Harry Holstein stood inside a room-sized circle of stones on top of a mountain in McClellan and looked out over the Choccolocco Valley below, a green rolling sea under a bright blue sky.
It’s the same view that Native Americans enjoyed more than 1,000 years ago, said Holstein, a professor of archaeology and anthropology at Jacksonville State University.
What did the Native Americans do in that circle, so many years ago? What did they hear and say, what sacred ceremonies took place in those quiet woods that may have tied them to their Creator, to the world around them and the world unseen?
There remain many questions, Holstein said, but the fun is in the search for answers.
The stones are part of a complex of stacked stone structures — prayer seats, mounds, walls and snake effigies — that spread across 45 similar sites from the mountains of McClellan to Piedmont. More than two miles of stone walls crisscross the hills in McClellan.
Some, such as the stone ring Holstein was standing in, are protected inside the Talladega National Forest, "but a lot of them are on private land."
That means those sites are in jeopardy of human hands and human desires, Holstein explained, although many landowners understand the importance and leave the rocks alone.
His hope is that by bringing more people out to see the stones, he’ll help save them. He’s lost that battle a few times — someone in 2010 demolished a Native American mound during construction of Oxford’s recreation complex, though the city has denied doing so — so what’s left is all the more important, Holstein said.
Holstein asked that the exact location of the stone structures in McClellan be kept a secret, less inquisitive visitors come to loot.
Those lucky enough to be walked up the mountain by Holstein will understand the need for secrecy. It’s not hard to image young Native Americans making the same walk a thousand years ago through the quiet woods, then nestling down into a stack of arranged stones to watch their Creator unfold daily miracles of light and darkness out over the valley below.
"If you really want to get close to God, where do you go? You go to church," Holstein said, pointing down at a small semi-circle of stones stacked as if to form a backrest.
The chair-like structure, one of many throughout McClellan, faced out over the valley below, where Holstein said young Native Americans would likely have sat to watch the sunrise and sunset as part of their "vision quests," sacred ceremonies meant to guide them on their life’s journeys.
He thinks the stone structures were built during the Mississippian period, which lasted from approximately 800 A.D. to 1600 A.D. Those natives would have been ancestors to the Muscokee Creek tribe. Similar structures have been found across the Eastern U.S., up into New England’s Appalachian mountains, but their meaning remains somewhat of a mystery.
In 1540, the quest for gold in the South by Hernando Desoto and his Spanish soldiers devastated the native population, largely through disease. Between 80 and 90 percent of the Native American population was dead within a year after Desoto and his troops left the area, Holstein said.
"And then 20 years later another group of Spanish came here to Alabama and double-whammied the population," Holstein said. The traditions of stacking stones stopped with those deaths, and the stories passed down orally about the purposes behind the walls and mounds died as well.
Manmade, but by whom?
Wearing a "Pitt" baseball cap and tapping a stick out in front as he walked, Holstein guided a photographer and reporter through the woods of McClellan, in search of what he’d found many times before.
"Here it is. The wall starts here and curves up the hill. It just keeps going," he said. "They’re everywhere. See there? They intersect with each other, then run off in other directions. Why did they do this?"
Some folks say the stone walls are evidence of farming by white men, but Holstein laughs at the thought, pointing out that the steep, rocky hills aren’t conducive to farming.
"There’s no one farming Choccolocco Mountain today. There’s not one field in a 29-mile long mountain. Why would they have farmed it then?," Holstein said. "We’ve been fighting the farmer explanation forever."
Dating the structures has been difficult as well, he said, partly due to deforestation.
In the 1800s, Anniston’s hungry iron furnaces cleared Choccolocco of timber that could have been used to help date the rock walls, Holstein said. The U.S. government bought the land in 1916 for Camp McClellan. The mountain hasn’t been in private hands since. Some have also theorized that the structures were made by the military.
"Soldiers don’t pile lines of rocks and boulders into walls and snakes," Holstein said. "But Indians do."
Holstein was a junior at California State College Pennsylvania (now California State University of Pennsylvania) in 1968 when he took his first anthropology course.
That summer, Holstein took the professor’s field course and found himself with other students at the site of a former Native American village overlooking the Monongahela River near the school.
"He asked for volunteers to go out into the village, and told us we probably wouldn’t find anything," Holstein said. "And damned if we didn’t start finding stuff."
Holstein found five large, black ovals down in the dirt, each filled with exotic Native American artifacts.
"I was so excited, and we’d all drink beer at the end of the day and the professor would sit down with us. I thought, ‘This is one hell of a profession,’" Holstein said.
Holstein graduated with a degree in anthropology from the school in 1970 and got a scholarship to the University of Pittsburgh, earning a doctorate in anthropology in 1978.
Holstein has been at JSU since 1978. The job was the result of his first interview after graduation. He thought at first the school administrator was speaking from Jacksonville, Fla. When he found out the job was in Alabama he went anyway, and said he stumbled into a goldmine.
"I fell right into a honeypot. Nobody else was up here doing this, so I couldn’t help but find new things," Holstein said. "The rest is history."
In 2007, Holstein and his students mapped an 80-acre site along Choccolocco Mountain using GPS coordinates, numbering each stone wall from one to 42.
Holstein walked a reporter and photographer to wall No. 22, a shin-high stack of stones that runs up the mountain, intersecting with another wall that continues over the other side.
Holstein first visited mounds on the Choccolocco site in 1984. He estimates he’s taken more than 200 people into McClellan over the years to see the stacked stones.
"That’s part of the fun of it, turning other people on to it," Holstein said.
Asked how long he’ll continue to walk out into the woods to see the stones, Holstein said "until it doesn’t become fun anymore, because right now it’s too much fun."
Then he turned and walked over a hill.
"It’s not too much further," he said. "You’re going to be amazed when you see this."
At his feet, a curving line of small rocks about 12 feet or so long ended at a large triangular rock, like the head of a venomous snake. It’s as plain as day if one knows what to look for, Holstein said.
The meaning behind the small snake effigy, and a much larger one atop a nearby mountain, remains a mystery to Holstein.
That’s what keeps him coming out into the woods, to discover and to understand, while the stones are still there to provide answers.
Eddie Burkhalter is a freelance writer for The Star.