Savannah’s Bilbo Mound . . . the oldest architecture and civil engineering in North America

by Richard L. Thornton, Architect & City Planner

The Bilbo Mound in Savannah, GA is one of the oldest known examples of architecture and civil engineering in the Americas and certainly the oldest in North America. Currently, it predates any mound or public works project in Mexico.   The base of the structure was radiocarbon dated in 1957 by the famous Louisiana archaeologist William C. Haag.  Construction began around 3,545 BC.  It may have merely been a man-made island within a man-made harbor initially, but over many years grew incrementally due to multiple burials and applications of soil layers. At a yet to be determined point in time, it also became a timber platform village.

Middle layers of the mound dated from around 2165 BC and contained some of the earliest pottery in North America – the Bilbo style pottery. It was fiber tempered like its contemporary Stallings Island Pottery upstream, but had little or no decoration on it.  The last construction levels of the mound were dated to about 1750 BC. There is evidence that later peoples utilized the mound for burials, but did not significantly increase its size.

Near Downtown Savannah is an extraordinary cluster of ancient mounds.

Archaeologists Joseph Caldwell and Antonio Waring first studied the Bilbo Mound in 1941. The mound was partially excavated by WPA-funded laborers under the supervision of these two famous archaeologists.  Artifacts removed from the site were found to be similar to those of the Dulany Shell Mound to the west and stored for future analysis.  At the time, radiocarbon dating didn’t exist and the archaeology profession had no clue that the oldest pottery in North America was in Georgia.

Haag had professional credentials in both civil engineering and anthropology.  He was originally hired in 1957 to study the Bilbo site in anticipation of an oil company terminal being built on the site. Fortunately, the ancient excavations and earthworks were never disturbed.  In the process, he became intrigued by the ancient mounds in that part of Savannah and thus excavated the Bilbo Mound because of his own initiative.

Other archaeologists thought both dates for the charcoal and pottery were impossible and so did not publicize Haag’s full results. They speculated that the builders of the mound had burned “old wood” while starting its construction.  The profession’s decades long hostility to Haag’s research was so comprehensive that the mere existence of the Bilbo Mound would have been forgotten, had not his friend and Savannah-born archaeologist, Antonio Waring, added Haag’s report in one of his reports. 

Haag went on to lead the excavation of Poverty Point, Louisiana, a semicircular earthen platform village with large mounds, dating from 1700 BC.  He also assisted in the initial studies of the Watson Brake earthworks in northern Louisiana, which have been radiocarbon dated to 3450 BC.  Other archaeologists determined that Georgia’s Stallings Island pottery dated from around 2400 BC or earlier, plus there were several mounds near the Bilbo, which were built as early as 2800 BC.  Until recently, Stallings Island pottery was the oldest ceramic in the Americas, but older pottery has now been found in the Amazon Basin.  Meanwhile, the archaeology profession completely forgot about the time when they dissed Haag’s discoveries at the Bilbo Mound.

Subsequent generations of archeology students were not told about the Bilbo Mound. This is the reason that there is so little information about the mound in such sources as Wikipedia.  It is only in the period beginning in 2012 that Savannah residents became aware again of the many ancient mounds clustered between the Savannah Golf Course and Savannah River, immediately southeast of its historic downtown.  The Savannah Golf Course and Country Club is the oldest golf course in the nation.  It began during the American Revolution when bored Scottish occupation soldiers played golf among the ancient mounds and ponds southeast of the Colonial city. 

In recent years, Savannah Area archaeologists have continued the study of the Bilbo Mound and its environs.  Construction on the site began as the excavation of a canal to the Savannah River with a circular pond at its end.  In its earliest form, the Bilbo Mound was an island in the center of the pond, created by piling the soil, excavated to create the pond.  Archaeologists have also found extensive evidence that at one time, there was a village, built on timber pilings around the peripheral areas of the pond and on the surrounding low-lying wetland.  Thus, Bilbo Mound appears to have been a man-made port of extraordinary age, older than most timber pile villages in Europe. It is from the same time period of the oldest known timber pile villages in France and Switzerland.

The identity of who initially excavated the canal, harbor and mound is anybody’s guess at this point.  It strongly resembles the man-made harbors, built along the southern coast of the Iberian Peninsula and northwestern Africa during the Early and Middle Bronze Age . . . BUT is a thousand years older. No ceramics or metals were discovered below the 1850 BC level. It is possible that the acidic brine water of the Savannah might have completely dissolved copper, but there is absolutely no evidence at this point.  The burials in the mound seem to be quite similar to those of contemporary indigenous American burials elsewhere in the lower Southeast. DNA testing will be impossible because the moist, acid soil decomposed most of the skeletal remains. 

The cessation of construction at the Bilbo Mound slight preceded the appearance of new, more culturally advanced peoples, in southern Mexico and northern Louisiana. The Maya Migration Legend states that they originated in a frigid land of ice and snow then migrated southward along the Atlantic Coast of North America before island hopping to Yucatan.  There may be a “Mayan Connection” to the site.  There may not be. It is merely an alternative interpretation of what information is now available.  Whatever the final answer to this riddle, the Bilbo Site is a extraordinary asset for the City of Savannah, a locale already rich with legacies from America’s past.

*EtymologyBilbo is probably not a Native American place name. Bilbo is defined by the Merriam-Webster Dictionary as a long bar of iron with sliding shackles used to confine the feet of prisoners especially on shipboard.

5 Comments

    1. My understanding is that archaeologists have been working there for a couple of years and have discovered that there was a village built on timber piers around the mound . . . which was actually a man-made island in a man-made canal, connecting with the Savannah River. There is a fence around the archaeological zone now. As for specific preservation plans by the City of Savannah, I just don’t know.

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