Secret History of the Ocmulgee Earth Lodge

For starters . . . the archaeologists, back in the 1930s, got it all wrong. It was not an earth lodge, like the Mandans built. Then we should tell you that the exhibits in the remodeled Ocmulgee Museum do not accurately portray the architecture and town plan that archaeologists Arthur Kelly and Joe Tamplin unearthed in the Ocmulgee Acropolis.

The model of the Ocmulgee Acropolis that I built for the Muscogee Creek Nation was literally constructed on top of the scaled site plan, drawn by Civil Engineer-Archaeologist Joe Tamplen. This is what Okmultee really looked like.

Part 23 of the Americas Connected series

by Richard L. Thornton, Architect and City Planner

Client: Muscogee-Creek Nation

Photos by the National Park Service

View of Ocmulgee “Earth Lodge” from parking lot
Visitors are actually seeing a reinforced concrete structure, covered with dirt.


Cvkofvrakko is the Muskogee Creek word for a rotunda or council house. It is pronounced Chō : kō : fä : räk : kō and in Muskogee means house – place of – large.  However, that word is derived from the Itza Maya and Eastern (Itsate) Creek word, Chokopa, which means “Warm – Place of.” The Chokopa was utilized by Itza Maya Commoners . . . especially merchants . . . as a place to worship the god, Kukulkan (aka Quetzalcoatl).

In early January 2010,  Muscogee-Creek District Judge, Patrick Moore, sent me an email, asking if the ancestors of the Creeks ever built any more earth lodges after the one in Ocmulgee. No one in Oklahoma knew that I was homeless. My sister didn’t even know this until June 2010.

This village was in one of the regions from which ancestors of the Creeks immigrated to the Southeast.
Soque Stomp Dance in ChiapasThe Soque were allies of the Itza Mayas. Their colonists settled a broad swath of NE Georgia. The Miccosukee in Florida and the Thlophlocco Tribal Town in Oklahoma are descendants of the Soque.
Cho’ite Maya Temple to Kukulkan in Tabasco (blurred detail of a photo)

I wrote back that the way that the Ocmulgee Earth Lodge was re-constructed in the 1930s was impossible, since no native grasses in the Southeast create sod.  What visitors see today is an engineered reinforced concrete structure, covered with dirt.   Muskogee-Creek cvkofvrakko’s (rotundas – see etymology) looked just like the ones that I had photographed in the mountains of Mexico. However, William Bartram visited several large cone-shaped chokopas (Eastern Creek word) in Middle Georgia and drew one of them. 

About a week later, the Special Projects Director of the Muscogee-Creek History Museum sent me an RFP to do research on the actual appearance of the Okmulgee Earth Lodge and to prepare construction drawings for erection of two such structures in Okmulgee, OK and Ocmulgee National Monument (GA) that met building code requirements for public meetings.

The research was a continuation of the research done for the Muscogee-Creek Nation in 2008, when I was asked to examine the original reports and drawings done by archaeologists Arthur Kelly and Joe Tamplin in the 1930s then build an accurate architectural model of the Ocmulgee Acropolis for a new MCN office building. 

A Bartram sketch, made in 1776 – on the left is an Eastern Creek chokopa in Middle Georgia that could hold 500 people.

I knew from my friendship with Arthur Kelly, while at Georgia Tech that he was bitter from being pushed aside by a series of archaeologists from New England and the Midwest, hired by the National Park Service after World War II to manage Ocmulgee National Monument and plan the exhibits in the new museum. I still have the ONM visitor’s guide from 1970, which states, (1) the Swift Creek Culture People came from Cape Cod, Massachusetts. (2) Ocmulgee was founded by immigrants from Cahokia. (3) The Creeks were simpletons who arrived in central Georgia after Ocmulgee was already abandoned.

The portrayal in Ocmulgee Museum exhibits of the occupants of Ocmulgee and 18th century Creek men, wearing mohawk haircuts and breach cloths was directly due to the gross ignorance of young James Ford, who knew nothing about the Creek Indians and had never read the De Soto Chronicles.  Artists and museum consultants from Florida guided the remodeling of the museum and so copied the mistakes made in the 1930s and 1950s.

This is where I concealed the fact that I was homeless!

By the time at historical and architectural research was finished, I was living in the vacation home on Fontana Lake, NC.   I was able to rent a booth with a highspeed internet connection for my architectural computer at a video parlor on the Cheoah River next to downtown Robbinsville, NC.  The construction drawings were transmitted digitally to a reprographic shop in Okmulgee, OK where the were converted into blue line prints.

Ocmulgee Acropolis around 1935

What you are never told about the Earth Lodge

Twenty-two year-old college drop-out,  James Ford, had just been awarded what to him was a dream job.  Despite James having less than two years of liberal arts courses at Mississippi College,  Arthur Kelly hired him to be an Assistant Archaeologist to help out Joe Tamplin, who was Supervising Archaeologist at Ocmulgee and daily responsible for coordinating as many as 200+ WPA laborers. 

Tamplin had a Civil Engineering degree from Georgia Tech and had passed the Licensing Exam for Professional Engineers. Arthur Kelly was responsible for all WPA-funded archaeological projects in Georgia and so was generally able to visit the massive Ocmulgee site only intermittently.  Throughout the WPA-funded excavations at Ocmulgee, Tamplin was the only person, other than Kelly, on the site with a college degree.

Tamplin is never mentioned in professional papers on Ocmulgee, even though he supervised all of the excavations on the acropolis and prepared all drawings. He is casually mentioned twice in the book, Ocmulgee Archaeology: 1936-1986 [1994]  In one place, he is labeled as a “laborer” in a photo and then in the chapter about the 50th anniversary convocation at Ocmulgee, the author states, “even one of the foremen, Joe Tamplin, attended the banquet.”  Thus, I should feel grateful when in a 2012 editorial, the Society for Georgia Archaeology called me, “a self-styled historian, who is really nothing, but an architect.”  

*One must have a minimum SAT score of 1410 and a 3.8 high school average to get into Georgia Tech’s architecture program. Those actually accepted tend to be much higher.  Even so, my freshman class had a 90% drop out/flunk out rate by the end of our Thesis year.

This was the Visitor Center and Archaeology Museum at Santo Domingo State Park. It is now a counseling center.

James Ford flubs the dub

After being trained in professional excavation techniques by Arthur Kelly and Joe Tamplin, Ford was assigned to a small project, being funded by the Smithsonian Institute.  The State of Georgia had created a state park out of the Hofwyl-Broadfield Plantation.  It was named Santo Domingo State Park, because the tabby ruins of the 17th century Mission Santo Domingo de Talaxi were presumed to be on the north end of the plantation, next to the Altamaha River.  Ford was assigned by the Smithsonian the professional title of “archaeologist” even though he only had three semesters of entry-level liberal arts courses and a few months of on-the-job training. 

Ford correctly interpreted the tabby ruins to be of a mid-18th century sugar mill.  That is pretty durn historic, but Ford did not consider it so.  Up stream from the tabby ruins, test pits revealed numerous 16th century French and Spanish artifacts, including French silverware and china.   He interpreted the artifacts as being a briefly occupied Spanish army camp, when in fact, he was on the real site of Fort Caroline [1564].  At the other end of the field, he came upon the trapezoidal earthworks of Fort San Mateo [1566], which he incorrectly interpreted as “some sort of Indian earthworks.”  He did not explore the fort. 

Photos of James Ford exploring the Tabby Ruins in 1934.

Downstream from the tabby ruins, Ford found a large Indian town and an area that was abundant with bronze weapons and tools.  Ford interpreted that location as also being a temporary Spanish Army camp from the late 1500s or 1600s.  Obviously, that couldn’t be, because Iberians switched from bronze to Iron tools around 600 BC.

Using a Smithsonian Institute letterhead,  Ford wrote a letter to the National Park Service, which described the structures and archaeological sites on the Hofwyl-Broadfield Plantation as being of no national historical significance.  The National Park Service had no clue that Ford was not qualified at that point in his education to be doing the work that he was assigned.  

The letter from the National Park Service to the Governor of Georgia was even more negative.  Georgia officials were so embarrassed that they closed the beautiful state park and converted it into a orphanage for unwanted children of the World War II era.  Eventually, the state traded that tract to the  Georgia Baptist Convention in return for the land under the Hapeville Baptist Home, which was utilized to expand the Atlanta Airport.  In recent years, Georgia has bought back some of the original tract.

Joe Tamplin is probably on the far right. Note the steel girders that support the concrete dome!

Mound D-1:  Ford flubs the dub again

In 1937,  Ford was assigned the excavation of a small mound, which turned out to be the ruins of a building, with the clay effigy of a raptor or vulture on its floor. It was one of at least eight round communal buildings on the Ocmulgee Acropolis that were discovered by  Arthur Kelly and Joe Tamplin.

The initial excavation work was careless, since it was thought to be an insignificant burial mound.  The details of the entrance and outer support structure were destroyed in the process.

Ford did not know that the Creek Indians and their ancestors typically burned dilapidated buildings and then covered them with clay as if they were burying a person.  Instead, Ford decided that Ocmulgee was founded by Mandan Indians.  His interpretation of D1’s interior and structure was based on a visit to a reconstructed Mandan lodge in a national park on the Missouri River.  The diameter of the Mandan lodge’s interior was 15 feet less than D1, but Ford kept the same ceiling height.

While excavating the D1 Mound (Earth Lodge) James Ford unearthed fragments of decorative split cane mats on the walls and the floor of the room. It was impossible to recreate the images painted onto the mats, but having brightly patterned mats on the walls and the floor, would have given a far less primitive look to the space than the raw dirt that one sees today. In my drawings, I include the mats.

Joe Tamplin informed Ford that the low ceiling height created such a flat pitched roof that it was impossible to frame the structure with raw timbers, which could hold up the load of several feet of earth.  So, Tamplin designed a reinforced concrete dome upon which wood timbers were attached in the interior.  

Thus, today we have a legion of websites describing the astronomical magic of a reinforced concrete structure that was designed in 1937.  It is a quite similar situation to Etowah Mounds where people assign all sorts of magic to mounds that were either built around 1961 by employees of the Georgia Parks Department or in the case of Mound A,  drastically altered by artifact collectors and Union soldiers in the 1800s. d

The real geometric magic of the so-called Earth Lodge

In analyzing the dimensions of the drawings done of D1 by Joe Tamplin.  I discovered something fascinating.  The builders of the D-1 were very skilled in geometry.  They knew the three dimensional version of Pythagorean theorem, which is illustrated below.  Using math, it quickly became obvious how the architects of the Pre-Columbian Southeast, constructed large chokopa’s.

Two of the construction drawings

Now you know!

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