Exploring the Parks: Up And In The Mounds In Ocmulgee National Monument

OCMU - funeral moundOCMU - Ocmulgee River

View from the top of the Great Temple Mound. The Ocmulgee River. Photographs by Danny Bernstein.

When I walk into a park visitor center and the ranger or volunteer behind the desk can give me the basic facts of the park, I know I'm going to have all my questions answered.

Ocmulgee National Monument, established in 1936, is 702 acres and hosts about 120,000 visitors a year. Though it's located along the northeast edge of Macon, Georgia, a city of more than 90,000 people, the park feels remote and rural. The Ocmulgee River separates the main part of the city from the park.

Ocmulgee, which means "bubbling water" in the Creek Indian language, protects ten Indian mounds. That's what attracts visitors, but the area has evidence of people living here for more than 10,000 years. The visitor center displays a collection of archaeological artifacts, including early Clovis points (arrowheads) through colonial bells and a 300-year-old sword. The park staff is proud that their collection demonstrates the historic connection to all cultures "from Stone Age to Space Age."

The beautiful visitor center was refurbished in 2009. Ranger Jim Branan was happy to give my husband and me a run-down of the various cultures that lived on the Macon Plateau. The exhibits on the archaeology and prehistoric people make me feel like I had learned this stuff in school but don't remember it. So here goes:

Paleo-Indians Period. 17,000 years to 11,600 years ago. They hunted big game. Archeologists found Clovis points on this site.

Archaic Period. 11,600 years ago to 3,000 years ago. These people were hunter-gatherers.

Woodland Period. 3,000 to 1,100 years ago. This is the start of crop cultivation and pottery.

Early and late Mississippians Period. 1,100 to 650 years ago. This culture built the earth mounds that are the star attraction of the park. Mississippian culture is a general term for a people that may have come from the Mississippi River with a culture of sophisticated farming at the time. The Mississippians people farmed a fertile land, growing corn, beans, and squash, known as the three sisters. The Indians built large ceremonial earth mounds, maybe influenced by Central American cultures, as a sign of wealth and power.

Ranger Tour

Without an understanding of why and who built these structures, the earth mounds could look like small garbage mountains or bad replicas of Mount Fuji. The 17-minute film on the "Mystery of the Mounds" explains what you'll see on the property. The park built the visitor center, close to the large Earth Lodge.

You can go into the Earth Lodge by yourself, but nothing beats a tour with an enthusiastic ranger. On a dry and warm November Sunday morning, my husband and I are the only visitors on the Earth Lodge tour. Ranger Angela Bates starts the tour in the visitor center by showing us the Yaupon holly bush, Ilex vomitoria, a native evergreen bush that would not look out of place in your frontyard. The leaves are very high in caffeine. Native people brewed it into a black tea and used it in purifying ceremonies by fasting and vomiting in the Lodge.

We walk less than five minutes to the Earth Lodge, the only mound you can enter. The Mississippians built the lodge in 1000 CE as a council chamber. Only men participated in the ceremonies and discussions in the lodge. The building burned down 15 years later; the dates were confirmed by carbon dating. What's most amazing is that the floor is original and has lasted more than a thousand years.

Visitor leaving the tunnel into the Earth Lodge

The tunnel entrance has such a low ceiling that even I have to bend down to my waist to walk in. The walls and roof have been reconstructed. This space, 42 feet in diameter, is ringed by the original clay seats pressed into the floor. A simulated fire hole lies in the center. An effigy of an eagle-like bird on the floor has become the symbol of the national monument.

Ranger Bates points out that the Mississippians designed the entrance to the mound so that the sun shines in a straight line through the Earth Lodge and lands on the bird figure twice a year: October 22 and February 22.

"If the sun is out, it's blinding in here on these two days. Maybe the February date was time to get the fields ready for planting and October 22 was the time to harvest the crops," Ms. Bates speculates. The Mississippians abandoned the Ocmulgee site by about 1100 CE and the fate of its inhabitants is still a mystery.

The Creek Indians moved here, attracted by a British Trading Post and good farmland. During the Indian removal of 1836, most of the Creek were forced to Oklahoma. Much of their original land had already been ceded to European settlers, building up the town of Macon.

Who Discovered The Mounds?

"People always knew the mounds were here," Ranger Bates explains. De Soto passed through here and his men baptized two natives in the Ocmulgee River. DeSoto's expedition in 1540 also brought diseases to the Creek people.

A six-mile network of trail takes us to other mounds. The Great Temple Mound, about a half-mile from the visitor center, is the highest. The park constructed an elaborate wooden staircase to the top of the mound where you get a great view of Macon and the Ocmulgee River. The trails also lead to a boardwalk and the banks of the Ocmulgee River. On the way, you pass swamp areas with birds and otters. The park does selective mowing to attract wildlife and remove invasive plants like tallow trees.

Naturalist William Bartram visited twice in the 1770s and wrote about the Creeks and the mounds in The Travels of William Bartram. Railroad tracks cut through the mounds in 1843. The Civil War came to Macon, creating further damage. A second cut for a railroad still in use was excavated through a large portion of the Funeral Mounds. Now the tracks bisect the park.

"It's lucky that we still have all this stuff," says Ms. Bates.

In the early part of the 20th Century, a group of concerned Macon residents wrote to the Smithsonian Institution and encouraged its staff to come down and look at the mounds. Congress passed a bill to authorize establishment of Ocmulgee National Park (some are still trying to make the unit a national park). In 1936, President Franklin D. Roosevelt declared the site Ocmulgee National Monument. The Civilian Conservation Corp and others engaged in public works projects worked on large-scale excavation in the 1930s.

But along with all this archaeology and history, the visitor center includes a food pyramid exhibit, comparing the foods we eat with the foods of the Mississippians. They point out that the Mississippians exercised for one to ten hours a day. The message is clear--go walk a trail. They're short and flat. For a more sustained challenge, the 16-mile Nene Kerretv Trail connects several trails inside and outside the national monument. A wayside panel explains the health benefits of exercise.

Back at the visitor center, I have one more question for Ranger Branan. "How long do you recommend for a visit?"

"About 90 minutes," he says.

It's about 3 p.m. and we'd been at Ocmulgee for almost six hours. I drop some money in the collection box set up by the Ocmulgee National Monument Association, the cooperating association. When we say goodbye, Ranger Branan gives us each a Junior Ranger badge. Even though we didn't fill out a booklet or answer questions, he feels we'd earned them.

Comments

I'd never heard of the site, but it sounds fascinating.

We visited during a drive from Atlanta to Auburn, Al. Three great parks on the way; Ocmulgee, Andersonville, and Jimmy Carter. All phenomenal. We were the only people at Ocmulgee as soon as it opened in the morning and had the mounds to ourselves for a nice morning hike. The museum at Andersonville is phenomenal. A bit rushed to see all three in one day but stat early and it is possible. Wrapping the day up with Peanut Butter Ice Cream at Jimmy Carter was pretty awesome too!

Wow! Three in one day.

I too went to Andersonville on the same long weekend. See http://www.nationalparkstraveler.com/2013/12/exploring-parks-andersonville-national-historic-site-sad-history24305

And Jimmy Carter last June. http://www.nationalparkstraveler.com/2013/07/exploring-parks-jimmy-carter-national-historic-site23542

Some great parks in the Southeast

Danny