Unraveling the secrets of an ancient burial ground in the Nacoochee Valley

Part 20 of The Americas Connected series

by Richard L. Thornton, Architect and City Planner

Initial research suggests that the fieldstone sarcophagi in the old Nacoochee Valley Burial Ground were constructed by Europeans from somewhere along the Atlantic Coast of Europe. “When” and “Who” remains unanswered. The highpoint of the cemetery was formerly a stone ring, aligned with the center point of the Kenimer Pyramid and the Temple of the Invisible Sun Goddess, Amana.

On Saturday, June 18, 2022,  I visited the extremely old cemetery behind Nacoochee United Methodist Church, which is on the northern slopes of the Nacoochee Valley in Northeast Georgia.  Marked graves date at least back to the early 1820s, but there are hundreds of unmarked graves and fieldstone cairns, which seem older.  How much older is an unanswered question

The focus of my initial inquiry were the stone sarcophagi or cairns.  At least a dozen of these enigmatic structures were shaped like simple huts.  Others might have originally been cylindrical cairns . . . which are endemic in the Georgia Gold Belt.  The typical stone sarcophagus at the Nacoochee Cemetery is composed of volcanic fieldstone (rhyolite or basalt) measuring 4 feet wide, 7 feet long and 3 feet high.

The cemetery is located on a natural spiral terrain form that culminates at a hilltop with a view of the entire valley.  There is a stone ring at this location.   However, where the oldest part of the cemetery and the stone sarcophagi were constructed, this natural ramp actually dips down from another Pre-Columbian worship site and former stone ring with a vantage point.  All of the old graves are on the north slope that hill.  Every cairn cemetery that I have studies in north Georgia is on the southwest or  west slope of a hill or mountain. 

A Near Visible Light Infrared Scan revealed a sub-terrain landscape in the Old Burial Ground, pockmarked with unmarked graves. There are hundreds of bodies that were hastily buried, one on top of another. During the peak period of the Georgia Gold Rush, thousands of men labored in the vicinity of the Chattahoochee, Soque, Chestatee, Etowah and Nottely Rivers in hope of becoming rich. Almost all came without families or close kin. Hundreds of them came involuntarily as slaves of Coastal Planters, who formed mining companies. The largest gold mining company was owned by South Carolina Senator, John C. Calhoun. Georgia contains the purest gold in the world. Apparently, this gold along with associated deposits of diamonds, rubies, sapphires, copper and natural brass have drawn immigrants for thousands of years. Gold foil and gold chains were major export items for the Apalache-Creeks, whose Capital was in the Nacoochee Valley until around 1700 AD.
  • The Itsate (same name in both Maya and Eastern Creek) originally buried their dead under the floors of houses in stone lined sarcophagi.  After about two centuries in the Valley, the Itsate apparently ran out of flag stones for burials and from then on, buried their dead in shallow graves under the floor or near the house.
  • The Apalache-Creek mummified their elite and put them on display in temples, until the cadavers started molding. The mummies were then placed in hand-dug tombs in royal cemeteries at the crests of mountains. Lower status Apalache were buried in tombs dug into the sides of hills or river banks.
  • Muskogee-Creek and Upper Creek towns typically placed their burial mounds and cemeteries on the west side of a town or across a river to the west. 
  • The Proto-Chickasaws in the Nacoochee Valley buried their dead in low mound on the north end of the village.  This was the custom of the Campeche Mayas, who built identical houses and oval shaped villages in Campeche.  Thus, this cemetery does not appear to have been established by Indigenous Americans . . . at least those ancestral to the Creeks, Chickasaws and Uchee.

It is also an odd location for a Christian cemetery.  Christian cemeteries typically are on the south or southeast slope of a hill, because they are also used for Sunrise Services at Easter time.  The 20th century graves at Nacoochee Methodist are on the south slope of the hill, much closer to the church.  

Interpreting any site here is very complicated

Back in 1939,  the famous archaeologist, Robert Wauchope, studied the Nacoochee Valley for a year.  He found that humans had occupied the valley at least since the Late Ice Age.  Only a few years after Clovis points were even identified, he found 35 Clovis points incidentally while digging through alluvial soil. He also found plenty of mastodon teeth, plus bones of several extinct megafauna.

Near my home on the eastern end of the Valley (not on the map) are mountainside stone structures, typical of the Neolithic and Bronze Age in the Scottish Highlands and southwestern Ireland.  Yet, in the valleys nearby are mounds typical of several cultures during the Woodland and Southeastern Ceremonial Mound Period. One, the Arnold Mound is identical to Mound A at Kolomoki, 330 miles (531 km) to the southwest.  Swift Creek pottery is found in and near this mound.  Yet, the village seems to have occupied long after Kolomoki was abandoned.

Permanent villages were established here as early as 1200 BC. They produced Deptford Culture Style (cord-wrapped, beaker) pottery, which was identical to what was being made in Ireland and southern Scandinavia at that time.  A Deptford village on the Chattahoochee River just north of Helen built two large mounds.  Some village sites were continuously occupied until around 1700 AD.  The styles of architecture, pottery and tools evolved rather than suggesting abrupt ethnic changes. Long occupied village.

Another odd thing that Wauchope discovered was that large villages could be as close as 100 feet (30 meters) apart, yet obviously be occupied by different ethnic groups, because their architecture and pottery were quite different.   Some of these villages were neighbors for centuries.  

In village sties, adjacent to the Upper Chattahoochee River, Wauchope found artifact strata for cultural phases, identical to those of the Middle Chattahoochee and Upper Ocmulgee River Basins.  Just about at the point of peak population density,  Wauchope began to see a scattering of 16th century European artifacts that steadily increased in numbers as he traveled forward in time.   Then he reached a band of alluvial soil 5 to 15 feet deep that only contained small artifacts washed down stream by a flood.  This was probably a sudden snow melt caused by the explosion of Chimney Mountain Volcano. 

Above the band of alluvial soil, he only encountered objects typical of Europeans. He interpreted this to mean that the occupants of the valley, whether indigenous, mixed-heritage or from the Old World had completed adopted European lifestyles.  This period was followed by a few decades of chaos in the strata caused by intensive gold mining techniques such as high-pressure hoses.

For a year and a half, while Wauchope was the anthropology professor at the University of Georgia, Wauchope searched for Cherokee-style artifacts or villages in the Upper Chattahoochee River Basin.  Although the Nacoochee Valley was within the boundaries of the Cherokee Nation from 1785 to 1821, apparently no ethnic Cherokees lived there.

Review of literature

The archaeological profession seems to be unaware of stone sarcophagi in cemeteries.  There a few studies of cylindrical stone cairns, presumed to have been built by Indigenous Americans.

There were two websites on the subject by non-archaeologists.  Both described one or two such structures being found in some Colonial Period cemeteries within the Southeastern Piedmont.   However, these were substantially smaller than those at the Nacoochee Cemetery. 

I remember seeing some fieldstone sarcophagi of the size at the Nacoochee Cemetery in central Mexico, associated with Early Colonial Period cemeteries.  Research of Mexican archaeological literature online revealed that these were believed to have been built by recent immigrants from northwestern Spain.

Further research into Spanish, Irish and French architectural websites revealed that sarcophagi, identical in shape and size to those in the Nacoochee Valley were commonplace during the Middle Ages near the Atlantic Coast in the provinces of Galicia, Asturias and Navarre.  These are also the provinces in Iberia, where there are the richest gold deposit.*  They were also constructed along the Atlantic Coasts of Ireland and Scotland.   In all cases, these sarcophagi were utilized with the soil was two shallow for standard burials.  It is theorized that these sarcophagi originated as monuments for human cremation rituals.

*I have never met anybody in North Georgia, claiming to be Cherokee, who had any Native American DNA test markers show up in lab tests.  Several “old time” Habersham County families, who thought of themselves as Cherokees, have confided in me that there “Indian Blood” turned out to be either from Northwestern Iberia or Sephardic Jewish.

Photo Gallery

The original ceremonial path leading to the shrine is now paved.
There are numerous stone cairns in disarray on the eastern edge of the cemetery.

Happy Creek New Year!

2 Comments

    1. Courtney, I have this feeling that there are many old burials around them that were disturbed when the gold miners poured into the valley in the late 1820s and 1830s. They would not have been interested in bits of bone, shoes or clothing left in the ground. The soil in North Georgia eats up human remains rather quickly. While was Principal Planner at Cobb County, GA about 25 years ago, archaeologists unearthed a group of buried Confederate soldiers from the Battle of Kennesaw Mountain (1864). All that was left of them were small bone fragments, their teeth, brass belt buckles and their uniform buttons.

      Liked by 1 person

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