Columbus Museum to transfer ownership of an important mound site to UGA

Submitted by Mike Bunn, Associate Curator of History, The Columbus Museum (mbunn@columbusmuseum.com)

Many readers of The Profile have no doubt heard of the recent announcement of the pending transfer of ownership of the Singer-Moye mound site from the Columbus Museum to the University of Georgia. Those that have not will likely want to know how this decision came about, while those with some understanding of it will surely want to know more. Recognizing both this and the interest of this publication’s readership in seeing that archaeologically-important sites in the state of Georgia are properly maintained, I would like to take this opportunity to explain to the SGA membership the arrangement between the Museum and the University.

Before discussing the transfer, however, I would like to first acquaint readers with the Singer-Moye mound site and its importance. The site is located in Stewart County, Georgia, near the town of Lumpkin. A Mississippian-era mound center listed on the National Register of Historic Places, it features eight known earthen mounds surrounding a large central plaza. The tallest of these mounds, known as Mound A, stands over 40 feet high, making it the fourth largest such structure in Georgia behind mounds at Etowah, Ocmulgee, and Kolomoki. Archaeological study has revealed the earliest habitation of the site dates to several thousand years ago, with the Mississippian mound center being built and occupied circa A.D. 1000 to approximately 1450. The mound center was apparently abandoned prior to the arrival of European explorers in the Southeast in the 1500s. Perhaps the most significant feature of the site is its unique setting. Whereas most similar mound centers are located along major waterways, the Singer-Moye site is situated a significant distance from the nearest noteworthy creek and many miles from the Chattahoochee River and the nearly contemporary Rood’s Landing mound site.

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Mound A at the Singer-Moye site.

The Singer-Moye mound site has been owned and maintained by Columbus Museum for over 40 years. The property consists of approximately 42 acres, which were donated to the Museum over a period of several years by the Singer and Moye families. A small parcel was donated by the Georgia-Kraft Corporation for the purpose of acquiring an access road to the property. While the acreage owned by the Museum contains the heart of the Mississippian mound center, it should be noted that outlying village areas associated with the site extend for a significant distance, perhaps even miles, from the site. Owing to the recognition of its importance by previous owners, diligent monitoring by recent caretakers as well as its remote location, the site has suffered relatively little from vandalism. It stands today among the best-preserved sites of its kind in the Southeast.

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Mound B at the Singer-Moye site.

The Columbus Museum, under the direction of retired archaeologist Frank Schnell and in association with several partnering institutions, has conducted extensive archaeological investigation on portions of the site during its ownership. These efforts included the excavation of exploratory trenches, investigation of the summits of two of the mounds, scattered small-scale testing, and intensive examination of Mounds C, E and H. Investigation of Mounds E and H, technically earthlodges, by longtime field archaeologist and site superintendant Don Gordy along with archaeologist Margaret Russell and several volunteers, has yielded the great majority of information known about the origins, development, and use of the mound site. Thousands of artifacts, including pottery sherds, faunal and botanical remains, and a small number of stone tools, have been recovered over three decades of intermittent investigations and are currently curated by the Columbus Museum. Recently, faculty and students from Columbus State University and the University of Georgia have become involved with the site. Between 2004 and 2006, Dr. Warren Church of CSU conducted small-scale field school training, directed students in a variety of volunteer maintenance activities, and supervised interns in the cataloging of artifacts gathered from the site. In 2006, Dr. Mark Williams, assisted by his students at UGA, oversaw the creation of a topographical map of the site (see map).

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Mound C at the Singer-Moye site.

At the same time that this research has resulted in an evolution of our understanding of the site, the Columbus Museum itself has undergone change. In the 40 years since the Museum acquired the property, it has matured as an institution and honed its mission to reflect the strength of its collection and its role in the community it serves. The Museum was founded in 1953, and at different times in the past its interpretive thrusts have included a range of types of American and international art, local history, archaeology, and even the natural sciences. As is the case with many similar institutions, the academic specialties and interests of staff heavily influenced its direction regarding exhibitions, publications, and educational programming from one era to the next. Seeking to define more explicitly the purpose and goals of the Museum so that it could sharpen its focus and most effectively utilize its resources, over two decades ago its Board of Trustees formally adopted the mission statement that continues to guide its development:

The mission of the Columbus Museum is to collect, preserve, research and interpret American art and regional culture for the education, enrichment and enjoyment of a broad and diverse public.

This statement was decided upon after careful consideration of the Museum’s ability to sustain vibrant programs that enhanced the lives of its visitors. As a consequence, the Museum has found it impractical to provide for the growing needs of its core programs of American art and regional history and simultaneously maintain a professional archaeological program. Logistical concerns, space requirements and staffing issues were among a number of factors that influenced the decision to cease Museum-funded archaeological investigation. While the interpretation of items discovered through archaeology have been, and will remain, a vital part of the Museum’s interpretive focus, the Museum will no longer be a lead institution in archaeological undertakings or accept unaccessioned archaeological collections for long-term care. All archaeological collections already in the Museum’s possession that materially aid its interpretation of the earliest periods of human habitation of the lower Chattahoochee River valley will continue to be curated.

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Don Gordy excavating the earth lodge at the Singer-Moye site.

The Museum at length came to the realization that the ownership of a large, nationally important Mississippian mound site situated over 40 miles from its main campus was no longer in the best interest of either the Museum or the site. Though committed to maintaining this local landmark and ensuring its preservation to the best of its ability, the Museum simply could not develop the site into the type of educational resource it desired it to be with its limited resources. As a consequence, the Museum sought out a regional institution that shared its vision for the site that might be better equipped to provide for its long-term care and development.

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Singer-Moye Mound Center, Stewart County, Georgia. Mound locations: black—older map used by Blitz and Lorenz; white—recent topographic map by Wood and Williams. (Overlay map by permission of Wood and Williams.)

In 2005, the Museum decided to approach the University of Georgia about a potential transfer of the property and its associated archaeological collections. It already enjoyed a healthy working relationship with the University and was well aware of the depth of its intellectual and financial resources and how they might work to the benefit of the site. University officials were enthusiastically receptive to the proposal, and after initial negotiations, recommended the site be brought into the University’s care under the auspices of the Georgia Museum of Natural History. Since then, Museum staff and trustees have been working with Dr. Byron Freeman, Director of the Museum of Natural History, and other University faculty and representatives to organize a plan of action. While all involved have consistently recognized the potential of this promising arrangement, progress toward the transfer has been deliberate. In March of 2008, the University’s Board of Regents officially approved the transfer; the move was subsequently approved by the Museum’s Executive Committee. Currently, final arrangements are being made to complete the process.

The Museum believes the transfer of ownership of the Singer-Moye site is in the best long-term interest of the site and we look forward to serving as a partner in UGA’s efforts to preserve and interpret it. In addition to continued preservation and stabilization efforts, mapping activities and possible future archaeology at the site, there is great potential for a variety of types of collaborative research. Zoological, botanical and geological studies conducted by UGA and partnering organizations are among the many possibilities under consideration. The Museum plans to remain involved with the site by periodically conducting tours and continuing to serve as an advocate for its responsible use as a part of a broad collaborative network of scientists, educators, and interested citizens. The Museum believes that under UGA’s leadership, the Singer-Moye mound site will be preserved properly and at the same time become a unique resource for the local community, state and region.

The Columbus Museum extends its thanks to Terry Jackson for inviting me to discuss the transfer of the site in this forum. We welcome your comments, thoughts, and suggestions.