Ocmulgee National Monument
Establishment in 1936 of a national monument embracing the rich archaeological treasures ofOcmulgee Fields, an ancient Indian town situated at the edge of the present city of Macon, about4 miles from the geographic center of Georgia, has brought that aboriginal name with increasingfrequency to American lips. Many variants in pronunciation sprang up as the word spreadfarther and farther from the region of its origin.
Ocmulgee, meaning "boiling water", is from the Hitchiti tongue, a dialect spoken among theLower Creeks. It is pronounced as though spelled oak-mull-ghee (the g hard) with the stress onthe second syllable. That pronunciation is preferred by the Bureau of American Ethnology. Itprevails today throughout the Ocmulgee River valley of middle Georgia.
According to Creek tradition, Ocmulgee was the site of the first permanent Creek settlement aftermigration of the tribe from the West.
Ocmulgee is a memorial to the antiquity of man in this corner of the North American continent.From Ice-Age hunters to the Creeks of historic times, there is evidence here of 10,000 years ofhuman habitation. One period stands out. Between AD 900 and 1100 a skillful farming peoplelived on this site. Known to us as Mississippians, they were part of a distinctive culture whichcrystallized about AD 750 in the middle Mississippi Valley and over the next seven centuriesspread along riverways throughout much of the central and eastern United States. TheMississippians brought a more complex way of life to the region. Though far removed from suchMississippian centers as Cahokia in Illinois and Moundville in Alabama, the people here werethe heirs of an ascendant culture and enjoyed a life as rich as any north of Mexico.
The Mississippians at Ocmulgee were intruders of a sort. They apparently displaced the nativewoodland Indians, though there is no evidence of conflict. The newcomers were a sedentarypeople who lived mainly by farming bottomlands for crops of corn, beans, squash, pumpkins, andtobacco. They built a compact town of thatched huts on the bluff overlooking the river. Morethan a thousand persons lived here at one time. For their public ceremonies, they leveled an areanear the river and began constructing a series of earth mounds-places important in their religionand politics. They did not build the mounds to full height all at once but raised them at intervalsover the years, perhaps as new leaders came to power or in response to cycles about which we canonly speculate.
Another structure central to life here was the earthlodge. There were several at Ocmulgee. Theone best preserved has been reconstructed. It is 42-feet in diameter. Opposite the entrance is aclay platform shaped like a large bird. There are three seats on the platform and 47 on the bencharound the wall. In the center of the lodge is a firepit. This building may have been either awinter temple or a year-round council house. The 50 or so persons who met here were probablythe group's leaders.
The mound on the town's west side was apparently a place for burials. Like the temple mounds,the Funeral Mound was flat topped and equipped with steps leading up the side to some kind ofmortuary building. More than 100 burials have been found here. Some had elaborate shell andcopper ornaments, suggesting high status, but most had no offerings.
The Mississippians seem to have had some influence on the surrounding population (mound-building, rudimentary farming), but we are far from knowing the real nature of the transactionsbetween them. Nor do we know why the town declined or what happened to the inhabitants-whether they died out, migrated elsewhere, or were assimilated. Whatever their fate, by 1100Ocmulgeewas no longer a thriving outpost of Mississippian culture.
Over the next two centuries, the native Indians, their style of life irrevocably altered, madeoccasional use of the old townsite. Then in the 1300s a new culture arose and spread widelythrough the Southeast. Known as the Lamar culture, it appears to have been a blending ofMississippian and Woodland elements. The Lamar people were farmers, skilled hunters, andmound-builders whose distinctive pottery employed designs peculiar to both their Woodland andMississippian predecessors. They also made some use of the old town site, then fallen into ruins.One of their major centers was the Lamar site, several miles away in the swamps along theOcmulgee River. This village contained two temple mounds and was surrounded by a stockade.It was the Lamar people that Hernando de Soto encountered in 1540 on the first Europeanexpedition into this region.
The arrival of Europeans was catastrophic for the natives. Disease caused staggering losses, andthey were drawn into the white man's trading world and his political disputes, with acorresponding collapse of their traditional way of life. The English set up a trading post atOcmulgee sometime around 1690, and Creeks settled here in numbers. By 1715 the site wasagain abandoned as warfare between English and Spanish colonials inflamed the frontier.Within a few decades there were few vestiges of Mississippian life anywhere and virtually nounderstanding of the culture. When the pioneer naturalist William Bartram saw Ocmulgee in the1770s, he spoke with respect mingled with incomprehension of "the wonderful remains of thepower and grandeur of the ancients in this part of America."
Visiting the Monument
Spring and fall are the best seasons to tour the park on foot. A trail connects most features, ofwhich seven are described below. If the weather is hot or rainy, you may want to take TempleMound Drive around to the large mounds. Another interesting walk is along the Opelofa NatureTrail, which takes off from the main walking trail and winds through the lowlands of InutCreek.
Village site - During Mississippian times (AD 900-1100) many other structures stoodhere besides the earth lodge, among them several flat-topped mounds, a burial mound, andnumerous huts.
Cornfield Mound was originally about 8 feet high. Under it archeologists found signsof a cultivated field, which is something of a puzzle because Mississippian agricultural fieldsusually lay in bottomlands. The mound itself was probably a platform for a ceremonialbuilding.
Prehistoric trenches - Two lines of ditches varying in width and depth have beentraced around the east side of the village. Some sections are parallel and lined with clay. Theditches may have been defensive or they may have been borrow pits sources of fill forconstructing mounds.
Trading post - English traders from Charleston, eager to do business with the Creeks,built the first trading post on this site about 1690. They traded firearms, cloth, and trinkets fordeerskins and furs. Excavations have turned up all sorts of goods, including axes, clay pipes,beads, knives, swords, bullets, flints, and pistols and muskets.
Great and Lesser Temple Mounds - Relatively little is known about these moundsexcept that they were topped by rectangular wooden structures that were probably used forimportant religious ceremonies. Great Temple Mound is by far the largest Mississippian moundon the Macon Plateau. Lesser Temple Mound was partly destroyed by railroad construction inthe 1840s.
Funeral Mound - This mound was the burial place for village leaders. Over 100burials have been uncovered, many with shell and copper ornaments. Like the temple mounds,this mound was built in successive stages-at least seven. The structures that stood on top at eachstage may have been used in preparing the dead for burial. The present height corresponds to thethird stage. Much of the mound was destroyed by a railroad cut in the 1870s.
About Your Visit - Ocmulgee National Monument is on the eastern edge of Macon,Ga., on U.S. 80 East. Travelers on I-75 should exit on I-16 East. Take either the first or secondexit from I-16 and follow U.S. 80 East a mile to the park. The Lamar Unit, a detached area, islocated in the swamps 3 miles below Macon. It is open on a limited basis. For moreinformation, check at the visitor center.
The park is open every day except Christmas and New Year's from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. There is apicnic area for visitors. The closest camping area is 8 miles away, west of Macon.
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication
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