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Rock Eagle, is it really a bird of another color?

Both Georgia's Rock Eagle and the tradition artistic portrayals of vultures in Guerrero had exaggerated round bodies.
Both Georgia's Rock Eagle and the tradition artistic portrayals of vultures in Guerrero had exaggerated round bodies.
Rock Eagle Association and Guerrero State Anthropoloical Museum

This fieldstone effigy of a bird has defied a full explanation since the early 1800s.

Most visitors do not realize that the Rock Eagle is tilted at an angle.
Most visitors do not realize that the Rock Eagle is tilted at an angle.
Richard Thornton - enhancement of NASA/ERSI satellite imagery

Overlooking the banks of a small lake in Middle Georgia is an enigma. It is a conical mound of white quartz fieldstones with tail feathers, wings and a head extending outward. The breast of the bird is eight feet high. The wings have a spread of 120 feet. The distance from the tip of the tail to the top of the head is 102 feet. For Google Map lovers, the shrine’s location is: Latitude: 33°25'03"N and Longitude: 83°23'17"W.

This famous archaeological site is located in Putnam County, whose county seat is Eatonton. Putnam has another claim to fame. Author and journalist, Joel Chandler Harris (1845-1908) grew up in Eatonton. Harris originally wrote “The Uncle Remus Tales” as a series of columns in the Atlanta Constitution newspaper. In 1946, Walt Disney turned the antics of his Brer Rabbit, Brer Fox and Brer Bar (Bear) into the hugely successful movie, “Song of the South.” Despite what Harris said when introducing the newspaper series, he did not grow up on a plantation. He also did not obtain the stories from an elderly African-American slave, but rather gleaned them from the archives of the Georgia Historic Society in Savannah, when he was Associate Editor of the Savannah Morning News. They are Creek Indian children stories.

The Rock Eagle also has a “hidden history.” Many references and news media articles tell readers that this bird looks to the east toward the sunrise and is at least 5,000 years old. No, it looks to the southeast and the beak is pointed due south. Archaeological studies have steadily shrunken the age of the Rock Eagle, but it long predates the arrival of British colonists to the Southeastern Coast.

History has forgotten who first called it the Rock Eagle. The branch of the Creek Indians, living in that area when the first Anglo-American settlers arrived, stated that they didn’t build it, but held the site sacred. However, it was probably built by the ancestors of another branch of the Creeks, who lived in the region earlier. During the 1600s and early 1700s the few survivors of European plagues and English-sponsored slave raids frequently moved across the landscape of the Lower Southeast. In the process, they forgot much of their cultural history.

Many printed sources also claim that the Rock Eagle and Rock Hawk are the only Indian mounds in the shape of raptors. That is not true either. A much larger bird-shaped mound was built around 1200 BC at Poverty Point, LA. There are several smaller raptor mounds scattered around Eastern North America. However, the two mounds in Middle Georgia are the only bird effigies built of white quartz stones.

The first book to describe the Rock Eagle was published by pioneer anthropologist, Charles C. Jones, Jr. in 1873. Jones measured the shrine. He interpreted the Rock Eagle as being of American Indian origin.

During the 1930s, archaeologist Arthur Kelly was paid by the WPA to excavate the Rock Eagle to its base. He found a single human burial underneath it, plus a single quartz spear point. The burial may or may not be related to the construction of the mound. Unfortunately, forensic anthropology was in a primitive state during that era, so the ethnicity and age of the skeleton remains unknown.

While Director of the University of Georgia’s Anthropology Department in the 1950s, Kelly directed several more studies of the Rock Eagle. Evidence of a circular rock around the effigy was found. Archaeologists found traces of brightly colored non-indigenous clay at certain locations. Apparently, at least some of the bird effigy had been stuccoed with clay. They also found the ashes of human remains on and near the piled rocks. This suggests that the Rock Eagle was a location for cremations.

After the 1950s, Georgia archaeologists lost interest in the Rock Eagle and Rock Hawk, thinking that there was nothing more to be learned about the site and its unanswered questions could never be answered. In the intervening years writers of articles on the site have speculated that the Rock Eagle was a regional shrine for worship, a mortuary complex for processing the remains of high status persons, a message sent to the Creator up in the heavens or a navigational landmark for extraterrestrial travelers.

Some scholars noted that neither effigy looked like either an eagle or a hawk. The Rock Eagle looks like a vulture, while the Rock Hawk looks like a song bird, or perhaps a Carolina Parakeet. The implications of these observations fell on deaf ears.

A fresh look at Georgia’s stone architecture sites

The Apalache Foundation was incorporated in mid-2014 to sponsor professional studies of the hundreds of pre-European stone architecture sites in the Southern Highlands and Piedmont. All of the sites are located within the boundaries of the Apalache Kingdom, which predated the Creek Confederacy and Cherokee Alliance. The Appalachian Mountains are named after this almost forgotten indigenous people.

The Rock Eagle and Rock Hawk effigies first caught the attention of this new team of researchers because they are aligned to a corridor, at around 83° 20-24’ longitude, of stone veneered mounds and stone cairns. This line is slightly tilted because it is based on True North, not Magnetic North. The corridor is punctuated with a complex of stone shrines on Curahee Mountain in Stephens County, GA and a very large terrace complex with stone mounds, cairns and rectangular building ruins along Sandy Creek in Jackson County, GA.

Almost all Native American mounds and towns, built in Georgia between 250 BC and 1600 AD were aligned to the solar azimuth. The alignment of a structure can tell much about its builders and use. Rock Eagle is tilted to the southwest at approximately 16 degrees. The alignment approximates the sunset on the Spring and Fall Equinoxes at that location. The tip of its beak points toward True South. That arrangement would create a triangulation, useful for astronomical observations and surveying.

Most Native American structures in Georgia either are aligned with the Winter Solstice Sunset, the beginning of the Maya Calendar, or at an angle approximating either the sunrise or sunset on the Summer Solstice. The Summer Solstice is the beginning of the Muskogean Calendar, which was used after around 1375 AD by ancestors of the modern day Creek, Seminole and Alabama Indians.

As can be seen in the images associated with this article, the Rock Eagle is probably a vulture or condor. Buzzard is an American colloquial name for a vulture. Buzzards and vultures in the Western Hemisphere are unrelated to the birds with those names in the Old World. It would be more accurate to call all carrion-eating birds in the New Worlds, condors.

Buzzards, vultures and condors were associated with the religions of several indigenous cultures in the Western Hemisphere. It is interesting that those religions all contained practices similar to the ancient Zoroastrian religion of Persia and the upper Middle East. Zoroastrianism was the first monotheistic religion and dates from about 600 BC. The cadavers of loved ones were placed on wooden platforms, where carrion-eating birds would devour their flesh. Once cleaned, the bones would be bundled and placed in jars, wooden chests or baskets. The Lakota Indians continued this practice until the late 1800s.

A death-obsessed religion appeared in the State of Guerrero of southern Mexico over 2,000 years ago. Its primary symbol was am abstract vulture, very similar in appearance to the Rock Eagle in Georgia. (See image above.) Note that the body of the Guerrero vulture, Tzopilotl, is an exaggerated circle like the Rock Eagle in Middle Georgia. The core of the Rock Eagle was a conical stone mound.

Images of vultures can also be seen in the ceramic and copper art of the Hopewell Culture in the Ohio Basin. It flourished from around 200 BC to 500 AD. The people of this culture were obsessed with death. Many of their famous ceremonial sites were built around mortuary temples.

What would vultures have in common with the Equinox? American Turkey Vultures do migrate southward from the northern regions of eastern North America in the autumn and return in late March. Until becoming extinct in the late 1700s the Southeastern Painted Vulture probably migrated from the central Southeast to the Florida Peninsula in the autumn. William Bartram was one of two scientists-artists who painted the bird before it disappeared. The Painted Vulture was closely related to the Mesoamerican King Vulture, but not quite the same in appearance. (See slides associated with this article.)

The Painted Vulture was yet another victim of removal of Native Americans from their ancestral lands. A some point in the past, this magnificent bird became biologically dependent on eating cooked meat. Many were domesticated and lived in mortuary temples. Some were kept as pets by Native leaders. Those in the wild lived off the animals killed when Native Americans burned off the underbrush of forests.

The annual burnings of the forest floors by Native Americans encouraged grasses to grow. The grasses provided more nutrition for game animals than mature shrubs. In northeast Georgia, the Natives even created artificial prairies where large herds of Woodland Bison roamed. Once European settlers replaced the Natives, the annual burnings stopped. Almost immediately the Painted Vulture, the Southeastern Woodland Bison and the Southeastern Elk became extinct.

There is an important feature of the Rock Eagle that links the mound to the Painted Vulture. Both the Painted Vulture and its still existent cousin, the King Vulture, have predominantly white bodies. They are the only carrion eating birds in the world that have this coloration. The wings and tail feathers of these two vultures are intense shades of black and bronze. If the Rock Eagle actually portrays a Painted Vulture, it would make perfect sense for its builders to use white quartz for the body.

The Rock Eagle Archaeological site is owned by the federal government and maintained by the University of Georgia. The Rock Eagle Mound is located on the 1500 acre tract of Rock Eagle 4H Camp, which is owned by the University of Georgia. Admission is free.

The Rock Eagle 4H camp is located southeast of Atlanta, GA near US Highway 441, between Eatonton and Madison, GA. The mound is fenced. However, visitors may climb the stairs of a stone tower to get a complete view of the ancient shrine from above.