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Ancient stones hint at America's forgotten architecture

Ruins of an ancient rectangular stone building at the Sandy Creek Terrace Complex, Jackson County, GA
Ruins of an ancient rectangular stone building at the Sandy Creek Terrace Complex, Jackson County, GARichard Thornton

The Historic American Buildings Survey (HABS) at the Library of Congress pretends that North America was uninhabited before Jamestown was founded in 1607. The program, administered by the National Park Service, focuses on architecture from the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries.

There are two versions of North America’s architectural history. The one that students learn in textbooks might spend a page or two on the “mound builders” in the East and the Anasazi pueblos in the Southwest. It then quickly moves on to the 17th century colonial towns of the St. Lawrence River Valley and Nova Scotia in Canada and on the Atlantic Coast of the United States. The structures built by mankind during the previous 10,000 years are presumed to have been so primitive that they are of no consequence. Obviously, their hovels have melted into the ground from which they came.

One must often search the internet for information on the cryptic history of eastern North America. It is the semi-permanent architecture of astronomical observatories, stone veneered mounds; stone cairns, stone effigies, stone-walled agricultural terraces, stone-walled water storage cisterns and the ruins of stone-walled buildings. North America’s Pre-Columbian legacy also includes massive civil engineering projects such as dams, canals, locks and roads built on raised earthen beds. These are undeniable vestiges from the past that rebuke a Eurocentric version of North American history. They were built by peoples who could plan large scale projects, utilize mathematics to make them functional and build long-lasting structures.

Examples of these cryptic forms of Pre-Columbian architecture can be found almost everywhere in North America. There are stone monuments on Hudson Bay and hundreds of stone circle observatories elsewhere in Canada. Some predate Stonehenge. There are hundreds of man-made stone structures in the Maritime Provinces and New England states.

In the Midwestern United States, one can see stone-walled houses in the suburbs of Kansas City and several, massive stone-walled complexes in the Ohio River Basin that archaeologists, for lack of any complete understanding, label “stone enclosures.” Stone enclosures can also be found in Kentucky, Tennessee and Georgia.

The Appalachians and Southern Piedmont are especially rich in stone architecture and monuments. Complexes of ancient stone cairns can be found from Winchester, Virginia southward to northeastern Alabama and central Georgia. The large agricultural terrace complexes are concentrated in northeast Georgia, but have also been reported in the South Carolina Uplands, Tennessee, Kentucky and Virginia.

Florida does not have stone architecture, but it contains the ruins of numerous Native American towns around Lake Okeechobee, whose sophistication predates anything else seen north of Mexico. Hundreds of miles of canals with locks, plus earthen causeways interconnected these towns. They were studied and documented by skilled archaeologists in the late 20th century, but “swept under the rugs” by their peers. The early construction dates and technical sophistication of these towns refute the current archaeological orthodoxy. If a person wants to learn about architecture of the Ortona town site, one of the few places for obtaining comprehensive information is in this Examiner column. (See link below.)

In the 21st century, this cryptic history is forbidden knowledge. The archaeology profession has fossilized. After the 1950s, most archaeologists didn’t want to discuss Pre-Columbian stone structures because they did not fit into a simplistic understanding of North America’s past adopted at a conference at Harvard University in 1947. Is it coincidence that this conference was concurrent with the “Roswell Incident?”

If not understood, it’s a fantasy

The best example of how small minds and Eurocentric prejudices created a hidden history in North America is a book by 17th century French Huguenot ethnologist, Charles de Rochefort, entitled, “Histoire Naturelle et Morale des Iles Antilles de l'Amerique. “ In 1658, De Rochefort wrote this comprehensive book about the indigenous peoples, animals and plants of the Caribbean Basin. It included a chapter on the Appalachian Mountains of northern Georgia, because the region had just been made accessible in 1646 when the Spanish built a pack-mule trail from St. Augustine to a fortified trading post in the Nacoochee Valley. The first edition of the book was written anonymously because the Inquisition had banned all books written by Protestant clergy. De Rochefort was also a highly respected, French Huguenot minister.

One will have to be fluent in French, Dutch or German to read most contemporary articles on De Rochefort. European anthropologists and historians consider him to be the leading authority on the Caribbean Basin in the 17th century. Their commentaries sometimes express puzzlement as to why the stone structures that De Rochefort described in northern Georgia are not accessible to the public today.

De Rochefort is virtually unknown in North American academic circles. The Apalache Chronicles is the only English language book that presents De Rochefort’s translated text about the Appalachian Mountains and then links locations that he mentioned with known archaeological sites and Native American cultural traits. For example, de Rochefort described the colorful clothing of the Apalache Indian elite. Their clothing was almost identical to the traditional clothing worn by the Florida Seminoles today.

At some time in the late 19th or early 20th century, North American anthropology and history professors placed a taboo label on De Rochefort’s book. Although the book was still well known in Europe, appreciation of De Rochefort’s book in the United States ceased. What few copies American libraries had were not re-printed for general circulation.

The Brown University Library has an original copy of the book written by Charles de Rochefort. It is in the “Fantasy and Utopia” bin of the library. An anonymous professor somewhere in the past had decided that the fictitious description of stone towns and temples on the sides of mountains in Georgia negated the credibility of the book’s entire contents. Obviously, we now know that such structures really existed.

In 1939 the famous archaeologist, Robert Wauchope, studied the locations in the Georgia Mountains where De Rochefort described Apalache temples and towns. He was puzzled by the stone ruins and in particular, a massive U-shaped Itza Maya style ball court in the Nacoochee Valley. Actually, he didn’t even realize that it was a ball court. Wauchope was not aware that explorer and botanist, William Bartram, recorded some of these courts still in use during the 1700s. Wauchope assigned the strange stone architecture ruins official site numbers, but didn’t draw or photograph them. He soon moved to Kentucky.

In 1951, Harvard archaeologist, Phillip White, followed in Wauchope’s footsteps. He was likewise puzzled by the stone building ruins, U-shaped ball court, stone walls and stone veneered mounds in northeast Georgia , but after then, they were forgotten.

Back to the future

The HABS program began in 1933 as a make-work program for architects, civil engineers and landscape architects. Teams of architects, engineers, landscape architects and photographers were dispatched by the new National Park Service to document America’s heritage. The program is still in existence, but now accumulates most graphics in the process of buildings being restored with federal funds.

Ironically, the unemployment rate and firm closures for architects in the Southeast has been much higher during the current Great Recession than it was during the Great Depression. However, this time around, design professionals are not considered politically significant.

HABS became the spark that kicked off the historic preservation movement in the United States. For several decades thereafter, architecture schools generally ignored historic buildings and taught modernism. However, more and more practicing architects became fascinated with America’s architectural heritage. Their enthusiasm eventually filtered back into educational programs. The curricula restructuring did not extend back to architecture before Jamestown, however.

The first archaeologists were architects. English architect, Frederick Catherwood, and American diplomat, John Lloyd Stephens, jointly introduced the Maya civilization to the world. However, in the late 19th century, as archaeology matured as a forensic profession focused on artifacts, increasingly fewer American architects were involved with archaeological studies. A 20th century love affair with modernism temporarily ended the American architecture profession’s interest in anything old. In Europe and Latin America, architects continued to be professionally involved with things old and ancient.

Something significant was lost in the divorce between architects and archaeologists in North America. While most architects would not have the patience to extract an artifact from the soil with a tooth brush and mini-trowel, they do view communities in an environmental context and at a regional scale. As American archaeologists increasingly focused on the micro-scale, they increasingly missed important evidence from the architecture, town plans and regional context.

A good example of this problem occurred during the “Mayas in Georgia” controversy. The archeologist, who dug test pits in the Kenimer Mound near the Track Rock Terrace Complex was puzzled that the large five sided mound was sculpted from a hill. He didn’t realize that pentagonal mounds sculpted from hills and stone box graves were commonplace in the Itza Maya sites of Mesoamerica. Stone box graves were endemic in the valley around the Kenimer Mound,

The Itza tradition of five sided mounds sculptured from hills and stone box graves was unknown to those Southeastern archaeologists, who specialize in indigenous artifacts. Some archaeologists in the region went bonkers when someone outside their profession dared to know something that they didn’t know. They were not accustomed to working in a multidisciplinary environment that is the norm for architects, engineers, geologists and surveyors. Shrill banshees screamed, “self-styled historian,” pseudo-archaeologist” and “amateur blogger” to an audience that didn’t care. A 21st century understanding of America's past had already left the train station.

One of the things that architects are particularly good at, is documenting and analyzing three dimensional objects. Many of the stone architecture sites are in archaeological zones covering hundreds of acres. To commission full-blown archaeological studies on a substantial percentage of them is fiscally unfeasible. However, documentation is the first step for preservation. The National Park Service's HABS program is the ideal framework to sponsor such documentation. There is much more to America’s architectural heritage than just those buildings done by the newcomers.