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.
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
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.).
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.
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.
Many of the mounds are located on or near the Natchez Trace Parkway, which commemorates a historic route used by American Indians, pioneer settlers, traders, and soldiers during the late 18th and early 19th centuries. The Parkway incorporates numerous visitor stops of historic, natural, and archeological interest, including five of the mound sites highlighted herein — Bear Creek, Pharr, Bynum, Boyd, and Emerald. While not directly on the Natchez Trace Parkway, but, situated very nearby, can be found the sites of Owl Creek, Pocahontas, Grand Village of the Natchez Indians. These sites are listed below for visitors traveling from north to south along the parkway.
Bear Creek Mound – This square, flat-topped mound was built in several stages for ceremonial or elite residential use sometime between 1100 and 1300 A.D., during the Mississippian period. Burned daub (mud plaster used in building construction) found on the mound during archeological excavation indicates the former presence of a temple or chief’s house. A small, contemporaneous habitation area is located to the south and east of the mound. When acquired by the National Park Service the mound had been greatly reduced in height by plowing. Following excavation in 1965, the mound was restored to its estimated original dimensions of about eight feet high by 85 feet across the base. The site is located along the Natchez Trace Parkway (milepost 308.8), about 45 miles northeast of Tupelo, Mississippi, at the Alabama state line. Open to the public daily, free of charge.
Owl Creek Site – The five Mississippian period platform mounds at this site were built between 1100 and 1200 A.D. The U.S. Forest Service owns two of the mounds including the largest 17-foot-high Mound I. Both are open to public visitation. Archeological excavations conducted at the site in 1991-1992 by Mississippi State University revealed the foundation remains of a ceremonial temple or elite residence that once stood atop Mound I. Structural remains were found on two other mounds as well. The scant presence of habitation debris in the areas between and adjacent to the mounds suggests that the site may have been occupied on a long-term basis by only a few people, probably those of high social rank. It is also possible that the site was completely vacant much of the time, visited by inhabitants of the surrounding region only on ceremonial or other important social occasions. The site is located in Tombigbee National Forest, 2 ½ miles west of Natchez Trace Parkway on Davis Lake Rd. From the Parkway, take the Davis Lake exit (milepost 243.1), about 18 miles southwest of Tupelo, Mississippi. Open to the public daily, free of charge.
Pharr Mounds – This site complex consists of eight burial mounds built during the Middle Woodland period, between 1 and 200 A.D. Ranging in height from two to 18 feet, the mounds are distributed over an area of about 85 acres. They comprise one of the largest Middle Woodland ceremonial sites in the southeastern United States. Four of the mounds were excavated in 1966 by the National Park Service. The mounds covered various internal features, including fire pits and low, clay platforms. Cremated and unburned human remains were found in and near these mounds, as were various ceremonial artifacts, including copper spools and other copper objects, decorated ceramic vessels, lumps of galena (shiny lead ore), a sheet of mica, and a greenstone platform pipe. The copper, galena, mica, and greenstone did not originate in Mississippi; they were imported long distances through extensive trade networks. Such ritually significant non-local items typify the Middle Woodland period. The site is located on the Natchez Trace Parkway (milepost 286.7), about 23 miles northeast of Tupelo, Mississippi. Open to the public daily dawn to dusk, free of charge.
Bynum Mounds and Village – The six burial mounds and associated habitation area at the Bynum site were built during the Middle Woodland period, between 100 B.C. and 100 A.D. The mounds range in height from five to 14 feet. Five of them were excavated by the Natchez Trace Parkway in the late 1940s. The two largest mounds have been restored for public viewing. Mound A, the southernmost of the two restored mounds, contained the remains of a woman placed between two parallel burned oak logs at the mound’s base. This individual was buried with an ornamental copper spool at each wrist. Three additional sets of human remains were also found, consisting of the cremated traces of two adults and a child. Mound B, the largest at the site, covered a log-lined crematory pit. An L-shaped row of 29 polished greenstone celts (ax heads) and the cremated and unburned remains of several individuals were located on the ash-covered floor. Other artifacts found in ceremonial context included copper spools, 19 chert projectile points imported from Illinois, and a piece of galena (shiny lead ore). Greenstone, copper, and galena, like the distinctive projectile points, do not originate in Mississippi. These high-prestige goods, like those found at the Pharr Mounds, were imported through long-distance trade networks. The site is located on the Natchez Trace Parkway (milepost 232.4), about 28 miles southwest of Tupelo, Mississippi. Open to the public daily, free of charge.
Boyd Mound – Most known burial mounds in Mississippi date to the Middle Woodland times (circa 100 B.C. to 400 A.D.). However, the six small burial mounds at the Boyd site were built much later, during the Late Woodland and Early Mississippian periods (circa 800 to 1100 A.D. ). One of these mounds, Mound 2, is situated in a clearing adjacent to the parking area and is accessible to visitors. Several of the mounds, including Mound 2, were excavated by the National Park Service in 1964. The elongated Mound 2 is some 110 feet long by 60 feet wide and four feet high. Excavation revealed that it is actually three mounds in one: initially, two mounds were built side by side, then both were covered with more earth to create a single oblong, finished mound. The remains of 41 individuals were found in Mound 2, but, there were relatively few accompanying artifacts. Different pottery types found in separate areas of this compound mound indicate that it was constructed in two phases: the first episode during the Late Woodland period and the second, after a considerable length of time, during the Mississippian period. The site is located northeast of Jackson, Mississippi, on the Natchez Trace Parkway (milepost 106.9), approximately six miles east of the I-55 interchange. Open to the public daily, free of charge.
Pocahontas Site – This rectangular platform mound, 175 feet across at the base and about 22 feet high, was built and used during the Mississippian period, between 1000 and 1300 A.D. Remains of a mud-plastered log-post building have been found atop the mound. This structure was used as a ceremonial temple or as the residence of a chief. An extensive former village area surrounds the mound. The site has been incorporated into a roadside park. The site is located on U.S. Highway 49 at the town of Pocahontas, about nine miles north of the Jackson, interchange of U.S. 49 and I-220. Open to the public daily dawn to dusk, free of charge.
Emerald Mound – Designated a National Historic Landmark, Emerald Mound is one of the largest mounds in North America. Covering eight acres, Emerald Mound measures 770 by 435 feet at the base and is 35 feet high. The mound was built by depositing earth along the sides of a natural hill, thus reshaping it and creating an enormous artificial plateau. Two smaller mounds sit atop the expansive summit platform of the primary mound. The larger of the two, at the west end, measures 190 by 160 feet and is 30 feet high. Several additional smaller mounds were once located along the edges of the primary mound summit, but, were destroyed in the 19th century by plowing and erosion. Emerald Mound, built and used during the Mississippian period between 1250 and 1600 A.D., was a ceremonial center for the local population, which resided in outlying villages and hamlets. Its builders were ancestors of the Natchez Indians. By the late 1600s, the Natchez had abandoned Emerald Mound and established their capital at the Grand Village some 12 miles to the southwest. The site is located near Natchez Trace Parkway, about 10 miles northeast of Natchez, Mississippi (milepost 10.3). Exit parkway at the Route 553 intersection; follow signs to the mound, about one mile. Open to the public daily, free of charge.
Grand Village of the Natchez Indians – These three platform mounds, an adjacent ceremonial plaza, and associated habitation areas mark the political and religious capital of the Natchez Indian chiefdom of the late 17th and early 18th centuries. A number of French colonists who witnessed the use of the mounds at Grand Village recorded their observations. These 18th-century accounts offer a rare firsthand glimpse of mound ceremonialism, by then, a nearly extinct holdover tradition from the pre-contact period.
The paramount chief of the Natchez, called the Great Sun, lived at the Grand Village. The French accounts describe both the Great Sun’s house, which stood on Mound B at the center of the site and a ceremonial temple, which stood on Mound C, the southernmost mound of the group. Within the temple, a sacred perpetual fire was kept burning day and night. Foundation remains of both the Great Sun’s house and the temple were discovered during 1962 archeological excavations of the mound. Mound A, at the north end of the site, apparently was no longer in use by the time European chroniclers arrived. The mounds, which stand about eight feet high, rose in several stages as the structures that stood on top of them were demolished and rebuilt in accordance with the ceremony.
Elaborate funeral ceremonies for the Natchez elite were conducted on the mound plaza. These rituals included the sacrifice of relatives and servants of the deceased. Natchez pottery vessels, as well as European trade goods obtained from the French, accompanied the dead. Two of the burials may have been those of the Great Sun, whose death in 1728 is mentioned in historical sources, and his brother and war chief, Tattooed Serpent, whose 1725 funeral was recorded in detail by the French.
Increasing French confiscation of Indian lands led to the rapid deterioration of Natchez-French relations following the death of the Great Sun. The Natchez attacked nearby Fort Rosalie in 1729, killing most of the French garrison there. In response, the French organized a retaliatory expedition in 1730. They and their Choctaw Indian allies occupied the Grand Village, using the location to lay siege to the Natchez, who had withdrawn into stockaded fortifications to the south. During the siege, French troops used the central mound, formerly the site of the Great Sun’s house, as an emplacement for their artillery. This confrontation marked the beginning of the destruction of the Natchez as a nation. Although the siege failed to force their surrender, the Natchez permanently abandoned their traditional territory as a result of it. Fewer than 300 of the Natchez eventually were captured by the French and sold into slavery in the West Indies. The remainder escaped to join other tribes as refugees. Today, people of Natchez descent live among the Creek and Cherokee Indians.
The Grand Village of the Natchez Indians, designated a National Historic Landmark, is maintained as a park by the Mississippi Department of Archives and History. The museum exhibits artifacts excavated from the site and sponsors public education events and activities. It is located in Natchez, Mississippi. Turn east off US Hwy. 61/Seargent S. Prentiss Dr. onto Jefferson Davis Blvd., just south of the Natchez Regional Medical Center. Proceed on Jefferson Davis Blvd. ½ mile to the entrance gate on the right. It is open Monday-Saturday 9:00 am to 5:00 pm, and Sunday 1:30 pm to 5:00 pm, free admission.
Nanih Waiya Mound and Village – This large rectangular platform mound, measuring 25 feet high, 218 feet long, and 140 feet wide owned by the Choctaw tribe. Nanih Waiya is a Choctaw Indian name meaning “leaning hill.” A small burial mound, now nearly leveled by plowing, is located outside Nanih Waiya State Park several hundred yards away. A long, raised embankment once enclosed the site. Most of this earthen enclosure has been destroyed by cultivation, but, a short segment remains along the edge of a swamp to the northwest of the large mound. The period of construction of Nanih Waiya Mound is uncertain. Although its rectangular, flat-topped form is typical of Mississippian period mounds (1000 to1600 A.D.), pottery sherds found on the surface of the adjacent habitation area suggest a possible Middle Woodland time range (100 B.C. to 400 A.D.). Until archeological investigations are undertaken, however, the mound’s actual age will remain unknown.
By the 18th century Nanih Waiya had come to be venerated by the tribe. The site plays a central role in the tribe’s origin legends. In one version, the mound gave birth to the tribe — the people emerged from the underworld here and rested on the mound’s slopes to dry before populating the surrounding region. In August 18, 2008, the mound was deeded to the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians, a federally recognized tribe. Regaining their sacred place, they declared August 18 as a tribal holiday to mark the return of the mound, and have used the occasion for telling and performances of dances and stories of their origin and history. The site is located northeast of Philadelphia, Mississippi. Drive about 15 miles on State Hwy 21, turn left at the Nanih Waiya sign on State Highway 393 and continue north three miles to the mound.
Jaketown – Two prominent flat-topped rectangular mounds are present at the Jaketown site. Mound B, the largest, measures about 150 by 200 feet at its base and is 23 feet high. On its eastern side, a projecting bulge marks a ramp once used as a stairway. Mound C, northwest of B, is about 15 feet high. While neither mound has been excavated, distinctively styled pottery fragments found in the surrounding area indicate that the mounds are probably Mississippian period earthworks, dating to between 1100 and 1500 A.D. Both mounds presumably had ceremonial temples or elite residences on their summits. There are numerous smaller mounds at the Jaketown site, some of which may have dated to the Late Archaic/Poverty Point period (1500 to 1000 B.C.), have been destroyed by plowing and highway construction. The two remaining large mounds are owned and protected by the state of Mississippi. The Jaketown site is located on the west side of State Highway 7, about four miles north of Belzoni, Mississippi. There are no on-site visitor accommodations, and the mounds are covered with dense underbrush. For safety, the mounds should be viewed from the highway only.
Winterville – The Winterville site complex consists of flat-topped, rectangular ceremonial mounds of various sizes. The mounds are arranged around a 43-acre plaza, at the center of which is the 55-foot-high Mound A, the largest at the site. There are no extensive village remains, indicating that the site was occupied mainly during ceremonies. It is likely that only members of the social elite, such as chiefs, priests, and their retainers, were permanent residents of the site. Of the 23 mounds originally present, four were destroyed and several others reduced to remnants by agriculture and excessive grazing prior to the site’s acquisition as a state park. Nevertheless, this mound group remains one of the largest and best-preserved in the southeastern United States. In recognition of its outstanding significance, the Winterville site has been designated a National Historic Landmark.
Most of the mounds at the Winterville site were constructed during the Mississippian period, between 1200 and 1250 A.D. This intensive time of mound-building reflects contact between local Indians of the Coles Creek culture and influences emanating from the great Cahokia site in Illinois, the largest mound center in the United States. Archeological excavations were conducted at Winterville in 1967-1968. The finds included structural remains, burials, and many ceramic and stone artifacts. From this evidence, the history of the site was reconstructed. The Winterville museum exhibits a large collection of archeological artifacts, including decorated pottery vessels, stone tools, and ornaments from Winterville and other regional sites. The site is located on State Hwy 1, about six miles north of Greenville, . The museum is open Monday-Saturday. The mounds are open every day, dawn to dusk.
Chewalla Lake Site – The Chewalla Lake Recreation Area takes its name from the Choctaw word “Chi ho-la”, meaning Supreme Being. Like Owl Creek, this was once a special place for Native Americans, who built a ceremonial mound where the lake now stands. A small mound commemorating the site has been reconstructed near an overlook to the lake. The lake is located about 9 miles southeast of Holly Springs.
Ingomar Mounds – In Northern Mississippi, Ingomar Mounds are over 2,000 years old, the oldest documented man-made site in Union County. The group of 14 earthworks were explored back in 1885 by Gerard Fowke and documented by Cyrus Thomas in 1894. Although most were plowed until they were three to five feet lower than when built, there’s still a lot to see here, including accessibility to the platform mound. Union County Heritage Museum administers the 63-acre site, which is open dawn to dusk for self-guided tours along a one mile, marked walking trail, as well as holding annual events for students and adults. The land is owned by the Archaeological Conservancy. Ingomar Mounds are located on Union County Road 96, approximately 10 miles south of New Albany, Mississippi. More information can be found on the museum’s website.
Compiled and edited by Kathy Weiser/Legends of America, updated March 2020.
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Source: National Park Service