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[photo] View of Spanish explorers and missionaries upon first contact with American Indian tribes of the Lower Mississippi Delta, from the University of Arkansas Museum collection
Ancient Architects of the Mississippi

Although the first people entered what is now the Mississippi about 12,000 years ago, the earliest major phase of earthen mound construction in this area did not begin until some 2100 years ago. Mounds continued to be built sporadically for another 1800 years, or until around 1700 A.D. Archeologists, the scientist who study the evidence of past human lifeways, classify moundbuilding Indians of the Southeast into three major chronological/cultural divisions: the Archaic, the Woodland, and the Mississippian traditions. To date, no mounds of the Archaic period (7000 to 1000 B.C.) have been positively identified in Mississippi; the mounds described herein all date to the last two cultural periods.

The Middle Woodland period (100 B.C. to 200 A.D.) was the first era of widespread mound construction in Mississippi. Middle Woodland peoples were primarily hunters and gatherers who occupied semipermanent or permanent settlements. Some mounds of this period were built to bury important members of local tribal groups. These burial mounds were rounded, dome-shaped structures that generally range from about three to 18 feet high, with diameters from 50 to 100 feet. Distinctive artifacts obtained through long-distance trade were sometimes placed with those buried in the mounds. The construction of burial mounds declined after the Middle Woodland, and only a few were built during the Late Woodland period (circa 400 to 1000 A.D.). Woodland burial mounds can be visited at the Boyd, Bynum, and Pharr sites and at Chewalla Lake in Holy Springs National Forest. (The Chewalla Mound is not included in this itinerary because it is not listed in the National Register of Historic Places).

[photo]
Life-size figure executed for the Ohio State Museum--the first known attempt to scientifically portray the builders of the ancient mounds as they appeared in life. This image was taken from Henry Clyde Shetrone's book The Mound-Builders, copyright 1930.
Ancient Architects of the Mississippi

The Mississippian period (1000 to 1700 A.D.) saw a resurgence of mound building across much of the southeastern United States. Most Mississippian mounds are rectangular, flat-topped earthen platforms upon which temples or residences of chiefs were erected. These buildings were constructed of wooden posts covered with mud plaster and had thatched roofs. Mississippian platform mounds range in height from eight to almost 60 feet and are from 60 to as much as 770 feet in width at the base. Mississippian period mounds can be seen at the Winterville, Jaketown, Pocahontas, Emerald, Grand Village, Owl Creek and Bear Creek sites.

Mississippian period mound sites mark centers of social and political authority. They are indicators of a way of life more complex than that of the Woodland and earlier periods. In contrast to the relatively simple, egalitarian tribal organization of most societies of the Woodland period, regional Mississippian populations were typically organized into chiefdoms--territorial groups with hereditary, elite leadership classes. Across the Southeast, the chiefdom system of political organization arose as a means of managing increased social complexity caused by steady population growth. This population growth was sustained by agriculture (corn, beans, and squash)--a revolutionary new means of subsistence that became an economic mainstay during the Mississippian period.

Mound construction was once again in decline by the time the first Europeans came to this region in the 1500s. Shortly thereafter, epidemic diseases introduced by early European explorers decimated native populations across the Southeast, causing catastrophic societal disruption. As a result, by the time sustained contact with European colonists began about 1700 A.D., the long tradition of mound building had nearly ended.

 
[graphic] Link to Mound Builders Essay [graphic] Footer with links to essays [graphic] Link to Building the Mounds Essay  [graphic] Link to Preserving the Mounds Essay

 

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