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A Bird of a Different Feather
© 2000, Brian Collier

I had hopes of scaring up the spirit of Flannery O'Connor while on my latest ghost hunting trip to Milledgeville, Georgia. My expedition took me through a couple of moldering southern mansions, and I spent many hours under the heavy shade of Memory Hill cemetery walking from headstone to headstone. As luck would have it, I turned up nothing supernatural in the town. So, I wrote the trip off as an interesting site seeing tour and headed home. The afternoon sun flashed into my window from between the trees as I hummed along the smooth blacktop, and the mildly cold air blew in through my open windows.

One of those conspicuous, Federally funded road signs caught my eye.

Rock Eagle

What's a rock eagle I thought? Was there some sort of aviary ahead? I had to know, so I turned off the highway where the sign indicated. A narrow lane lead into the woods, and ended in an unpaved parking area. I stepped out of my car and crunched across the gravel towards a tall chain link fence. I came face to face with a small marker.

Tread Softy Here White Man
For Long Ere You Came
Strange Races Lived, Fought, and Loved

I suddenly felt like I had my hand in the cookie jar while Mom was in the next room. I looked around. I was the only person there, and the silence only reinforced the feeling that I was someplace I shouldn't be. I passed the sign and approached the fence, which made a large circle around a tall mound of pale, white stones. Indian mound, I thought! Pretty cool, but where is that eagle? On the opposite side of the fenced in area stood a stone tower. I walked around the perimeter of the fence and examined the building. It reminded me of a cross between a hunting lodge and a ranger's watchtower. There was no door on the wide entrance, so I walked in and climbed the three flights of stairs. Looking out the windows at the top, I figured out where the eagle was.

The mound of white stones formed the belly of a giant bird, its wings outstretched in flight. The back of my neck tingled like it does when a heavy thunderstorm blows through. I looked around again. This was better than anything in Mom's cookie jar.

Fortunately, I had my Canon EOS slung around my neck, so I snapped a few pictures from the tower. Then I just stood there and stared at it. The tingling didn't go away. In fact, it felt like static electricity was slowly creeping all over me.

I finally tore myself from the window and descended the tower. As I stood in front of the fence again, I was tempted to climb it and get closer to the eagle. I even reached up and took a hand full of chain link before I decided to be satisfied with the cookies I had and put the lid back on the jar. Despite the sneaky feelings I had, there was nothing to indicate that I had actually done anything wrong so far. No Keep Out signs, and no point in trying to get into trouble. So, I left the Rock Eagle lying there, and finished my drive home.

When I got back, I hit the library for some background information. I discovered that there wasn't a lot of background to be found.

While they aren't sure who built it, archaeologists date the Rock Eagle mound to around 3000 BCE. The site is currently part of a 4-H camp, which takes it's name from the effigy mound. I'm told that the site is much noisier in the spring and summer when the kids take over the camp. Rock Eagle measures 102 feet from head to tail and 120 feet from wingtip to wingtip. Those pale, white stones are milky quartz, and they range from baseball size to boulders.

There is a vague legend behind Rock Eagle. The gist is that there was once an Georgia Indian tribe led by a powerful chieftain whose only son was attacked by an enormous eagle and carried away in its mighty talons. Rather than freaking out over a giant bird flying off with his son, as most of us would do, the chieftain built a monument to the eagle. I'll let you make up your own mind as to the veracity of this story.

In 1933, Rock Eagle was dismantled and trenches were dug to gain clues as to who built the mound and why. The archaeologists did not uncover the usual artifacts found in burial mounds. Instead, they were left scratching their heads over four odd layers of soil. The first was humus and soil mixed, below that was an area of red clay, then below that was a layer of yellow-brown clay and loam, and below that was the basic red clay found all over Georgia.

As the head, neck and shoulder of the eagle were carefully taken apart, a belt of hard yellow clay was uncovered beneath the quartz. Another trench was cut into the heart of the bird where small fragments of charcoal were found. The floor was made of small head-sized stones imbedded in burned soil and burned organic matter from six to eight inches thick. Below this was a layer of yellowish brown clay similar to the clay found in the first trench, but still no sign of any artifacts or evidence of burial.

The archaeologists then excavated from the tail, where they discovered a boulder from which the eagle had presumably been started. In about a yard square between this and another boulder, the workers found fragments of unburned human, bird, and animal bones. They also uncovered a small, ovate pointed tool also made of quartz. After this, excavation ended.

What does all this mean? No one has a succinct answer. Apparently the mound was not used for burial in the way of other mounds. What about all that quartz? It's not exactly a rare material in the region, but the shear amount of stone used means that a lot of effort was put into finding all the quartz required to build the mound. Surely it would have been easier to use another material such as granite. Could the piezoelectric properties of quartz have had something to do with the choice?

And then there is the Eagle itself. Apparently, effigy mounds are ultra rare in the southeast U.S. There is only one other, and surprise! it's located about 15 miles from Rock Eagle next to Lawrence Shoals Recreation Park. It very closely resembles the Rock Eagle Mound, but is referred to as Rock Hawk. According to locals, there was once a third bird, but it was submerged under lake Oconee when Wallace dam was built.

So, Rock Eagle remains a mystery, but maybe you would like to try and solve it. If you would like to pay a visit to Rock Eagle yourself, be prepared for a pleasant drive into the rural countryside of east Georgia. The mound, is about 9 miles north of Eatonton on U.S. Highway 441. By the way, while the grounds are basically wheelchair accessible, the tower has no elevator or ramps, and the stairs are quite steep. Disabled visitors will have to get creative if you want to get to the top. If you would like more information about the site, you can call the extension service of the University System of Georgia at (706) 485-2831.

Other sites of related interest:

Find out more about the Rock Eagle 4-H Camp.

Look at other effigy mounds at Effigy Mounds National Monument.

  © 1995: Brian Collier and Comforts of Home

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