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(image) Detail from a painting depicting a  temple structure atop a large mound.



(image)  Detail looking down a long, central avenue of homes toward a large central mound.

The Moundbuilders

Along Mississippi's scenic Natchez Trace Parkway sits an immense flat-topped platform 35 feet high, spanning eight acres. Emerald Mound, the second largest ceremonial earthwork in the United States, was built over two centuries before Columbus waded ashore in the Caribbean. The Mississippians erected hundreds—maybe thousands—of earthworks across the southeast while Europe was living through the Middle Ages and the Renaissance.

As the Mississippians flourished, the mounds evolved into urban centers with the common city problems of overcrowding and waste disposal. Sometimes one large flat-topped mound dominated a village or ceremonial center. More often, as at Emerald, several mounds surrounded a plaza, with the village at its edges. Structures atop the plaza—temples or official residences—sat on large four-sided flat-topped mounds. A palisade of saplings surrounded the entire complex.

Periodically, the Mississippians would raze one of the wood-and-mud structures, bury the remains of a deceased leader in a fresh layer of earth, and erect a new building on top. Commonly, the well-to-do were laid to rest in specially built burial mounds, conical or round.

Crews labored periodically over generations, sometimes a century or more, before an earthwork reached its final dimensions. A mound might begin as a slight rise with an important building on it. After a time, perhaps it might burn accidentally or people would burn it down as part of a cleansing ceremony. The crews brought basket after basket of dirt to cover the old and lay a new foundation, and another building went up.

Many workers, hauling 60 pounds of soil apiece, labored to complete each stage. Some archeologists say that the culture's survival depended on a steady flow of immigrants to compensate for the high death rates. When the flow ceased, they argue, the cities collapsed.

Today, the legacy of the moundbuilders is at risk. Most earthworks, lacking Emerald's visibility, are worn down to unassuming shapes in the overgrowth along remote fields and tributaries. Many have been looted or damaged by farming and construction; of almost 1,100 known sites in Arkansas, only 2 remain relatively untouched.

Earthworks at Toltec, Parkin, Chucalissa, and Pinson—all state sites open to the public—testify to the greatness of the Delta's architects.

Above left: Artist's rendition of an ancient multi-level stepped pyramid.
Below left: Artist's rendition of central pyramidal mound with plaza and dwellings.





(image)  Detail showing men constructing a large astronomical device.

Constructing a wooden structure.