OXFORD, Ala. » Bucket loaders and bulldozers are tearing apart a hill that researchers call the foundation of an ancient Native American site to provide fill dirt for a Sam's Club store, a move that appalls preservationists.
Tribal advocates and state officials say a large stone mound that tops the 200-foot rise was put there a millennium ago by Indians during a religious observance. It is similar to rock mounds found up and down the Eastern Seaboard, historians say, and likely dates to Indians of the Woodlands period that ended in 1000 A.D.
"It's just heartbreaking," said Elizabeth Ann Brown of the Alabama Historical Commission. "I find it hard to believe that for fill dirt anyone would do this."
Despite a city-commissioned study that found tribal artifacts in the red clay that makes up the mound, Oxford Mayor Leon Smith denies the work by the city is damaging anything important. He said the stones atop the hill are a natural part of what locals call Signal Mountain and were exposed by millions of years of erosion.
"It's the ugliest old hill in the world," said Smith, who has overseen a mushrooming of big-box stores in this east Alabama city of 15,000 during his seven terms as mayor.
The hill certainly is an eyesore these days. Its wooded sides have been stripped bare, and the red soil is being trucked downhill to the site of a new Sam's warehouse store and a small retail strip, where it's being used to build up a good base for foundations.
The rock mound perched atop the hill is mostly undisturbed so far, though it is denuded save for a few spindly trees that haven't been knocked down. Officials with Sam's Club, a division of Wal-Mart Stores Inc., said no material from the rock mound is going into the site where the store is under construction.
Brown said the state lacks the power to halt the project, and petitions and protests haven't done anything to stop the work. Big yellow dump trucks rumble up and down the hill, located behind a retail development just off Interstate 20, about 60 miles east of Birmingham.
City project manager Fred Denney said officials plan to remove the top of the hill eventually to create an elevated, eight-acre site that will overlook the Choccolocco Valley and the city of Oxford.
"It would be a beautiful view," said the mayor, who envisions a motel or restaurant atop the hill.
Indian historian Robert Thrower is aghast at what he sees as the city's lack of concern for the historical importance of the site, which he said is similar to others along the East Coast. Groups have saved rock mounds in Montague, Mass., North Smithfield, R.I., and elsewhere.
"With increasing development occurring, these sites are in jeopardy," said Thrower, a member of the Poarch Band of Creek Indians in Alabama and chairman of culture and heritage for the United South and Eastern Tribes. "Here, you're looking at a site that is a sacred site for us."
Denney said the city purchased the hill and surrounding acreage several years ago for $10 million for development. Faced with questions about an ancient Indian site, Smith said the city paid the University of Alabama $60,000 to study the mound.
University of Alabama researchers found six shards of Indian pottery under rocks atop the mountain, and their report said the mound was likely built by Indians during the late Woodlands period.
Researchers didn't discover any evidence of burial sites among the rocks, though they said such remains could have been lost to erosion or looting. Oxford's mayor said the lack of bones means there's no reason not to bulldoze the mound.
"It's just a pile of rocks is all it is," said Smith.
City officials deny they are insensitive to history. Denney said officials have banned development at a 12-acre site about a half-mile from the hill because archaeologists found evidence that Indians once had a community there.
Thrower said Indians from that settlement possibly carried many of the rocks up the steep hill to mark a place of prayer or to commemorate special events. There's no way to move the stones elsewhere and preserve the site, he said.
"A colleague of mine referred to these places as 'prayers in stone,'" Thrower said. "For us it's immaterial whether there are burial or historical artifacts present. The site itself is historic."