Etowah Mounds is one of the final and perhaps the finest accomplishments of the ancient NativeAmerican moundbuilders of Georgia. This is one of the four most important Mississippian sites along with Moundville in Alabama, Spiro in Oklahoma, and Cahokia in Illinois.
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The Etowah Mounds complex consists of six earthen Indian mounds all in the traditional Mississippian truncated pyramid shape. These Indian mounds were built between 950 A.D. and 1450 A.D. although major construction didn’t truly begin until around A.D. 1250. The Etowah Indian Mounds site is surrounded by a deep moat on three sides and the Etowah River on the fourth. A palisade wall stood just inside the moat adding further protection to the site. Just like our previous site, Ocmulgee Indian Mounds, the major structures are believed to have been built by Muskogee Creek Indians. Also like Ocmulgee Mounds, the site appears to have been inhabited by another group of people first who were later displaced. It is possible that after the massacre at Ocmulgee Mounds mentioned in the previous article, the surrounding Hitchiti Creek Indian tribes moved further north and inhabited the Etowah region before once again being forced out. (Watch Video)
The largest structure at the Etowah Mounds site was the Great Temple Mound and it has the distinction of being the tallest Indian mound in Georgia. It rose 67 feet high (over seven stories tall) and was oriented to the cardinal points (as were the other Indian mounds at the site.) (View QTVR)
The temple mound was probed with ground penetrating radar but nothing worth investigating was found and thus this Indian mound has never been fully excavated. Archaeologists did find evidence of at least one large structure on top of the Great Temple Mound. A log wall or fence surrounded the summit. Curiously, the summit is pentagonal in form.
The Lesser Temple Mound, or Mound B, is a more circular or oval Indian mound. It is possible this temple mound was originally square and later plowing by farmers in the 1800′s and 1900′s softened the edges to create the current rounded form. It also appears to have had a large structure on top. This Indian mound is approximately 30 feet tall.
The Funeral Mound, on the other hand, has been completely excavated and some of North America’s most important NativeAmerican and Mississippian artifacts have been discovered there. (View 3D Animation) Among these were ceremonial copper axes, copper-covered earspools, necklaces and pendants of shell and engraved shell gorgets. These shell gorgets were circular medallions worn around the neck made from large seashells and inscribed or carved with various designs.
Many of these shell gorget designs belong to a complex known as the Southeastern Ceremonial Complex, once referred to as the Southern Cult or Southern Death Cult. It has been repeatedly noted that many of these Southeastern Ceremonial Complex designs have strong Mesoamerican influences such as the Long Nosed God and the Bird Man or Eagle Warrior. It should be remembered that if the Creek Indian Migration Legend is correct, the Muskogee Indian tribe did have its origin in west Mexico. Yet by the time of the major construction period at Etowah Mounds these people had not lived in Mexico for over 300 years. The original Mesoamerican ideas would have evolved in that amount of time and would have been influenced by the people they had come into contact with in the eastern woodlands. Thus ideas such as the Feathered Serpent remained but evolved into their own unique expression. Likewise for the Long Nosed God and the Bird Man/Eagle Warrior.
These symbols were also portrayed on copper breastplates worn by high status individuals. One such copper breastplate was found buried with an individual in Mound C, the burial mound. It shows a Bird Man or Eagle Warrior dancing. Amazingly, dancers at modern powwows can be seen performing dances that look remarkably similar to the dances portrayed in these copper designs.
The most important artifacts discovered at the Etowah Mounds site are undoubtedly the two carved marble statues of a man and woman. They are each about two feet tall and are in sitting positions. Early Spanish explorers noted that similar statues were part of an ancestor worship cult and were housed in Funerary Temples where offerings were made to them. These particular statues were discovered buried in their own grave at the base of Mound C. It appears that they were hastily buried without a lot of care since they were broken into pieces when discovered.
This hasty burial corresponds with another piece of archaeological evidence: the palisade wall appears to have burned down. Often times Native Americans would bury important objects when they came under attack in order to keep the items out of the hands of their enemies. It is probable that an attack serious enough to burn down the major defensive work of the massive Etowah Mounds site would have been the inspiration for such a hasty burial of these important objects. It is also possible that the attackers smashed the statues, thereby ritually killing them, and buried them to prevent them from ever being used again.
Who Built Etowah Mounds?
As stated in the previous discussion on Ocmulgee Mounds, it appears that the Muskogee Creek Indian tribe migrated from western Mexico into the southwestern U.S.. From here they ended up at the Spiro Indian Mounds site in Oklahoma and the Cahokia Indian Mounds site in Missouri and Illinois. Many artifacts discovered at Etowah Mounds were from either Cahokia or Spiro and many of these were very similar to artifacts from the Shaft Tomb Tradition in west Mexico such as ancestor pair statues, dog effigy pots and tree of life symbolism. For a more thorough and in-depth analysis of the evidence linking Etowah to the west Mexico shaft tomb tradition please visit our exhibit entitled “Were Georgia’s Muskogee Creek Indians from West Mexcio?” But here’s a quick overview of the evidence.
|Tableau from shaft tomb in Nayarit, Mexico||Shell engraving from Spiro Mounds, Oklahoma features similar tree with birds|
As just mentioned, archaeologists have noted that the elite at Etowah Mounds had a trading relationship with another important NativeAmerican Mississippian town known as Spiro Mounds in Oklahoma. Spiro Mounds is known for the amazing cache of artifacts that were unearthed in one of its prominent Indian mounds known as Craig Mound. One such artifact, an engraved marine shell known as the Tree of Life with Birds, is identical to a sculpture by the Nayarit people of west Mexico. (The Nayarit are also responsible for the aforementioned Ancestor Pair statues.)
Why did the elites at Etowah Mounds have contact with the elites at Spiro Mounds in Oklahoma, a distance of over 700 miles? Was this simply a trading relationship or was it something much deeper? Could Spiro Mounds have been ruled over by elites related to the elites at Etowah? There are oral traditions all over the southeast of tribes being ruled over by foreigners and these foreigners seem to be related to each other in some way. Could Spiro have been one of the first places the NativeAmerican Mississippians established themselves before continuing their migration east?
|This side-by-side comparison shows the dog effigy pot found near Bull Creek in Muskogee County, Georgia and a modern Chihuahua. This pot is currently on display at The Columbus Museum in Columbus, Georgia and dates from around 1350 AD. The pot also features a whirlwind design which likely represents the Wind Clan, one of the oldest and most revered clans of the Muskogee-Creek Indians.|
Elsewhere in Georgia archaeologists uncovered another piece of evidence which seems to link these immigrants to west Mexico: dog effigy pots. The dog effigy pot to the left is just one of many such pots discovered throughout Georgia and Tennessee. What is most intriguing is the breed of dog the pot appears to represent: a Chihuahua. (Read: Ancient Chihuahuas in Southeastern U.S.?) Note its short, upturned snout, bulbous forehead, and arching tail. No other dog breed except the Chihuahua has these particular combination of traits. Yet Chihuahuas are a breed that originated in the western Mexico state of Chihuahua so why do they show up on pots in Georgia? Similar pots from west Mexico also appear to show fattened Chihuahuas. Known as Colima Dog Pots, many of these pots also served as vessels with pouring spouts although not all did. The Colima dog pots are thought to represent the original Techichi breed from which modern Chihuahuas are derived. These little dogs were mute and kept fat to be eaten by the elite.
|Two of the famous Colima Dog Pots found in a shaft tomb in western Mexico. The dogs are thought to represent the Techichi breed, a small, mute dog from which the modern Chihuahua is derived.|
These three facts are important clues that further support a Mexican origin for the Muskogee Creek Indians. Why? Because when the first Spanish explorers with the De Soto expedition traveled through Florida, Georgia and Tennessee in the early 1500s they noted that the chiefs in this region would often offer them “little dogs” to eat which had been fattened up for that very purpose. The Spanish also noted that these dogs could not bark. This, along with the Bull Creek Dog Effigy Pot, would seem to support the fact that Indian tribes in this area were raising Techichis and Chihuahuas. [Continues...]