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A fresh look at Bottle Creek Mounds, Alabama

The inner harbor of Bottle Creek Mounds was capable of handling hundreds of trade canoes.
The inner harbor of Bottle Creek Mounds was capable of handling hundreds of trade canoes.
Copyrighted VR images by Richard L. Thornton, Architect

The name of the region of the Gulf Coast around Mobile, AL and Pensacola, FL was Amichel when the Spanish explorers arrived there in the 1500s. Amichel was also the name of the coastal region of the Mexican State of Tamaulipas, until Tamaulipas and northern Vera Cruz were invaded by Chichimec barbarians around 1250 AD. Amichel is the Castilian way of writing the Chotal Maya words, Am Ixchel, which mean "Place of the Moon Goddess." Archaeologists currently believe that Bottle Creek Mounds was first settled around 1250 AD. There are many other coincidences.

Bottle Creek Mounds near Mobile, AL is a very large town site that has many architectural traits similar to those of the Totonacs and Chontal Mayas of Mexico.
Copyrighted VR Image by Richard L. Thornton, Architect

MOBILE, AL– ( – Bottle Creek Mounds are the ruins of a large Native American town inside a swamp about 14 miles north of Mobile. Containing at least 18 mounds, it is Alabama’s second largest archaeological zone, yet is seldom visited by tourists. Access is almost impossible without a boat. Because of its isolation in the Mobile-Tensaw River Delta, the pristine site has been immune to the destruction typical of many other mounds in the Southeast. However, the remote location also has defied explanation by the archaeology profession. An analysis of this ancient town from a regional context just might answer the riddle of its origin.

Although the Mobile Indians probably lived at or visited this island into the early 1700s, very few people knew of its existence until archaeologist David L. DeJarnette of the Alabama Museum of Natural History investigated the mounds in 1932. The island had been mapped in the 1880s, but few archaeologists were aware of the scale and sophistication of the abandoned town until DeJarnette studied the ruins. In the decades since DeJarnette’s work, the Bottle Creek Mounds still have received little publicity outside of the Mobile area. There are probably few Mobile residents, who are aware of the mounds; and only a handful who have visited them.

Archaeological study, under the auspices of the University of South Alabama, has continued sporadically in the decades since DeJarnette published his report. More recent studies have identified extensive occupation between about 1250 AD and 1550 AD. Archaeologists believe that the town was the political, religious and cultural center of the north central Gulf Coast.

Beginning with DeJarnette, archaeologists have presumed that the town was built by the Pensacola Indians, but apparently other Gulf Coast tribes traded with its residents, or even lived there. However, the sophistication of the town does not seem to match the culture of the Pensacola Indians met by the Spanish in the early 1500s.

The Pensacola Indians were described as fishermen and hunters, who didn’t cultivate extensive fields or live in large communities. The pottery of Bottle Creek does seem to match pottery found around Pensacola, FL, but in both areas may have been produced by an unknown people, who no longer lived around Pensacola when the Spanish arrived.

The architecture and town plan

Probably at least half of the architecture of the Itsati Creeks, Itza Mayas and the Chontal Maya was composed of pre-fabricated sapling frames and walls of vertical river canes. These structures are where the people lived during much of the year, when the weather was not cold or rainy. These types of structures did not leave significant “footprints” in the sandy soil of the Gulf Coast, and therefore are usually missed by archaeologists not familiar with Muskogean and Maya Commoner architectural practices.

One of the most important tasks accomplished by the University of South Alabama was the preparation of am accurate topographic map of Bottle Creek Mounds. Topographic maps make possible the detailed analysis of a town’s architecture and planning concept.

What an architect sees at Bottle Creek Mounds is a very sophisticated sense of space and scale on par with the great Totonac city of Tajin in northern Vera Cruz or in the Highland Maya cities of Chiapas State. Tajin fell around 1250 AD, when sacked by Chichimec barbarians.

Bottle Creek’s pyramidal mounds are arranged in a harmonic composition. The mounds and ceremonial pools are aligned with solar azimuth, but also create public spaces of varying size. There is a grand plaza that probably contained thousands of people for festivals and regional markets, but there are also more intimate spaces between mounds. Like at Etowah Mounds and Moundville, the three ceremonial pools are the foci of three minor plazas. An aerial view of the ruins of Tajin is included in the slide show.

Most of the mounds are aligned with the Summer Solstice. However, a large mound on the east side of the plaza was aligned with the sunrise of the Winter Solstice. Most proto-Creek Sun Temple mounds in Georgia are aligned with the sunset of the Winter Solstice.

Of particular significance are the obviously man-made “harbors” created on the south side of the public buildings. This area has been labeled “wetlands” by the University of South Alabama site plan, but is almost identical to the human-altered wetlands turned into large “terminals” for trade canoes that were created at Ocmulgee and Achese in Georgia and the massive Troyville site in Jonesville, LA. Site plans of these sites are included in the slide show.

The builders of Bottle Creek Mounds placed burial mounds on the west side of a small stream that separated the mortuary neighborhood from the main town. This same exact feature can be seen in proto-Creek towns in Georgia such as Ocmulgee, Achese, Nokose and Okvte. Peachtree Mounds near Murphy, NC also has this site feature. The location of the mounds symbolize the Muskogean belief that souls journeyed to the land of the setting sun after crossing the Mississippi River. This belief "may" have originated with the Chontal Maya.

Ideal location for regional trade

Bottle Creek’s location near the Mobile River placed it in an ideal position to dominate riverine trade for most of present-day Alabama, western Mississippi and northwestern Georgia. The tributaries of the Mobile River reach northeastward to the edge of the Smoky Mountains! The remote island in the swamps protected the town from attack and from hurricanes, but also gave easy access to the Gulf coast.

Architectural features such as the super-sized plaza and harbors suggest that the town for much of its existence functioned as a regional trade center. It was destination to which tourists, religious pilgrims and merchants could travel hundreds of miles by canoe. The Creek Indians have a tradition that for many centuries the indigenous peoples of the Southeast were able to travel long distances for trade, religious activities and entertainment. In particular, young single adults would go on long recreational journeys “to see the world” before settling down to marriage.

One of the many similarities with Mesoamerican traditions found at Bottle Creek is its location. The illiterate Chontal Maya dominated international trade in Mesoamerica for over 1,200 years. Their culture began as humble villages on the islands in marshes along the Gulf Coast of Tabasco State. However, they developed advanced skills in boat-building and merchandizing. Their propensity to place their trading towns on either marshy islands or high mountain passes protected such sites from aggressive militaristic societies. Over time, the trading centers within more backward societies developed into nodes that dispersed the seeds of cultivated plants from other regions and spread cultural advancements.

Ethnologists believe that over time, the Chontal Maya developed several “trade jargons” which blended Mesoamerican words into new languages. Chontal Mayas in northern Vera Cruz and the coast of Tamaulipas spoke a dialect that blended Tamau, Totonac and Itza Maya. After the Chichimec invasion around 1250 AD, Nahuatl words also crept into their language.

Evidence of a Mesoamerican presence in the Southeast

The Itsati (Hitchiti-Creek) language contains many Itza Maya and some Totonac words. For example, the word for house in Totonac and Itsati is chiki. The “Mississippian Culture” post-ditch house is built to this day by the Totonacs. The verb for “to write” in Itza Maya and Itsati are virtually the same. Both the Itsati and the Itza Maya called their “Great Suns” or high kings, hene-mako. The members of the Great Sun’s (high king’s) family, who functioned as traveling judges and his/her representatives, were called hene-ahau or Sun Lords. The vernacular version of that word survives today as the official title of the Second Chief of the Muscogee-Creek Nation, heneha.

There are also many Creek ethnic names that are Mesoamerican in origin. Chiaha (Chiaja) is an Itza Maya place name meaning, “beside the water.” The name of one of the largest, original Creek divisions, the Tama-tli of southeast Georgia and the North Carolina Mountains, means “Trader People” in Totonac. The original name of the Altamaha River probably was Al-tamv-ahau, which in Itza Maya means “Place of the Tamau lord.”

There is also evidence of Mesoamerican contact in Alabama. The Alabama, Choctaw and Muskogee-Creek word for house is “choko,” which means “warm” in Itza Maya. The name probably originated as just the name of a thick-walled wattle & daub winter house.

The word, Mobile, probably has a Totonac origin. De Soto’s chroniclers called a famous fortified town in southeast Alabama, Mabila. Mabila was probably the name of the province, though, not just the town. However, these Castilians consistently wrote down Eastern Muskogean “b’s” as “p’s” - and “eh sounds as “a’s.” There is no “b” in the Muskogee and Itsati alphabets. Thus, the Muskogean word, Mapile, became Mabila in Castilian.

Mapi’and Tama’ are synonyms in Totonac, which today mean “to buy or trade.” In coastal Itsati, Mapile would mean “trading place” or “place of the traders.” The Muskogean name for the Mobilian trade jargon, an intertribal trade language spoken on the Gulf Coast was Yama. Yamasee roughly means “people who speak Yama.” A yaam in Itza Maya is a clearing in the forest for slash and burn agriculture. There may be a connection between yaam and Yama because the Natives of southeast Georgia were known to grow crops in temporary clearings, rather than in large permanent fields besides rivers.

Bottle Creek Mounds’ architectural brilliance and location on a remote island in the Mobile River delta, can be explained by Mesoamerican contact. If this is the case, the site was probably a trading post established the Chontal Maya around 900 AD – 1000 AD. Around 1250 AD, a band of illiterate refugees from Tamaulipas or northern Vera Cruz could have settled there. They would have become the elite of a town that blended the cultural traditions of Mesoamerican commoners with the local Muskogean population. Just as in the case of the Scandinavian Rus among the Slavs and the Normans among the English, the elite would have eventually lost their distinct ethnic identity, and began speaking a language that blended words from both Mexico and the Southeast.

Bottle Creek Mounds is a National Historic Landmark. In the 1994, the Scott Paper Company bought the Bottle Creek Mounds site and gave it to the State of Alabama. The Anthropology Department of the University of South Alabama maintains a web site about this archaeological zone. Contact that academic department for information about guided tours of the site.

For articles on Native American culture, not related to architecture or urban planning, see Richard's other column in the National Edition of the Examiner:


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