CARTERSVILLE — From the summit of one of North America's great pyramids, a flat-topped earthen mound that towers 63 feet above the Etowah River, the ruler of Georgia's pre-eminent prehistoric culture could see every corner of the teeming town at his feet.
That, of course, was then — sometime around 1350 A.D. Now, on a sun-drenched June day 6 1/2 centuries later, the village area at the base of what is now known as Mound A, is empty, save for tiny human figures pushing a three-wheeled cart back and forth across the grassy clearing.
At the end of each pass, an electronic beep signals that the ground-penetrating radar has recorded another foot-wide swath of Etowah's prehistoric landscape. It's one more line of data to help map what remains of this ancient town.
The technology is all 21st century. But for these archaeologists, the connection to the land is as old as Etowah itself.
"This is where our people used to live, I can feel it every time I'm here" says Johnnie Jacobs, cultural technician for the Muscogee (Creek) Nation of Oklahoma, as she pauses at the end of another radar pass.
"This part of Etowah has never been surveyed before, and instruments like this will help us understand what was here — without disturbing the ground that we consider sacred."
Archaeologists have probed and dug at Etowah Indian Mounds State Historic Site near Cartersville for over a century. But it is only recently — after a 10-year lull in archaeological investigation at Etowah — that Native Americans have joined in a cooperative effort by the University of South Carolina, the University of Texas and Texas State University at San Marcos to understand one of the crown jewels of the culture that dominated Eastern North for 500 years.
"Etowah is one of the most important archaeological sites in the United States," says Texas State archaeologist Kent Reilly, who has spent his career studying the art and symbolism of indigenous civilizations in North and Central America. "This culture's achievements were every bit as impressive as those of the Aztecs and the Maya, but it is still one of the least understood civilizations on the planet."
Long before Columbus reached the Americas, Mississippian culture, a forerunner of many of the later tribes like the Creek and Choctaw, dominated the eastern United States. By the 1300s, Mississippian mound cities — Etowah among them — stretched from Michigan to Florida and from Virginia to Arkansas.
And yet, by the time Europeans first penetrated the interior of the continent , this great civilization — for reasons unknown — was already beginning to crumble. European diseases and political upheavals hastened the collapse. By 1500, Etowah had ceased to be the region's pre-eminent chiefdom.
As America grew, the mounds themselves went the way of the people who built them — plowed under for farms, bulldozed for development, flooded by reservoirs and razed for roadfill.
"In an 1884 survey, a Smithsonian Institution counted 300,000 Indian mounds in the eastern third of the country," says Reilly. "Today's that's down to about 30,000."
Although Etowah was not the largest of the mound cities, it was, in a way, the Athens of prehistoric America — a center for art and culture that circulated throughout the Southeast.
Past excavations at Etowah have unearthed thousands of artifacts — elaborate shell gorgets, graceful ceremonial axes, finely crafted copper plates and carved marble effigies, most of them from the site's smaller mounds.
The current investigation, however, is focused not on finding fancy new artifacts — but mapping a site that, even after a century of study, is still an enigma. And Etowah, archaeologists are discovering, still holds plenty of surprises.
"Because the entire site has never been systematically tested, there are large portions about which nothing is known," says University of South Carolina archaeologist Adam King, who is leading the current investigation.
Among the places ignored by earlier archaeologists were the sprawling plain at the foot of the mounds — where most of the ordinary people lived — and the summit of Mound A, where it was assumed that 20th century farming has obliterated any trace of ancient Etowah.
And yet, just beneath the plow zone atop that largest of Etowah's mounds, radar and other remote sensing instruments have revealed the foundations of three, perhaps four, previously unknown buildings — including one massive square structure 54 feet on a side — that appears to have been the ruler's residence.
Because the mounds were built one hand-carried basket of earth at a time, they rose slowly from the surrounding river plain. As a result, the buildings atop the largest found — which sprawl across an acre of real estate — were probably constructed late in Etowah's history, probably between 1325 and 1375.
"These structures are huge," says King. "This is clearly a much more complex place than we imagined."
The fuzzy outlines of 700-year-old buildings, of course, whet King's appetite to learn more. "I'd love to know more about these structures," he says. "And the only way we are really going to find out what's there is to put a shovel in the ground."
But he won't. And least not yet. In the past, archaeologists have often been quick to dig and less inclined to do the costly, less exciting analysis, reporting, and curation needed to share their research. Much of the material excavated from Etowah in the last century has never been thoroughly studied, and King is in no rush to add to the backlog.
He's also aware that the descendents of ancient Americans are entitled to a voice in any effort to understand their past. Under the 1990 federal Native American Graves and Repatriation Act, the 43,000-member Muscogee Creeks and several smaller tribes that are "culturally affiliated" with Etowah, now have the right to play a major role in deciding what happens to their ancestral homeland.
The state of Georgia and the Creeks are still in the early stages of deciding what will happen to artifacts — some on display at the museum at Etowah and some in storage over which the state now exercises "custodial" care.
Also to be decided is what to do with the human remains that were excavated by the state decades ago. Now stored at a state repository, the remains represent more than 200 individuals who were buried during the mound building era.
The Creeks have already suggested that they would like to see both reburied at Etowah at some point in the future. Consultations could take years, but one thing is clear for now.
"We don't want any more digging," says Joyce Bear, manager of the Muscogee Nation's cultural preservation office. "How would you like someone digging up your grandmother's grave? We know who we are, and we don't need to dig up anything to find out."
At one point, such a stance — anathema to traditional archaeology — might have dashed all hope of learning any more about Etowah.
But the growing sophistication of 21st century remote sensing tools, which enable researchers to "see" beneath the ground without disturbing it, has provided at least a temporary bridge between archaeological curiosity and cultural sensitivity. It was, in fact, the Creeks themselves who bought the ground-penetrating radar unit now used for a number of tribal cultural projects.
"As archaeologists we may want to dig, but the reality is that these are the people who will decide," says State Archaeologist David Crass, watching the Creek surveyors mapping another swath of the grassy field with their radar.
"There's no easy resolution to these questions," he says. "But right now we're learning to trust each other at the same time we're doing some pretty important archaeology. And that's a step in the right direction."