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Oconee Joe: Oconee Mud Temples (Part 1 of 2)

When you sit upon an Indian Mound with your eyes closed for any length of time, you’ll still hear the present taking place around you. The groan from the sycamore as it sways gently in the river bottoms. The loblolly pine needles whisper in the wind along the eastern ridge. The crow, the squirrel, the red-tail hawk, caw, bark, and shriek as they do Death’s dance in the canopy above. Across the Oconee River, in the far western floodplain, the occasional bovine bellows to its kin. And sitting high on your mound, State Route 15 slithers past the distant Iron Horse into the South. With its black top and faded yellow lines, Greensboro Highway stretches like an eastern kingsnake through this portion of the Oconee National Forest.

The Scull Shoals Big Mound as it stands today along the Oconee River Basin. (Oconee Joe/Classic City News)

In these woods and along these waters of the Upper Oconee Watershed, humans have occupied the ridges, valleys, and shoals for well over 14,000 years. It is a time scale that is often hard for present-day Americans to comprehend. Projectile points of smoky black flint or chipped chert, carried down from Ridge and Valley areas of Northwest Georgia, have now scattered with our own local white quartz and the fire-red cracked coastal chert traded from below Georgia’s Fall Line. Post-primate made tools from far-flung corners of human memory still sprout from the ground after a good rain. Soapstone bowls carrying the future of renewed seasons. The club to the cutting implement has been laid down over eons on these hillsides. And still the Oconee waters flowed by, already long ancient to those roaming First People.

Sitting on Top Of Scull Shoals Big Mound, facing north with sunlit upland ridge’ In the background, Green Chinese Privet covers the Oconee River bottomland some 20 feet below the mound’s top. (Oconee Joe/Classic City News)

Breathing, however, and inhaling deeply into your lungs the ancient forest as you sit upon an Indian Mound with your eyes closed, transports one back to the top of a complex civilization. At the Scull Shoals site there are two mounds hidden today in the thick undergrowth of the river bottoms. Early accounts from the late 1800s claimed there was a third mound, but excavations conducted by the University of Georgia in the 1980s were unable to locate this missing mound. The existing earthworks date roughly from 1225 A.D. and are believed to have been occupied off and on until about 1600 A.D. While ancient to us now, these mounds stand testament to only the latest of cultures to arise in our Georgia Piedmont. Many others came and went through this river bottom long before the mud was stacked and a village formed here.

It is also extremely interesting to note that according to the UGA excavations of the 1980s, that the second mound at the Scull Shoals site, standing only 10 feet high and lesser in proportion than the chief’s mound, there is no evidence of animal bone present at all. This contrasts greatly from the bigger mound on the northern end of the village and suggests that the mound would have had an alternate use than habitation. It is highly probable that this mound, though smaller, was used for ceremony, possibly for sacred burials still hidden deep within the earthwork. Multiple mounds, multiple meanings aligned to Solstice and Equinox sunrise and sunsets, burial suites, celestial markings and central plazas.

Stories of the ancients still penetrate from the soil. Black earth produced from continual wood fires, and broken fragments of pottery tell the story of generational use. Sitting on the big mound you would have been lounging In village chief’s living room 900 years ago. Extensive faunal bone fragments of turkey, deer, raccoon, turtle, and fish have been found littering multiple layers of this mound. These bones, coupled with the vast amounts of broken ceramics, indicate repeated patterns of habitation. From one ruler’s life to the next the mound culture thrived and continued on with their town vision. Extinguishing fires with the death of a leader or at the annual summer Breath of Life ceremony, reigniting them with the appointment of a new one. The layers of dirt grew higher. The village kneaded its communal hands together and formed more complex earthenware, and the mounds began to rise, piercing the surrounding hardwood’s green canopy.

A winter solstice sun sets over the Scull Shoals Big Mound along the Oconee River. (Oconee Joe/Classic City News)

The Scull Shoals mound site was just the northernmost village that existed in the Oconee Province. It was part of the latest occupation of the Mississippian Mound builder culture. These villages typically consisted of at least one mound that was used for seats of ceremony, or authority, and sometimes both. Surrounding the mound was a cleared area believed to have been used as a communal plaza. Around this public space were the village dwellings and various structures used for daily life along the Oconee. Based on historical accounts it is possible that a palisade formed a possible defensive perimeter around the village proper. Lying beyond the immediate village it is believed that the bottomlands would have been used to cultivate corn-maize, beans, and squash. The woodlands beyond and the flowing Oconee River nearby would have provided supplemental foods of fauna and flora. All of this would have certainly been needed to support a population capable of not just building the Scull Shoals mounds, but maintaining them and even adding to them over hundreds of years. Yet over the course those native generations the dirt rose higher still beside the flowing Oconee River.

About Oconee Joe: He has lived along the Oconee River for over 10,000 years. The River is his Mother, the Land his Father. You can continue to read about Oconee Joe, his guided trips, and explorations along our local river, here on Classic City News...

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Oconee Joe
Oconee Joe

Thank you, Richard Huston, for reading. I’m glad you enjoyed the article. It is truly a special place indeed.


Richard Huston
Richard Huston

I have long loved Scull Shoals and now even more 👍

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