Joseph C. Sumner Jr., amateur historian and accomplished hunter of artifacts from eastern Georgia’s Native American past, recently returned as the Bulloch County Historical Society’s guest speaker and was asked to make the connection between his finds and a $30,000 mural the society just had painted on Statesboro’s West Main Street.
Professionally, Sumner is an attorney, originally from Wrightsville in Johnson County, whose practice is based at Dublin in Laurens County. He also owns timberland where earthwork such as preparations for replanting trees has turned up artifacts over the years. On a previous visit to the Bulloch County Historical Society in October 2017, Sumner covered several table tops with display boxes containing hundreds of stone projectile points and some pottery fragments.
Then, as again in his May 23, 2022, presentation, Sumner emphasized that many of the points found in eastern and central Georgia are not really arrowheads and that most are much older than people tend to think. The prehistoric stone points are not, he explains, the work of the “Creek” tribes, who lived in the area much later, or of the Cherokee, who were also later and did not inhabit the Coastal Plain.
“Creek and Cherokee – everybody says, ‘I’ve got a piece of land and there was a Creek tribe living there, or the Creek Indians used to live there,’” Sumner said this time. “You might, but if you do, you’re not going to find many artifacts. … The Creeks are of the historic period. The Mississippians were the last of the prehistoric people. Creek and Cherokee were only after there was contact (with Europeans).”
Beliefs by local people of predominantly European or African descent that they had a “Cherokee grandmother,” are also unlikely to be true, unless she was from somewhere like North Carolina or far northern Georgia, he noted.
Many of the points Sumner has found are identified as having been made in the Early Archaic Period, 8,000 to 10,000 years ago. At that time, the inhabitants of Georgia were living in “bands of 20 to 50 people, not in permanent settlements, highly mobile,” he said.
Some of the “points” were actually blades, and others were the points of atlatl “darts,” he noted. An atlatl is a shorter stick carved as a lever for hurling a longer, thin spear, called a dart or bolt, forward over the thrower’s shoulder.
“It probably had darts that were replaceable, so the hunter would have a number of darts,” Sumner said. “He would sling it, hit, reload and go again.”
Native Americans of the Southeast began to use the bow and arrow a few thousand years later than the atlatl.
What archaeologists now identify as the Early Archaic Period of Georgia prehistory was followed by the Middle Archaic, of roughly 8,000 to 5,000 years ago, and then the Late Archaic, roughly 5,000 to 3,000 years ago, with distinctive changes in ways of life, pottery and tools. Then came the Woodland Period, from about 3,000 years ago, and later the arrival of the Mississippian culture, whose people built structures such as the Ocmulgee Mounds at Macon and were the ancestors of the Creek tribes.
West Main mural
Echoing Sumner’s presentation from more than four years ago, but calling on the Sociology and Anthropology Department at Georgia Southern University for research and direct input, the Bulloch County Historical Society made Native Americans of the Late Archaic Period the subject of its second mural project in downtown Statesboro.
Professional mural artist David Boatwright, from Charleston, South Carolina, and an assistant painted the mural in January on the west-facing wall of the Averitt Center for the Arts facility at 41 West Main St., the side that includes the Whitaker Black Box Theater entrance.
Instead of being a single painting, this mural consists of five separate frames, representing possible scenes from the lives of people of the Late Archaic.
For example, one picture shows people catching fish by using baskets and a weir, or fish trap, made of staves set into a riverbed to form a partly circular enclosure with an upstream opening. In the foreground of another scene, individuals are emptying baskets on a midden, or debris pile, of shells from freshwater mussels.
The Historical Society promised Boatwright a $25,000 base fee and had already spent $3,200 to have the wall painted with a background coat in a shade called camelhair. During the May 23 meeting, the Historical Society’s executive director, Virginia Anne Franklin Waters, said the mural cost about $30,000 altogether.
After Sumner completed his presentation, Waters asked him to explain to the members and guests present why the archaic period was chosen for the mural’s subject when the organization wanted to honor the area’s indigenous Native Americans.
“The Archaic Period is, again, the period of time when most of these stone points were made, the lasting artifacts,” Sumner said. “We don’t have artifacts like shoes and clothes and stuff they were making. … All of these points are utilitarian pieces, but they’re works of art. That’s the period when all of these things were made.”
Production of the projectile points “went down pretty precipitously” after the archaic times, he said. The Woodland Period, he had noted, was when agriculture was established, including the growing of corn after Native Americans developed it from wild grasses, so that hunting and gathering were no longer the only ways the people had of feeding themselves.
But the arrival of Europeans in the Americas then brought the collapse of the late Woodland or Mississippian culture, as Sumner tells it.
One tract of land he purchased where he has made many finds is at Town Creek on the Oconee River near Milledgeville. It is across the creek from the Shinholser Mound site. Sumner believes this is one of the places where Spanish explorer and conquistador Hernando de Soto and his troops encountered Native Americans in Georgia in 1540.
As before, Sumner noted the cruelty of the Spanish force in their use of war dogs, horses and weapons against the Indians but indicated that diseases brought from Europe – smallpox and syphilis are two that are often mentioned – to which the native people had no immunities were a greater scourge.
“The fallout from Spanish communicable diseases after 1540 was, again, almost like a nuclear holocaust,” he said. “The numbers are from 75 percent to 95 percent mortality, and think about that, you know, if there’s 100 people in the room, two years from now, five of us would be left. Think about how much oral history is lost by that death rate.”
The various “Creek” tribes that English settlers later encountered, and called that because they lived beside creeks, were made up of regroupings of the survivors, he suggests.
Waters reported that a large bronze plaque has been ordered for the West Main mural that will describe what each of its five images represent. The Historical Society will plan a dedication ceremony after it is installed.
Meanwhile, the society’s 2022 annual meeting of its membership is slated for 11:30 a.m. June 27 in the usual monthly meeting place.