National Native American Heritage Month
It is currently the oldest known “public works” structure in the Americas. The village may be much older, but local residents began building an island in a river port, 5,562 years ago!
by Richard L. Thornton, Architect and City Planner
Like so many other hundreds of sites in Georgia’s extraordinary legacy of world-class ancient architecture, the Bilbo Mound was almost lost to the construction of a drainage canal, because the strange propensity of late 20th century archaeologists in the state to keep ancient structures and archeological sites a secret from almost everybody . . . including archaeologists in other parts of the nation. When that generation began retiring and dying off just as the actual number of professional archaeologists in the state collapsed due to lack of career opportunities, many ancient structures were destroyed by construction or just plain forgotten.
The administration of Gov. Jimmy Carter in the early 1970s, created a network of regional historic preservation architects and planners to protect historic and prehistoric sites in both urban and rural areas of Georgia. Then in 1995, while I was Principal Planner and Historic Preservation Planner for Cobb County, GA, the state’s archaeologists demanded that the State Register of Historic and Prehistoric Sites be physically removed from regional and local historic preservation offices. All preservation of these sites would be handled by staff in the state historic preservation office. Four historic preservation architects and two planners were hired by the state to replace 24 regional/local preservation officers.
Anyone other than an anthropologist, wishing to see the Historical and Archaeological Site Register or the State’s Historical-Archaeological Archives would have to be personally approved by a single anthropology professor at the University of Georgia. This was a thinly veiled effort by archaeology consulting firms to steal the professional practice of historic preservation from licensed architects and engineers. The anthropologists didn’t know what they didn’t know. There is a reason, why the National Architects Licensing Exam last 48 hours! In 2006, the UGA professor wouldn’t even let me see photographs of the archaeological excavations at Etowah Mounds, when I was building the Etowah Mounds model for the Muscogee-Creek Nation. Meanwhile, by 2010 the unemployment rate for those holding postgraduate degrees in anthropology had risen to 85%.
The politicians running Georgia shifted dramatically to anti-intellectual and anti-cultural values in the late 1990s. The Georgia Music Hall of Fame was closed. Professional historians and archeologists were fired at Native American Archaeological Sites. Both Underwater Archaeologists were fired. New Echota National Historic Site professional staff was laid-off then replaced by local volunteers. One by one, the historic preservation officer positions in both regional and state agencies were unfunded. The primary concern of legislators became shifting the tax burden to less affluent people and expanding the right to carry guns to churches, bars and college campuses. (Yes, really!)
Cities like Savannah, Macon and Atlanta continue to fund professional historic preservation architects and planners, but no one is watching the hen house in more rural areas of the state. Unfortunately, It is very rare to find an urban historic preservation bureaucrat, who is the least bit interested in Native American heritage sites. That was certainly the case in Savannah and Atlanta.
Getting the word out
Because both the state government and archaeologists had dropped the ball, it was up to private sector historic preservationist to take the ball and run. I became interested in the Bilbo Mound, while reading the Waring Papers, a book composed of all the field notes and reports written by archaeologist Antonio Waring, Jr. Most were never published in professional journals. At the time, there was absolutely no information about the Bilbo site on the internet. Waring had worked at the Bilbo Mound in 1939. Following the description of his work, he gave a summary of the examination of the mound by William G. Haag in 1957. I was astounded at Haag’s radiocarbon dates, but very little else was told about what Haag’s excavation revealed.
The article in my national architecture column in the Examiner sparked interest in Savannah, which then encouraged two archeologists to post their research reports on the Bilbo Site in the web. Particularly, important was the online publishing of Archaeologist William Haag’s presentation on the Bilbo Mound to some professors in Louisiana. Making these reports public has greatly aided historic preservationists in Savannah.
Description of the Bilbo Archaeological Site
The center of the Bilbo Mound is located approximately 2,300 feet (701 m) south of the Savannah River and approximately 3000 feet (914 m) east of the Downtown Savannah National Historic District. It was originally a seven feet high man-made island, but became an accretional burial mound that gradually increased in diameter and height over time.
The archaeological site began as a pond of fresh water created by a spring. Overflow from the pond flowed into the Savannah River, whose bottom was much higher than today, due to repeated dredging by the US Army Corps of Engineers. Around 5,562 years ago, humans began piling a bluish-gray clay in the center of the pond to create an island and deepen the pond. The stream flowing to the river was slowly dredged by hand to create a canal, which would enable canoes to reach the Savannah River.
When construction of the island began, the Atlantic Ocean at the mouth of the Savannah River was about 11 feet lower than today. A recent sea level curve from nearby in South Carolina indicates a sudden sea level rise beginning about 3500 BC, followed by an equally rapid 2 meter drop a century or two later. (Journal of Coastal Research, Special Pub. 27, p. 192.) During the 20th century, the rate of sea level increase began accelerating, such that it is now almost a foot higher than in 1900.
Waring: As part of the Chatham County WPA funded archaeological program, Antonio Waring, Jr. first excavated the Bilbo Mound in 1939, under the supervision of Archaeologist Joseph Caldwell. Waring discovered in the upper half of the mound, burials, grave goods, detritus of human occupation and samples of indigenous pottery that seemed the time span of all indigenous pottery styles on the Georgia coast from the earliest known fiber tempered ware to a mixture of Historic Creek and European shards in the upper level. The detritus indicated that the occupants of the area around the mound were both fishermen and hunters, using Neolithic technology. No metal objects or European artifacts were unearthed, except in the top layer. Of course, in 1939 radiocarbon dating had not been invented so he could not determine the precise ages of the mound’s earliest construction and usages.
Haag: In 1957 Louisiana geologist and archaeologist, William G. Haag, was hired by the National Park Service to study Native American archaeological sites on the coast of North Carolina. When his work was complete in North Carolina, he began a soil and geological survey of a tract of land, east of the Bilbo Canal at the behest of the Humble Oil Company, which planned to build a petroleum products terminal on the site. The design engineers were not certain that the damp bog soil could support conventional industrial construction.
Haag was approached by Antonio Waring and asked to examine vertical profiles of the mound to determine its age. Apparently, Waring had not given much attention to the bluish-gray clay that lay below strata containing burials and artifacts. Haag excavated test pits and ditches in the Bilbo Mound.
The Humble Oil Company and National Park Service agreed to pay for radiocarbon dating of sample organic materials. With radiocarbon dating, Haag determined that the mound was begun around 3,540 BC, based on charcoal found throughout much of the 6.5 feet of otherwise sterile bluish-gray clay. There were no ceramic artifacts older than 1,850 BC.
Haag could find no artifacts that might identify the builders of the original bluish-gray mound. Stalling’s Island pottery is the oldest known pottery in North America and dates from about 2500 BC-1800 BC. It was first identified near Augusta, GA about 122 miles (196 km) north of the Bilbo Mound. None was found in the Bilbo Mound, but Haag did find primitive fiber tempered potsherds at the 1800 BC level.
Haag gave a presentation in Louisiana after returning from Georgia and North Carolina. It is clear that most of his personal peers refused to accept the early dates of the mound’s construction and human occupation. They thought it ludicrous that any mound or pottery in Georgia would be many centuries older than those in Ohio and Illinois.* The Bilbo Mound was over 3,000 years older than the oldest mound in Ohio! Apparently, Haag made no attempt to describe his discoveries in nationally published media after the negative reaction from regional archaeologists.
*A decade later, when I entered Georgia Tech, our anthropology textbook stated that the first mounds, first pottery, first permanent villages and first cultivation of domesticated plants occurred in Ohio. These books also stated that Cahokia, Illinois was the first large town with pyramidal mounds and large cultivated fields of corn. It was not explained how corn seeds could hop 1400 miles from the coast of Veracruz State in Mexico to southern Illinois!
Haag’s findings were not included in the State of Georgia’s archaeological case file for the Bilbo Mound or in publications by the University of Georgia’s Department of Anthropology. It is quite likely that most archaeologists in Georgia were unaware that the Bilbo Mound existed until recently. It is largely ignored in nationally published professional media to this day.
Haag went on to devote much of his career to Poverty Point, Louisiana. Unlike the situation in Georgia, his radiocarbon dates for Poverty Point, Louisiana were accepted by most of his professional peers. Even though Haag’s work was published in a book by Georgia archaeologist, Antonio Waring, who has the state’s archeological laboratory named after him, most other Georgia archaeologists have ignored the significance of Haag’s findings and so the world does not know that the Bilbo is the oldest known mound in North America.
Crook: In 2001, 2006 and 2007 University of West Georgia archaeology professor, Morgan R. Crook, Jr. led a student team in the investigation of the swampy area around the Bilbo Mound. At the time, Crook was director of the Antonio Waring Archaeological Laboratory. The 2006 and 2007 seasons were funded by the Georgia Department of Transportation in anticipation of the ancient canal being drastically enlarged and reinforced with modern construction materials to provide a means of draining stormwater from Downtown Savannah during low tide. The new Bilbo Regional Storm Drainage Canal is now in operation, so it will be impossible to carry out archaeological work on the original Native American canal.
Morgan Crook’s team confirmed the antiquity of the Bilbo Mound, but also made discoveries that neither Waring nor Haag considered. This was a permanent village site. It was obviously a large village because some of the ancient shell and earthen mounds near the Bilbo Mound are quite large. The Dulaney Mound parallels the south side of the Bilbo Canal and may include soils excavated from the Bilbo Canal. It is 750 feet (229 m) long and dates from 2,800 BC. Obviously, there was a large population living near these two mounds. Mound building began in Mexico around 1000 BC. The region, where the Olmec Civilization arose, did not fabricate pottery until around 900 BC.
The most surprising discovery by Morgan Crook’s team was that there was a large timber platform village over part of the Bilbo Pond, which also extended out over the adjacent damp landscape. The number of timber piers and varying ages of those timbers, suggest that this was a large village, which occupied for a considerable period of time. The platform village was occupied by people, who made typical indigenous American artifacts of that era. They fed themselves by fishing, netting, trapping and hunting, plus the gathering of edible wild vegetables, nuts and fruits. There was no evidence of agriculture.
This was game changer. It could be argued that the astonishing concentration of large, ancients mounds on the east side of Yamacraw Bluff indicates a very large permanent for what was to become the City of Savannah at very early time. Conservative archaeologists could argue back that the mounds represented regional gatherings or religious events. However, the timber platform village is absolute proof that the Bilbo Site is one of the oldest permanent village (or town) sites in the Americas.