Long before Europeans and their descendants tagged the Lower Mississippi River valley with a cornucopia of artificial lines, forming states, and counties, and meridians and so forth, the area already had a remarkable human history. Native Americans left behind laboriously-constructed earthen mounds for a variety of residential, ceremonial and funereal purposes all along the river and across the surrounding terrain.
We stopped first at Wickliffe Mounds near the confluence of the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers, on the Kentucky side of the border (map). The Middle Mississippian cultural group that selected this site didn’t choose it accidentally. They clustered on high ground well above the floodplain at the meeting of two mighty rivers, occupying their bluff from around 1100 to 1350 as determined by artifacts they left behind.
Wickliffe was a small village, with a few homes clustered around a central plaza and augmented with a burial mound and a ceremonial site. As noted by Kentucky State Parks,
Peaceful farmers, they grew corn and squash, hunted in the neighboring forests and fished the river; they made pottery from shell-tempered clay with elaborate designs and decorations; they participated in a vast trade network up and down the rivers; they had stone, shell and bone tools; they had a complex chiefdom level society; they lived in permanent style houses made of wattle and daub; and they built flat topped platform style mounds.
An amateur archeologist purchased the site in the 1930’s and turned it into a degrading roadside display called "Ancient Buried City." The unearthed remains of the original inhabitants were disinterred from their burial mounds as an attraction for gawking tourists. It wasn’t until the passage of the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act in 1990 that ancient skeletal remains were removed from public view. The property passed to Murray State University which conducted proper archaeological reviews, and then later became a property of the State of Kentucky. All bodies of the original Mound Builders were reburied in a restored mound under the supervision of the Chickasaw Nation although that had to wait until 2011.
Every exploitative vestige of Ancient Buried City was removed. One could always visit the smoke shop and souvenir stand across the street, I suppose, if one were somehow nostalgic for those days.
Winterville Mounds, Mississippi, USA
We’d hoped to visit Winterville Mounds outside of Greenville, Mississippi (map). It was the day the skies cracked opened and rained so hard that we holed-up in our hotel room for a full afternoon, which actually turned out to be a good idea because we were completely exhausted. I couldn’t find a decent photograph of the mounds with a Creative Commons license so we’re stuck with the Street View link. Double fail.
Winterville was a Lower Mississippian site settled around the same basic time as Wickliffe. As the State of Mississippi explained,
Archaeological evidence indicates that the Indians who used the Winterville Mounds may have had a civilization similar to that of the Natchez Indians, a Mississippi tribe documented by French explorers and settlers in the early 1700s. The Natchez Indians’ society was divided into upper and lower ranks, with a person’s social rank determined by heredity through the female line. The chief and other tribal officials inherited their positions as members of the royal family. The elaborate leadership network made mound building by a civilian labor force possible.
I’d like to come back for another attempt should I ever find myself in the area again. The descriptions sounded pretty impressive.
Poverty Point was a considerably more colossal site, located in what is now northeastern Louisiana (map). This was also a much older site, constructed during the Archaic Period and peaking about 3,000 years ago. Poverty Point was one of the largest sets of mounds in North America, covering nearly a thousand acres. The National Park Service estimated that its construction was "the product of five million hours of labor."
It was so massive that no single photograph from ground level could do it justice. The photo I took and posted above was a portion of mound called the Bird Mound. However I didn’t have the camera angle to show the six concentric crescents aligned in front of this earthen monolith that formed a central plaza facing Bayou Marçon. It’s all best appreciated from the air. The structure showed up decently in Google Maps’ Terrain View, however, the embed function has been disabled in the "new and improved" maps. Instead I’ll post a photo I took in the Visitors Center.
The Bird Mound was the small square at the middle-back of the crescent.
There were scores of mounds left behind by these pre-Columbian Native Americans in what came to be known as the Central and Southern United States. It’s a little understood piece of history with a level of sophistication not always appreciated. Mounds that weren’t desecrated for souvenirs or destroyed by farmer’s plows were true survivors, telling a story of a highly advanced culture that existed before Europeans set sail for the Americas.
The Riverboat Adventure articles:
- Part 1 – The River
- Part 2 – Original Inhabitants
- Part 3 – Borders
- Part 4 – History
- Part 5 – Americana
- Part 6 – Signs