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 pushes every button that could set off alarms for these advocates. It also puts Calhoun County's most prosperous city in an unwelcome spotlight, pitting its rapid commercial growth against passionate preservationists.
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. The plan was to use it as fill dirt for a Sam's Club near the Oxford Exchange. According to a private landowner, a contractor hired to do the site preparation for Sam's is ordering the dirt from him instead.
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?"
A familiar story
In 2008, a stone mound in Turners Falls, Mass., became the first stone site in the eastern United States to become eligible for the National Register of Historic Places on the grounds of its cultural and historical importance.
Its story may sound familiar; there were plans to extend the runway of the nearby airport using dirt from the hill, which was said by archaeologists to be insignificant.
Doug Harris, preservationist for ceremonial landscapes for the Narragansett Indian Tribal Historic Preservation Office, fought to save the site. Harris and others argued that, while the hill did not contain artifacts, it was still culturally significant and sacred to American Indians.
Unlike Oxford's mound, there was federal money involved at the Turners Falls site, meaning it had greater protections. The project got the attention of two other tribes: the Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head/Aquinnah and the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe.
"There was archaeology done on the western side of the runway that confirmed the presence of an ancient camp site that had 2,000-, 9,000- and 12,000-year-old episodes of use," Harris said. "In the process of the tribes' involvement with the archeology at that site, it was determined there was another site on the opposite side that was ceremonial and had a series of ceremonial stone piles and a ceremonial stone row."
He said making the site eligible for the national register set precedent for future protection efforts. It also changed plans for the runway extension, averting any damage to the mound.
Thrower is also chairman of the heritage committee for the United South and Eastern Tribes. USET is made up of more than two dozen recognized tribes on the Eastern seaboard and Gulf Coast region. In 2007, USET passed a resolution urging the protection of such sites, Thrower said. And finding more of them doesn't require a trip outside of Alabama. According to Harry Holstein, a professor of archaeology and anthropology at Jacksonville State University, more than 100 documented sites are within Calhoun County.
A walk in the woods
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.
At one time, this entire area was part of the Coosa Chiefdom, of which Oxford was probably an important player, Holstein said. Some archaeologists think the capital was in Georgia, Holstein said. Oxford, being closer to the capital city, was likely an important site overseen by a relative of the chief. Native peoples believed the chief was descended directly from the sun.
Holstein said when the Spanish came in the 16th century carrying unfamiliar diseases, important religious figures began to die off. Seeing that their revered leaders were mortal, the American Indian societies were thrown into political upheaval. They began to fall apart, but left behind the traces that Holstein and other archaeologists now study.
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.
Holstein showed The Star three sites believed to be of American Indian construction. One off Bain's Gap Road at McClellan rests on one of the highest peaks in Alabama. The walk up is enough to make Holstein sweat just looking at it.
"I keep thinking, 'Man, these Indians had to walk up here," Holstein said while driving up the mountain. "That's one hell of a climb."
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."
Levels of perception
Holstein said almost every native culture saw the world on three levels; earth, sky and the underworld.
"I just get excited about it," Holstein said. "Each time we find a new one, it gives us more information."
But how do we know they're cultural?
According to Holstein, early explorers asked American Indians about the rocks, who said they were commemorative structures. They were tombstones of past events.
Thrower says they're called "prayers in stone."
Another site is behind a developing subdivision near Bain's Gap, containing pile after pile of rocks. Holstein and others believe these structures and the ones on the mountains are all interconnected with sites in Oxford, including the mound behind the Oxford Exchange and Davis Farm across the street.
Part of Davis Farm will be the site for Oxford's multi-million-dollar sports complex. In a large field slated for ball parks is an earthen mound. Holstein studied it for the city and recommended preserving the structure.
Given the uproar over the nearby hill, Holstein worries his recommendations won't be heeded, but city Project Manager Fred Denney said there are plans to fence off the mound so it is not damaged in the construction.
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.
Farmers or natives
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.
Rock walls, like the ones Holstein saw on the mountain, could also be the work of farmers, Gresham said.
"My wife and I vacation in the Alps," he said. "People have made the argument farmers would've never terrace rocks on slopes this rocky. They sure do over there. The earliest farmers that acquired land, they took what they could get and made the best of it, if not for cultivation, then at least for grazing for animals."
Holstein rejects this argument, saying the land at McClellan is too rocky and likely connected to other structures, like the snake effigy at McClellan.
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.
"I think generally the consensus is (that stone piles on tops of hills are) cultural, but the possibility also exists it is not," Thompson said. "It might be a natural occurrence." This is also a view echoed by Oxford Mayor Leon Smith.
When asked how such a pile might result from natural phenomena, Thompson said he was not a geologist and did not understand those processes.
Kelly Gregg, a geology professor at JSU who visited the site, has said there is no way nature made the structure on top of the hill.
Thrower said he is not claiming that every rock site is historic. Some could be agricultural, he said.
But Oxford's mound has features that make it distinctively native, he said.
"There's a whole complex of those structures in that area," he said. "What we believe is they worked together. We've found examples where there are astronomical alignments. They served a myriad of purposes."
He said the focus on whether the Oxford site contains burial mounds disturbs him. It could contain no burial artifacts and still be sacred, he said.
"If I went on your family's property and there was a stump there and you said, 'This was sacred to my family,' I'll respect what you say," he said. "To me, this is about respect and protection."
Erika Martin Seibert, an archaeologist with the National Register of Historic Places, said the key to understanding the site at Turners Falls was recognizing its significance to the area around it.
"One of the things we learned, it's not just the mound itself," Seibert said. "It's how it's connected to other features in a landscape. It was much larger than the mound itself … Even having tractors and other things up there may really affect the site itself and what it means to these groups."
Stacye Hathorn, archaeologist with the Alabama Historical Commission, said the tribes of USET wouldn't say every pile of rocks is sacred. But the Oxford site's importance was obvious, she said.
She said stone mounds definitely require more study.
"We don't understand their function yet," Hathorn said, "but maybe if we knew how many there were out there, we'd understand a little bit more about them and what they meant to the people."