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Georgia’s Etowah Indian Mounds Historic Site


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    Musings: Authors do it Write!

    Published 3-26-2021

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    Good pandemic travel destinations need to be interesting, generally not crowded, and preferably mostly out-of-doors. Etowah Indian Mounds just off Interstate 75 north of Atlanta near Cartersville, Georgia meets that definition. It includes a small museum with a huge outdoor expanse which was the largest Native American settlement in the Etowah Valley. Still remaining are historic Indian mounds on the north bank of the Etowah River.

    Etowah Mounds State Historic Site claims to be the most intact Mississippian Culture site in the Southeast. It is a 54-acre historic landscape which drew Native Americans to a location which included a ceremonial complex of ritual and burial mounds. The site was occupied from about 900 A.D. to 1550 A.D. and the population reached several thousand Native Americans. Walking across the site to view the six earthen mounds, you will encounter borrow pits, a defensive ditch, the village site, and a plaza. Mounds A, B, and C are the most prominent and interesting ones.

    The museum is full of wood, seashell, and stone artifacts that illustrate the political and religious nature of the site. The natives decorated themselves with paint, shell beads, intricate hairdos, feathers, and copper ear ornaments. A highlight is125-pound hand-carved effigies that still bear some original pigments. The mounds are adjacent to the Etowah River and a V-shaped fish trap of the type used by the natives is visible on the river. The trail through the site includes descriptions of native trees were used for food and medicine.   

    Some History

    Signage calls it a “chiefly village.” Its population and size increased and decreased over its 600 years of occupation. Village residents supplied the labor that supported the society’s elite. They raised crops, hunted and fished, built mounds and palisades, made tools, baskets, and pottery, prepared hides, cooked, trained their children, traded with other villages, played games of chunkey, celebrated the seasons, and worshiped their gods. Many were trained to carry out specific tasks such as the production of chipped or ground stone tools. Others created beautiful hide garments or the copper ornaments worn by Etowah’s elite.

    At times, disease, famine, drought, floods, fires harsh winters, seasonal storms, and regional warfare drove the people from the village. Yet, they always returned because of its ceremonial importance and its status as an ancient capital. After A.D. 1550, Etowah’s occupants moved down river along the Coosa River in Alabama. Some researchers believe the arrival of Europeans caused this social disruption. It is well-documented that European diseases, such as measles and smallpox, decimated many native populations. By the time the Etowah River Valley saw its first European settlers, the local Cherokee Indians attributed the mounds to an ancient people remembered only in their oral traditions.

    The de Soto expedition visited Etowah. In May 1539, Hernando de Soto arrived on the west coast of Florida (near present day Bradenton). With over 620 men and 220 horses, he journeyed over the interior South for three years. In August 1540 his army departed from the main Indian town of Coosa and traveled to the south, crossing the Etowah River at the town of Itaba, now called Etowah, before proceeding on to the chiefdom of Ulibahali at present-day Rome, Georgia. At Etowah archaeologists have unearthed several artifacts that date to the period of de Soto’s travels, indicating his presence in the area.

    What to Expect

    Etowah is a state historical site, and a historical marker is at the entrance. A picnic area is located near the parking lot. A Native American chief statue greets the visitors at the museum entrance.


    The site is worthy of a state historical marker

     Native American Chief

    You will start your visit at the museum where you pay a small fee to enter. The museum has many displays of artifacts discovered at the site, including Mississippian culture pottery and stone statuary, monolithic stone axes, copper jewelry, and shell beads. The culture is also discussed, including trade networks, religious customs, games, diet, and crafts.

    Example of pottery artifact.

    One of dozens of displays.

    The hand-carved human marble effigies discovered during the excavation of Mound C.

    The feather headdress.

    The diorama and overview map below give an idea of the layout of the site. In the diorama, Mound A is the large one in the upper right, with the rectangular plaza extending in front of the staircase. To the left side of the plaza is Mound B and Mound C is in the upper left-hand corner.  The overview map gives a better idea of what the entire site looked like.

    Diorama of the mound sizes and locations.

    Overview map showing entire village.

    As the visitors leave the museum for the trail to the mounds, one of the first encounters is a wattle and daub house, reminiscent of those that covered the site between 1250 and 1325 A.D. It was constructed using upright posts with woven green cane (wattle) between each. Volunteers applied daub or Georgia clay mixed with grass and water to cover the wattle. While some of Etowah’s structures were round, the majority built during Etowah’s most densely populated period were square. Close-by is part of the defensive ditch/borrow pit.

     Visitors to the village were met by a prominent wall and defensive ditch, demonstrating strength to approaching enemies.

    Etowah’s wattle and daub house.

    : Part of the defensive ditch and borrow pit.

    Mound A is topped by a platform that provided the foundation for the great temple that housed the chief and his family. It stands about 65 feet tall with a base measuring 395-by-335 feet.  From the top, the chief presided over ceremonies on the plaza below. While the plaza is difficult to discern from ground level, from the top its outline becomes visible. The outline of the ditch system is also visible from the top (it is marked by a modern fence). Of course, the staircase is modern and a ramp, projecting from the eastern side, provided access to the top. A smaller terrace is attached to the mound’s south side. Mound A has not been completely excavated.

    Some perspective, the larger Mound A to the right of Mound B.

    Mound A presents an imposing picture

    .: Just as imposing is the ramp to the top of Mound A

     Mound B was also a temple platform and has never been completely excavated. Most likely a lessor chief or priest resided on top of Mound B. Mound C has been completely excavated and reconstructed. Most of the artifacts in the museum came from this mound, including the marble effigy statues. Mound C was a mortuary mound where many burials took place. The 350 burials unearthed in the mound told scientists much about burial and ceremonial practices, classes, dress, diet, diseases, and trade patterns of the natives.  

    Mound B from the top of Mound A.

    Mound C, with the edge of Mound A’s southern terrace.

    The Etowah River is near the mounds and there is a trail along the river. The Native Americans built fire traps using stones or river rocks for the purpose of trapping and catching fish. The trap would be built in a narrow passage of a flowing stream or river, making catching fish much easier. Rocks were piles in a V-shaped formation in shallow river areas, with large woven baskets (the trap) placed in the open point of the V to catch fish. Bass, catfish, freshwater mussels, and turtles were important food sources. When the river is low the fish trap is visible in the river. 

    The Etowah River in spring, with the fish trap barely visible in the distance

    This is a perfect pandemic day trip. Most of the visit will be outside and the museum has wide aisles and a natural flow that keeps people apart. There is a lot of history, cultural and natural, to make for an interesting day. On some Saturdays educational programs are available (like Tools and Weapons Day or Skills of the Past Day). It is a historic site well worth a visit.

    Author: Thomas J. Straka is a forestry professor emeritus at Clemson University. He has a keen interest in political and natural history.
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