Mound Builders of Mississippi

 

Mississippi Mound Sites Map

Mississippi Mound Sites Map courtesy National Park Service. Click for slightly larger view.

Mississippi Indian Mounds

Bear Creek Mound and Village – 45 miles northeast of Tupelo

Boyd Mounds – Northeast of Jackson

Bynum Mound and Village – 28 miles southwest of Tupelo

Chewalla Lake – 9 miles southeast of Holly Springs

Emerald Mound – 10 miles northeast of Natchez

Grand Village of the Natchez – Natchez

Jaketown – 4 miles north of Belzoni

Owl Creek – 18 miles southwest of Tupelo

Pharr Mounds – 23 miles northeast of Tupelo

Nanih Waiya Mound and Village – 18 miles northeast of Philadelphia

Pocahontas – 9 miles north of Jackson

Winterville – 6 miles north of Greenville

Ingomar Mounds – Approximately 10 miles south of New Albany

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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 2,100 years ago. Mounds continued to be built sporadically for another 1800 years, or, until around 1700 A.D. Over hundreds of years, there were thousands of mounds constructed for various purposes. However, only a small percentage of these remain today.

Indian Mound

Indian Mound

The shapes and purposes of the mounds varied. They might stand alone or be in groups of as many as 20 or more, as at Winterville. Some mounds are arranged around broad plazas, while others are connected by earthen ridges. They can be flat-topped pyramids, rounded domes, or barely perceptible rises on the landscape. How these early people used some of the mounds is shrouded in mystery. Others are known to have been burial mounds, where the people interred their dead with great ceremony. Other cultures built temples atop the mounds, and worshipers approached by climbing steep stairs or ramps. Still, other earthworks were symbolic pinnacles of power for leaders who dwelled atop them.

To build many of these mounds, it would have taken groups of workers toiling from dawn to dusk, gathering baskets of dirt. They then would have carried their burdens to a clearing, dump the soil, and tamp it down with their feet. As the days passed, they would retrace their footsteps time after time until the mound began to grow. Over years of ceremonial use, multiple layers of earth were often added during repeated episodes of construction, gradually building a mound of impressive height. Variations of this scene were repeated throughout Mississippi over a span of at least 1,800 years.

Regardless of the particular age, form, or function of individual mounds, all had deep meaning for the people who built them. Many earthen mounds were regarded by various American Indian groups as symbols of Mother Earth, the giver of life. With such sacred associations, mounds were powerful territorial markers and monuments of social unity, reinforcing and perpetuating community identity and pride.

Archaeologists classify mound-building 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 all date to the Middle Woodland period (100 B.C. to 200 A.D.) and the Mississippian period (1000 to 1700 A.D.).

Middle Woodland period

Middle Woodland period

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 semi-permanent 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 period, 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 Holly Springs National Forest.

The Mississippian period (1000 to 1700 A.D.) saw a resurgence of mound-building across much of the southeastern United States. At this time, the lower Mississippi Delta was home to highly organized societies. There were roads, commerce, and cultural centers anchored by these awe-inspiring earthen monuments. Wonders of geometric precision, these earthworks were the centers of life. 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 growing corn, beans, and squash — a revolutionary new means of subsistence that became an economic mainstay during the Mississippian period. 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, Owl Creek, and Bear Creek sites.

Natchez People with Europeans

Natchez People with Europeans

However, mound construction was in a period of decline in the 1500s, when the first Europeans arrived in the region. 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 in about 1700, the long tradition of mound-building had nearly ended.

Today, visitors come face to face with a rich legacy of American Indian cultural achievement. Many diverse Indian groups, drawn by the bountiful wildlife, warm climate, and fertile soil, made their homes in what is now Mississippi for thousands of years before the first Europeans and Africans arrived. Mounds built of earth are the most prominent remains left on the landscape by these native peoples. Offering much more than a tour through thousands of years of Mississippi history, the mounds stand as testaments to the American Indian presence on the landscape and as monuments to the first inhabitants of the southeastern United States.

Though many of the mounds in Mississippi are on privately owned land, they are protected by state and federal laws. In years past, many mounds were irreparably damaged or completely destroyed by modern development and looting. Those mounds that remain stand as a testament to the vitality, diversity, and creativity of their makers, who developed the complex societies of long ago.

Please be aware that unauthorized digging, removal of artifacts or human remains, or other disturbance of the mounds and surrounding grounds are strictly prohibited and violators are subject to prosecution.

The mounds described in this article date from approximately 100 B.C. to 1700 A.D. and are representative samples of sites that were originally so numerous.

7 thoughts on “Mound Builders of Mississippi”

  1. Looking at the Natchez Trace map and having been through the area, has anyone ever considered that the mounds may have served a very practical purpose for navigation? Seems to me if you were not all that familiar or got off the trail that if mounds served as beacons then navigation guided by smoke columns could be useful to get trading groups from one settlement to another. The mounds maybe being higher than tree tops in their useful period appear to be placed in logical spots upon well established trails which would have worked like their freeway system to move goods and people about the continent.

    1. They probably weren’t for navigation because the mounds that we find are largely permanent settlements. There were trails and “roads” that natives had made through the country to make it to different villages/towns in any given area. They also, unlike many modern Americans, knew where the directions were based on the location of the sun (it’s really simple and not that complicated). There were often runners who would bring news to the village about what was happening in other communities, and, unless there were large community events (such as stomp dances), they were moving after using up resources, or they were hunting/gathering, there wouldn’t need to be much travel. The mounds of the Mississippian era served as ceremonial mounds where the people of moundbuilder chiefdoms would perform ceremonies to keep in contact with the above world. They would do this in caves as well, for these were the areas of the underworld (not to be confused with hell, which is very different). These chiefdoms, while they were most definitely related to modern tribes (Muscogee, Yuchi, Cherokee, etc.), they are in an entire category of their own, so unfortunately we don’t know much about these portions of our ancestry (I’m Chickasaw) or how these ancestors of ours lived.

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