Georgia: Ocmulgee National Monument

Ocmulgee earth lodge exterior
Exterior of the reconstructed earthlodge.

Courtesy of the National Park Service (James Laray)

Beginning with the hunters of the Ice Age before 9000 BC and lasting until around 1715 AD, a series of peoples lived in the area around Ocmulgee National Monument. Each successive group left behind a record of their presence in what is today central Georgia. Some cultural groups constructed mounds, trenches, and ceremonial structures, the largest visible reminders of the region’s past residents. These mounds, trenches, and structures, and more than one million artifacts represent over 10,000 years of human history.

The earliest American Indians who settled in the area of what is now Macon, Georgia were highly nomadic hunters whose presence is traced to what is called a Clovis point, a specific type of spear point known to be produced before 9,000 BC. Later groups continued to hunt, but developed sedentary agricultural practices. Using more advanced tools, they tended crops, like corn and beans, and crafted pottery. A group of peoples called the Mississippians, after the Mississippi Valley where they originated, pushed earlier settlers out of the Ocmulgee National Monument area. From 900 to roughly 1350, the Mississippian peoples were the dominant cultural group. They brought their own traditions and adopted those of previous cultures. Among the most significant cultural features of the Mississippians were the lodges and earthen mounds they constructed. Several of these mounds, a reconstructed lodge, and a late Mississippian village are within Ocmulgee National Monument. The village was inhabited from c. 1350 to the late 1600s, when the Creek Indians moved to the area. The Creek came to trade with the British, after they established a trading post in 1690.

No one knows the exact significance and purpose of all of the mounds. The Great and Lesser Temple Mounds were religious structures, although how they fit into worship is unknown. Both are flat-topped mounds. The Great Temple Mound was built between 900-1100 AD and, like the Lesser Temple Mound, was constructed in stages as layers of earth and plant matter were alternated to build up the structure. The Great Temple Mound originally had a dirt ramp that led to a prominent structure built on top of the mound. The laying of railroad tracks partially destroyed the Lesser Temple Mound; however, the Great Temple Mound is in better condition and accessible to visitors to the park.

The Cornfield Mound and the Funeral Mound are also in the park. The arrival of the railroad damaged the Funeral Mound, which is the only burial mound in the park. The remains of over 100 people have been found in this mound. Some of the bodies were buried with shell or copper ornaments. Cornfield Mound is on top of what was once a field and was likely used as the foundation for a ceremonial structure; since the mound encapsulated the field, the field is very well preserved. The location of the field is unusual, as the Mississippian people usually farmed closer to the river. Other mounds in the park include the McDougal Mound (which may have been conical), the Southeast Mound, and the Dunlap Mound, where a home for a chief may have once stood. Later settlers sometimes disturbed these and other sites. Cutting the right-of-way for railroad tracks carved out parts of some mounds and the construction of roads used dirt from other mounds as fill material. Despite these changes, visitors to the park can see a wide variety of Mississippian ceremonial mound structures.

The sod-covered earthlodge at Ocmulgee is a reconstruction. The original earthlodge was a gathering place for the Mississippian. The placement of seats around the edge of the room and a smaller group under the figure of an eagle suggests that the earthlodge was a meeting place. Visitors to the park may enter the earthlodge. While the roof and walls have been rebuilt, the lodge still has portions of the original floor from 1015 AD. Near the earthlodge is a series of trenches from may have been the soource of the soil to construct the mounds. These trenches partially surround the site of a village that included the earthlodge and several mounds possibly intended to protect the community. It is unclear whether other groups threatened the inhabitants of this area along the Ocmulgee River. Nevertheless, the village community that constructed so many of the mounds and the earthlodge left the area around 1100.

After the first group of Mississippians' departure, death, or absorption by other tribes, the village site saw little use until a new Mississippian group settled in the 1300s. This group, called the Lamar, used the old village site and established a new, fortified site to the south. Surrounded by a palisade, the new Lamar village site also had two temple mounds, one of which featured a spiraling ramp leading up to the top. The Lamar Mississippians also created distinctive pottery, some of which is on display at the park museum and visitor center. Despite the advanced culture of the Lamar, larger changes with deep cultural impacts were on the horizon. The first European explorers came to the region in the mid-1500s, and after them European settlers. European disease and cultural practices reduced American Indian populations and removed some from their land. By the late 1600s, the British established a trading post and the Creek gradually replaced the Mississippian culture until the builders of these massive mounds were no more.

Ocmulgee National Monument, a unit of the National Park System, is located at 1207 Emery Highway in Macon, GA. Click here for National Register of Historic Places registration file: text and photos. There is no fee to visit the park except during two special events, the Ocmulgee Indian Celebration held in September and the Lantern Light Tours offered in March. An orientation film can be viewed at the visitor center. Ranger-led tours of the Lamar Mounds and village are available seasonally. Biking and hiking trails are also located within the park. The park is open 9:00am to 5:00pm daily, except for Christmas and New Year’s Day. For more information, visit the National Park Service Ocmulgee National Monument website or call 478-752-8257.

Last updated: August 4, 2017