Seems to be the week for mysterious Indian settlements. Is there some
form of proof that the Maya traded this far North? I mean goods that
would suggest more than just hand to hand trading finally reaching
The mysterious Irene Complex near Savannah
July 21, 10:05 AM · Richard Thornton - Architecture & Design Examiner
Was it a fortified port, a religious shrine, a royal compound or all
of the above?
Look to the west from the edge of Downtown Savannah, GA and all you
will see along the Savannah River are huge derricks, massive cargo
ships and warehouses. A mysterious Native American complex on an
island adjacent to the Savannah River no longer exists. The site was
developed by the Georgia Ports Authority six decades ago.
Few, if any, of the tourists from around the world who visit Savannah
know much about its history prior to the arrival of English colonists
in 1732. The coast of Georgia and South Carolina was where Spain
focused its initial efforts to colonize North America in the
mid-1500s. Prior to that time, the coastal islands and estuaries near
Savannah were occupied by the Wahale People. The name means
“Southerners” in the Hitchiti-Creek Indian language. Probably, the
Wahale were from the Florida Peninsula originally. Having no “W” in
their alphabet, the Spanish wrote their name down as the Guale. They
appeared to the Spanish to be simple people, who lived in villages or
hamlets, and only built small burial mounds of sand and shells.
During the late 1500s virtually all of the Wahale became associated
with a chain of missions along the coast of what are now Georgia and
the southern tip of South Carolina. However, by 1732 the Wahale were
essentially extinct . . . wiped out by waves of European diseases, the
abuses of Spanish serfdom and finally repeated attacks by other Native
American groups from the interior. A few hundred fled to the vicinity
of Saint Augustine or among the Apalachee of the Florida Panhandle,
when the Spanish abandoned the Georgia coast in 1684.
Muskogean* villages, ethnically related to the Wahale, moved from the
interior of the Coastal Plain to replace the Wahale after the
survivors moved away. These peoples were known by the British as the
Yamasee. The name means “offspring of Yama” in the Hitchiti-Creek
language. Yama was a trade language associated with the area around
Mobile, AL. However, in 1715 the Yamassee rebelled against the
British because of their continued practice of Native American
slaves. The Yamassee almost destroyed the South Carolina Colony until
the “new boys on the block,” the Cherokees attacked the Yamassee from
the rear and drove them down into Florida.
A regional center for something?
Around 1000 AD, some unidentified group began constructing a complex
of buildings 21 one miles inland from the sea on a triangular island
next to the Savannah River. It was a location that humans had camped
on for thousands of years while fishing and hunting. Until roughly at
this island, the Savannah River runs fast and clear. Tidal flows slow
its movement beyond here. Of all the rivers in the Southeast, it drops
from the Southern Highlands along the shortest horizontal distance. On
one side of the island was the Savannah River, on another side a
creek, and the other a ravine created by centuries of rainwater. It
was a naturally fortified site for controlling river traffic. The
newcomers augmented the defensive nature of the site with timber
palisades. The settlers erected houses and the first stages of several
mounds. Their houses were similar to those being built about 150 miles
to the west on the Ocmulgee River.
Although the Georgia coast in recent decades has never been directly
hit by a major hurricane, the location of the Irene Complex would be a
relatively safe haven for coastal trading canoes or even sea-going
Maya merchant sailboats. Savannah was intentionally planted 16 miles
inland in order to put distance between the city and hurricane tidal
surges. The site also adjoins a major trade path that paralleled the
river all the way from the mountains to the see.
The architecture and plan of the complex at Irene continued to evolve
through the centuries. While the houses were similar to those at
Ocmulgee National Monument in Macon, GA the public architecture,
though, became something very different than was found in most of
North America at that time.
(1) The largest mound is an elongated form that is semi-circular on
one end and rectangular on the other. The rectangular end is served
by three ramps.
(2) An unusual type of pentagonal earthwork extended southward from
the main mound. This type of pentagon is also found at Zoque (Olmec)
cities in Mexico.
(3) There appears to have been a cone-shaped chokopa inside the apex
of the pentagon. In Mexico these types of buildings were folk temples
for the god, Quetzalcoatl, but among the ancestors of the Creek
Indians evolved to being community centers. Chokopa is the Chontal
Maya word for “warm place.”
(4) There was a dome shaped minor mound constructed of shells to the
west of the main mound. .
(5) To the south of the shell mound was a temple surrounded by a
(6) Between the shell dome and the shell ring was a paved walkway
that connected the large mound with a small plaza and a public
(7) The public building at the end of the walkway was surrounded by a
timber palisade. Was this inner palisade a visual screen or a barrier
to protect the contents of the building? The building within a
palisade has the appearance of a prison, but the timber palisade may
have been meant to be a psychological barrier from the outside
world . . . much like the walls around medieval monasteries.
(8) Houses of substantial size were constructed around the west and
north periphery of the island.
(9) There was a fortified gate on the south apex of the triangle
where a narrow land bridge joined the mainland.
(10) An outer channel of the Savannah River provided the main
entrance to the complex.
(11) The inner harbor was probably where most canoes and boats landed
to unload cargo.
Alternative interpretations of the Irene Complex
Radiocarbon dating suggests that the Irene Complex was still occupied
during the 1500s when Spain was exploring and colonizing the South
Atlantic Coast. However, to date, no Spanish archive has been found
which definitely describes the complex. It was last occupied around
the year 1600, while Spain continued to maintain missions in the
region until 1684. Without eyewitness, written reports we can only
speculate what activities took place on the island. Alternative
· A “royal” compound where the leaders of the province and
their retainers lived. The lack of large “capital” towns among the
Wahale, might be explained by them being subject to the authority of
whoever lived at the Irene Complex.
· A fortified port of entry where goods from the mountains and
piedmont were traded with goods from the coast and Florida. The large
building inside of an inner stockade, may have been a warehouse for
especially valuable goods.
· A regional religious shrine where priests and retainers
lived in a fortified environment to protect the site from raiders.
· A fortified port of entry that evolved into a major
religious shrine and regional capital.
Excavation of the site by WPA archaeologists & local women
The WPA hired famous archaeologist Joseph Caldwell, to supervise
excavation of the Irene Site in the late 1930s and early 1940s.
Caldwell’s work crew was almost completely composed of African-
American women. These women did an outstanding job . . . especially
considering that prior to going to work for the WPA none had any
training in archaeology. The Irene Mounds Study is still considered
one of the most accurate and thorough archaeological projects of the
*Muskogean is a generic term (like Scandinavian) for peoples related
to the Historic Period Creek Indians of Georgia, South Carolina, North
Carolina, Alabama, and SE Tennessee