Thinking roads

Submitted by Sammy Smith (

Screenshot from modern Georgia road map found online here.

Roads constitute the largest human-made artifact on earth.

Ted Conover wrote this in his latest book, The Routes of Man: How Roads are Changing the World and the Way We Live Today (2010, Knopf: New York; page 9). On the same page, he also notes:

In fact, almost 1.5 percent of the surface area of the continental United States—an area about the size of Ohio—is now covered with “impermeable surfacing”: roads, parking lots, buildings, and houses.

Modern roads—we know where they are. Go back a century—we know where many of the roads in the continental US were.

Go back six centuries, and it’s trickier—where were the roads? This is something Georgia archaeologists ponder.

Mostly, archaeologists record habitation sites—that is, places where people lived. They may have lived there for quite a while, generations even, at perhaps large villages. Other residential sites may have been been small and used for only a short while, perhaps for a season, or even for a shorter period (often referred to as a “camp”).

But, we know from the artifacts that are found here and there that ancient peoples traveled great distances.

Consider the example of the Leake Site, a civic-ceremonial village settlement in northwest Georgia near Cartersville on the bank of the Etowah River. This unusual village was originally settled about 300 B.C. Over time, the residents constructed large mounds, and dug a ditch around part of the settlement area, meaning some houses were inside the ditch and some were outside. The location of this settlement mean the residents were well positioned to monitor or participate in trade that came from either the Gulf or Atlantic Coast and extended to the lower Ohio River, or vice versa.

We know the residents of the Leake Site participated in such a trading network because of the artifacts that have been found there, on the west bank of the Etowah, and at other archaeological sites that were occupied at the same time.

For example, Leake Site Principal Investigators Scot Keith and Dean Wood examined collections from the Mann Site, a contemporaneous occupation in the southwest corner of Indiana not far from the confluence of the Ohio and Wabash Rivers. Some of the pottery from this site has produced an abundance of Swift Creek complicated stamped pottery and sand tempered simple stamped wares very similar to Cartersville simple stamped pottery, as reported elsewhere on this website and on the website. Other artifacts found in common on other contemporaneous (that is, Middle Woodland) archaeological sites scattered around east-central and southeastern North America include anthropomorphic figurines made from fired clay. They have similar faces and other attributes.

The distinctive decorations of Swift Creek pottery indicate there was communication among these far-flung settlements. We don’t know if people traveled along routes we would recognize as roads, or constructed flattened pathways. We surmise that they would in part have traveled on rivers, like the Etowah itself. But some of their passage must have been overland. Some overland routes were used for generations, into historic times. As Professor Louis DeVorsey has noted in the New Georgia Encyclopedia online:

Before Georgia had roads, it was laced with Indian trails or paths. These trails served the needs of Georgia’s native populations by connecting their villages with one another and allowing them to travel great distances in quest of game, fish, shellfish, and pearls, as well as such mineral resources as salt, flint, pipestone, steatite, hematite, and ochre. Many groups followed an annual economic cycle that saw them undertake seasonal migrations in pursuit of plants and animals needed for their existence.

So, what about roads and archaeology? Conover is right—roads are a huge human impact on our modern landscape. Indeed, the expansion of a state highway is the reason that SGA members Keith and Wood conducted the excavations at the Leake Site, and analyzed the data recovered.

Based on their research, they have suggested trading routes that the Leake Site residents and their contemporaries likely followed. That, however, is not the same as documenting those routes.

Some ancient roads are known. They were constructed with care, even with drainage, and distinct margins. They connected important trade centers across sometimes inhospitable landscapes. In general, we define a route as a road if it is an identifable thoroughfare, although it may or may not be constructed; this definition includes footpaths and trails.

Consider the Appian Way, or Via Appia in Latin, which connected Rome to communities to the east and south. Or consider the famous white ways, or sacbes/sacbeob, of the lowland Maya. Some sacbes connected parts of single communities; others ran some distance and connected cities. They are called white ways because they were surfaced in the white limestone ubiquitous in the Maya lowlands. Consider the Camino Real roads the Spanish commissioned to link places in the New World; one of the most famous is El Camino Real de Tierra Adentro, or the Royal Road to the Interior, which is part of a network that connected Mexico City with the harbor at Veracrúz and extended north into modern New Mexico. Some stretches of all of these examples can be seen on the free satellite photos projected byGoogle Earth, and some are even modern roads and highways (consider these pictures of New Mexico’s Camino Real).

But, what about travel routes, perhaps used for centuries, that were no more than foot-pounded soil? This, clearly, is a class of ancient archaeological resources that are poorly known, more hypothesized than systematically recorded.

The Appalachian Trail in north Georgia in March 2009.

As Dr. DeVorsey also notes:

Native Americans tended to avoid difficult terrain as they traveled across wide stretches of Georgia’s early landscape, and as a result Indian trails generally followed ridges and drainage divides to minimize stream crossings and swampy bottomlands. Later, engineers used the same criteria when laying out and constructing railways and roads. Bridges were costly to construct and hard to maintain, so the routes pioneered by the Native Americans were often later overlaid by iron rails and graveled roads. When large creeks and rivers couldn’t be avoided, the Indian trails often led to rocky shoals or shallows that could be easily crossed or safely forded. In times of high water travelers sometimes carried collapsible wooden frames and covered them with hides to provide small portable boats for crossing. Dugout canoes were sometimes hidden for use in crossing, or rafts or hickory or elm bark canoes were made on the spot.

The Hightower Trail is a named Indian trail here in Georgia. It may have been used for generations and centuries before it appears in the historic record. The words Hightower and Etowah are corruptions of the same Cherokee term, Ita-Wa, according to a historical marker. Another marker notes that this route was once considered the boundary between the Creek and Cherokee territories; today part of it is the Gwinnett/Dekalb County line. As with other prehistoric trails in Georgia, portions of the Hightower Trail are modern roads, some of them well-traveled routes.

The issue of ancient roads raises many potential topics for discussion, for example, trading networks, stream fords and bridges, road construction techniques…. What are you thinking about? Log in and comment!

If you are interested in Georgia’s Indian trails, you may want to track down a copy of Marion H. Hemperley’s Historic Indian Trails of Georgia (1989, Garden Club of Georgia: Atlanta).