I Admit a Prejudice

I’ll admit to a prejudice. I am very suspicious of the announcement of any revolutionary discovery in science but particularly in archaeology. This is either the greatest archaeological discovery of the last half century or ill-infomed charlatanry. I don’t see much of a middle ground:

In 1999 archaeologist Mark Williams of the University of Georgia and Director of the LAMAR Institute, led an archaeological survey of the Kenimer Mound, which is on the southeast side of Brasstown Bald in the Nacoochee Valley. Residents in the nearby village of Sautee generally assume that the massive five-sided pyramidal mound is a large wooded hill. Williams found that the mound had been partially sculpted out of an existing hill then sculpted into a final form with clay. He estimated the construction date to be no later than 900 AD. Williams was unable to determine who built the mound.

Williams is a highly respected specialist in Southeastern archaeology so there was a Maya connection that he did not know about. The earliest maps show the name Itsate, for both a native village at Sautee and another five miles away at the location of the popular resort of Helen, GA. Itsate is what the Itza Mayas called themselves. Also, among all indigenous peoples of the Americas, only the Itza Mayas and the ancestors of the Creek Indians in Georgia built five-side earthen pyramids as their principal mounds. It was commonplace for the Itza Maya to sculpt a hill into a pentagonal mound. There are dozens of such structures in Central America.

The name of Brasstown Bald Mountain is itself, strong evidence of a Maya presence. A Cherokee village near the mountain was named Itsa-ye, when Protestant missionaries arrived in the 1820s. The missionaries mistranslated “Itsaye” to mean “brass.” They added “town” and soon the village was known as Brasstown. Itsa-ye, when translated into English, means “Place of the Itza (Maya).”

Into this scenario stepped retired engineer, Cary Waldrup, who lives near Track Rock Gap. In 2000 he persuaded the United States Forest Service to hire a professional archaeologist from South Africa, Johannes Loubser, to study the famous Track Rock petroglyphs, and also prepare a map of the stone walls across the creek in site 9UN367. Waldrup and his neighbors felt that the stone structure site deserved more professional attention. They collected contributions from interested citizens in Union County, GA to fund an archaeological survey by Loubser’s firm, Stratum Unlimited, LLC.

Loubser’s work was severely restricted by his available budget, but his discoveries “opened up the door” for future archaeological investigations. His firm dug two test pits under stone structures to obtain soil samples. In conjunction with the highly respected archaeological firm of New South Associates in Stone Mountain, GA he obtained radiocarbon dates for the oldest layer of fill soil in a test pit, going back around 1000 AD. He also found pottery shards from many periods of history. Loubser estimated that some of the shards were made around 760 AD – 850 AD. This is exactly when Maya population began to plummet.

Loubser described the 9UN367 archaeological site as being unique in the United States, and stated that examples of such sites are only found elsewhere in the Maya Highlands and South America. However, he did not present an explanation for who built the stone walls. He was in a conundrum. The Eastern Band of Cherokees had labeled Track Rock Gap as a “Cherokee Heritage Sacred Site.” He had been led to believe that the area had occupied by the Cherokee Indians for many centuries, yet he also knew that the Cherokees never built large scale public works. In fact, the Cherokees established a handful of hamlets in the extreme northeastern tip of Georgia during the 1700s, but the western side of Brasstown Bald Mountain, where Track Rock is located, was not official Cherokee territory until 1793.

The first comment on this article purports to be from the archaeologist cited, Mark Williams, disavowing the claims in the article.

3 comments… add one
  • The site discussed is not unique in the Unites States. Many similar stone feature sites can be found in the Appalachians (some of which are historic Euro- Amercian agricultural sites).
    I found no evidence of a Maya presence at this site.
    My report on the site is available at the following link:
    Until evidence is found at the site that suggests a Maya presence, such as diagnostic artifacts or house floors, the site should be viewed as ancestral to the modern day Creek and Cherokee Indians.

  • I found the DNA argument presented by the author particularly non-compelling. I carry Near Eastern DNA in my maternal haplotype via its presence in Ireland. It probably goes back 5,000 years or more. Pointing to a founder effect that may go back 20,000 years is no argument for a one millennium or less ancestral connection. That would require much, much stronger genetic evidence than I’ve ever seen advanced including by the author of the article.

  • sam Link

    Just an editorial nit, but this made me laugh out loud:

    Williams is a highly respected specialist in Southeastern archeology so there was a Maya connection that he did not know about.

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