Mound Builders Pottery

Published: 06th April 2010
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In North American archaeology, "Mound Builders" is the name given to those people who built mounds in a large area from the Great Lakes to the Gulf of Mexico and from the Mississippi River to the Appalachian Mountains. The greatest concentrations of mounds are found in the Mississippi and Ohio valleys. The term "Mound Builders" arose when the origin of the monuments was considered mysterious, most European Americans assuming that the Native Americans were too uncivilized for this accomplishment.

Although the name mound builders imply homogeneity, most archaeologists hold that they were not connected politically. Economically, however, they were similar sedentary farmers who lived in permanent villages. It is also believed that they were the ancestors of the Native Americans found inhabiting the regions of the mounds by the first European explorers. Due to locality and tribal customs, there is much variation in the shape, size, and purpose of mounds. Shapes include conical tumuli, elongated or wall-like mounds, pyramidal mounds, and effigy mounds (bird, animal, or serpentine forms).

In size, they vary from less than one acre in area to more than 100 acres. The Cahokia Mound in Illinois is the largest; it is about 1,000 ft (300 m) from north to south, 700 ft (210 m) from east to west, and 100 ft (30 m) high. The mounds were used chiefly as burial places but also as foundations for buildings (e.g., temples), as fortresses (e.g., Fort Ancient in Ohio), and as totemic representations (e.g., Serpent Mound in Ohio and Elephant Mound in Wisconsin). Mounds also vary in age; some date back as far as the early part of the 6th century, while others (particularly in the southeastern area), were built in historic times. Stone, copper, mica, obsidian, and meteoric iron were widely used by the prehistoric mound builders. Obsidian coming from the Rocky Mountains, mica from the S Appalachian Mountains, and copper from Wisconsin indicate widespread trade. The people practiced weaving and pottery making. Their stone carvings of animal and human figures and especially of pipes are excellent.

Nacoochee Indian Mound was the center of the ancient Cherokee town of Gauxule, visited by DeSoto in 1540 in his search for gold, according to the legend. On this ceremonial mound, 190 feet long, 150 feet wide and 20 feet high, stood the Town House where a sacred fire burned unceasingly. Ceremonial dances were performed in and around the Town House. Residents of the town lived on the flat land surrounding the mound. The findings of Heye Foundation archaeologists who explored the mound in 1915 indicate the advanced cultural development of the builders.

In 1894, Cyrus Thompson of the Smithsonian Institution concluded that the Mound Builders were in fact the Native Americans. Clarence Moore, who excavated numerous mound sites in the South from 1892 to1916, believed the southern Mound Builders were heavily influenced by the Mesoamerican civilizations, an idea now generally discounted.

Archaeological research indicates the mounds of North America were built over a long period by very different types of societies, ranging from mobile hunter-gatherers to sedentary farmers. The prehistoric mounds had a wide variety of forms and fulfilled a range of functions. Many served as burial mounds, individual or collective funerary monuments. Others were temple mounds, platforms for religious structures. Burial mounds were especially common during the Middle Woodland period (c.100 BC-AD 400), while temple mounds predominated during the Mississippian period (after AD 1000).

The earliest mounds in the United States have been found at Watson Brake near Monroe, Louisiana; they were built in the late fourth millennium BC. The purpose of these 11 mounds is unclear. Other mounds date to the third millennium BC. The Archaic mound-building tradition culminated at the Poverty Point Site, in West Carroll Parish, La., between 1800 BC and 500 BC. Six concentric ridges surround two large mounds, one of which reaches 65 ft (20 m) high.

During the Woodland period (c.500 BC-AD 1000), hunting and gathering was combined with a set of domesticated native agricultural plants (sunflower, goosefoot, erect knot weed, and may grass) to bring about increased population densities and a greater degree of sedentism throughout the Ohio and Mississippi valleys. The Middle Woodland period (c.200 BC-AD 400) saw the construction of elaborate earthworks from the Great Lakes to the Gulf Coast. Large, mainly dome-shaped mounds appeared throughout the Ohio and Tennessee River valleys, some in the form of animal effigies.

In the Hopewell culture, centered in South Ohio and Illinois, earthen geometric enclosures defined areas ranging from 2.5 to 120 acres, and some mounds reached 65 ft (20 m) in height. Mica, ceramic, shell, pipestone, and other material were traded over a vast area, indicating the growth of a system of widely shared religious beliefs but not overall political unity. Analysis of mortuary remains suggests Middle and Late Woodland communities were characterized by a system of social rank: Particular kin groups are believed to have had high social prestige, differential access to rare commodities, and control over positions of political leadership. In the Late Woodland period (c. AD 400-1000), burial mounds decreased in frequency, and the elaborate burial goods of the Hopewell culture largely disappeared. However, there was probably no general decline in social complexity or population density at this time.

In the Mississippian period (after AD 1000), maize agriculture spread throughout the East. Populations expanded and became increasingly sedentary. At Cahokia Mounds (near East St. Louis, Illinois) the largest earthwork in North America was built, a temple mound measuring nearly 100 ft high (30 m) and 975 ft long (300 m). Many large ceremonial centers with temple mounds appeared throughout the South, especially in the Mississippi Valley. After 1200, a set of distinctive motifs spread throughout the Southeast, from Oklahoma to N Georgia, on a variety of media, including shell, ceramics, and pipestone. Also found in this region are elaborate ceremonial copper axes and gargets and sheet copper plumes. This complex of distinct motifs is called the Southern Culture; it could reflect-along with the temple platforms-the existence of a regional religion shared by a large number of local cultures. Mississippian societies are thought to have been complex chiefdoms, the most hierarchical form of political organization to emerge in aboriginal North America.

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