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Ancient Architects of Georgia

Ocmulgee Mounds

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OcmulgeeTempleMoundspeopleAs impressive as the Kolomoki Mounds complex is, the Native American Mound Builders of prehistoric Georgia would outdo themselves at the next site in our story: Ocmulgee Mounds.  Located in Macon, this site consists of seven mounds and associated plazas. The Great Temple Mound at Ocmulgee was built atop the Macon Plateau and rises 56 feet high from the surface of the plateau. Yet because the mound was ingeniously constructed on the edge of the plateau and the plateau itself was terraced and clay fill added to match the angle of the Temple Mound, the mound rises an impressive 90 feet from the river bank below. (View QTVR) It was this imposing view that most visitors to Ocmulgee saw in prehistoric times since most trade and travel was conducted by dugout canoes along the river.


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Due to its ingenious construction, the top of the Great Temple Mound is significantly higher than the surrounding tree line thus enabling anyone standing here to have a commanding view of the countryside for miles and miles around as well as an unobsturcted view of the entire sky dome for astronomical observations. From here one could easily see signal fires or smoke signals from outlying villages warning of invaders or other trouble. Likewise traders could light signal fires atop the Great Temple Mound to announce the arrival of new trade goods. As its name suggests the Great Temple Mound was also home to a large temple which likely doubled as the Chief Priest's home. Here he kept a perpetual fire burning which was an important element of their religion and myths.

 The site has been occupied for 12,000 years as evidenced by the Clovis spear point found during excavations. (View Image Gallery) Around 2000 B.C., the same time period as the Sapelo Shell Rings, the first small shell mounds were constructed at the site but it wasn't until 900 A.D. that the monumental constructions began.

At this time newcomers arrived in the region and brought with them corn agriculture, a new style of pottery, new types of arrowheads and a more complex economic, religious and political system. It is thought that these were Muskogean speakers who later were Popocatepetl Volcano at Night in Central Mexicocalled Creek Indians by Europeans. Creek migration legends tell how they originated in a place much farther west, a place where the earth would occasionally open up and swallow their children (a possible reference to earthquakes). Part of their tribe decided to leave this place and began an eastward migration in order to find where the sun rises. On their journey they came to a mountain that thundered and had red smoke coming from its summit which they later discovered was actually fire (a possible reference to a volcano.) Here they decided to settle down after meeting people from three nations (Chickasaws, Atilamas, & Obikaws) who taught them about herbs and "many other things."

From these references one can assume that these people migrated from Mexico which is west of Georgia and has both earthquakes and active volcanoes. Mexico is also the birthplace of corn agriculture, a defining characteristic of these newcomers who archaeologists call the Mississippians. It is also in Mexico where we find cities consisting of flat-topped pyramid mounds arranged around open plazas which is the most noticeable feature of Mississippian town planning at Ocmulgee.  Also, the type of tobacco grown in the southeastPyramid_of_the_Moon Image Courtesy by the Muskogeans has been shown to have its origins in Central America (part of the extensive trade network of the central Mexican metropolis of Teotihuacan-- see image at left). Additionally, the Muscogean language belongs to the Hokan family which reads like a who's who of the Mississippian languages. This language family has its origin in Mexico and Central America where the Chontal and Yuman group are still spoken in western Mexico. The Yumans also constructed earth lodges which is another feature of the Ocmulgee site (discussed below). In fact, according to one version of the migration legend, the first structure they built upon arriving was "a mound with a central chamber" where the warriors could gather-- a clear reference to an earth lodge.

.Chontal_hat_figure (c) Tribal ArtsAnother intriguing clue is a similar type of clothing shared between a west- Mexican tribe called the Chontal and historic Muskogee-Creek Indians. Chontal stone carvings show them wearing a very unique form of headdress and shoulder sash. (See figure at right.)

creek-indian-caitlanIn 1834, George Catlin painted a portrait of Steeh-tcha-ko-me-co, a Muskogee-Creek chief. He wears a similar wrap-around headdress and shoulder sash.

The Chontal civilization disappears from the archaeological record in western Mexico sometime around 600 AD. Usually people don't "disappear" but instead migrate away. Archaeologists have also noted that by 600 AD Chontal artifacts had become increasingly influenced by the Teotihuacan art style. Thus it is probable that the Chontal simply migrated closer to Teotihuacan to be near this important center of trade.chontal-seated (c) Tribal Arts

(The Chontal are also noted for the creation of portable stone human sculptures used as part of a complex funerary practice. Similar funerary sculptures will be found at our next important Mississippian site, Etowah Mounds.)

Thus, after piecing together all of the above clues, it is possible to speculate that these immigrants originated in western Mexico, migrated into central Mexico around 600 Cholula-Pyramid Image Courtesy of Wikipedia.orgAD where they undoubtedly came under the influence of Teotihuacan, possibly at Xochitecatl near Cholula, and met the three other tribes including the Chickasaws. Both Cholula (which has the largest pyramid on earth by volume according to Guiness Book of World Records--see image at left) and Xochitecatl are located directly in the shadow of the volcano Popocatepetl. In fact, Popocatepetl  had one of its biggest and most violent eruptions ever sometime between  675 - 800 A.D. which is very near the time of the fall of Teotihuacan and a massive depopulation of Cholula.

The migration legend states that it was here that they learned about herbs (including rattle-snake root, red root, sowatchko, and little tobacco) along with "many other things" which likely included religion, political organization, and pyramid building.  Since this is where they met the Chickasaws, it should be noted that the Chickasaws built one of the most impressive pyramid mound sites in America at Moundville in Alabama just due west of Ocmulgee Mounds. Thus we know they were master pyramid builders.

Also, the site plan for Xochitecatl is very similar to Ocmulgee. Xochitecatl features a great temple pyramid, Pyramid of Flowers, approximately 98 feet tall and a lesser pyramid, Building of the Serpent, both constructed on top of a hill that was terraced and flattened to create a plaza. Across the plaza from the Pyramid of Flowers is a spiral pyramid similar to the one at the Lamar Mound Village site that was constructed near Ocmulgee after it was abandoned. There are only three spiral pyramids in the Americas: one in west Mexico, one in Central Mexico, and one at Lamar Mounds near Ocmulgee. These just happen to match the migration route suggested by the Creek Migration Legend . Another piece of evidence is that Xochitecatl had been abandoned for centuries but was re-inhabited around 650 AD, only fifty years after the Chontal disappeared from west Mexico.

The legend then goes on to say that after living here for some time they had a war/competition to determine which of the four tribes would rule over the other three. The Cussitaws, i.e., Muscogees, won the competition by collecting the most scalps of their enemies. After this war they then restarted their eastward migration arriving at Ocmulgee, archaeologists believe, around A.D. 900.

It is not known when the first of these migrations started (perhaps 600 A.D.) but we do find evidence in east Texas and northwest Louisiana of the first traces of Mississippian culture around A.D. 800, only 50 years after the collapse of Teotihuacan. Obviously people would not have migrated eastward continuously but would have had to stop long enough to grow some crops before moving on. Thus it is understandable that the migration would have taken generations, perhaps 150 - 200 years to complete. (By comparison, the migration legend of the Aztec tells how they departed their homeland of Aztlan in 830 AD and traveled south to modern Mexico City, a trip which took 302 years.) It also is understandable that due to the great length of time and distance covered no obviously Mexican artifacts would have survived the journey. Only political and religious ideas and those things required for survival, such as corn for food and tobacco for medicine, would survive the journey.

Ocmulgee-Mounds-titleThey would name their final resting place Ocmulgee which in Muscogean means "where they sat down." The migration legend also tells how they would always have scouts about two days ahead of the main group. Interestingly, Ocmulgee is located on the Ocmulgee River which flows into the Altamaha River which flows into the Atlantic Ocean just south of Sapelo Island. It is about a two day journey from Ocmulgee to the coast by dugout canoe. Thus as the main group rested at Ocmulgee the scouts would have realized that their journey had ended. They could go no further east. They would return and tell the others about their discovery. Ocmulgee thus became the logical place for a permanent settlement. It truly is where they finally "sat down."

Yet the area they chose for their town was already occupied by the people who had built such places as Kolomoki, Rock Eagle and Fort Mountain. These people had been in Georgia for thousands of years thus this Muscogean invasion would be met, like all invasions, by fierce resistance from the local population. In fact, the migration legend tells how the Ocmulgee site was originally inhabited by a group of "flat head" Indians, i.e., Indians who practiced cranial deformation. The legend states that the Cussitaw-Muscogee scouts climbed a high hill (possibly nearby Brown's Mount) and saw a town into which they shot white arrows (signifying peace) but the flat heads shot back read arrows (signifying war). Thus the Cussitaws (Muscogees) became angry, "and determined to attack the town, and each one have a house when it was captured." They proceeded to kill all the inhabitants except for two who escaped. They found a white dog and killed it also.

The archaeological evidence seems to support the legend once again. Early explorer C. C. Jones, Jr. from Savannah visited the Ocmulgee site in the late 1800s when the Central of Georgia Railroad was cutting a trail through the site. They cut through the burial mound and Mr. Jones noted that a skull from the lowest part of the mound, thus the oldest part, exhibited cranial deformation giving it a flattened appearance.

The Ocmulgee Mounds site is characterized by defensive ditches and palisade walls which protected three sides of the new Muscogean colony from attacks by their neighbors. The Ocmulgee River provided natural protection on the fourth side. (When another group of invaders showed up in Georgia many centuries later-- the British-- they also followed a similar pattern and located their colony of Frederica near a river and then surrounded the other three sides with a defensive ditch and palisade wall.)

deanquigleyOne characteristic of these Mississippians is that they built structures on top of their mounds which served as temples and also residences of an elite class of people. (Watch Animation) These people inherited their status as opposed to earning it. This fact undoubtedly caused much suspicion on the side of the indigenous Woodland people who were an egalitarian society where status was earned. Even as late as the historic period when Spanish explorers came into contact with these societies there is evidence that this inherited status was looked upon with great disdain by many Native Americans in the region and was the source of many conflicts. This seems to be a very human and natural reaction to inherited power that cuts across all cultures thus it must be assumed that this animosity probably existed from the beginning of Mississippian influence and grew as their influence grew.

The most unique structure at Ocmulgee is the Earth Lodge. Although at first it appears to be a conical mound, ithale-bopp-02 is, in fact, a building covered with earth. It seems to have been a council house where important discussions took place. Forty-seven seats on a low clay bench birdsymbolwere arranged around the interior wall. A central opening in the roof admitted light and emitted smoke from the council fire. A bird-shaped platform west of the central fire pit contained three elevated seats (bringing the total number of seats to 50.) This bird effigy featured the earliest instance of a symbol that would become increasingly prevalent in Mississippian culture: the forked eye motif. This motif is thought to have been inspired by the appearance in the night sky of a two tailed comet sometime around 1000 A.D.

earthlodge_kidsThe Chinese have records of such a comet appearing on August 4, 1018 AD. The Earth Lodge has been radio carbon dated to 1019 AD. The Chinese records indicated that the comet's tail stretched nearly 44 feet across the sky! Perhaps the appearance of this comet inspired the construction of this Earth Lodge and the bird effigy was meant to represent this other being in the sky just as the eagle was often used to represent the sun. This is the largest Earth Lodge at Ocmulgee and certainly the appearance of such a strange phenomenon in the night sky would require countless tribal discussions with all the head men and priests of surrounding tribes to decide what it all meant; thus, the need for such a large structure.

It is very likely that this event also influenced the beginnings of the Southern Death Cult or Southeastern Ceremonial Complex, a religious cult that spread across the southeast producing a variety of symbols including  numerous "bird man/hawk man" or "falcon man" images. The peregrine falcon has markings around its eyes that are very similar to this forked eye motif and thus it's logical that this bird became the symbol for this event and all the priests would dress up like this bird to appease the gods. The appearance of the winged-serpent/ feathered-serpent imagery could also represent this comet, a long bright object that moved across the sky each night like a cosmic serpent.

There wasn't just one earth lodge but four which indicates the need for such meeting places. Interestingly, this coincides with the number of original tribes in the migration legend. It may be that each tribe had their own earth lodge for important discussions. Discussions of trade and war probably dominated these meetings. In one version of the Creek migration legend the leaders were frustrated by the constant warfare since their arrival and were deciding what to do about their hostile neighbors. At first they saw no other solution than to completely annihilate them but calmer heads prevailed and they decided to befriend them instead.

ocmulgeepotteryIt is not known from the text of the migration legend how long it took for them to come to this decision but the archaeological record does seem to reflect this situation. At first, the Muscogean pottery was completely alien from that produced by the indigenous people of Georgia but later the two styles seem to have merged. Also, the languages seemed to merge at some point in history. Linguists have noted that Hitchiti may have been one of the original languages of the Woodland people. Traditionally classified as a Muscogean dialect, it is now thought that the similarities instead come from extensive borrowing of Muscogean words by Hitchiti speakers.

For instance, there is no word for "mountain" in Hitchiti which is not surprising if they were the original inhabitants of middle and south Georgia where no mountains exist. Also, it appears that the Muscogean word for "corn" was borrowed by Hitchiti speakers once they became familiar with this new crop. In fact, linguists have ways of dating when words were likely introduced into a language and have settled upon the date of 900 BC for the Muscogean word for corn. This has perplexed linguists since the archaeological data suggests corn has only been in the southeast since around 700 AD. But if the Muscogeans did, in fact, migrate from Mexico then the early origin of a word for corn no longer presents a problem since corn originated in Mexico and had been cultivated there for thousands of years. Thus the lack of words for both corn and mountain suggests that the Hitchiti speakers were native to Georgia and did not migrate from Mexico.

tomochichi-londonOnce again, the migration legend seems to support the idea that Hitchiti is one of the original southeastern languages and only resembles Muscogean as a result of extensive borrowing. In the legend, it states that the historic figure Tomochichi, who spoke Hitchiti, was actually descended from the original inhabitants of the area. Also, since the migration legend states that four tribes migrated east and we know of many more Muscogean dialects it stands to reason that many of these were simply local languages that borrowed extensively from their new trading partners once relative peace had been established. (This phenomenon is happening today the world over with extensive borrowing of English words into local dialects. For instance, in Singapore so many English words have been borrowed that they now jokingly refer to their language as "Singlish.")

Yet this seems to have been a fragile peace. For hundreds of years Mississippian people invested enormous energy in digging defensive ditches and erecting palisade walls around their towns. Either they were paranoid, bored and had nothing better to do, or they were responding to legitimate threats. Modern scholars do not think that large scale warfare was a part of Mississippian culture but real hostility does appear to have existed. The hostility may not have erupted into full scale warfare such as existed in Europe but may have been something more akin to the current Israeli-Palestinian conflict where small scale attacks are avenged by similar small scale attacks with no real attempt to conquer or annihilate the enemy. (Interestingly, after decades of such attacks Israel decided to build a wall for protection.)Bibb_map

After 200 years of habitation, the Ocmulgee site was abandoned. The inhabitants at Ocmulgee seem to have given up and moved away. Perhaps their agricultural practices had exhausted the land or maybe the constant attacks had made the site too expensive to defend. Whatever the reason, Ocmulgee would slowly become overgrown with weeds and trees and fade into the mists of time. By the historic period the Creek Indians could not even tell the new British immigrants who had built the mounds. Although the site remained an important place to them, they had somehow forgotten that it was their own ancestors who had built the mounds.

Ocmulgee was not the last nor even the greatest of the accomplishments of the Mississippians. Ocmulgee was just the beginning. Their culture would reach the height of its existence at our next site: Etowah.

Resources & Further Reading:

Fairbanks, Charles. H. Archeology of the Funeral Mound: Ocmulgee National Monument, Georgia. Tuscaloosa, AL: University of Alabama Press, 2003 [1956].
"Cholula." Wikipedia:
Morgan, Willaim N. Pre-Columbian Architecture in Eastern North America. Gainesville, FL: University of Florida Press, 1999.
White, Max E. The Archaeology and History of the Georgia Native Tribes. Gainesville, FL: University of Florida Press, 2002
Gatschet, A. S. A Migration Legend of the Creek Indians. New York: AMS Press, 1969 [1884].
Grantham, Bill. Creation Myths and Legends of the Creek Indians. Gainesville, FL: University of Florida Press, 2002.
"Aztlan." Wikipedia:
Broadwell, George Aaron. "Reconstructing Proto-Muskogean Language and Prehistory: Preliminary results." Albany, NY: State University of New York, .
Hudson, Charles. Knights of Spain, Warriors of the Sun. Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press, 1997.
Gay, Carlo & Robin. "Chontal: Ancient Stone Sculpture from Guerrero, Mexico", Tribal Arts. 2001. 
Puche, Mari Carmen Serra. "The Concept of Feminine Places in Mesoamerica: The Case of Xochitecatl, Tlaxcala, Mexico." Instituto de Investigaciones Antropologicas, Universidad Nacional Autonoma De Mexico.
Jones, Charles C. Antiquities of the Southern Indians, Particularly of the Georgia Tribes. Tuscaloosa, AL: University of Alabama Press, 1873.



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