Indian site at Water Works Park damaged by maintenance work

A Creek Indian archaeological site at Water Works Park in Macon was recently damaged by maintenance activities conducted by NewTown Macon, which operates the park.

“There’s just no excuse for it,” said Chris Sheridan, the volunteer chairman of the committee that oversees the park and the Ocmulgee Heritage Trail. “I can’t tell you why we did it. ... It’s something that happened under my watch, and I’m sick about it.”

The area, which was known to have archaeological value, was harrowed about three inches deep to prevent erosion, Sheridan said. The decision was made by a staff member who didn’t discuss the plan with Sheridan or NewTown CEO Mike Ford beforehand, Sheridan said.

“It stopped immediately when we found out, and it won’t happen again,” he said. “We had some training sessions, to put it mildly.”

This is the second publicly owned Bibb County archaeological site to be damaged by those entrusted with managing it. In 2007, the state logged a portion of Brown’s Mount to stop a Southern pine beetle infestation, and the heavy equipment impacted a site where artifacts and structures had been found that dated to the same period as the nearby Indian mounds at Ocmulgee National Monument.

Both times, the damage was found by local environmentalist John Wilson.

A few weeks ago, he notified park managers about some small-scale exposure of the site after mowing, and he offered to go back and do recovery work.

When he did so the next weekend, he found the entire area had been harrowed, with much more impact, he said.

“It was an accident and I realize that, but it was still stupid,” said Wilson, who is a supporter of the park and the trail. “I thought this place was preserved.”

Sheridan said he and Ford met Monday with local archaeologist Stephen Hammack to work on a plan for recovering the site.

Park managers and boosters are concerned about people looting, which is illegal without permission of the property owner.

Sheridan said picking up artifacts and taking any historic items out of the park is not allowed. Any violators will be prosecuted.

Ford said NewTown also plans to post signs and add more security at the park before Saturday, when the park opens for the weekend.

Some local experts on Creek history have suggested that the waterworks site might have been the location of a Creek town during the 1600s or 1700s.

Sheridan said he thinks that if the riverwalk eventually links the monument with a Creek town site, the entire area could be a significant tourist draw while celebrating American Indian heritage.

Representatives of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation have been notified of what happened at Water Works Park.

Hammack, who leads the Ocmulgee Archaeological Society, said he envisions creating a grid across the affected archaeological site and finding, labeling and mapping everything found. He said the society, students and others might be able to help with the effort and even check the area repeatedly during the winter.

Sheridan said he would probably want the archaeological society to hold any artifacts found. Hammack already maintains some finds that were made at the site in past decades.

State archaeologist David Crass said he’s unfamiliar with the details of the waterworks archaeological site, although he was informed of the recent harrowing there. But he said it’s “probably not a big deal” as long as objects are recovered scientifically and mapped.

“Most places in the Southeast, the first six or eight inches (of soil) has already been disturbed by previous agriculture,” Crass said. “So the artifacts might already be out of context…. But we can still learn from a density map that could help us plan for future studies or management.”

Sheridan said the area has been graded twice during the 1990s, increasing the likelihood that artifacts already had been disturbed.

NewTown already hired an archaeologist to conduct a preliminary study of the area, so the agency knew about the historic resources there and had planned to incorporate them into displays and educational activities at the park.

Hammack said NewTown was about to launch a second stage of more detailed excavation to determine whether the site should be on the National Register of Historic Places. That work likely will involve excavating larger areas, he said.

Wilson noted that the area already had been identified as potentially eligible for the National Register, which means no ground-disturbing activities should have happened.

He wondered whether it might be illegal to allow the degradation of archaeological sites in a park funded partly with federal money.

“This could be turned into an opportunity if (material) is systematically collected,” said Wilson. “But it’s just a shame.”

Wilson said there would be less threat of looting if the park were open more days of the week, putting more eyes on the area. Although people can walk into the park any day, the gates are only open on weekends.

Wilson and others have made the same argument for reopening Brown’s Mount to the public. That area, owned by Georgia and managed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service as part of Bond Swamp National Wildlife Refuge, has remained closed since the archaeological damage there.

For years, Wilson has advocated incorporating significant natural and archaeological sites along the Ocmulgee River into a national park anchored by what is now the Ocmulgee monument.

He said this is another example of the problems with having varying owners and managers at the different sites.

“This wouldn’t happen at the monument, and it wouldn’t happen if the National Park Service was in charge,” Wilson said.

Brian Adams, a local park booster, said he has arranged to visit Saturday with documentary filmmaker Ken Burns to discuss how Burns might be able to leverage support for expanding the monument into a national park, encompassing natural and archaeological features along the Ocmulgee River corridor from Macon to Hawkinsville.

Burns’ latest documentary series, “The National Parks: America’s Best Idea,” is premiering on public broadcasting stations nationwide this week.

Adams and others hope to convince federal legislators to fund a special resource study, which would assess whether there are enough natural and cultural features to warrant national park designation.

To contact writer S. Heather Duncan, call 744-4225.