MACON – A new Mercer University study reveals the unique national significance of an undeveloped Georgia river corridor – just weeks after Congress approved expanding a national historical park at its heart.
In March, Congress authorized eventually quadrupling the size of Macon’s Ocmulgee Mounds National Historical Park, formerly a national monument. The 702-acre park beside the Ocmulgee River contains the largest Mississippian mound complex in southeastern North America.
The land has been occupied by humans for 17,000 years, eventually becoming the cradle of the Muscogee tribe of Native Americans. The initial expansion will connect the South’s greatest ancient ceremonial center with nearby mounds of the later Lamar Culture.
But the yearlong Mercer survey of known historical and archaeological sites along the river makes a strong case for growing the park much more – by more than 50,000 acres along the 70 river miles between Macon and Hawkinsville.
Mercer research fellow Dominic Day catalogued and mapped almost 900 historic sites that had been previously documented. These vary from more ancient mounds and villages to Muscogee settlements, historic mills, forts and African-American cemeteries.
About 60 percent of the cultural sites are within five miles of the river. Discoveries have been made anywhere archaeologists have looked within this footprint.
“Considering the counts, density, and rich history of the area there are likely hundreds of archaeological sites not yet documented,” states the report, which was directed by Dr. Eric Klingelhofer, professor emeritus of history and senior research fellow in historical archaeology at Mercer.
The sheer number, age and undisturbed condition of the prehistoric sites would make a park like this unique within the National Park System, the study found. Only two other National Park Service properties in the Southeast focus on prehistoric resources. Although some prehistoric sites are protected within smaller state parks, no national parks outside the desert Southwest preserve archaeological resources across a landscape.
In this case, that landscape is one of alluvial swamps, black bears, one-of-a-kind chalk prairies, ancient sea fossils and migratory songbirds – including many areas where the wildlife and ecology are as undisturbed as the artifacts beneath them.
At the same time Congress renamed Ocmulgee Mounds, it gave the National Park Service three years to study whether nearby property is nationally significant enough to be added to the historical park. The Mercer report will be shared with the Park Service to jump-start this process.
The research was funded by the Ocmulgee National Park and Preserve Initiative, a local nonprofit supporting park expansion.