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

Updated: Oct 13, 2019

Opening your eyes while sitting upon the Scull Shoals Indian Mounds, and exhaling the ghosts of dirt, one can inspect the present state of the ancient town’s precipice. On that piled up piece of ground once official lodgings of a flat top mound now are rutted, and overgrown with Chinese Privet. The plant was introduced only about one hundred years ago to slow erosion from a century of mono cropping. This green goblin of growth has fundamentally changed how humans must now interact with their Piedmont river bottoms. As for the erosion, it is estimated that the river bottoms around the mounds are now covered in siltation of approximately 3-5 feet, produced from the hillside agricultural runoff of intensive use. Other ruts, holes, and pits scar the mound top from pot-hunters and history poachers. My heart aches for the lost knowledge erased during those events. Lord forgive them, for they know not what they dug. Even natural processes of weather and erosion topple temple mount trees and continue to gouge the once 30-foot-high clay pyramid of authority.

A Massive Poplar grows From the north side of the Scull Shoals Big Mound. When this giant tree finally topples it will tear open large portions of the mound, perhaps revealing ancient secrets within.

We may never know if the ones that introduced clay fired ceramics were of the same blood or of later arrivals from those that first knapped the clear quartz on this Piedmont region to track now extinct migrations. But never is forever, and forever is a long time, to be sure. What we do understand is long before the Mississippian culture of Scull Shoals took hold along the rivers, an island known now as Stallings, on the neighboring Savannah River Watershed, lived a people that were already producing pottery 4,500 years ago. It is rational to assume that soon after, lightweight, hand molded ceramics spread across the local population, not just with the adjoining Oconee River Watershed, but also throughout the entire Southeastern United States. Currently, Stallings Island Pottery is the oldest recognized pottery in North America. It is amazing to think this ancient pottery developed on the very next watershed to our East. Grass woven patterns, and later incised geometric designs no doubt were symbols used to convey meaning to a particular community and many times certain motifs found popularity among other native peoples as well. From the planting of seasons, the foretelling harvests, blood lineages, star movements, observed comets and planets, wars and rumors of wars, all were embedded into a culture’s earthen artwork. River mud proved crucial to both the formation of pottery and mound alike.

Map Depicting the different Indian Mound villages and towns of the Oconee Province. Map Published in Archeological Excavations At Scull Shoals Mounds 1983 & 1985 (Mark Williams/LAMAR Institute 1992)

We know of six other mound sites that make up what we call the Oconee Province during the Lamar Period of the Mississippian Mound Builder Culture. These were all located on a tributary of the Oconee or along the river itself. The multi-mound Shoulderbone complex in Hancock County was the largest of all ancient town sites associated with the Oconee Peoples. Other villages found across the area were the Shinholser site downstream of Milledgeville, Little River mound village in Morgan County, and the Linger Longer mound in Greene County. Combined, these towns and villages and outlying hamlets were all part of a larger late Mississippian mound culture.

Of all the sites in the Oconee Province none may have a more intimate role in the occupation of Scull Shoals Mounds than the village found just twelve miles further downriver, now submerged beneath the waters of Lake Oconee. The Dyar Mound archaeological site was a neighboring village of Scull Shoals and consisted of a single large two-level mound with a central plaza ringed by small house sites and settlements. Based on excavations of 1970s and 80s, the Dyar Mound site is in fact thought to be integrally link to Scull Shoals. A sister city of the Upper Oconee River. Both towns were occupied off and on over hundreds of years. Based on pottery fragments and faunal remains, it appears that at times when one town was occupied, the other was uninhabited, and vice versa. Only occasionally were they both in use at the same time periods. Could this flip-flopping of village occupation suggest, strife or warfare between the two, or was it actually just a single town moving back and forth over the various years? Did the depletion of wood sources require village sites to move, or was it significant flooding events? Are the answers buried, rotted, flooded, or stolen to Time and the human hands that came after? Will our own old world, and the stories we tell along the river, wear away to Eternity’s endless flow one fine morning?

Mounds for authority, ceremony, and religions long extinguished, served as centerpieces in villages, towns, and even cities like Scull Shoals and other sites along the Oconee River. The layers upon layers of hand-dug, woven-basket carried, and finely-stacked dark soil still penetrate the nostrils in a way that tear the fabric of Time itself. There are truly places out there where it gets thin, so it does. The Native American Mounds of Scull Shoals, Georgia is without question one of those portals lying on the Earth’s Crust. Through the years I’ve gone out there by myself and sat, but never felt alone.

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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