Weird Georgia: Solstice Morning, Fort Mountain
By JIM MILES
One of our most popular archaeological mysteries are stone enclosures found scattered across the state, primarily in the mountains. The best known example is Fort Mountain, located atop a peak in the rugged Cohutta Mountains of Murray County. It is also the only preserved example of a stone fort in Georgia, and the sole one which can be visited.
The fort is a 900-foot long wall that meanders across the ragged, 2,800-foot high summit. The wall is 12 feet thick at the base and two to three feet in height. Some experts believe the wall was once seven feet high or perhaps surmounted by a wooden palisade. At each end is a large, square pit, and 29 inexplicable depressions, three feet deep, appear at roughly 30 foot intervals. The wall dates to the Woodland period, 1200 B.C. to 1000 A.D.
The thousands of rocks that compose the wall range in size from small stones to rocks that would require several strong men to transport. Enormous natural boulders were incorporated into the work. The wall is composed completely of loosely piled granite rocks gathered from the mountain. The enclosure commands the practical route to the highest summit, which is 250 feet higher than the remainder of the mountain and encloses eight acres. The wall zigzags irregularly, the angles and length of each varying considerably.
The mysterious wall has been the object of much speculation. According to Cherokee legend, a “moon-eye” group may be responsible.. The theory comes from Myths of the Cherokee, a 1900 publication from the Smithsonian Institute written by ethnologist James A. Mooney, who compiled the tales. One legend held that when the Cherokee arrived in Georgia they discovered a race of blond-haired, blue-eyed, white-skinned people who lived by night and shunned the daylight, perhaps because they were albinos. Many years were required for the Cherokee to wipe them out and seize their territory. According to these carefully preserved legends, Fort Mountain was one of their primary defensive positions.
Archaeological evidence can neither prove nor disprove any ideas regarding the identify or purpose of the builders. The purpose has generally been assumed to be defensive, an idea which is disregarded by archaeologists. The defenders would have their backs against a cliff and lacked a water and food supply. Archaeologists also cite a complete lack of artifacts and human remains. No implements have ever been excavated from the fort or surrounding area-not even flint chips or a shard of pottery. This fact suggests that the wall enclosed a sacred area. After ceremonies the grounds would be cleansed of all evidence of human intrusion. Native Americans probably conducted religious rites here.
The study of archaeoastronomy has lent another twist to the mystery. Built on a northeastern axis, the wall could have been used to mark the rising of the sun at one end of the wall, and its setting at the other end. This construction may have been used to mark the summer solstice and function as a calendar.
“Religion, ceremony, the sun and seasons were all tied together in Indian culture,” stated astronomer John Burgess formerly of Agnes Scott College. His research at Fort Mountain revealed that “the northeast end of the wall lines up precisely with sunrise at the summer solstice June 21-22.”
Burgess’s theory is that “agriculturally oriented Indians built the wall so they could determine when to plant and harvest their crops. Other sections of the wall could have been used as sight lines to the rising sun and moon-a calendar device similar to those found in many ancient societies. A shaman with knowledge of the seasons would have had considerable standing in the tribe.”
The Cherokee “have a tribal legend that their ancestors displaced a race of moon-eyed people,” Burgess explained. “In the Cherokee language, moon-eyed could also be translated as moon watching. If those early Indians were interested in astronomy, they may well have built the wall.”
In 1985 Burgess was present at Fort Mountain on the summer solstice to observe the sunrise, but thick forest obstructed the sight line-the builders may have cleared the peak of timber. Another problem is that over 2,000 years the stones of the wall have shifted and fallen, widening the structure so that accurate measurements of the alignments have become difficult. In 1990 Burgess convinced the U.S. Forestry Service to survey the site with a hand-held satellite receiver connected to a computer which triangulated signals from three different satellites to establish the exact position of the wall. Unfortunately, the system was only accurate to within ten feet, which is not precise enough to prove astronomical alignments. .
A major element in one Cherokee myth about a giant serpent named Uktena featured a bright, magical gem embedded in its head-perhaps the sun rising each year at the end of this calendric Sun Serpent. Uktena may also be translated as “strong looker” and “keen eyed.”
A number of Native American cultures observed and could correctly predict the phases and cycles of the moon, which inspired festivals and other ceremonies. The angle of the earth’s orbit about the sun and the moon’s circuit around the earth shifts moonrise over a 10-year period by up to 12 degrees. Because of this complicated cycle, ancient astronomers had to mark those alignments in some manner. Enter several pits near the center of the wall, which Burgess suggests might have marked moonrise at different points during the year.
Another startling hypothesis is that the contours of the wall were a model of the surrounding mountains. “If you walk along the wall and look away from the crest of the mountain,” said Billy Townsend, historian with the Georgia Department of Natural Resources, “the dips and turns in the wall seem to correspond with the skyline, almost as if the wall was some kind of shadow projection.”
Burgess said the builders may “have been sculpting an effigy of the boundaries of their territory,” or a model of Uktena.
Fort Mountain is one of Georgia’s most popular parks, known for its tranquility and beautiful surroundings. Trails lead to the stone wall and scenic overlooks.
From Weird Georgia (Cumberland House, 2000).
Jim Miles is the author of two "Weird Georgia" books and nine books about the Civil War. See Jim’s books.
Hikers and mountain bikers will find some of the most beautiful trails in northern Georgia at Fort Mountain State Park.
Located in Fort Mountain State Park, this is a mysterious 875-foot rock wall that extends around the south side of Fort Mountain.