Thursday, July 23, 2015

The Ancient Tumuli at Fish Trap Cut

Laurens County has several documented archaeological sites along with numerous other areas where projectile points and pottery pieces have been found.  The most well known site is the twin mound site at Fish Trap Cut.  This ancient landmark, centered on the two mounds, was occupied by various groups of Native Americans for as many as twenty centuries and as many as twelve thousand years.

The major period of occupation seems to be during the Mississippian period, with minor occupations during the early and late Archaic Periods and the Woodland Period.   Some time in the 9th Century A.D., a culture of Native Americans began to flourish throughout the valley of the mighty Mississippi River.

The culture which lasted for seven centuries stretched from the Gulf Coast to the Great Lakes. Typical of the culture were people who constructed small to massive earthworks for homes, temples and burial grounds.

The Fish Trap Cut  site, typical of a Mississippian site, is located on the west bank of the Oconee River at a point 150  meters wide with a broad flood plain of two miles in width -  the largest section within 30 miles in either direction. The soil there  is Norfolk Sandy loam, a rare type of soil.

There are no signs of Middle Woodland Swift Creek  occupation at the site.  There are minor signs of a Lamar/Bell occupation on the northern edge of the site.  Dr. Mark Williams concluded that the site may have been used  as a camp for people who were migrating south toward the Spanish settlements on the Georgia Coast and Florida during the sixteenth century.  The site may have been the political center of the chiefdoms of the lower Oconee Valley.

The lower mound on the southern end of the site is most likely a ceremonial mound. Recent probes have found very little evidence of any type of cultural material in the mound, which has a diameter of 100 feet at the top and 160 feet at its base.   The mound is flat topped with an average height of three meters and is made of red clay with a thirty inch cover of sand.

The upper mound was most likely the home of the chief and was probably built first. Today it stands in grove of hardwoods and is only two meters in height but appears moderately larger than the lower mound due to its location on a bluff overlooking the river.  Much more cultural material has been found in the upper mound, which has a commanding view of the cut in the river’s edge.

An examination of river maps prepared near the end of the 19th century indicate that the cut was actually the old river bed and not a totally man-made feature.  It is possible that the cut was formed by connecting the riverbank with the upper end of an island in the middle of the river.

After his examination of the site in 1994, Dr. Mark Williams of the University of Georgia determined that the mounds were built during a period from 1200 to 1350 A.D.  It is most likely that the mounds were only inhabited for a period of 50 to 75 years at the most.  The site would have normally been inhabited by 50 to 75 persons. Firewood, the only source of fuel for fires, was soon decimated for a radius of miles.  The people would then move to another site while the vegetation at the old site regenerated.  

Some archaeologists believe that the inhabitants would also be forced to move when their village became infested with insects and in particular, fleas.

The society was built around a "talwa" or "okli" or chiefdom.   The chief was usually an elder member of the community and commanded the respect and honor of all. He served not only as leader, but as a judge and lawmaker.  In order to keep the large number of people under control these chiefs were afforded the status of a diety.

Investigations of the distances between mound sites along the Oconee River valley have revealed an interesting fact.  Nearly all of the mound sites are almost exactly twenty eight miles apart.  The mounds at Fish Trap Cut are 60 kilometers miles below the Shinholster Mound site.  The mounds are almost 60 kilometers above the legendary village site at the junction of the Ocmulgee and Oconee Rivers in lower Telfair County.

Villages were laid out with some forms of fortification ranging from light to heavy.  Some villages used ditches and small earthworks while larger villages used wooden palisades.  The center of the town was usually a plaza surrounded by public buildings and the dwellings of the townspeople. Dr. Williams and his team found evidence that a village was located between the mounds beginning around 100 B.C.

The village was laid in a circular pattern about two to three hundred meters in diameter with at least eight houses.  The pottery shards found here are those from the Deptford period.  Deptford period pottery was predominant during the latter part of the early woodland period. The village, 200 meters wide and 300 meters long,  is the earliest known Woodland village site in Georgia.

The majority of the Fish Trap Cut site, named the Sawyer site, by Dr. Williams, is owned by the Laurens County Sportsmen’s Club.  The upper end, including the upper mound, is owned by the Archeological Conservancy, based in New Mexico.

The site at Fish Trap Cut is one of only two places in Laurens County which are currently listed on the National Register of Historic Places.  To travel to the site, travel south from the Laurens County Courthouse on Georgia Highway 19.  Cross Interstate Highway 16 (take exit 52 if traveling along I-16) and take Sportsmen’s Club Road (first paved road on the left) and follow it to the river.   The upper mound is on your left and the lower mound is on your right in the club’s complex.  Please contact the site manager before entering the site.

When you visit the mounds, remember they are one of our most treasured cultural resources and as such, should be treated with utmost dignity and respect.  Digging on the site for artifacts is absolutely prohibited by Georgia law.  If you want to look for arrow heads  (points) there are virtually hundreds, if not thousands, of places to find them throughout the county.



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