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Mound builders.

Ancient earthworks offer a glimpse into the civilizations that once inhabited the eastern half of the United States.

As European settlers spread out across what is now the eastern half of the United States, they encountered a curious thing. Throughout the land they thought of as virgin wilderness, inhabited by people they considered unsophisticated savages, the settlers came across impressive, ancient earthworks.

Some were flat-topped pyramidal mounds as high as hills. Others were domed burial mounds or mounds in the shape of animals. Still others were walls, built of dirt and grown over with grass, that formed huge circles, squares, or octagons. Earthworks were found from New York to Florida to Oklahoma, but were especially concentrated in Ohio and along the Mississippi River.

Americans of the 1700s and early 1800s began to imagine themselves living in a mysterious new Egypt and named their towns Memphis, Alexandria, Cairo. They also ardently debated the identity of the Mound Builders.

Some held that the mounds had been built by past groups of Native Americans. Others preferred the notion of an extinct "superior race." Credit for the mounds variously went to ancient Babylonians, Phoenicians, Hindus, Persians, Greeks, Carthaginians, the Ten Lost Tribes of Israel, the Vikings, the Toltecs, refugees from Atlantis, and Chinese, Crimean, and Celtic wayfarers. (One version of a present-day theory attributes the mounds to visiting space aliens.)

As archaeologists and historians investigated the matter, evidence suggested that the mounds had indeed been built by Native Americans, in both ancient and more recent times. Despite the evidence, however, the wars with the Indians were intensifying, and the whole topic had fallen out of vogue.

To this day, the ancient ruins of the eastern United States are not as well-known as the pueblos and rock art of the West. They also have not been preserved as well. Many have been built over, worn down by farming, bulldozed, and looted. But the earthworks that remain provide much information about the prehistoric civilizations of the eastern and southern United States. And they can exert the same fascination for modern visitors as they did for Americans of 150 years ago.

Poverty Point National Monument

The ridges and depressions in the earth at Poverty Point, Louisiana, were so large they were assumed to be natural. But in 1952, aerial photos uncovered the significance of the place by revealing that the ridges formed a giant symmetrical pattern.

Three thousand years ago, Poverty Point--named for the 19th-century plantation that occupied the site--was the center of the most advanced civilization north of the Rio Grande.

The town was built in six concentric arcs forming an enormous semicircle. Each arc is a raised ridge of earth, originally ten to 15 feet high and between 50 and 150 feet wide. It is not clear whether the site was inhabited year-round or only when ceremonies were being held there.

Connected to the outermost arc is a huge mound, shaped like a bird with its wings outstretched and its tail spread as if in flight. At 70 feet high and 640 feet by 700 feet across, it was the largest mound on the continent for more than 2,000 years.

This central district of Poverty Point covers nearly one square mile, and other mounds stretch out from it across more than 2.5 square miles. It is estimated that building the earthworks from dirt, basketful by basketful, would have taken five million hours of labor.

Habitation of Poverty Point goes back to 1730 B.C., and the earthworks were built sometime between 1400 and 1350 B.C. But by 1300 B.C., for reasons that remain unknown, the great center was abandoned.

While it flourished, Poverty Point was the ceremonial and trade center of a culture that extended up and down the Mississippi River. More than 100 smaller towns, villages, and campsites from the Poverty Point culture have been found elsewhere in Louisiana, Arkansas, and Mississippi.

An extensive trade network made available the metals and colorful stones Poverty Point people prized in both utilitarian and decorative objects. More than half the stone they used came from distances greater than 175 miles.

Only 3 percent of the Poverty Point site has been excavated, and many questions remain about it. But the site is believed to have supported the first culture north of Mexico to construct complex, geometric earthworks on a grand scale.

Poverty Point has been designated a national monument but continues to be managed by the state of Louisiana. The site offers an interpretive museum, guided tours, and an opportunity to see archaeologists at work. For more information, contact Poverty Point State Commemorative Area, P.O. Box 276, Epps, LA 71237; (318) 926-5492.

The Mound Builders

About the time Poverty Point was abandoned, people in the Great Lakes area began to erect mounds. From this tradition arose the great mound-budding civilizations of the Ohio River Valley: the Adena and the Hopewell.

The Adena date from 500 B.C. to A.D. 200 and the Hopewell, from 200 B.C. to A.D. 500. It is not known for certain whether they were two different groups or two different phases of the same culture.

The Adena and Hopewell both built burial mounds, often 30 to 40 feet high. The Hopewell enclosed their mounds with enormous geometric earthworks. While many of the mounds have since been destroyed, Hopewell Culture National Historical Park in Chillicothe, Ohio, preserves a number of sites spread across the southern part of the state. The sites suggest the magnitude of Hopewell mathematical, surveying, and engineering skills.

The Hopewell Mound Group consists of a three-mile-long earthen wall in the shape of a giant "D." Attached is a square-shaped embankment. The complex covers 130 acres, and portions of the walls are still eight feet high.

Researchers have recently found evidence of what could be the greatest Hopewell undertaking: two parallel walls that stretch 60 miles from Chillicothe to another major cluster of earthworks in Newark, Ohio.

The Hopewell also attained a high level of artisanship, revealed by the objects that line the interiors of their mounds. They carved delicate silhouettes out of mica, made head-dresses and earrings from copper, and fashioned conch shells into drinking cups. Perhaps the most remarkable artifacts are the stone pipes carved in human and animal images using local stone.

The materials used in the objects indicate trade routes spanning half the continent. Hopewell artisans had access to silver from Ontario; freshwater pearls and copper from sites along the Great Lakes; obsidian, a black volcanic glass, from what is now Yellowstone National Park; seashells from the Gulf of Mexico; and stone from a quarry in Minnesota, now preserved as Pipestone National Monument.

The Hopewell world came to an end about A.D. 500. The reasons for its demise are unknown, but drought or other climate changes, epidemics, civil war, or invasion have all been suggested.

Effigy Mounds National Monument preserves sites from a related culture, which sprang up in Iowa and Wisconsin as the Hopewell were disappearing. These mounds were built in the shapes of bears, birds, and other animals.

Visitors to both parks can follow trails through the mounds. At Hopewell Culture, visitors can also see artifacts from its mounds on display. For more information, contact Hopewell Culture National Historical Park, 16062 State Route 104, Chillicothe, OH 45601; (614) 774-1125; and Effigy Mounds National Monument, Rural Route 1, Box 25A, Harpers Ferry, IA 52146; (319) 873-3491.

The Temple Mound Builders

Around A.D. 700, a new civilization based in the Mississippi Valley expanded upon the developments of the Hopewell. Villages became cities, small-scale farming became an organized operation that could feed thousands of people, and a new style of mounds was erected on an enormous scale.

The Mississippians, or Temple Mound Builders, continued to bury important people in mounds. But they also built flat-topped pyramidal mounds as bases for their temples, which were made of poles and thatch.

Some temple mounds had terraced sides where other smaller structures stood. These were the homes of rulers, nobles, and priests.

Mississippian sites can be found from Florida to Oklahoma and north to Wisconsin. The greatest was Cahokia, now a state historic site in Illinois, just across the Mississippi from St. Louis. An estimated 10,000 to 20,000 people lived at Cahokia at its peak in the 1100s. The village extends for five square miles and originally contained 120 mounds. Monk's Mound, which was built over 15 acres and is about 100 feet high, is the largest earthwork by volume in the Western Hemisphere.

The Mississippians were able to support such large towns because they had become master farmers.

Symbols used in Mississippian artifacts reveal a preoccupation with death, and evidence exists of human sacrifice at Cahokia and other sites. These symbols and practices, along with the temples and city layouts, are nearly identical to those of the Mayans. Although contact between the two cultures is unproven, it seems likely.

A major Mississippian site in the National Park System is Ocmulgee National Monument in Macon, Georgia. Ocmulgee was a Mississippian town that flourished between A.D. 900 and 1100. Its 2,000 to 3,000 residents built a series of temple mounds along the Ocmulgee River. The largest, Great Temple Mound, rises more than 40 feet from a base that is 300 feet by 270 feet.

While nearly all Mississippian buildings have disappeared, an earthlodge at Ocmulgee survives in part and has been reconstructed. Probably used as a council house, the building seats 50 on an eagle-shaped platform and a low bench lining the wall.

Another major site is Emerald Mound, along the Park Service's Natchez Trace Parkway. Just north of Natchez, Mississippi, and covering eight acres, Emerald Mound is the second largest temple mound in the nation, after Monk's Mound at Cahokia.

Cahokia was abandoned by the 1400s, as were most of the great Mississippian sites. Scholars suggest that European diseases may have raced ahead of the first explorers, or endemic diseases may have been responsible for wiping out the Mound Builders. Other theories include drought, famine, political strife, and warfare.

Whatever the answer, the great Mississippian civilizations were vanishing or gone not long before the masses of European settlers arrived, leaving behind few clues beyond the mounds and the artwork. The mounds today still evoke the wonderment they did in naturalist William Bartram, who visited Ocmulgee in 1773 and spoke with awe of "the wonderful remains of the power and grandeur of the ancients in this part of America."

The Ocmulgee visitor center contains a major archaeological museum, and foot and automobile trails provide a tour of the mounds. Emerald Mound is also open to visitors, and the Park Service gives presentations on Mississippian culture and astronomical events there. For more information, contact Ocmulgee National Monument, 1207 Emery Highway, Macon, GA 31201; (912) 752-8257; and Natchez Trace Parkway, Rural Route 1, NT-143, Tupelo, MS 38801.
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Title Annotation:earthworks in the eastern U.S.
Author:Hedstrom, Elizabeth
Publication:National Parks
Date:Jan 1, 1993
Previous Article:On the western front.
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