However, mound construction was in a period of decline in the 1500’s, 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 (axe 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.