Search :

Research Magazine > ARCHIVE > Winter 00 > Article

Digging Up the Past

It’s a bright midsummer day as University of Georgia archaeology professor Mark Williams, shaded by a stand of oak and hickory trees, surveys his research from atop a low mound of earth. At 52, with a bushy, gray-streaked beard and floppy straw hat, he looks every inch the archaeologist.

The site on which he stands is equally emblematic.

“This is probably where the chief lived with his family and relatives,” said Williams, observing the raised earth where his students scrape the soil around him. “I doubt more than 50 people actually lived here on this site, but he probably held way over 5,000 people up and down the valley.”

Williams has devoted his career to uncovering the hidden world of once-flourishing Indian chiefdoms in Georgia’s Oconee River basin. In this dell, formed by the Little River in north central Georgia’s Morgan County, some of the students in Williams’ summer field school scrape topsoil with their shovels and trowels and screen it for broken bits of pottery and bone. Others use a machine to scan the earth for areas of disturbed soil beneath the forest floor — possible signs of ancient habitation.

In its heyday some 600 years ago, the Oconee River basin probably held about 20,000 people, bound together politically and socially by a series of towns ruled by chiefs who lived on earthen mounds.

Over the past 30 years as a professional archaeologist, Williams has turned the area into a laboratory. His fascination with archaeology began during his childhood in Madison, Ga., where he grew up intrigued by Indians and the artifacts that littered almost any plowed field near a water source. Early on, he decided that artifacts themselves were only important for what they could teach us about the people who crafted them.

While artifacts remain important to his work today, more crucial are the site’s subterranean “features” that show where walls were located or where posts were laid to form houses. These dark stains of earth can reveal remarkable outlines of structures and show how the American Indians lived.

Working in his early years at UGA, where he earned bachelor’s and doctoral degrees, Williams began to excavate village sites in the Oconee River valley.

“The ’80s to me was the decade of the chiefdoms,” he said. “That was when we started consolidating information and understanding the political alliances that made the Oconee River valley such a fascinating place.”

While Williams and others worked hard throughout the Oconee River valley during the past two decades, he has decided to spend much of the remainder of his career on a single site and find all it can offer. The Little River village complex is made-to-order.

First documented some 25 years ago, it was the subject of only cursory archaeological interest until three years ago when Williams decided to make it the semi-permanent site of his summer field school for UGA students. His idea now is to extensively explore this single site and merge that knowledge with the study of the larger picture of chiefdoms and how they worked together.

Early in his work at the site, he discovered it had two components: one from the so-called Lamar Period dating to around 1530 and another from the Swift Creek Period some 1,800 years ago. But why did a group of Indians move to what in the 16th century was a somewhat remote area, away from the main cultural centers in the Oconee River valley?

“It’s hard to understand that, but it’s possible it was a fertile area, and one of the chiefs in the Oconee Valley may have wanted to use it to protect his western flank,” Williams said. More intriguing is the possibility that the group was banished for some unknown reason.

While there were farmsteads up and down the Little River valley, they were all ruled by and paid fealty to the chief, who lived in a compound center on the mound with his wives, children and close relatives. There apparently was no occupation on the site between the decline of the Swift Creek Period in the third century and the beginning of the Lamar Period roughly a thousand years later.

Williams has more information already about the site than many such well-studied compounds. He and his teams have taken more than 4,000 surveying elevations and have done some 900 post-hole tests to look for the compound limits. Graduate geo-archaeology student Elizabeth Garrison this year completed a study that examined the soil’s pH and mineral content.

“One thing has become increasingly clear about these people,” Williams said, “they came as a group and they left as a group.” The visit of Spanish explorer Hernando DeSoto in 1540 was a signal event that led to the breakdown of the chiefdoms in the Oconee and Little River valleys either by political disintegration or by the spread of disease. By 1650 or so, the once-great towns along the rivers in north central Georgia had been abandoned forever.

The Little River site holds an intriguing possibility. During DeSoto’s visit to the Oconee River valley, a chief from a visiting town outside DeSoto’s route came to pay homage to the Spanish explorers. This chief, whose name is usually given as Patofa or Tatofa, might have been from the Little River site.

If so, the mound on which Williams stands on a sunny day in June could once have been where Patofa lived. Such arguments must, of course, remain speculative, but for Williams, it’s the kind of supposition that makes archaeology such an intriguing profession.

For more information, e-mail jmw@uga.edu.

Return to the Winter 2000 Index

Research Communications, Office of the VP for Research, UGA
For comments or for information please e-mail the editor: rcomm@uga.edu
To contact the webmaster please email: ovprweb@uga.edu








in the dirt

UGA archaeologist Mark Williams (above) and a crew of graduate students sift through excavated soil in search of ancient Indian artifacts, such as pottery shards at right.