American Sabbatical 88: 4/8/97


4/8.. Ocmulgee.

Shuttling across the timeline we’d lost two hours, and found ourselves back in the Atlantic watershed late in the morning. Somewhere between the Chattahoochee and the Ocmulgee we returned to an eastern drainage. We have one more site to visit on this slope before we climb into the Georgia highlands: Ocmulgee Mounds.

It was a short hop over the outskirts of Macon to the park, and into prehistory. History, too. William Bartram has visited this place when there was a trading post and Indian village here, and recorded his observations on the big mounds.

A Sense of Scale

Ocmulgee Coon


The traces of passage get thick and overlain here. We’ve zagged across DeSoto’s and Bartram’s trails in Alabama and now in Georgia. And their stories remind us that traders and drovers were the true European pioneers in the South (and across most of the continent). Itinerant peddlers, French, Spanish, and Anglo.. and all the mixtures.. were granted safe passage across hostile territories because of the goods they could provide. They penetrated the far corners of the so-called unknown wilderness long before settlers claimed such places as “frontier.” Bartram traveled in the company of horse and merchandise traders, who warned him of zones of conflict and coached him in native hospitality. Ocmulgee was a post in the chain of commerce.

Hunters and miners fanned out behind the traders, and drovers pushed their herds across the Georgia savannas well in advance of immigrant farmers. The rich pasturelands we’ve been admiring in North Florida, Alabama and Georgia were magnets for horse breeders, who would turn remudas loose and negotiate with the Indians over the offspring. DeSoto himself, while remembered as a breastplated warrior-explorer, actually drove a herd of swine along with him, and the increase was so prolific that it provided the genesis of wild pigs across the region.

Cat Pottery

Mythic Traveler
The drovers of the South were a significant stream in the cowboy tradition, and a lot of them were black.. escaped slaves and freedmen who migrated ahead of settlements, were a part of the history of the civilized tribes, and were eventually absorbed in the great cowboy story of the high plains. Woodland drovers tended not to be horsemen, though, that was a Spanish style from New Spain. The classic cowboy of lore is a Spanish-Southern offspring. Guess I’m arguing that DeSoto was the first cowboy. How did I get into that corner?

Long before Spanish pigs galloped through Georgia, however, there was a high civilization here, piling up pyramids of earth. Ocmulgee was another ceremonial and settlement center at the time of Cahokia, and some of the charge we felt in East St. Louis still radiates here. Although fewer in number, and smaller in size, the Ocmulgee Mounds are in some ways more visually dramatic. They rise up framed by aisles of tall oaks and pines and other hardwoods. Where the mounds covered a vast acreage at Cahokia and the impact is of a vanished city, here you are pushed up close to the bases of the pyramids and their vertical inspiration lifts you.

Earth Lodge

Inside Lodge

The most gripping experience here is underground, however. A recreated earth lodge sits atop a dramatic height. Entering along the low-ceiling post and mat-lined passage you come into a glass-walled viewing chamber. Around you, enclosing the original excavated floor, is a conical pole and mat roof, on top of which the earth is mounded. The archtypal initiatory environment. A ritual space.

Sketching in the claustrophobic space, my imagination began to fill the 50 ritual seats around the perimeter, and I moved into an other time. Coming out into the bright light and the music of songbirds was a bit of simple magic. I opened out. And wandered among the other mounds, drawing and painting. There are no overwhelming images here.. slopes and lawns and big trees.. but I felt grounded. It was mid afternoon before Peggy could lure me away.

(Memo #82)

April 8 Ocmulgee Mounds

Who? Prehistoric people of central Georgia and their successors

What? mounds, village, trading post site

When? 10,000 years of occupations

Where? mound site on small river in central georgia

How? hunter-gatherers became sedentary farmers, explorers come, then traders

Topics: prehistory, mound sites, Mississippian culture

Questions: How does our view of prehistory in North America reflect the reality? Who were the Moundbuilders?

Ocmulgee Details

Ocmulgee, on the Macon plateau of central Georgia, has been inhabited for about ten thousand years. Nomadic hunters came first, followed by agricultural villagers, then the townspeople of the chiefdoms building huge earthen mountains (the word “mound” just seems inadequate), then the tribes first contacted by whites. Once again the archaeological records and incredible structures challenge the idea that Europeans “settled”, “discovered’, or “civilized” the Americas.


Great Mound


Seeing Ocmulgee in A.D.1791, naturalist William Bartram commented: “ On the heights of these low grounds are yet visible monuments of an ancient town...very wonderful remains of the power and grandeur of this part of America.”

Looking Down Mound
New World prehistory is divided by archaeologists into a series of eras based on the subsistence patterns and technology of the people. The first is the PaleoIndian Period (pre 9000 B.C., people were nomadic hunter-gatherers focusing on big game), Archaic Period (9000-1000 B.C., smaller game animals, appearance of pottery), Woodland Period (1000 B.C.-A.D.900, first agriculture, semi-permanent settlements, mounds for burials), Early Mississippian Period (A.D.900-1100, a people that spread from the Mississippi Valley, more crops, true towns, huge mounds, chiefdoms, stratified societies), Late Mississippian-Lamar (A.D.1350-c.1690, the palisaded towns and temple mounds of OCMULGEE, the people that DeSoto visited in the southeast in the early 1540’s), Historic Period (c.A.D. 1690-1715).

At Ocmulgee we saw prehistoric mounds, and later village and trading post remains in a pretty natural setting with woods around the large grassy clearings. The small museum and car park are hidden. True, there was still modern roadway noise and you could see Macon from the top of the great mound, but we got a sense of the landscape when the villagers were here.

Entrance View of Earth Lodge

The museum at Ocmulgee is set so that you see the first mounds through a long window. The nearest is not a ritual mound at all, but a turf covered ceremonial building (huge earth lodge) over 1000 years old, one of eight excavated on the plateau. The reconstructed inner chamber (a 42 foot circular chamber reached by a long low hallway walled in mats) has a central firepit, a raised earthen platform shaped like a bird. It is dim and hushed on a bright day. This was part of a palisaded village. A short walk down and up a gully brings you to the next plateau where the remains of a 1690’s trading post and earlier mounds are located. The pentagonal trading post was built by traders from Charleston who got deerskins from the Creeks in exchange for a variety of goods (tools, weapons, textiles).The site was finally abandoned in about A.D.1715.

Several hundred yards away is the large temple mound, a grasscovered earthen hill 45 feet high with a 300 foot by 270 foot base. It was constructed in several stages to its full height (which required an estimate MILLION basketloads of dirt to construct.). Buildings were constructed on top. Though less than half the size of the great mound at Cahokia it is imposing. Not far away is a smaller funeral mound which contained over 100 burials.

Going Underhill

The museum contained a wide variety of artifacts from the ten thousand years of history. It’s hard to take in so much (think of a museum trying to cover Neanderthal to today’s Paris!!!). Still, we are getting a good sense of the Mississippian peoples whose combination of large palisaded villages, stratified society, huge earth mounds, efficient agriculture we’ve seen at Cahokia, Lake Jackson and will see tomorrow at Etowah.

Backside of the Great Mound

4/8.. contd.

Into the roaring 20th century. We’ve been dodging the corridors of commerce and the cities of the New South, but our next target was the Cherokee homelands, and the way leads through Atlanta. We put on our flight helmets and rocketed into the fast lane. Back into anywhere USA. License plates from Florida and Minnesota, Indiana and Illinois. Snowbirds flocking north in their geezermobiles. Big rigs hauling the lifeblood of our economy. A tractor pulling a wideload log cabin breathed down our necks. We’re doing 75 and the traffic is blowing by us.

The shock of modernity ebbed into familiarity. Again I wondered if this automoted blight isn’t an unsuspected blessing. Just as suburban sprawl has sometimes drawn the heat of development away from pedestrian human-scale downtowns, funneling all this through traffic into these soul-dead highways has freed the backroads for unalienated wandering. We’ve huddled up against the through ways by night, where the chain motels cluster, and it’s been weird to sleep by the roaring venturi after ambling through rural backwaters. But it means that places like Plains, and Bowdoinham, can still survive.

We off-ramped into the big A, thinking about counting coup on the CocaCola Museum, maybe an art gallery or two. But it was gridlock downtown, and the Owl’s temperature started to rise. Mine too, I confess. And parking was a nada. We circled the heart of town a couple times, checking out the street action. All the urban hustles, to a rap beat and a hi-decibel bellowing. There seems to be more public shouting down here, or does the overpowering vibrato of New York drown out the Hey Yous?




The buildings in Atlanta are glorious. Soaring sequences of cloud-tickling bravado, one behind the other. Absurd post-modernist detailing in gilt, and glittering mirrorwalls. American vertical cities make you feel elevated just rubbernecking around in them. Lots of sidewalk cafe action. Everyone in shirtsleeves. And totally integrated.

We decided not to integrate ourselves, and eventually found our way back onto the interstate. I felt somewhat guilty for not having dined on Atlanta. Gone to a Braves game or something cultural like that. But we were a couple of pooched puppies. Peggy has been cranking out two memos a day, and we’ve been eating up the miles. We found another cheap bedroom and called it a day. Going to look for a campsite in the foothills tomorrow and get some woodsy R&R.

We did go out to sup at a nearby sport’s bar, knowing the cuisine would be elegant. We weren’t disappointed. The multiscreen ESPN ambiance was heightened by the choice between hockey or the Braves, and the walls of Mr. Bimbo’s (we couldn’t resist) were encrusted with memorabilia, from 3X4foot photos of Mo, Larry and Curly, and Babe Ruth, to license plates from all over, including an American-flag-tied-with-a-yellow-ribbon plate. I mean classy. The bouncing blond bimbos in hip-huggers waiting tables were obviously making the boys thirsty. They were sucking down the suds. Sophisticated beverages, too. Bud and Coors on tap. The bar crowd was just as integrated as the ball teams, slapping fives. If there’s a dark simmering racism down here, they must be cooling it with beer. This is probably old news to you Southerners, but we’ve been well over the northern horizon for 30 years, and it’s good news to us.

While I’ve been typing this, Peggy has been surfing the boobtube. The hot news in Atlanta tonight is that they won’t close all the turnpike exits for Freaknik Week this year. Apparently that’s what they call Black College Spring Break, when black students flock to Atlanta instead of Lauderdale. The black female chief of police (!) was on, saying that shutting off downtown hadn’t worked in the past , and they were going to try new traffic control measures this year. Another image of the New South. Students converging on a city for a hoorah. Think we’ll just keep moving.


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