Ancient America: Angel Mounds

About 650 CE some trends were beginning to emerge in the American Bottom area near the Mississippi River in Illinois which would culminate in the development of a complex culture known today as Mississippian. Setting the stage for the emergence of this complex culture were the use of the bow and arrow and the development of maize agriculture. The largest of the Mississippian settlements was Cahokia, located in southwestern Illinois. From here, Mississippian culture seemed to spread out for a considerable distance.

Mississippian Map

The most spectacular characteristic of Mississippian material culture was the construction of earthen pyramids. The pyramids, usually called mounds, have a flat top which provided a space for a ceremonial building or a chiefly residence. Access to the top of the pyramid was made possible by a ramp or stairs up one side.  

In 900, a Mississippian village was established at Angel Mounds in Indiana. This village grew to cover 103 acres and became a regional trade center. The village, which had 200 dwellings, was protected on three sides by a wooden stockade and on the fourth side by the Ohio River. By 1300, Angel Mounds had a population of 2,000-3,000 people.

The Mississippian town at Angel Mounds was protected by a stockade made of wattle and daub. There was a gateway in the stockade on the east. Just outside of the stockade, about 14 feet (4.3 meters) away, was a type of picket fence. This fence was intended to slow down any enemy group which might attack the town.

The stockade was about 12 feet high and was constructed by setting wooden posts about four feet deep into a narrow trench. A loose weaving of sticks helped tie the posts together and then the structure was covered with a mud-and-grass plaster. About every 11 feet (3.4 meters) a defensive bastion was constructed which projected about 12 feet (3.7 meters) out from the wall. From these bastions the warriors, armed with bows and arrows and lances could protect the walls from attack. The construction of this stockade is similar to the one at Cahokia.

Angel Palisade

The reconstructed palisade with the bastions is shown above.

As a Mississippian town, it had platform mounds for the residences of chiefs and other high ranking officials. In some instances, members of the high status families were also buried on top of the mounds. In addition, there were ceremonies which were carried out on the mounds. The central mound (designated as Mound A) at Angel Mounds is 644 feet (196 meters) long, 415 feet (126 meters) wide, and 44 feet high. It covers four acres and required 67,785 cubic yards of dirt carried to the construction site in baskets.  There was a log stairway to the top.

Angel Mounds A

Angel Mounds A 2

Mound A is shown above.

The people who lived at Angel Mounds made their living by farming and by hunting. The location adjacent to the Ohio River was ideal for agriculture: the annual spring floods replenished the nutrients in the soil. The fertile soil, in turn, allowed for the production of surplus crops which allowed the town to support people who were engaged in artisan and craft specialties.

The site includes a pottery-making workshop. Here large quantities of pottery-bowls, jars, figurines-were made for both local use and for trade to other communities. The potters appear to have engaged in a kind of assembly-line production in which they would prepare the basic forms and then they would be finished and fired.

Angel Mounds Pottery

Shown above is a diorama

At Angel Mounds there was a quiet backwater which provided a good beaching place for canoes. It should be kept in mind that rivers were highways at this time and canoes were vital for trade with other communities.

People began leaving Angel Mounds about 1400 CE. Within 50 years, the town was vacant. There are many possible reasons for the abandonment of Angel Mounds. It may have been that the basic resources needed by the people had become depleted. These resources, such as firewood and materials for building and maintaining their homes, may have become scarce after more than a century of high population density.

Another possibility may be that the soil had become depleted. Over the centuries in which the people had farmed the area, the soil may have lost much of its fertility and thus the harvests had decreased.

Other reasons for the abandonment might include social factors, including revolution and/or invasion by other peoples. In addition, natural disasters such as earthquakes and floods, might have motivated people to move. However, there is no archaeological evidence of violence, in spite of the fact that the town was fortified. Similarly, there is no evidence of any natural disaster.

Some people have speculated that an extended regional drought might have reduced the maize surpluses that had enabled the concentration of population. This reduction in agricultural products, coupled with overhunting which would have reduced the availability of game and the reduction of wood for building and fuels, may have made the Angel Mounds location less than ideal for habitation.

One other possibility is that Angel Mounds was abandoned because of peace. If peaceful alliances among the various communities in the area had been created, this might have meant that a large, fortified town like Angel Mounds was no longer necessary. Once again, there is no archaeological evidence of this.

By 1650, Native American tribes such as the Shawnee and Miami were living in the area and farming the bottomlands. In 1852 an American settler named Mathias Angel settled on the site. The land remained in the hands of the Angel family until 1938. At this time, the Indiana Historical Society purchased 480 acres of the Angel family property to protect the historically valuable site. The site was named after the Angel family. Eli Lilly donated the money for the purchase.

In 1946, the Historical Society gave the property to the State of Indiana. In 1962 it was declared a National Historic landmark. Indiana University obtained the rights to conduct archaeological excavation on the site in 1965. The Interpretive Center was constructed in 1972.

Angel Mounds State Historic Site is today recognized as one of the best preserved prehistoric Native American sites in the United States.