The Moundbuilders: North America’s Little-known Native Architects

The Moundbuilders: North America’s Little-known Native Architects


The prehistoric people of Central and South America are known worldwide for their fantastic architectural and cultural achievements. However, North American natives are not known as great builders. But that does not mean they didn’t build.

It also doesn’t mean that they didn’t have civilizations. Many cultures of pre-European-contact North America did settle down in cities and practice agriculture and have sophisticated religions and ceremonial sites. Some even made copper and iron artifacts, and metallurgy has long been considered a sign of advanced accomplishment.

But what is little known is that there were also the moundbuilders in what is now the United States. People in many regions of the prehistoric U.S. built earthen mounds, some of which reached 100 feet (30.48 meters). They built them over the course of 5,000 years, archaeologists have estimated.

Earth’s Milky Way Galaxy over Mound A at Poverty Point, Louisiana, which was built circa 1400 AD.

Earth’s Milky Way Galaxy over Mound A at Poverty Point, Louisiana, which was built circa 1400 AD. (Photo by Jenny Ellerbe)

Penn Museum of the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology in Philadelphia is opening a show later this month called Moundbuilders: Ancient Architects of North America.

A press release from the university states:

Earthen mounds—including some of the earliest monumental constructions in the world— have been engineered by diverse Native American groups over millennia. Yet the sizes, shapes, and purposes of mounds have varied greatly over time and geographical distance. Mounds have played and continue to play important roles in the religious, social, and political lives of Native American people. Some have been burial mounds; others have been centers of trade and community gatherings; still others have served as the foundations for important buildings or activities.

 Archaeologists, fascinated by the extraordinary engineering feats of the moundbuilders, have been excavating and mapping this tradition since the 18th century. To date, many thousands of mounds have been discovered, from those at Cahokia, the massive Native American city outside Saint Louis, Missouri, to smaller mound sites like Smith Creek in Mississippi where the Penn Museum currently excavates. Over time, many mounds have been destroyed by farmers or leveled due to urban expansion; many more are believed to exist, not yet discovered.

The exhibition chronologically explores the changing construction methods and purposes of the Native American mounds. It begins with the earliest known mounds of about 3700 BC. These were built in the Lower Mississippi Valley by small groups of hunter-gatherers. They accomplished these feats without metal tools. Archaeologists believe they built up the mounds by moving dirt to the sites in baskets.

As long ago as 1400 BC, at the Poverty Point site in the same region, in Louisiana, there were mounds so large they would have required thousands of workers. At this site researchers have found stone objects that provide evidence of specialized artisans and trade routes over which materials were transported.

This is Mound A or the Great Temple Mound at Etowah Mounds near Cartersville Georgia. It was built around 1250 AD. Many of these mound centers dotted the eastern landscape before Europeans arrive

This is Mound A or the Great Temple Mound at Etowah Mounds near Cartersville Georgia. It was built around 1250 AD. Many of these mound centers dotted the eastern landscape before Europeans arrived. (Photo by Tom Patton)

In later years, moundbuilding became more common and more complex. Mounds were burial places and some held elaborate grave goods, the press release states. In Ohio, people of the Hopewell culture of 1 to 400 AD had huge geometric enclosures that, experts believe, were ceremonial sites for people from around the area.

It was around 600 AD that dramatic shifts took place. People in the Upper Mississippi Valley built thousands of effigy mounds in the shape of animals. Farther south, people were building flat-top mounds that may have been foundations for buildings in which people did public activities. It is difficult to know what these activities may have consisted of because the people of North America did not have known writing systems.

The press release states:

Platform mounds were the most common mound form in the centuries leading up to European contact when corn agriculture developed and people congregated in major cities ruled by powerful chiefs. Though moundbuilding had largely ceased, some of these sites were still occupied when Europeans visited them in the 16th and 17th centuries. A small renaissance of moundbuilding has begun today, as the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians continues to construct the Kituwah mound in the mountains of North Carolina.

Penn Museum’s exhibition includes artifacts that were excavated from mounds, including stone and ceramics. Some examples include a panther boatstone that may have been used on a spear thrower, pots in the form of human effigy figures, and shell pendants that have sacred designs of the Southeastern Ceremonial Complex. This complex is a system of signs and symbols shared by different peoples who lived 500 to 1,000 years ago and hundreds of miles apart.

A boatstone panther that may have been a weight on a spear thrower from the Mississippi region of 700 to 1000 AD. This object measures 3.5 cm tall (1.38 inches) by 10.8 cm (4.25 inches) long.

A boatstone panther that may have been a weight on a spear thrower from the Mississippi region of 700 to 1000 AD. This object measures 3.5 cm tall (1.38 inches) by 10.8 cm (4.25 inches) long. (Photo credit: Penn Museum)

The curator of the exhibition is Megan Kassabaum, an assistant curator for North America and archaeologist who directs the Smith Creek Archaeological Project, which will be featured in the show.

The Moundbuilders: Ancient Architects of North America exhibition opens on June 24 at the Penn Museum in Philadelphia, USA.

Top image: The Cahokia Mounds. Photo credit: Don Burmeister and Ira Block.

By Mark Miller

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