By Lowell & Kaye Christie, F47246
Mound Builders is the designation archaeologists have given to the ancient people who built large earthen mounds in the United States. In this column we’ll look at mounds in an area bounded by the Great Lakes, the Gulf of Mexico, the Mississippi River, and the Appalachians. When the first European immigrants saw them, they assumed the Mound Builders had come from Central and South America. They were wrong. It was really the ancestors of today’s Native Americans who built these mounds. Most were created during the Middle Woodland period, approximately 100 B.C. to A.D. 400, and in the Mississippian period, after A.D. 1000.
Mound builders used different shapes to serve different functions “” as burial mounds, monuments to a dead leader, or as platforms for religious structures. Most are rectangular, but some took the shape of a cone or pyramid. The most elaborate ones “” called effigy mounds “” have the shape of a bird, a mammal, or a snake. Depending upon the shape, a mound might cover anywhere from one acre to more than 100 acres.
1. Conus Mound, Ohio
The earliest examples of mound construction are in the Ohio River valley. You can imagine the shock of early European settlers when they first spotted a complex of earthworks overlooking the Muskingum River in Marietta. They had assumed they were the first “civilized” humans to set foot in this area of the country. After the mounds had been surveyed, mapped, and described, however, the Adena tribe was credited as the earliest craftsmen. They built a number of mounds between 800 B.C. and A.D. 100. People of the Hopewell culture added other structures during the next 400 years. Today the mound stands 30 feet high, encircled by a moat some 585 feet in diameter.
2. Alligator Mound, Ohio
This mound also was built approximately 2,000 years ago, and it sits atop a hill that’s now part of a housing development in Granville, Ohio. Archaeologists aren’t sure which Native Americans built this mound, but they believe it to be the Hopewells. Some experts see the mound as the shape of an opossum or panther, rather than an alligator. Either way, it’s one of only two animal mounds in Ohio, the other being the Great Serpent Mound in Adams County.
3. Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site, Illinois
Cahokia is the largest group of mounds north of Mexico. Monk’s Mound, the largest at this site, stands approximately 100 feet tall, with a 14-acre base. The ancient city was founded circa A.D. 700. This site’s 68 preserved mounds reveal flattop, conical, and ridge-top shapes. Cahokia Mounds is located near Collinsville, Illinois, not far from St. Louis, Missouri.
4. Toltec Mounds Archeological State Park, Arkansas
A 30-minute drive from Little Rock brings you to another series of mounds, once used as a ceremonial and governmental complex. Eighteen mounds remain, surrounded on three sides by an earthen embankment. The site was occupied from A.D. 700 to 950 (or A.D. 600 to 1050, depending upon your source). The park’s visitors center features exhibits, an audiovisual theater, and a pavilion overlooking the mounds. Self-guided and guided tours allow you to stretch your legs as you learn.
5. Parkin Archeological State Park and National Historic Landmark, Arkansas
The Parkin Site preserves a 17-acre Native American village that was occupied from A.D. 1300 to 1550. A large ceremonial mound built along the riverbank remains. The site has added importance in that scholars believe it to be the village that Hernando de Soto named Casqui when he explored the area in 1541.
6. Chucalissa, Tennessee
The C.H. Nash Museum and reconstructed village in Memphis provides insight into the Chucalissa Mounds site, which was occupied from A.D. 1400 into the 1500s. “Chucalissa” is a Choctaw Indian word meaning “abandoned house.” The tribe consisted of farmers, traders, hunters, and fishers, but little is known about them because they were gone by the time the Choctaw moved in. At the museum you will see life-size exhibits as well as incredible examples of pottery, jewelry, weapons, and tools excavated from the site.
7. Pinson Mounds State Archeological Area, Tennessee
Located in Pinson, 80 miles east of Memphis, this series of mounds and earthworks is nearly 2,000 years old. Appropriately, the museum center is constructed in the shape of a mound. Trails provide for self-guided tours. The park hosts Archaeofest, an annual fall festival of Indian culture that features dancing, music, crafts, and other activities.
8. Emerald Mound Site, Mississippi
Emerald Mound, a National Historic Landmark and one of the largest ceremonial earthworks in the United States, lies along the Natchez Trace Parkway. Its immense flat-topped platform is 35 feet high and 8 acres across. On either end of the platform are secondary mounds that probably served as the base of a temple and as the residence of a priest or ruler. The mound’s active period was A.D. 1250 to 1600. The builders were ancestors of today’s Natchez tribe.
9. Grave Creek Mound, West Virginia
This is the largest conical-shaped burial mound in the United States, standing 62 feet high (it was originally 70 feet), and 240 feet in diameter. At one time, it was surrounded by a moat. Archaeologists date the mound between 250 and 150 B.C., and credit the work to the Adena culture. Construction probably began with the death of a warrior, chieftain, or religious leader. And roughly a quarter-century later, the remains of another person were placed in a vault on top of the mound. For many centuries the mound stood tall and pristine, but over the last two centuries conditions have changed. At one time or another, the top of the mound has been home to a saloon, a dance platform, and artillery pieces during the Civil War. Today the state operates Grave Creek Mound State Park and the Delf Norona Museum and Culture Center.
10. Criel Mound, West Virginia
Right in the city of South Charleston lies a large collection of conical-shaped mounds dating from 250 to 150 B.C. This burial ground stands 35 feet high, with a 175-foot diameter “” second in size only to Grave Creek Mound. Criel Mound was first excavated in 1883. Archaeologists found the first human bones just 3 feet below the surface. Another foot of digging exposed the remains of two skeletons, both lying on their backs, with their heads pointing south and their feet oriented to the center of the shaft. Near them lay several stone tools. As the team dug to a depth of 31 feet, they found more skeletons, including 11 uncovered in a burial vault. As was the custom, jewelry and weapons were placed in the vault along with the dead. The artifacts and skeletal remains are now in the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C.
11. Etowah Mounds Historic Site, Georgia
As the Mississippian Culture was coming to an end, one of its last great cities stood on this 54-acre site. Scientists found seven mounds, plus some borrow pits (holes that formed when earth was dug to create the mounds), a plaza, and portions of the original village, where a museum has now been added. Even as civilizations farther south and west encountered problems, the Etowah site flourished. At this site the surrounding villages became smaller in size, but greater in number. Yet when Hernando de Soto arrived in 1540, Etowah Mounds was already abandoned.
12. Bear Creek Mound and Village Site, Mississippi
This square, flat-topped mound was built in several stages during the Mississippian period, A.D. 1100 to 1300. Its burned daub (mud plaster) construction indicates that the mound first served as a temple or a chief’s house. When acquired by the National Park Service, the height of the mound had been greatly reduced by plowing. Following excavation to obtain artifacts, the mound was restored to its original dimensions of 8 feet high by 85 feet across. Bear Creek Mound and Village Site is located along the Natchez Trace Parkway.
13. Pharr Mounds, Mississippi
This site consists of eight burial mounds built between A.D. 1 and 200. Ranging from 2 to 18 feet tall, the mounds are dotted over some 85 acres, one of the largest ceremonial sites in the southeastern United States. The mounds included features such as fire pits and low, clay platforms. Cremated and unburned human remains were found buried nearby, as were artifacts of copper, decorated ceramic vessels, and a greenstone platform pipe. The copper and greenstone did not originate in Mississippi, but were imported through an extensive trade network. Pharr Mounds is also located on the Natchez Trace Parkway.