Mississippi Indian mounds reveal early times

By James L. Cummins
Special to The Journal

Imagine our native Indians hard at work from early morning to late evening gathering baskets of dirt. They would carry heavy, dirt-laden baskets to a clearing, dump the soil and pat it down with the soles of their feet. Multiple layers of soil were added during repeated construction episodes until an earthen mound was born. Slowly, the mound reached an impressive height. Variations of this process were repeated throughout Mississippi over a span of at least 1,800 years.

Archeologists classify mound-building Indians of the Southeast into three major chronological divisions: the Archaic, the Woodland and the Mississippian traditions. To date, no mounds of the Archaic period have been positively identified.

Most Mississippian period mounds are rectangular, flat-topped earthen platforms. It is believed that temples or residences of chiefs were erected atop the mounds. These buildings-constructed of wooden posts covered with mud plaster and having thatched roofs-would range in height from 8 to almost 60 feet with a base width of 60 to 770 feet! Mississippian mounds can be found at Winterville, Jaketown, Emerald, Grand Village, Pocahontas, Owl Creek and Bear Creek.

Mississippian period mound sites mark centers of social and political authority. They serve as indicators of a way of life more complex than that of the Woodland period. In contrast to the relatively simple tribal organization of most societies of the Woodland period-which consisted of mostly hunters and gatherers-regional Mississippian populations were typically organized into chiefdoms. This type of territorial group with elite leadership classes arose as a means of managing increasingly social complications caused by steady population growth. This population was sustained by agriculture, which became a mainstay during the Mississippian period.

Mound shapes vary. Some are rounded domes; others are flat-topped pyramids, while others are barely perceptible rises. Their uses varied. Some societies buried their dead in mounds and other cultures built temples on top with steps carved into the land. Still other societies built mounds as symbols of power for the leaders who lived atop them. Mounds can stand alone or be in groups of 20 or more. All mounds held deep meaning for the people that built them. Mounds tended to be powerful territorial markers and monuments of social unity, reinforcing and preserving community pride.

Every mound has its own story to tell about its past. With construction spanning many centuries, the earthworks, when carefully investigated by archeologists, tell how people lived. However, the opportunities to study the mounds lessen daily as farming, erosion, urban development and looting continue to impair these efforts. Untold numbers of the old monuments have already been lost and their secrets are lost with them. It is up to us to protect the mounds that are left so that future generations may continue to experience the wonder of our Indian mounds.

James L. Cummins is executive director of Wildlife Mississippi, a non-profit, conservation organization founded to conserve, restore and enhance fish, wildlife and plant resources throughout Mississippi. Their website is www.wildlifemiss.org .