years later there are only three published radiocarbon dates for the 800 acre Ocmulgee Acropolis: the top and bottom of Mound A, plus the interior of the so-called “Earth Lodge.” Single radiocarbon dates are also made in the late 20th century underneath Mound A at the Lamar Village and at one house on top of Brown’s Mount.
Visitors to Ocmulgee National Monument, readers of archeology books and viewers of a legion of archaeology web sites are presented a myriad of dates as if they are fixed in stone. The truth is that archaeologists do not know for certain exactly when most of these cultural paradigms occurred. They are educated speculations based on the relative level at which various styles of pottery were discovered .
The facts concerning both the pottery styles and the architecture have been obscured in their presentations to the general public. The selective re-telling of what was actually discovered at Ocmulgee in the 1930s was done to conceal debates within the archaeology profession.
Unlike the impression given by museum exhibits, there were a dozen or so pottery styles produced contemporaneously in the 38 mile long Ocmulgee Bottoms corridor. Individual neighborhoods produced differing combinations of pottery styles. This fact suggests a multi-ethnic population. Visitors to the Ocmulgee Museum are only shown a couple of styles; a Plain Redware and another style primarily found at Brown’s Mount that had owl motifs or portrayed owls in abstract forms.
Also, there was no continuation of pottery styles in the Ocmulgee Basin between the “Lamar Culture” people encountered by Hernando de Soto and the “Ocmulgee Old Fields” people encountered by traders from South Carolina in the late 1600s.
What puzzled archaeologists the most for three decades until the subject became taboo was that the “Brushed Finished Ceramic Ware” of Historic Creeks was almost identical to the Pre-English Contact “Proto-Cherokee” ceramics of the North Carolina Mountains. Post-English Contact Cherokee ceramics were much cruder. If the “Creeks” on the Upper Ocmulgee River had moved there from the North Carolina Mountains in the 1600s, then the Cherokees could have only arrived in North Carolina in the late 1600s or early 1700s. That was an obvious conclusion that was unacceptable to the profession.
The long time presence of the Cherokees in western North Carolina is one of the most sacrosanct beliefs of its archaeologists. It is a subject that cannot be discussed, like the obvious Mesoamerican and South American influence on the culture of Georgia’s indigenous peoples. The Highland Apalache, Itstate Creeks, Kusa Creeks and Yuchi of Georgia were originally arch-enemies of the invading Muskogees. The original Muskogees may, in fact, not even been Muskogeans. Such discussions would make the current anthropological orthodoxies collapse like a stack of cards.
There is another dirty little secret that visitors to the museum and archaeology book readers are not being told. For at least the first century of the Ocmulgee Acropolis’s occupation, its neighborhoods were filled by large, round, center post-supported houses with conical roofs. Later stages of the town saw the appearance of rectangular houses with center posts and finally, smaller rectangular post-ditch houses with no interior posts.
Dr. Arthur Kelly, the director of the archaeological investigations at Ocmulgee during the 1930s, knew that the original houses at Ocmulgee were not like “Creek” houses. Coming from Texas, he speculated that the settlers on the Macon Plateau were Caddos from Texas. The Caddos built conical, center-pole houses, sheaved with woven grass.
There is another explanation. Houses like the ones found at Ocmulgee were endemic in the Greater Antilles of the Caribbean Basin until those islands were invaded by the Taino. They still are common in northern Colombia and northern Venezuela. However, that explanation would also unravel many orthodoxies.
Kelly was followed by archaeologists from the Midwest and Northeast, who could not stomach the idea of an advanced indigenous culture originating in either the backward Southeast or “Cowboys and Indians” Texas. They decided that the settlers of Ocmulgee had to be from north of the Mason-Dixon Line.
At the time, the only known Hopewell houses were a couple of rectangular mica workshops at the Seip Mounds in southeastern Ohio. Radiocarbon dating was not invented until 1947, so they presumed that “advanced Hopewell people” founded Ocmulgee after leaving Ohio and Indiana. Public awareness of the round houses was swept under the rug.
When radiocarbon dating became available, the Hopewell myth was altered to be that colonists from Cahokia, Illinois settled Ocmulgee. Recent radiocarbon dating has created another problem. Ocmulgee Bottoms residents displayed “Mississippian Cultural characteristics” 150 years before they appeared on the Mississippi River. That is a conundrum, equal to the “Cherokee problem.”
There were three trading posts on the Ocmulgee River until the Yamasee War, not one as almost all texts and museum exhibits state. Each of the trading posts was set up to serve a separate Native American alliance that was ancestral to the Creek Confederacy. Dr. Henry Woodward established a post to serve the Tama-tli and Arawak-speaking peoples on the southern end of the Ocmulgee around 1678. They were then known as the Upper Yamasee. Woodward established a second trading post at Koweta on the Upper Ocmulgee River in present day Butts County. Other Carolina traders established a trading post among the Itsate (Hitchiti) speakers in Ocmulgee Bottoms in 1690. The trading post on the plaza at Ocmulgee National Monument was under construction when burned. It may have never been fully operational. Archaeologists know that the site of original “Ochese” trading post may be elsewhere, but the public is not being told this.
Archaeologists ignore a cluster of town sites containing earthen mounds, stone veneered mounds, stone-walled terraces, stone cairns and the ruins of stone buildings in Northeast Georgia. They are clustered on the tributaries of the Oconee River, the Upper Oconee River, the Upper Chattahoochee River, the Upper Nottely River and the Apalache River. These are the vestiges of the Old Apalache Kingdom. They may have a cultural connection with Ocmulgee Bottoms since Lamar Style pottery was produced here. However, with so little archaeological study of this culture carried out, it is impossible to even speculate.
Thus, today one of the largest, continuous archaeological zones in North America, the 38 mile long Ocmulgee Bottoms, has been relegated to the archaeology profession’s little-used, rear annex of their mindset. Yet, Ocmulgee Bottoms has been occupied by mankind at least since the Ice Age. Clovis and Dalton points are found there. The Swift Creek and Napier Cultures first appeared there. It could well be the Garden of Eden of North America, where tropical plants were adapted to a temperate climate. It is revered by the Creek Indians as “the place where they first sat down” to form the Creek Confederacy.
Whatever the details of the Ocmulgee Bottoms’ rich cultural heritage, it is a very special place in the United States. It is worthy of special recognition and national protection. However, many decades of scientific study will be required before this special ecological corridor is fully understood.
- A Fresh Look at Ocmulgee Bottoms
- Geography of the Ocmulgee-Altamaha River Basin
- Ocmulgee Bottoms in Recorded History
- The Natural Environment of Ocmulgee Bottoms
- The Natural History of Ocmulgee Bottoms