While employed by the WPA in 1939 Archaeologist Robert Wauchope traversed the Georgia Mountains to identify its archaeological treasures. This would be the first and last time that the region would be comprehensively studied by an archaeologist. While cataloguing a legion of mounds and stone box graves in the Nacoochee Valley, he was shown a strange, U-shaped earthwork in the village of Sautee. He had no explanation for the structure, but found some Native American potshards on the site, so gave it an official site archaeological site designation. The description of the site is in a registry maintained by the Georgia Historic Preservation Division.
Years later, Wauchope became an expert on Mesoamerican structures. By then, he would have recognized the structure as looking like an Itza Maya ball court. Of course, he would have also “known for certain” that the presence of a Maya ball court in the Peach State was impossible, and so thought it a fluke.
In 1951 Archaeologist Phillip Smith of Harvard University’s Peabody Museum returned to the Nacoochee Valley. At the time, the charming movie, “I’d Climb Highest Mountain,” starring Susan Hayward, was being filmed there. In 1951, none of the roads off the main highway were paved. Families up in the coves still did not have electricity. It is a different world today. At the western end of the valley is Alpine Helen, Georgia’s second largest tourist attraction. Metropolitan Atlanta is first.
Smith visited the U-shaped earthwork in Sautee and was also puzzled by the structure. His report gave a little bit more information. He wrote that it was located behind the Nacoochee Valley Volunteer Fire Department. That building and the one that replaced it have been long gone.
For the past year, People of One Fire researchers have been trying to find that U-shaped earthwork. The trouble is that no one could remember where the volunteer fire department was located in 1951. Too many of the residents in the valley now are “outlanders.” The “big break” came when a three dimensional terrain map was produced by the White County, GA GIS Mapping Department. It showed many Native American structures that are not immediately evident at ground level.
Wauchope and Smith had not provided the dimensions of the U-shaped earthwork. The handful of people, who were interested in this earthwork assumed that it was relatively small . . . perhaps 20 feet by 30 feet (6.1m x 9.1m.) They also assumed that the U-shaped earthwork was an earthen berm raised above the natural grade. This is how the Itza Mayas living in flat, coastal areas of southern Mexico built their ball courts.
The three dimensional map produced by the county government showed two U-shaped structures. One was on private land adjacent to the Chattahoochee River. It appeared to be about 30 feet x 50 feet in size. Unfortunately, the absentee owners of this site did not want any strangers on their property.
The county map showed the other U-shaped structure to be massive and located in public view, adjacent to GA Hwy. 255 and immediately south of the Northeast Georgia Folk Pottery Museum. The team of People of One Fire researchers stood at that location and saw nothing. There was no U-shaped earth berm. All they saw were a group of kids playing soccer on a large, recessed sports field.
The group walked back to the Folk Pottery Museum and questioned Dr. Chris Brooks, its Director. He is an anthropologist and is familiar with Wauchope’s research. He also had been puzzled by Wauchope’s description of a U-shaped earthwork near the old fire station, but also could not find out where the fire station was. An old timer had suggested that it was located just south of the Old Cannery field, where the kids were playing soccer. Brooks stated that the soccer field was U-shaped and had terraces flanking it.
Wauchope’s U-shape earthwork rediscovered
The researchers walked back to the upper terrace of the soccer field. It was one of those “Oh my gosh” moments that have occurred frequently among People of One Fire researchers in recent years. The ancient ball court was massive. It had to be the Superbowl of its day. Only the eastern “grand stands” were constructed of raised earth. The rest of the structure was excavated from the natural grade. Late 20th century re-routing of Hwy. 255 cut across the northeast corner of this berm and concealed its shape. The researchers asked, “Where were the Georgia archaeologists when the state Department of Transportation destroyed the corner of this designated archaeological site?”
The playing area of the ancient ball court is about the same size as the ball court at the Track Rock Terrace Complex . . . 108 feet wide and 216 long (40m x 66.8m.). However, the Track Rock ball court does not have any visible spectator terraces. The lowest point of the court is 1268 feet above sea level. The highest spectator terrace is at 1292 feet. Each spectator terrace rises higher than the one beneath it, creating a total height for the excavated structure of 24 feet (7.3m.)
Twenty-first Century school kids were playing soccer on a 1200 year old ball court. It was a remarkable scene. People of One Fire member, Miriam Silver of Fort Lauderdale, FL, took photos to preserve that amazing image for posterity.
The Itza Mayas were here
During the “Classic Maya” Period when other branches of the Mayas were building great cities out of stone and lime plaster, the Itzas became skilled at altering landscapes to create earthen pyramids, platforms, plazas and roads. Their towns looked little different than the towns built in the Southeastern United States by the ancestors of the Creek, Choctaw and Alabama Indians. The huge, five-sided Kenimer Mound is only about 1/4th mile southwest of the ball court. It was sculpted out of a large hill. This is a very typical way that Itza Maya architects created five-side mounds in Central America.
Using a GPS surveying device, the researchers were able to approximate the original layout of the “acropolis” at Sautee. The ball court was aligned to true North-South, which at that location is about 4 degrees different than magnetic North-South. However, the vestiges of low platform mounds, north of the ball court were not aligned to true North-South. Early 20th century buildings were constructed on both mounds, so their exact shape can only be approximated. They were oriented 16 degrees to the southwest. This seemed odd.
When the surveying data was downloaded into the computer back home, the true purpose of this orientation became apparent. The low mounds pointed toward the Equinox sunset and the famous Nacoochee Mound. At the base of the Nacoochee Mound archaeologists from Harvard University in 1916 found numerous stone box graves. Maya commoners typically buried their dead in shallow graves, lined with stone slabs. Early settlers in the Nacoochee Valley found hundreds of stone box graves elsewhere. Most were dug up and used for fireplace construction.
When the first Europeans arrived in the Nacoochee Valley, the town around the ball court was named Itsate. The name was changed to Chote in the 1720s, when the Cherokees captured the Nacoochee Valley. When Creeks gained back the valley in 1754, they changed the village’s name to Sawate (Sautee). Sawate means “Raccoon People” in Creek. The name stuck. Of course, Itsate (Itza People) is what the Itza Mayas called themselves.
Sautee is probably the oldest, continuously occupied, community in North America, north of Mexico. It and the Nacoochee Valley will be the focus of a special, seventh anniversary issue of the People of One Fire E-zine. The document will be published in November 2013.
Any reader wishing to ask Richard Thornton questions concerning architecture, planning, historic preservation or Native American history may contact him at NativeQuestion@aol.com