Indian Mounds

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INDIAN MOUNDS. Indian peoples built mounds made of earth in various shapes and sizes across eastern North America over several thousand years. These mounds were subjects of much speculation during the westward expansion of the United States, even though Thomas Jefferson had excavated one and deduced it to be the work of American Indians. Unfortunately, as the last eastern tribes were forced west of the Mississippi along the Trail of Tears, Jefferson's findings were forgotten, and the mounds were mistakenly thought to have been the work of a lost race of Mound Builders. That Mound Builder myth was finally laid to rest by the Smithsonian Institution's archaeologists in the 1890s, when Indian people were recognized to have built all of the mounds in the United States.

Archaeological discoveries in the twentieth and early twenty-first centuries reveal that many native groups built mounds down through the ages. Among the earliest were small burial mounds known from across the eastern United States during a period late in the fourth millennium b.c. called the "Middle Archaic." The Elizabeth Mounds site in Illinois has burials of men and women in a low mound dating to 4000 b.c., suggestive of large kin

groups, sometimes called lineages or clans. Other Archaic mounds along the Green River in Tennessee and in coastal areas from the Carolinas to Louisiana date to the same time horizon. These mounds were often ring-shaped piles of mollusk shells. A similar series of mounds in northeastern Louisiana were made of earth. These include the impressive Watson Brake site mounds, ten mounds up to six meters high arranged around an elliptical "plaza" three hundred meters in length. By 1200 b.c., construction had begun at the unique "Late Archaic" mound site of Poverty Point in northeastern Louisiana. The main mound at that site may have been shaped in the form of a mythical bird of prey. This mound was twenty-one meters high and sat adjacent to a series of parallel loaf-shaped mounds and radiating isles or pathways arranged around a huge central space. The Poverty Point mounds suggest a level of sophistication in mound building not seen before this time.

Mound construction continued in places through the "Early Woodland" period (800–200 b.c.). In and around Ohio, Adena mound-building groups produced centrally located but sparsely populated mound sites that usually included prominent conical burial mounds, some reaching heights of twenty meters. In the centuries that followed, during the period archaeologists call the "Middle Woodland" (200 b.c.–a.d. 300), mound building in the Midwest and Midsouth reached a new level of sophistication. Middle Woodland people sometimes built large flat-topped pyramids, huge earthen enclosures, and conical burial mounds. At the Pinson site in Tennessee, one four-sided flat-topped mound is eighteen meters high. It was probably a kind of stage that elevated a religious ritual or performance. In places like Newark, Ohio, earthen embankments were built in huge geometric shapes—circles, octagons, and squares covering up to twenty hectares of level ground. These enclosed spaces were probably sacred ritual areas. Processional avenues or "roads" led to and from these enclosed spaces. At other Middle Woodland sites across the Midwest and Midsouth, conical mounds were raised over the top of central tombs containing the bones of important people. The tombs beneath the burial mounds were sometimes crowded with the dead and their funerary objects. The funerary artifacts are often called Hopewell, named after a site in Ohio.

A lull in mound building, or a reduction in the scale of such construction, followed the Middle Woodland period in most places. However, in Georgia and northern Florida burial and platform mound construction continued during this "Late Woodland" period (a.d. 300–1000, with dates as late as European contact in some places). At sites named Kolomoki and McKeithen, archaeologists have found that prominent men and women directed mound building and mound-top use. In Ohio, the great Serpent Mound was built during this time, as were other effigy mounds—earthen mounds made in the shape of birds, snakes, and four-legged animals in Wisconsin and surrounding states. By a.d. 700 in Louisiana, Mississippi, and Arkansas, a new wave of mound building saw the construction of rectangular flat-topped mounds around large rectangular open plazas. These are so-called "Coles Creek" centers. In the Arkansas River valley, the site called Toltec has eighteen platform mounds and open plazas enclosed by a semicircular embankment of earth. However, like others of its type, Toltec was abandoned as a result of yet another new mound-building way of life that emerged in the Mississippi valley shortly after a.d. 1000. At that time, huge mounds were built at the site of Cahokia in southwestern Illinois. This huge construction effort marked the beginning of the "Mississippian" period, which lasted from a.d. 1000 up to European contact in parts of southeastern North America.

Cahokia appears to have been the only North American city-state ever to arise, a unique and extraordinarily large population center. Its largest central pyramid rose thirty meters above the surrounding floodplain of the mighty Mississippi. This central pyramid, called "Monks Mound," covered five hectares at its base, making it one of the largest monuments in the pre-Columbian New World (following pyramids at Teotihucan and Cholula in Mexico and Moche in Peru). Over a hundred more pyramidal mounds were clustered around Cahokia's many plazas, the largest of the plazas covering twenty hectares. These were, in turn, surrounded by neighborhoods of thatched-roof houses. Nearby were even more pyramidal mounds, most of which had four sides and flat tops. On their summits were built Mississippian temples, council houses, and the homes of important men and women. At Cahokia, and other Mississippian centers to the south, mound building was a regular, repetitive act that involved the entire community every year.

Numerous other Mississippian mounds are found at sites such as Moundville in Alabama, Shiloh in Tennessee, Etowah in Georgia, and Emerald or Winterville in Mississippi. Scores of such sites and their earthen platform mounds are testimony to a distinctive way of life that endured into historic times. Members of the Hernando de Soto expedition, in 1539–1543, and later European explorers and Euro-American pioneers observed that the mounds, the buildings on their summits, and even the chiefs and priests who lived on or took care of the mounds were sacred and highly revered. Mound building ceased shortly after European colonization and much was forgotten during the removal of Indian peoples from their homelands. Mounds remain as testimony to the rich and complex history of American Indians.


Charles, Douglas K., Steven R. Leigh, and Jane E. Buikstra, eds. The Archaic and Woodland Cemeteries at the Elizabeth Site in the Lower Illinois Valley. Kampsville, Ill.: Kampsville Archeological Center, 1988.

Gibson, Jon L. The Ancient Mounds of Poverty Point: Place of Rings. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2001.

Lindauer, Owen, and John H. Blitz. "Higher Ground: The Archaeology of North American Platform Mounds." Journal of Archaeological Research 5 (1997): 169–207.

Pauketat, Timothy R. Temples for Cahokia Lords: Preston Holder's 1955–1956 Excavations of Kunnemann Mound. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1993.

Russo, Michael. "A Brief Introduction to the Study of Archaic Mounds in the Southeast." Southeastern Archaeology 13 (1994): 89–93.

Squier, Ephraim, and Edwin H. Davis. Ancient Monuments of the Mississippi Valley. 1948. Reprint, edited by D. J. Meltzer. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution, 1998.

Timothy R.Pauketat

See alsoArchaeology and Prehistory of North America .

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Indian Mounds

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