In thousands of years of continuous habitation of one sort or another by humans who are, by their nature, both fiercely and wonderfully made, you can be sure an enigma or two is going to get made, wrapped up in a riddle, and eventually buried. And no doubt, such secrets are more plentiful at the Ocmulgee Mounds National Historical Park than the very leaves on the trees.
Over the course of time and under the microscope of intense scholarly examination and study, some of them have come to light, while some probably never will. It’s part of the historic site’s considerable mystique. One of the park rangers in the visitor’s station who was kind enough to answer some of my questions tells me a visiting scientist here a few years ago told the audience during his lecture “the more questions we answer in archaeology, the more questions we have.” Here’s two more to ponder.
Is There a Mayan-Macon Connection?
One of the great tragedies to occur at the Ocmulgee happened in 1874 when the construction of a railroad plowed right through one of the funeral mounds. The desecration of this sacred ground revealed, among other items, human skeletal remains.
A visiting historian noted that the skulls unearthed from the lowest levels of the mounds (which would be the first layers, and thus the oldest) had a flattened appearance. Also known as “artificial cranial deformation,” certain societies – including the Mayans – have adopted the practice of deliberately flattening the forehead during infancy through binding or other means.
Certainly a few deformed craniums don’t prove the Mayans, who seemingly disappeared into thin air, migrated to the Macon Plateau. But it is interesting to note a few other distinct similarities between the former inhabitants of the Ocmulgee and the ancient others.
The mound-dwellers made use of open public plazas in designing their community complexes; this was a central architectural feature employed in Mayan-built cities. Both cultures also built and used ceremonial platforms in everyday life – indeed, the physical similarities between the Great Temple Mound at Ocmulgee and the Mayan pyramids are striking - the truncated trapezoid shape in particular. Also, the Mayans were enthusiastic astronomers, and it has been theorized by more than one historian that the Ocmulgee natives used the mounds as astronomical platforms upon which to view and study the heavens.
Though the connection between Macon and the Mayans remains hotly debated among scholars, most agree there is, at a minimum, indisputable evidence of Pre-Columbian influence at Ocmulgee in found pottery, jewelry, other artifacts, and architectural styles.
How Was the Earth Lodge Used?
When archaeologists first discovered the earth lodge during initial excavation in the 1930s, they found undeniable evidence of destruction by fire. However, the same flames intended to destroy the earth lodge also preserved important features, including the clay eagle-shaped platform with seating for 3 people (which Creek tradition suggests was reserved for tribal leaders). Additionally, 47 other clay seats arranged around the perimeter and a fire basin remained intact.
Though expertly reconstructed and a prominent attraction at the park today, the original purpose of the earth lodge and its role in the lives of natives remains a bit of a mystery. It’s presumed it was a ceremonial or religious space, but no one can pinpoint its specific use or the exact significance of the Eagle-shaped platform. Nor are scientists certain whether the fire that destroyed the roof and possibly other features was deliberately or accidentally set.