By Richard Thornton – Architect, Planner and noted Historian
The controversial recent discovery of the Track Rock Terrace complex on the tallest mountain in Georgia came as a surprise ending to seven years of research by Richard Thornton, a Creek Indian architect and city planner who had devoted much of his 40-year career to research into the pre-European past of North America and preservation of early American architecture. The Creek Indians have long known that they had some Mayan ancestors. Most Creeks carry some Maya DNA and there are numerous Maya and Totonac words in the Itsate-Creek language that was spoken in the southeastern United States. The Track Rock Terrace Complex involves sophisticated drainage and agricultural infrastructure and is roughly a half mile square in area, including at least 154 stone masonry retaining walls, plus the stone ruins of buildings, animal effigies and altars.
Ancient trails that have seldom felt human feet for over 600 years suddenly have paths worn down their middle. Since the announcement of the Track Rock Terrace complex last December, the world is beginning to learn about this enigmatic archaeological zone high in the mountains of northern Georgia. In its current state, the enormous scale of the original town is difficult to appreciate, unless the visitor spends hours of vigorous hiking up and down the steep slopes.
When the foliage is dormant, the dense stands of a seemingly infinite variety of trees still block most long distance views. Even in late winter or early spring, there are only a few vantage points where a visitor can see more than a dozen stone walls at any time. Typically, those views are along the wide trail that leads from a cluster of ancient petroglyphs at Track Rock Gap to a dormant volcanic fumarole about 900 feet (274 m) above. Some ruins can only be accessed by narrow paths, created through the centuries by deer and bears. Many ruins, even those of special significance, have no access trail at all. Reaching them requires navigation through a cellulose web of tree trunks, saplings and vines.
About an hour’s hike will be required to reach the acropolis, where the most interesting ruins are located. Along the way, you will see many agricultural walls, burial cairns and large made-made terraces, where the commoners probably erected their houses. The vigorous hiking required to see these ancient ruins has its rewards. It is a raw archaeological site, of international importance, that strongly resembles the ruins in southern Mexico before they were developed for tourists. You will see how nature took back a place, lived in by mankind for hundreds of years.
Persons with life-threatening health conditions should not climb the mountain up to the ruins. Many visitors, who thought they were in good physical condition, have found themselves stopping to catch their breath. It is also not safe to hike the site alone. Several areas are extremely steep and rock strewn. There are also some coyotes, bears and poisonous snakes living in that section of the Chattahoochee National Forest.
More archaeological study is needed
In 2000 the U.S. Forest Service retained South African archaeologist, Johannes Loubser, to study the famous cluster of petroglyphs at Track Rock Gap. Retired electrical engineer, Cary Waldrup, persuaded the USFS to also map the complex of stone ruins across Track Rock Gap Road. The following year, a consortium of citizens and two non-profit organizations retained Loubser’s firm to carry out a survey of the site, which included excavation of two small test pits. The three layers of fill soil from an agricultural terrace contained pottery shards possibly dating back to the 700s AD. They were radiocarbon dated to have been first applied around 1000 AD. There are approximately 250 visible terrraces with stone retaining walls. Some may be much older that 1000 AD.
The chemical analysis of the fill soil revealed that it contained chunks of charcoal and broken pottery. The analysts did not realize the significance of this trait at that time. The charcoal and potshards are the telltale sign of tierra preta, a biologically active soil whose invention probably first occurred in South America. Bacteria grows in the presence of charcoal and ceramics, which makes soil more fertile.
None of the archaeologists or local residents involved in this initial study had a background in Mesoamerican architecture or had even visited Mexico. The archaeologists did not offer a specific interpretation of the site, but did do solid professional groundwork for certifying the Track Rock Terrace Complex as an enormous archaeological zone containing artifacts associated with pre-European occupants of the region.
The Track Rock Terrace Complex is identical to hundreds of terrace complexes built by illiterate Itza Maya farmers in Central America, during the period between 600 AD and 1,200 AD. Many are still in use today. It even has two small streams that define the sides of the site, just like most Itza Maya terrace complexes.
Itsate, the name that these Itza farmers called themselves, is also the name of a major branch of the Creek Indian Confederacy. The Itsate (Hitchiti Creeks) were associated with the construction of the largest pyramidal mounds in the Southeastern United States. Still today, the Creek Indians use many Maya and Totonac words that were borrowed from Mexico. Early English maps show several Indian towns named Itsate or Itsaye ringing the Track Rock Gap – Brasstown Bald Area. The Creek Indians have always insisted that they received immigrants from Mexico over 1,200 years ago, who became their elite. Most anthropologists, however, have not been listening, at least until now.
Because of the enormous scale, uniqueness and complexity of the Track Rock Terrace Complex, many years of archaeological investigation will be required before it is fully understood. Peoples from several ethnic backgrounds may have lived on or near the site during its 500+ years of occupation. There is linguistic and genetic evidence that an indigenous people from the Andes in South America were living east of Track Rock Gap during the 1500s.
Traveling to Track Rock Gap
The U.S. Forest Service parking lot for the Track Rock Gap Archaeological Zone is directly adjacent to Track Rock Gap Road, a paved, county-maintained thoroughfare, and only a few minutes from many motels, restaurants and shopping facilities. This future, national tourist destination is about 100 miles (160 km) north of Downtown Atlanta and seven miles south of the Georgia-North Carolina State Line. It is 79 miles (128 km) due east of Chattanooga, TN and 87 miles (140 km) southwest of Asheville, NC.
Track Rock Gap is only minutes away from the Chattahoochee National Forest Museum and Visitors Center atop Brasstown Bald Mountain, Georgia’s highest peak. Other nearby attractions include the Appalachian Trail, which passes about two miles from Track Rock; John C. Campbell Folk School & Museum in Brasstown, NC; historic Downtown Murphy, NC; Vogel State Park (lots of things for families to do there,) Blood Mountain & the Walasiyi Hikers Inn; beautiful Lakes Chattuge & Nottely; the Georgia Mountain Fairgrounds and entertainment complex in Hiawassee, GA; and the Gold Mining Museum in Dahlonega.
The quickest way to reach the Track Rock Gap from Atlanta is via I-575, which branches off from I-75 near Marietta, GA. Near Ball Ground, GA, I-575 becomes GA 515. It is still a four lane expressway and continues all the way to Blairsville, GA. Past Blairsville, GA 515 becomes a two lane highway, but you will soon need to turn right on Track Rock Gap Rd.
Printed or downloadable copies of a recently published book on the Track Rock Gap Archeological Zone, Itsapa: the Itza Maya in North America, may be obtained from Lulu Publishing Inc. at http://www.lulu.com/spotlight/talamachusee.