Ocmulgee National Monument, GA (5-21-16)
Ocmulgee National Monument, located just outside the city of Macon, Georgia, is home to one of the finest collections of historic native american ruins found anywhere in the eastern United States. Here, in the banks of the Ocmulgee River, stand the remains of eight mounds built by an ancient culture known as the Mississippians over 1,000-years ago. From the much eroded three-foot-high Southeast Mound, to the towering 50-foot Great Temple Mound, to the reconstructed Earth Lodge which you can actually enter, this is a fantastic site which gives a faint glimpse into the distant native past of the Southeast.
Though the mounds themselves date back to around 1,000 CE the history of the site dates back much, much, much farther. The earliest artifacts at the site are estimated to be from around 9,700 BCE meaning that the Ocmulgee Mounds area has been the site of human activity now for around 17,000 years! The first people to the area were tribes of paleo-Indians who wandered the surrounding woodlands in search of food to hunt. Up until around 1,000 BCE the nomadic hinting-gathering lifestyle dominated amongst tribes in the region. After 1,000 BCE something began to change in the tribes habits, however. They began to cultivate crops. By the year 900 CE the natives, known to us now as Mississippians, had settled down into permanent communities centered on agriculture with thriving cultural and religious beliefs.
It was during this period, roughly from 900-1350 CE, that the mounds at Ocmulgee were constructed. The mounds were simply important cultural structures which were part of a much larger surrounding community. Many, if not most, of the mounds were topped originally with small rectangular wooden structures which housed whatever important meetings or ceremonies that might take place. Mounds were used to grow crops (as at the Cornfield Mound), bury their dead (the Funeral Mound), or for important religious ceremonies (as at the towering Great Temple Mound). On top of all this consider that these amazing structures, a thousand years ago, had to be built exclusively by hand!!! They are incredible monuments to a fascinating culture, now long vanished.
Slowly mound-building became less and less culturally important and, by 1540, when the first Spanish 'explorers' passed through they found more modern tribes such as the Creek Indians living in large villages surrounding the mounds. One important note however is that the mounds, though no longer being built, were still found to be in full use when the Spanish arrived. Eventually new Europeans in the form of the British moved into the region establishing trading posts with the Creek's by the late 1600's, including one at Ocmulgee. Unfortunately for the natives, the first contact with the 'white man' was devastating. Disease killed off unknown thousands of Native Americans and those that were left were immediately exploited by the new European arrivals. The first European to take note of the ancient Ocmulgee Mounds was the naturalist William Bartram who passed through the area in the 1770's. Upon seeing them Bartram wrote of "the wonderful remains of the power and grandeur of the ancients in this part of America."
Unfortunately those that followed Bartram weren't so concerned with these 'wonders' or the peoples that built them. By the early 1800's, the United States had stolen the land of the Creek's and deported the remaining natives to Indian Territory (today's Oklahoma). Progress soon followed and in 1843 a rail line was proposed between Macon and Savannah to the south. The line would cut right through the Ocmulgee Mounds. When complete two of the sites most important mounds, the Funeral and Lesser Temple, would be seriously and irrevocably damaged. A second railroad was build through the mounds area in 1973 doing further damage. As settlers moved in they built farms and plowed the ground which also damaged many of the sites mounds. Then, in 1933 excavations funded by the Federal Government were begun at the site and it was soon after designated Ocmulgee National Monument on June 14, 1934. Excavations were completed in the 40's and today the park stands as a silent protector of these invaluable ancient ruins.
Ocmulgee National Monument isn't a large park, perhaps some 700 acres in size, so it doesn't take a huge amount of time to tour. Walking to all the mounds, reading the signs, and taking a satisfying number of pictures amounted to about a 4-hour visit. I'm not sure I'd recommend driving across the country to stop here but, if your in the area, I'd highly recommend making the detour here. You won't be disappointed...