Was the Ocmulgee earth lodge an astronomical observatory and sophisticated scientific apparatus designed to forewarn its designers of impending catastrophe coming from the heavens?
The earth lodge at the Ocmulgee Mounds site in Macon, Georgia is a unique building among Native American archaeological sites in the Southeast. It is a round building completely covered with earth except for a smoke hole in the center of the roof to allow smoke to escape from the central fire pit below. Entry into the earth lodge was from the east through a low, long, tunnel-like, earth-covered corridor. One would have to crouch or crawl until he reached the central, round chamber before he could stand fully erect again. According to the Creek Migration Legend this structure was where the tribe’s warriors would gather “to fast and purify their bodies,” thus entry was likely limited to males exclusively.
The main chamber was bounded by a low wall upon which rested the lower ends of the roof timbers. There were four large upright posts in the middle of this circular chamber that supported four horizontal posts that formed a large square. The middle of the roof timbers rested on these horizontal timbers and on top of these timbers earth was piled thereby creating the earth-covered roof of this structure. The roof timbers did not all meet in the center instead leaving a large hole through which smoke could escape.
In the center of the floor between these four upright posts was a large fire pit molded into the clay floor. Along the floor against the circular low wall were a series of 47 seats molded into the clay floor. Each had a small cubbyhole molded into the front of the seat, the exact purpose of which is unknown although it was likely a place to store personal items.
On the western end of this round chamber was a large, elevated platform or altar in the shape of a bird. The bird likely represented a raptor, either an eagle or falcon, both highly revered among Creek Indians. Surrounding the eye of the raptor was a design known as the ‘forked eye motif.’ It had the appearance of a two-tailed comet. (More on this later.) This is the earliest known instance of this symbol, which eventually became widespread throughout much of Southeastern and Midwestern America. One researcher noted that mythological beings represented with the forked-eye surround were associated with the celestial realmwhich is consistent with a comet interpretation. Finally, three more seats were located on this platform bringing the total number of seats in this great chamber to fifty. Clearly these three elevated seats were reserved for very important persons.
The only artifact excavated from the interior of the chamber was a large conch shell. These shells were reserved for serving a ritual tea known as both the “black drink” because of its color and the “white drink” because of its use in purification rituals. The tea was made from the leaves of the yaupon holly plant. The leaves of this plant had high concentrations of caffeine, many times more than a similar amount of coffee, and was drunk piping hot thus increasing the absorption of caffeine into the bloodstream.
Origins of the Ocmulgee Earth Lodge
Creek Indian tradition maintains that the Ocmulgee Mounds site in Macon, Georgia was the site where they “first sat down” after their long migration from the west. One version of the Creek Migration Legend states that one of the first structures the tribe built when they arrived at their final destination in the east was a “mound [with a] great chamber in the center.”
The earth lodge was unearthed at Ocmulgee Mounds during excavations in 1938. The earth lodge had been burned and archaeologists were able to date this charcoal to around 1015 AD. Whether the structure was burned by its own inhabitants or by an attacking enemy is unknown. What is known is that the structure is unique in the Southeast. Archaeologist Lewis Larson noted that the 19th century researcher Swanton
“provided the most detailed and exhaustive survey of the ethnohistorical literature covering the domestic and public architecture of the southeastern Indians. A review of his survey reveals that there are no structures comparable to the Macon Plateau earth lodge as it has been described by Kelly….”
In other words, during the time period that the migration legends were recorded, no known structure similar to an earth lodge was in existence thus: 1) how could a Native American informant at this time describe such a structure while recounting his tribe’s migration legend and 2) how could the description of this structure match perfectly with the archaeological data from excavations conducted nearly 200 years afterthe legend was recorded? Either the informant in question was psychic or the legend is an accurate recounting of real historical events.
This very uniqueness caused Larson to call into question Kelly’s “earth lodge” interpretation of his findings and Larson even went so far as to refute the very existence of earth lodges in the Southeast even at Ocmulgee Mounds. Yet the migration legend seems to support Kelly’s interpretation of the data as, indeed, a “mound with a central chamber,” i.e., earth lodge.
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