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Archaeo News 

30 August 2009
The enigmatic stone mounds of Alabama

More than 1,000 years ago, people walked the hills of what is now Calhoun County (USA). Most traces of them are gone, but the American Indians who called this land home left a few markers. Some are scattered on hilltops in the form of sacred mounds. One pile of stones on a particular hilltop evokes the curved body of a snake. And there are formations with purposes unclear and at times in dispute. All of these sites are part of a slowly unfolding story, one archaeologists hope to tell by learning more about them - if development doesn't destroy these places first.
     In recent years, American Indian groups have pushed for greater recognition and understanding of these sites, which they believe are sacred. The controversy surrounding a stone mound on top of a hill in Oxford (Alabama, USA) pushes every button that could set off alarms for these advocates. Until recently the city, through its Commercial Development Authority, planned to demolish the hill underneath the mound, estimated to be at least 1,000 years old.
     Robert Thrower, cultural authority director for the Poarch Band of Creek Indians in Alabama, said he is unsure whether officials intend to preserve the mound. "I don't think we're any better off now than when we first started," he said. "At this point in time, there's been no indication from city officials for a guarantee of preservation. What's going to happen three months from now or a year from now?"
     On the county's mountains and hilltops, people can find many piles of rocks. These formations obviously didn't happen because of nature or materialize out of the Appalachian air. Someone carried the lumps of grey sandstone in their hands and put them there, one by one. But why? According to Harry Holstein, a professor of archaeology and anthropology at Jacksonville State University, more than 100 documented sites are within Calhoun County.
     Holstein doesn't know for sure what the rocks mean. The meaning of the zigzagging pattern of rocks that dot the mountains of McClellan is open to interpretation. One site believed to be of American Indian construction off Bain's Gap Road at McClellan rests on one of the highest peaks in Alabama. The mountain, which Holstein would not name for fear of advertising the site to looters, contains 80 acres of mound structures. The walls run across the mountain, in patterns Holstein believes are connected to natural phenomenon like springs and rock outcrops. "We started excavating them in the '80s," he said. "We were the first people to realize they were something."
     According to Holstein, early explorers asked American Indians about the rocks, who said they were commemorative structures. They were tombstones of past events. While Holstein believes in the value of these sites, not every archaeologist shares his point of view. And while there is consensus on some structures, on others, doubt remains. Tom Gresham, a contract archaeologist in Georgia, said these sites could also have been made by farmers readying fields for planting. "In Georgia, we have thousands of small rock piles that became controversial here," Gresham said. "Some archaeologists and a lot of the general public believe they were American Indian constructions. If not burials, they were a marker. In Georgia, we've excavated 100 of these and just about never found anything to suggest Indian construction." There is one important caveat. Gresham believes rock piles on top of hills, like Oxford, tend to be of American Indian construction and related to burials. "I clearly believe rock piles on top of hills are prehistoric," he said.
     Brandon Thompson was the University of Alabama cultural resources specialist in charge of studying Oxford's mound. Thompson would not discuss the report he helped write for the city. The report said the mound was likely man-made and recommended keeping an expert on hand if funeral artifacts were found during the demolition. Thompson said the archaeology department is bound by a confidentiality agreement about the project. He said generally archaeologists recommend leaving such structures alone and waiting for further testing.

Source: The Anniston Star (24 August 2009)

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