Ocmulgee National Monument

The Ocmulgee National Monument, located east of Macon, Georgia, contains traces of more than 10,000 years of continuous human occupation, from Ice Age hunters to the Creeks of historic times. The most significant period of occupation, however, was between a.d. 900 and 1200, when the Mississippians built their massive temple mounds here.

The Ocmulgee National Monument visitor center contains exhibits
©National Park Service
The Ocmulgee National Monument visitor center contains exhibits and
a major archaeological museum.

Around a.d. 700, a new civilization in the Mississippi Valley expanded on the developments made by an earlier culture called the Hopewell and brought a more complex way of life to the region. The Mississippians, or Temple Mound Builders, built towns housing thousands of people, turned small-scale farming into an industry that produced enough food for everyone, and built earthen mounds on an enormous scale.

At the Ocmulgee site, the Mississippians built a compact city of thatched huts on a bluff overlooking the Ocmulgee River and planted crops of corn, beans, squash, pumpkin, and tobacco in the bottomlands. Along the river, the two or three thousand residents built a series of temple mounds for their religious and political ceremonies.

The monument contains nine mounds, including the largest, Great Temple Mound, which rises more than 40 feet from a base that is 300 feet by 270 feet. A half-mile walk leads visitors to this impressive mound. These flat-topped pyramidal mounds were bases for their temples, which were constructed of poles and thatch. The 700-acre site also includes an ancient burial mound on the west side. Like the temple mounds, the Funeral Mound was flat-topped and had steps leading up the side.

Excavations have revealed more than 100 burials here and an unusual number of fine pottery pieces, effigy figures, shell and copper jewelry, and copper sun disks. These items are on display at the visitor center, along with arrowheads and farming implements excavated at this ceremonial city. Nearly all the Mississippian buildings have disappeared, but part of an earthlodge survived and has been reconstructed. It was built 1,000 years ago and was probably used as a council house. The building seats about 50 people on an eagle-shaped platform and on a low bench along the wall.

The visitor center, an interesting art deco building that blends well with the surroundings, contains exhibits and a major archaeological museum. A short film detailing the life of the "People of the Macon Plateau" plays throughout the day. Other features of the monument include prehistoric trenches, which may have been used for defense purposes, and the remains of a trading post built by English traders about 1690. Excavations have revealed the variety of goods traded here, including axes, clay pipes, beads, bullets, flints, and muskets. More than five miles of walking trails wind through the monument.

The Mississippians disappeared long before settlers began to arrive in the Mississippi Valley, leaving behind only these mysterious mounds. American settlers arriving in the 1700s and early 1800s were reminded of the great Egyptian pyramids and gave their new towns names like Memphis, Alexandria, and Cairo. Few believed that the local Indians, whom they considered to be uncivilized savages, were responsible for the mounds. Instead, they credited the mounds to ancient Babylonians, the Vikings, and even space aliens. Some settlers did recognize the contributions of Native American cultures. When naturalist William Bartram visited Ocmulgee in the 1770s, he spoke with respect of "the wonderful remains of the power and grandeur of the ancients."

Ocmulgee National Monument Information

Address: 1207 Emery Hghwy., Macon, GA
Telephone: 912/752-8257
Hours of Operation: Open daily 9 a.m. - 5 p.m. except Christmas and New Year's Day
Admission: Free

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Eric Peterson is a Denver-based author who has contributed to numerous guidebooks about the Western United States.