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: Moundville, Alabama

Mississippian is a cultural complex whose hearth appears to be in the American Bottom area near the Mississippi River in Illinois. It is characterized by: tempered clay pottery, square houses, and pyramidal mounds. By a thousand years ago, this complex was moving into Alabama.  

About 1050 CE, Mississippian people were building a village at the Moundville Site in west-central Alabama. The village had a well-planned mound-plaza layout and wall-trench architecture. The Moundville residents produced shell-tempered pottery and had some degree of social rank differentiation.

Moundville site

An artist’s rendition of the site is shown above. This is from the Moundville Archaeological Park website.

Moundville was built on a high terrace and was thus immune to flooding. It would eventually grow to contain 32 earthen mounds, 21 of which were truncated pyramids arranged around a single large quadrilateral plaza. Mound A measures 60 by 107 meters and is 6.7 m high; and Mound B measures 59 by 107 meters and is 17.9 m high.

Moundville Mounds

Mound A is shown in the center of the picture above. It is looking from mound J to mound B.

The mounds were built up in stages, somewhat like a layer cake fashion. There would be episodes of destruction in which the structure on top of the mound would be destroyed and burned. Then there would be purification by the burial of the old surface. The continual rebuilding of the mounds was an expressive act and mounds are an aspect of Mississippian expressive culture.

As farmers, the people of Moundville were raising corn, squash, sunflower, chenopod, maygrass, little barley, and beans. About 40% of their calories came from corn. They were also gathering a wide variety of wild foods, including hickory nuts, acorns, persimmon, and grapes.

Meat was obtained by fishing and hunting. While deer was the main animal which they hunted, they also hunted beaver, turkey, rabbit, squirrel, opossum, and turtle. About 25% of their protein came from fish. Upper class people and men tended to eat more meat than other people.

Moundville houses were rectangular wattle-and-daub structures. Two construction techniques were used to build the houses. For some of the houses, the wall posts were individually set in the ground. For other houses, a basin was dug and the walls were set within the basin. In both techniques, flexed poles were used to support the roof.

Moundville was surrounded by numerous very small settlements without mounds, usually called farmsteads. In addition, there were about a dozen single mound sites in the area. These were probably elite residences subordinate to Moundville.

With regard to art, the pottery was often incised with bird effigies. It was not uncommon for a bird to have the head and neck of a heron and the tongue and fanlike tail of a woodpecker. The eagle and the feathered serpent were also common motifs.

moundville pots

Some pottery from the site is shown above.

Moundville Bowl

A bowl from the site is shown above.

About 1200 CE, a palisade was built around the ceremonial center of Moundville and a large number of people moved inside the walls. The population of the center at this time is estimated at 1,000. Moundville was a planned community and grew quickly after the palisade was erected. It eventually sprawled over 370 acres and included 20 mounds.

The Indian people at Moundville were from two different social classes. The elite group made up about five percent of the population and was hereditary. The town was divided into distinct areas for settlement, mounds, and craft production. Craft production continued at Moundville with non-local chert, greenstone, and mica being worked. In addition, craftspeople were working with sheet copper, galena, and various kinds of pigments.

Moundville Engraved Stone

An engraved stone from the site is shown above.

The Indian people at Moundville were practicing head-flattening at this time. Infants were strapped to wooden cradle boards with leather thongs and this resulted in a flattened (elongated) or deformed skull.

About 1250, the population of Moundville began to shrink as the outlying villages increased in size. However, the number of burials within Moundville increased and the town became a necropolis: a large cemetery controlled by the elites who lived on top of the mounds. Moundville residents acted as funeral directors.

By about 1300, the population of the ceremonial center of Moundville declined further. Moundville became an almost vacant ceremonial center occupied primarily by the chiefly elite.

Archaeologists have offered three possible reasons for the depopulation: (1) a conscious decision to empty the center to enhance the sanctity of it, (2) soil depletion and exhaustion of wood resources, and (3) a lessening of the threat of attack with the population dispersing to unfortified towns.

In 1400, two achondropolastic dwarfs-a male who was 50 inches tall and a female who was nearly 47 inches tall-were buried at Moundville. Both had been relatively healthy individuals and were 40-45 years of age at the time of their burial. Both of them showed the flattening to the backs of their skulls, the common result of being strapped to a cradleboard. Both had been functional members of the society and were probably related.

After 1400, many of the mounds at the necropolis of Moundville were abandoned and only a handful of people remained.

Today, Moundville Archaeological Park is a public facility owned by the University of Alabama. It has an onsite museum. Their website describes the museum this way:

Today, the museum combines the latest technology with more than 200 stunning artifacts to describe one of the most significant Native American archaeological sites in the United States. Outside, visitors are greeted by symbols of the Native American culture mounted on enormous wooden heraldic poles. Inside, visitors will find life-size figures displaying the clothing and jewelry of Mississippian cultures, ceremonial feather decorations hand-sewn by Native-American artists, stunning pottery and other artworks placed in display cases that light up when recorded narratives talk about them and three-dimensional, moving depiction of a Native American maker of medicine who appears in a reconstructed earthlodge, taking them on a journey into the afterlife.


Moundville Museum

The Moundville Museum is shown above. The photo is from their website.

Mound and pit

A mound and its barrow pit is shown above. This photo is from the Park’s website.