Mississippian is a cultural complex which spread from its hearth on the Mississippi River in Illinois throughout much of the Southeast. The most spectacular characteristic of Mississippian material culture is 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.  

Overview of mounds

About a thousand years ago-approximately 1000 CE-Mississippian people established the site of Etowah in Georgia. This became a dominant regional center with massive earthen platform mounds, elaborate ritual objects, and an extensive trading network. Etowah was a planned community made possible by a productive maize-based agriculture. Archaeologists have determined that at least 140 buildings were constructed at the site. Politically, Etowah was a chiefdom with a hierarchical social organization.


Painting of house

Reconstruction of a house at Etowah is shown above.

One of the primary characteristics of Mississippian sites is the earthen mounds or pyramids: At Etowah there are three main platform mounds and three smaller mounds. The largest of these mounds, Mound A (sometimes called the Temple Mound) stands 19 meters (63 feet) in height and covers about three acres at its base. The construction of this mound began early in the site’s history and it continued to be expanded and reconstructed over the next several centuries. There is some archaeological evidence that ritual feasting accompanied the building and rebuilding of the mound.

Mound 010

Mound 010

The summit of Mound A contained a complex of Mississippian buildings separated by open spaces. Some of these buildings were screened from public view. The largest of these buildings was 18 meters on a side. The screening of the sacred space on top of Mound A may be an indication that spiritual power was not egalitarian, but reserved for an elite group. Access to this power was controlled.

Mound A

Mound A is shown above.

The earthen ramp on the front of Mound A originally had clay steps. Logs were placed on the tread of each stair. The original staircase was about 17 feet wide.

Mound B is 25 feet (7.6 meters) high while Mound C, rises to just 10 feet (3.0 meters). Mound C was created as an elite mortuary facility which emphasized the genealogical links of certain subgroups in the society.

Mound B

Mound B is shown above.

Adjacent to the mounds, the Mississippian occupants of Etowah constructed a raised ceremonial plaza. This was used for ceremonies, as well as for chunkey games (which were often ceremonial in nature), and as a commercial trading area.

Some evidence of warfare or conflict can be seen in the fortification system which surrounded the town. There was both a palisade and a moat. The moat was 9 to 10 feet (2.7 to 3.0 meters) deep. The moat also functioned as a drainage system during major floods.

The palisade was built using logs. As with other Mississippian sites, the palisade was constructed by first digging a ditch and then standing logs into it. Finally it was backfilled to support the wall. The wall would have been about 12 feet (3.7 meters) high. About every 80 feet (24 meters) there were guard towers for archers.

One of the distinctive features of Mississippian culture and iconography were the distinctive paint palettes (sometimes called sun disks) which were found at Etowah. These were locally made ritual paraphernalia which were kept in sacred bundles. The palettes were generally round, about 23-33 centimeters in diameter and 2.5 centimeters thick, and made from a greenish-gray rock. All of the palettes were decorated in a similar fashion: a scalloped, notched, or rayed edge and a band of one to four lines incised on the top of the rim. These were common decorative themes in Mississippian art.

The palettes were used to mix kaolinite (a clay mineral that is pure white in color), calcite (a whitish powder obtained from burned mussel shells), hematite (a mineral known for its bright red color), graphite (a black pigment), galena (a crystalline lead ore with a shiny, silvery appearance), and resin (a yellow-brown material that was used as a liquid).

With regard to art, archaeologists have found numerous clay figurines and ten stone statues at Etowah. Some of these are paired in which there is a man seated cross-legged and a woman kneeling. The females are wearing wrap-around skirts. Both figures have elaborate hair styles. Some people interpret these figures as representing lineage founders. The stone effigies can weigh up to 125 pounds.


Etowah was abandoned about 1200 and then re-occupied just before 1300. The re-establishment of the Etowah chiefdom involved an introduction of a foreign symbol set. This included a set of copper plates depicting the Birdman. The Birdman is a decorative style and religious theme whose home probably lies at Cahokia.



The peak of building and occupation at Etowah appears to have been from 1325 to about 1375. About 1325, a residential ruler’s compound was constructed on top of Mound A . The compound included four large buildings, including one 3,000-square-foot structure.

The first scientific archaeology at Etowah was carried out in the 1880s by the Bureau of American Ethnology of the Smithsonian Institution. In the 1920s, excavations were carried out by Phillips Academy of Andover, Massachusetts. Many of the artifacts were distributed to various museums throughout the United States. Both the U.S. National Museum and the Museum of the American Indian, Heye Foundation, New York, have exhibits of artifacts from Etowah.

In 1953, the Etowah site was purchased by the Georgia Historical Commission. In 1965, the Etowah Mounds Archaeological Area was designated as a National Historic landmark by the Department of the Interior and is considered the most intact Mississippian culture site in the Southeast. The site is considered to be ancestral to the Creek people. Today the Etowah Indian Mounds Historic Site is managed by the Georgia Department of Natural Resources. The current park covers 54 acres.


Museum Display

Pot 1

The museum and some museum displays are shown above.  

Ancient America: Ocmulgee

Some time before 900 CE, people begin migrating into what will become present-day Georgia from the area around the Mississippi River near present-day St. Louis. Culturally, archaeologists consider these immigrants to be Mississippian people and they know that this is a migration because the material culture they bring with them (and the material culture they leave behind for archaeologists to study) is completely different from that of earlier peoples. This material culture included a different style of pottery, different burial practices, and, most evident, a totally different architecture.

Mississippian Map

About 900 CE, Mississippian immigrants established the village of Ocmulgee which included a series of large earthen mounds for public ceremonies. Large earthen mounds-actually pyramids built from earth-were characteristic of Mississippian culture. Public ceremonies were carried out on top of these mounds in view of the people who gathered in the plaza below.

Ocmulgee 1940

A temple mound as it appeared in 1940 is shown above.

Ocmulgee Temple Mound

A current view of the Great Temple Mound is shown above.

Ocmulgee Ceramics

Shown above is a pottery vessel with a lid in the shape of a human head which was found at Ocmulgee. In addition, pipes and necklaces from the site are also in the display.

There are a total of seven mounds at Ocmulgee. The tallest mound, known today as the Great Temple Mound, is 55 feet high. Archaeologists using magnetometer scans have found that this mound had a spiraling staircase which was oriented toward the floodplain. This staircase is unique among the many Mississippian culture sites.

The temple mounds at Ocmulgee, as at other Mississippian sites, have a flat top where a rectangular wooden building was constructed. In addition to temple mounds there were also burial mounds.

During the height of occupation at Ocmulgee (950 to 1150), the population was socially stratified. Subsistence was provided by skilled farmers whose crops of corns, beans, and squash provided enough surplus to support a religious and political elite population. The elite leaders supervised the construction of the large, earthen mounds. The dirt for these mounds was carried by hand, transported in woven baskets.

The most distinctive feature of the village is the subterranean earth lodge which is about 42 feet in diameter. On the floor of the council house is a raised earthen platform shaped like a falcon with its head oriented toward the fire pit in the center of the building. Molded seats (47 in all) on the platform provided seating for the leaders.

Ocmulgee Earthlodge

Shown above is the entrance to the reconstructed earth lodge at Ocmulgee National Monument.  

Ocmulgee Fireplace

Shown above is the fireplace in the reconstructed earth lodge.

In the council house (called a “temple” by some of today’s writers) there is a recessed basin at every seat. This basin is used as an individual vomitaria during the Black Drink ceremony in which vomiting is used for purification. The Black Drink is an active and powerful diuretic which was consumed before important meetings as its purgative influences freed the participants’ bodies from all hindrance to thought and thus prepared them for serious and careful discussion. The drink was made from the leaves of the cassina shrub. Consuming the Black Drink provided physiological effects due to massive doses of caffeine.

The town of Ocmulgee was abandoned by the Mississippian people about 1200 CE. As the Mississippian culture in the area declined, a new cultural tradition coalesced a short distance downstream from Ocmulgee. Called the Lamar Phase by archaeologists, and flourishing by 1350 CE, the Lamar Mounds and Village Site has two mounds.

At the present time, the Ocmulgee National Monument occupies a 702-acre site located on the east bank of the Ocmulgee River. In 1934, the National Park service designated Ocmulgee as a site for federal protection. In 1936, the Ocmulgee National Monument was formally established as an historic unit of the National Park Service. In 1996 it was listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

In 1997, the National Park Service designated the Ocmulgee National Monument as a Traditional Cultural Property. This was the first Traditional Cultural Property designated east of the Mississippi River. At the present time, the Ocmulgee National Monument has a visitor center which includes an archaeological museum. The museum displays artifacts and interprets the pre-contact Native American cultures of the area.

Ocmulgee Desk

Ancient America: Kolomoki Mounds

( – promoted by navajo)

More than a thousand years before the first Europeans arrived in North America, American Indians had developed complex civilizations which were characterized by the large earthen pyramids (usually called mounds) which were constructed throughout the southeast. Many of these mound complexes are found in the present-day state of Georgia. Among them is Kolomoki (also called Mercier mounds).  

The village of Kolomoki was founded about 350 CE. From its humble beginnings, the village eventually contained nine mounds, the largest of which (designated as Mound A) rose some 17 meters (56 feet) in height. Unlike other large mound sites in the eastern United States, Kolomoki is not located near a major stream.

Kolomoki was a ceremonial center with burial mounds and a central plaza which was the center of population for numerous surrounding villages The site was laid out on a central east-west axis, with mounds at either end and a central plaza and adjoining ritual area at the center. This axis was bisected by a large, ring-shaped discontinuous earthen enclosure. The orientation of the mounds is such that they marked celestial events, including the spring equinox and the summer solstice.

Houses were built along the edges of the enclosure. The typical household consisted of a pair of winter and summer structures. These structures were quite small (100 square meters). The permanent population was about 225 which increased to 525 at certain times of the year.

Mound A (also called the Temple Mound) would have required more than 2 million basket loads of earth.

Two small dome-shaped burial mounds (designated as E and K) were constructed at opposite ends of the site marking the east-west axis. They were more than a kilometer apart and were linked by a large oval enclosure. Ritual activities were conducted at a point midway between these two mounds.

Mound E was about 80 feet in diameter and 11 feet high. The construction of this mound began with a rectangular pit (6 feet by 9 feet) which contained cremated human remains of a single individual. Other burials were later added and Mound E became a corporate burial facility. It probably served to reinforce group membership.

Mound K was originally 55 feet in diameter and about 5 feet high.

A century after the founding of Kolomoki, there were seven other major mound sites in Georgia:

Marksville: eight mounds with an enclosure

Troyville: 13 mounds

Greenhouse: seven mounds with a large plaza and a low ridge earthwork

Mounds Plantation: nine mounds around an elliptical plaza

Baytown: nine mounds with a plaza

Savannah: 17 mounds with two concentric palisades

Pinson: 12 mounds and two circular embankments

In general, these mound complexes served as ceremonial centers and thus did not have a substantial permanent population. The exception was Kolomoki. At this time, Kolomoki was one of the largest and most densely populated communities north of Mexico.

By 450 CE, Kolomoki was maintaining its permanent population of about 225, but it was drawing in more people from the outlying areas for construction projects and ceremonies. The population may have been as high as 2,000 at one time. There was increased mound construction at the site which emphasized the central east-west axis of the site. In terms of mound construction, Kolomoki at this time had eclipsed all other settlements in the immediate area.

At this time, Mound D was constructed over the ritual space in the center of the site. Mound D was a conically shaped circular earthwork which was about 100 feet in diameter and rose to a height of about 20 feet. Mound D was constructed in several stages and increased in size during each stage. It started as a platform mound that was about 6 feet high.

Mound D contained 77 burials and had a pottery cache on its east side. Burial objects included iron and copper artifacts, as well as pearl beads. In the burials, the bodies were placed facing east. The pottery included effigy pots which included the shapes of deer, quail, and owls.

The subsistence pattern at this time was based on gathering wild plants and hunting. Farming supplemented these activities.

Two centuries after it began, Kolomoki entered into the period which archaeologists call Phase III. While there were subtle changes in ceramics during this period, the settlement pattern remained the same. During this time Mound B (50 feet in diameter and less than 5 feet high) and Mound C (similar to Mound B) were added on a north-south axis on either side of Mound A. Mound A has a base that measures 325 feet by 200 feet. The southern half of the rectangular summit was about 3 feet higher than the northern half.

After more than four centuries, about 750 CE, Indian people stopped using Kolomoki as a ceremonial center.

At the present time Kolomoki Mounds Historic Park is operated by the Georgia Department of Natural Resources. According to the park’s website:

The park’s museum is built around an excavated mound, providing an unusual setting for learning who these people were and how they lived. Inside, visitors will find numerous artifacts and a film. Outdoor activities include camping, fishing, picnicking and boating. Hikers can choose from two scenic trails. The Spruce Pine Trail offers views of lakes Yahola and Kolomoki, while the Trillium Trail meanders through hardwoods and pines.