Building a Mystery

What do we really know about Ocmulgee's mounds?


By Amy Leinbach Marquis


If there’s one thing humans are good at, it’s building stuff. Our cities boast towering office buildings, sprawling museums, and architecturally stunning hotels. Yet we rarely give thought to what these structures say about our culture. What subtle messages do they reveal about who we are?

Wander the grounds at Ocmulgee National Monument in Georgia, and you can think of nothing but these questions. The landscape here is mystical: Enormous mounds dominate a flood plain nestled between forest and wetlands. “When you sit in the park and look out at these impressive earthen features, you wonder about the motivation behind the people who built them,” says Guy LaChine, the park’s chief ranger. “Maybe they were powerful, and wanted everyone to know it. I’m sure there was a religious connection. Either way, it’s a mysterious landscape.”

Around 900 AD, a group of Native Americans arrived on the fertile plateau near Macon, Georgia, and began building mounds: one for burials, another for religious gatherings, another for political meetings. Atop one mound sat rectangular structures that probably functioned as the city center, “like everything in Washington, D.C., crammed together on top of a mound,” says Mark Williams, an anthropologist at the University of Georgia. But Mississippian culture was elitist, so the majority of people lived below in wooden houses. They grew corn, beans, and squash; sculpted pottery; and crafted tools.

We know this because of the millions of artifacts that have been unearthed both purposely and accidentally in the last two centuries. But beyond these facts, we know very little. “As much as people like to think archaeology is an exact science,” says LaChine, “it only reveals a very small part of the human story.

Archaeologists aren’t sure why these Mississippians moved here in the first place or where they came from. Did population pressures force them to leave their homes, or were they following a vision of a leader? Why are so few buried in the Funeral Mound—was it reserved for powerful figures? And given that an entombed woman lies at the very base, what does that say about their culture?

Whatever the reasons, these people didn’t stay long. Two hundred years later they abandoned the site, leaving little evidence of where they went or why they left. More centuries would pass before the Lamar site—a swampy area four miles away—showed any human activity. But there is no direct evidence connecting the Lamar people to Mississippians from Ocmulgee.

To answer these questions, archaeologists need to do what they do best: dig. But funding is hard to come by, so no one’s done much digging since the Great Depression, when the federal government put hundreds of people to work under a single archaeologist, Dr. Arthur Kelly. It was the biggest archaeological undertaking in the history of America, and ultimately led to the creation of Ocmulgee National Monument in 1936—but even then, the methods were crude at best.

“Think back to that scene in Indiana Jones when Harrison Ford is sneaking into the temple, and all those people are digging away like ants,” says. “That was Ocmulgee.” Artifacts were collected by hand, bagged in paper sacks, and then hauled to a makeshift lab in the Macon Auditorium where women cleaned them, labeled them, and stored them in shoeboxes.

But Ocmulgee had already endured more than a century of abuse, starting with the Americans who marched the last Creek Indians off the land by 1836. Georgia’s new residents needed timber, so they cut down ancient oak trees growing on the mounds. They needed bricks, so they mined clay out of a hillside next to the Great Temple Mound. They needed a connection to the outside world, so they built railroad lines that damaged the Funeral Mound, the Lesser Mound, and the prehistoric town.

“A lot of visitors get upset about the railroad construction,” LaChine says. “But these people weren’t trying to destroy the mounds; they were trying to improve their transportation system. In that context, our ancestors seem less demonic and more human. That’s not to say we can’t learn from those past actions—today’s progress might be the future’s tragedy, and we need to pause from time to time and consider those ramifications.”

Thanks to the Park Service, whatever remains buried in Ocmulgee’s mounds is well guarded today. “Nothing is being lost here except opportunities,” Williams says. “But we can’t wait forever to go back. Ocmulgee is no different from the pyramids, Stonehenge, or other places that dare us to understand the people that built them.”

Ocmulgee National Monument will open a new museum later this year. For more information, visit www.nps.gov/ocmu.

Amy Leinbach Marquis is associate editor of National Parks magazine.

This article appears in the Spring 2009 issue.

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