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The Mississipian Southern Death Cult : Ocmulgee Indian Mounds National Monument
Daybreak 900 A.D.
It was almost completely dark in the earthen council lodge as the ceremonial fire had been extinguished in anticipation of the upcoming event. The 50 council members, including the chief, high priest, and military adviser, had discussed the coming growing season for the complex all through the night. Now the time for talk was over.
As the darkness inside of the council lodge grew less dense, the members began looking towards the raised baked clay platform the chief and his two advisers were seated upon. The front of the rectangular dais was sculpted into the head of a raptor, a symbol of their membership in a vast southeastern culture.
The high priest suddenly raised his arms towards the heavens as the first rays of sunlight began entering the narrow entrance hall of the council lodge. As if by magic, the sunlight inched its way down the hallway, across the raised fire pit, until it illuminated not only the head of the raptor, but the brightly clad figure of the chief himself. Everything would be fine. Spring was here.
A Mighty Culture-Here and Gone
The Ocmulgee Mound Complex
A Pre-Columbian Georgia City
The early history of Native Americans usually concerns their interaction with European immigrants following the voyages of Columbus to the New World. Or, it pertains to the Indians on the prairies out west and their struggles to retain their ancestral lands.
But little is mentioned about those civilizations which thrived long before the Spaniards first set foot in North America. There were large cities in North America long before the white man took control of the continent. Amazingly, there is very little known about where they came from, or where they disappeared to after their sudden rise and short reign over many parts of the southeast.
The Ocmulgee National Monument, located near Macon Georgia, is merely one example of these mysterious people who built such wondrous earthworks along the river valleys. It also leaves many questions unanswered concerning their hierarchy and religious beliefs.
The great earthen mounds these people laboriously constructed show an organized society knowledgeable in both astronomy and mathematics. The plaza and ball field type open spaces also suggests Aztec or Mayan influence on the complex.
Bringers of Corn
Where Did They Come From?
This question remains unanswered for the most part as the experts seem to disagree on the origination of these mysterious people. But one thing is certain, they brought maize with them, and also squash and beans. The “three sisters,” as some Native American tribes referred to them.
Planted together, these three crops complemented each other as the beans would climb the cornstalks while the squash, as well as pumpkins and gourds, would cover the ground and help prevent weeds from using up the nourishment intended for the food crops.
Maize originated in Mexico, so it had to be brought to the southeastern United States by someone from that area. Some of the words used by native tribes in the eastern US have their roots in Mexico, particularly those of the Nahuntl area.
There are also myths which tell of the long journey from the land of smoking mountains and shaking earth. It all seems to make sense when the clues are put together. Their preference for sacrificing prisoners to their gods, also similar to other early Mexican religious cults, caused some archaeologists to refer to them as members of The Southern Death Cult.
The Great Temple Mound At Ocmulgee
A Glimpse Of Former Greatness
There are seven major mounds in the Ocmulgee Mound Complex. But there are many more mounds and evidence of occupation along the river to a distance of over twenty miles downstream.
The Ocmulgee river was once heavily occupied by these people, with corn and tobacco among other crops grown all along the floodplain as their culture reached its peak. It is estimated that over 2,000 people occupied the mound complex area in its heyday.
As in other Mississippian complexes of the time, the temple mound was the most important structure in the city. It was meant to inspire awe and faith in the residents of the complex.
Those individuals of high rank and authority, such as the chief of the complex and the powerful high priests and shamans, were able to look down upon their subjects and to be seen by them as the godlike figures they aspired to be.
The Ocmulgee complex was a member of the Southern Death Cult, as were the Etowah, Cahokia, and Spiro Mississippian complexes which traded and communicated with them. They shared the same religious rituals and traded with each other for certain goods and materials.
The temple mound at Ocmulgee was constructed on a bluff overlooking the river. This gave the impression of even greater height when viewing the 50 foot tall earthworks from the river valley.
The surface and sides of the temple mound was coated with bright yellow clay. The temple and chieftain’s living quarters were among the structures occupying the mound’s summit. It is likely there were human sacrifices performed from atop this mound to appease the gods they brought with them to the area.
Other mounds in the Ocmulgee National Monument
The Mississippian Complex
Although the Ocmulgee mounds group is referred to as being a member of the Southeastern Mississippian Ceremonial Complex group, the term “Mississippian” refers to several such complexes along the Mississippi river, the term may not be accurate if it intends to indicate an origin for all of the groups in the southeastern part of the country.
In fact, some historians believe the culture may have originated in Florida and moved both north and west. Perhaps a group may have sailed from Mexico along the gulf coast until landing in Florida.
The Weeden Island complex may support this theory, along with the Kolomoki complex near Bainbridge Georgia, these sites may lend credence to the new theory of the origination of the Mississippian cultures.
Sadly, these important sites have not been investigated fully and many have been used for farming and other purposes. The funerary mound at the Ocmulgee complex has been partially demolished because of a railroad installation in the 1800’s and another track has also bisected the complex in the recent past.
During the great depression there was some archaeological work done by many members of the CCC under the direction of Arthur R. Kelly from the University of Georgia.
Saving the Mounds
The Mystery Remains
Much was learned during this rather extensive, yet incomplete dig, but according to Richard Thornton, there are still hundreds of boxes of artifacts from the 1937 archaeological dig still waiting to be assessed and examined by archaeologists and historians.
Who knows what new light may be shed on the controversy of where these people came from when these artifacts are finally brought to light?
After having been partially destroyed by two railroads and a highway, as well as being used as a trading post by early British traders, and later on as grounds for a fort, the plaza and surrounding flat areas were farmed for many years.
The complex was also used by the Creek Indians long after the Mississippian culture moved on down the river to create yet even more astonishing earthworks.
Perhaps in the future we will find out more about this fascinating culture which suddenly appeared along the river now known as the Ocmulgee.
The grounds of the Ocmulgee national Monument is now safe from being destroyed any further as local people and school children launched a campaign to save the mound from any future destruction.
One cannot tread the grounds without imagining the hustle and bustle which was once the everyday scene in the plaza and ball grounds beneath the Great Temple Mound.
Although these mysterious newcomers remained on the site for only 200 years, they left their mark upon the land in the form of wonderful earthworks and intriguing artifacts.
More Ocmulgee Info
Fascinating look at the excavation of the Funeral Mound at Ocmulgee National Monument.
U.S. National Park Service Historical handbook
Purchase or rent this informative video.