Swift Creek People and Their Art
1500 Years Ago in South Georgia
South Georgia College
Thousands of years after man came to Georgia a distinctive
group of American Indians, the Swift Creek people, thrived in a
large area of southern Georgia. Within a few centuries following
the death of Christ these Swift Creek people had developed an art
style that involved the carving of elaborately complex designs
into wooden paddles which were then used as stamping tools during
the construction of pottery. These designs which were impressed
onto their clay pots survive today as broken fragments of ornate
vessels and have been reconstructed in a jig-saw puzzle fashion
to produce the collection of ancient Indian art illustrated in
the following paper.
The tedious process of reconstructing paddle designs involves
carefully sorting through pottery fragments searching for design
overlaps until as much of the entire design is found as possible.
The process is facilitated by using special lighting which
enhances subtle design data. As each piece of the design
information is discovered it is carefully measured and
transferred to paper. Many factors complicate the process.
Overstamping, paddle slippage and the practice of obliterating
the design on certain areas of the pot by some artisans make the
reconstruction of the designs a very slow process.
Where They Lived
The term Swift Creek refers to the location where
their pottery was first isolated as a kind of Indian pottery.
Swift Creek is a small tributary of the Ocmulgee River near
Macon. Today, a map of the distribution of Swift Creek pottery
reveals that its range extends from near the Fall Line at Macon
southward into northern Florida as far as Jacksonville and Tampa.
In an east-west direction it has been found from the Georgia
coast to the Northwest Florida coast near Pensacola.
Swift Creek Indian Lifestyle
Because Swift Creek people lived in prehistoric times (before
written history) we do not know tribal names nor do we know very
much about the people themselves. Archaeologist have excavated
some of their villages and burial places in an effort to learn
more about their lifestyle. Careful excavation has revealed an
elaborate ritual associated with the death of their religious and
or political leaders. The burial ceremony sometimes included the
sacrifice of individuals to assist their dead leader in the next
life. Weapons, ornaments, and tools are personal items that are
usually placed with their fallen leader along with many specially
constructed pieces of effigy pottery often shaped to represent
the animals and plants illustrated here as paddle stamp designs.
These sacred effigy pots were also killed
by either punching a hole through their bottom or by smashing
entire vessels, thereby releasing the spirit of the pot to go to
the next life with the dead leader.
The largest and most important Swift Creek site is preserved
today at Kolomoki Mounds State Park in Southwest Georgia near
Blakely. Many smaller Swift Creek Sites have been found and
studied in southern Georgia, northern Florida and southern
Alabama. Occasionally, Swift Creek pottery has been found
throughout the eastern United States associated with the Hopewell
people whose sphere of influence and trade centered on the Ohio
River but encompassed distant lands such as Georgia, Florida and
The wealth and variety of complex and often highly attractive
designs created by Swift Creek people are unmatched by other
Indian groups in southern Georgia. The intricate and beautifully
proportioned combinations of curved and straight lines are
arranged to conform to the design field dictated by the
rectangular-shaped paddle head. No doubt, each design had meaning
to the ancient artisan. Unfortunately, as we look upon them they
seem unintelligible. Their meaning, possibly linked to a belief
system, has been obscured by the passage of time. However, some
designs contain enough naturalistic elements elements to suggest
what was being depicted. One abstract design, seen on the
introductory page of this paper, is suggestive of an owl in view
of two large opposed P-shaped eyes and a beak-like element
beneath the four-lined arc across its face. The circular element
at the bottom of the beak gives the owl an open-mouth or hooting
appearance. Other examples of abstract representations include
birds, insects, snakes, flowers and ceremonial human masks.
The designs that were incised into wooden paddles are suggestive of a more widespread woodworking tradition that probably included other wooden utensils and art or religious objects which have decayed through time. Totem poles were possibly carved by these people. Unfortunately these perishable items failed to survive the wear of time. However, at Key Marco in southern Florida a wealth of wooden artifacts were preserved in coastal muck. This rare assemblage of often highly ornate artifacts gives insight into the kinds of perishable wooden artifacts that Swift Creek people may have possessed.
A small sample of the Swift Creek designs discovered in the
Ocmulgee Big Bend Region along with possible interpretations are
The figure above represents a lugubrious human mask. Several
similar mask-like designs have been recovered. A Carbon-14 date
of A.D. 580 has been recorded at a site (9Tf37) which has many
examples of broken pottery bearing this design. This identical
design is known from four other sites located in southeastern
Telfair and northwestern Jeff Davis Counties. By recording many
sites that have the same pottery designs made by one individual
wooden paddle it is possible to determine land utilization and a
sphere of social interaction of a specific group of Indians
hundreds of years ago.
Here one can see two dogwood-like flowers
connected to the base of an abstract representation of a plant.
The trunk is seen as a vertical line. Atop this are concentric
circles with arched projections left and right that probably
represent the leaves of this plant. The uppermost motif element
is a solid dot enclosed by an eccentric circle which suggests the
sun shining downward upon the plant. Smaller concentric ovals to
the left and right of the plant may be interpreted as fruit. This
design occurs at four sites in Jeff Davis (JD10 and JD20),
Wheeler (Wl 7), and Telfair (Tf51) Counties and dates from the
middle Swift Creek period around 400 A.D. Three other versions of
a four petalled flower are recorded from the Ocmulgee River
valley. At Kolomoki in southwestern Georgia a red and white
painted vessel had this motif incised into its surface.
Often southeastern Indian art combined traits
of more than one animal in a depiction. This snake-like design
bears a plume common to some types of birds. The large bullseye
head is in profile with the sinous body terminating just above
and to the right, with a motif suggestive of rattlesnake rattles.
In Cherokee mythology the rattlesnake was credited with saving
the human race from a disease sent down by the sun and thus
reverence was shown to this animal. This design was found in
northeastern Coffee County (9Cf28). It is also reported by
archaeologist J.R. Caldwell to be present at the Fairchilds
Landing Site in southwest Georgia approximately 150 miles away on
the Chattahoochee River!
Ethnologists have recorded that the buzzard was
symbolic of the shaman or with doctor in Cherokee mythology. This
design has two buzzard-like heads with one rotated 180 degrees
beneath the other. It has been found on two Indian sites east of
Douglas and on one site in Wheeler County.
These two designs are suggestive of winged
insects. On the right can be seen a mosquito representation.
Consider the two exaggerated eyes above which are loops arranged
to appear as wings. Extending beyond the wings is an element
representing the insects abdomen. Below the eyes is a
ladder- shaped element that serves as the proboscis of the
mosquito. Two sites in Jeff Davis (JD22 and JD8) and two in
Wheeler (wl 1 and Wl 7) Counties have been located that bear this
design. The other design is locust-like (cicada?). Large eyes are
placed forward on the body similar to the cicada. Below the eyes
are figure eights used to signify wings. This design is noted for
its occurance on sixteen sites in Coffee, Jeff Davis and Telfair
Because no naturalistic elements are included
in the above designs we consider them to be total abstracts. They
had meaning to the people that carved them into wooden paddles
centuries ago but that meaning has since been lost. The unique
character of each design, however, permits them to remain as
powerful tools in the study of primitive boundaries and
Map of Selected Swift Creek Sites
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Copyright (c) 1996 Frankie Snow
This Page was created by Robert McClendon, Wednesday, February 14, 1996
Most recent revision Monday, March 08, 2010