Ocmulgee Mounds National Historical Park | HISTORY OF OCMULGEE INDIAN MOUNDS


OCMULGEE MOUNDS NATIONAL
HISTORICAL PARK DOCUMENTARY


The area that entails Ocmulgee Mounds National Historical Park has seen human visitation, as well as habitation, for nearly 10,000 years. However, the Indian mounds that it is famous for were built between 900 to 1100 AD during the early part of what is known as the Mississippian Era (1000 AD and continuing until the 1500s). The Mississippian time period is marked by the rise of villages, as the nomadic way of life was dying and agriculture and the domestication of livestock took over. The village at the Old Ocmulgee Fields, as the area was once called, grew to an estimated population of around one thousand people.

What exactly are these “mounds,” you may be asking? To put it simply, they are large piles of dirt created from basketful after basketful of dirt dug from one area and piled high to create an artificial hill. In most cases, unlike the pyramids—which they slightly resemble—the mounds did not house tombs, but were merely large platforms on which other public buildings such as temples or houses for the elite could be built. The occupier of the mound could look down and see all the other homes in the village. The tops were not rounded as most are today (due to erosion), but were flat on top, forming large fields atop a platform of dirt.

Illustration of the use of mounds at Ocmulgee

Illustration of the use of mounds at Ocmulgee

On the top of Great Temple Mound, the largest at Ocmulgee Mounds National Historical Park, even today you could play a game of soccer, though I wouldn’t want to be the one who had to chase an errant ball down the side of the mound. The Indians would have cut steps into the slopes, and instead of being covered by grass as they are today, the sides would have been covered with clay.

Furthermore, the mounds were built in stages over hundreds of years, each stage adding to the height. Different layers of sediment were found during excavations in the 1930s. Since the people of this time left no written history, archaeologists and anthropologists can only guess as to why the mounds were built this way. It might be reasoned that people are people, regardless of time, and one theory is that when a new leader came to power, he wanted to be higher up, maybe even wanting to wipe out the history of his predecessor. Or like a sports team that constantly threatens to leave town unless a new stadium is built, the expansion of the mounds over time may be been for the creation of more grander temples and buildings.

The new earth was often piled on top of old building structures and other artifacts. Some mounds were built in as many as seven stages, though what remains today may be only three or four stages. Erosion and modern-day progress have destroyed or severely damaged many of the mounds. Railroads were cut through them; their dirt was used as landfill for construction around the city of Macon, where Ocmulgee Mounds National Historical Park is located; some were excavated and the dirt was not put back.

Ocmulgee's Great Temple Mound in the distance and railroad tracks in the foreground

Ocmulgee’s Great Temple Mound in the distance and railroad tracks in the foreground

Within Ocmulgee Mounds National Historical Park are seven mounds. Some, like Southeast Mound, are barely noticeable as a hill, while others are quite obvious, such as Great Temple Mound that rises 55 feet from the ground.

Southeast Mound, today no larger than a small hill, Ocmulgee Mounds National Historical Park

Southeast Mound, today no larger than a small hill, Ocmulgee Mounds National Historical Park

As mentioned, most served as structural platforms, but there is one burial mound in the park, aptly named Funeral Mound. Human remains were found when the Central of Georgia Rail Road sliced through the hill to lay track. More than one hundred burials have been found in the mound.

Funeral Mound at Ocmulgee Mounds National Historical Park

Funeral Mound at Ocmulgee Mounds National Historical Park

In addition to the mounds, the park also contains a set of prehistoric trenches. Archaeologists have no idea what they were used for.

Prehistoric trenches predate the Indian Mounds at Ocmulgee Mounds National Historical Park

Prehistoric trenches predate the Indian Mounds at Ocmulgee Mounds National Historical Park

Located a short walk from the Visitor Center is an Earthlodge: a meeting place that would have been used by the very same people who built the mounds. The original lodge was burned, and the wooden beams of the ceiling crashed to the ground, covering the earth floor. Over time, the ruins were buried beneath the soil and grass. Archaeologists discovered the remnants when an excavation of the area was done in the 1930s. What you see today is a reconstruction, with only the floor being original. The park covered the lodge in dirt to help preserve the original floor, giving it the look of a structure dug into a hill. The original structure was covered only by a wooden beam roof and exposed to the elements. The current sides are of concrete, but again, this is for preservation of the original floor. The floor has an elevated earthen platform in the shape of a bird on which most likely the chief and top rulers sat, plus 47 more seats around the perimeter of the structure. The original fire pit still exists as well.

Earthlodge at Ocmulgee Mounds National Historical Park

Earthlodge at Ocmulgee Mounds National Historical Park

Bird shaped platform thought to be the sitting area of the village Chief and original fire pit of the Ocmulgee Mounds Earthlodge

Bird shaped platform thought to be the sitting area of the village Chief and original fire pit of the Ocmulgee Mounds Earthlodge

Original seats marked by depressions in the earth around the lodge’s perimeter

Original seats marked by depressions in the earth around the lodge’s perimeter

Not all structures at Ocmulgee Mounds National Historical Park were built by the ancient people of the area. Within the park is the site of a trading post established in 1690 that facilitated trade between the Creek Indians and the British from Charleston, South Carolina. There is also a Civil War earthwork (earthen wall or trench) built to defend Macon. The fort saw action during the Battle at Walnut Creek late in the war.

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Last updated on May 3, 2022
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