Moundville Archaeological Park

For this free-form article I decided to stay closer to home. I’m from Taylorville in south Tuscaloosa County, which means we’re lucky enough to be a little over ten miles away from an ancient Native American archaeological site, a National Historic Landmark complete with many large platform mounds, located on a bluff overlooking the Black Warrior River in the aptly named city of Moundville in Hale County.

The area was populated by Native Americans of the Mississippian culture in approximately 1000 to 1450 CE. The second largest classic Middle Mississippian era site (the first being a Cahokia site in Illinois), Moundville has twenty-nine platform mounds (usually rectangular or square shaped mounds of flat-topped earth intended to support a structure or activity) on one hundred eighty-five acres of land. The mounds are arranged in a rectangular plaza. Not many mounds were built before 1200, likely because it was not until after 1150 that the area gained importance in the community, transforming from a local to a regional center for these Mississippian people. For an unknown reason, in about 1350 Moundville stopped looking like a town and was only used as a place for political and ceremonial use. Many mounds were eventually abandoned for unknown reasons, and in the 1500s the land was barely being used by any of the Native Americans.

What Moundville could have looked like while it was occupied

There might have been more mounds that were later destroyed at some point in time. The organization of the mounds from large to small from north to south  is likely not a coincidence. They were probably organized by class structure. The largest mounds were made for the homes of the nobles and the smaller ones have been determined mainly to hold burial sites, but they were also sometimes used as platforms for smaller buildings.

Three sides of the area were protected by a wooden wall, and the fourth side was protected by the river. There were probably about a thousand people inside of this wall, with perhaps up to ten thousand in the valley surrounding it. The river allowed these Native Americans to trade with other groups and gave them a fishing source. The farming of maize was a main source of the growth of all Native American of the Mississippian culture, and the people of Moundville were no exception. There are a few ponds likely made from digging extra dirt for the mounds. They often imported copper, mica, galena, and marine shell using the trade routes provided by the Black Warrior River. They did not use the wheel or pack animals, and so the mounds were rounded by hand. This is another piece of evidence that these Native Americans had a fairly sophisticated and organized social system.

Art was also very important to these people. Pottery, stonework, and embossed copper were some of the main items that they produced. The art is regarded so highly that it is used as the standard of goods that were made by the Mississippian Native Americans. There is a museum located on the grounds of the park that includes exhibits of the artifacts and recreations of the scenery. My dad says that he remembers going on a field trip when he was in grade school and seeing skeletons of the Native Americans unearthed and on display. However, they are now no longer on display, and he believes they have since been reburied out of respect.

Moundville is also now known for its annual festival, which celebrates Native American culture and art. The festival is coming up soon; it’s from October 10 through 13. There will be demonstrations of Native American crafts like pottery and basket weaving, and some on ancient weapons. Visitors will also be able to purchase Native American food and crafts.

Moundville is a popular destination for tourists and school field trips. Visitors are able to guide themselves around the park or take guided tours. There are intricate trails to walk through in a half mile of the picturesque forest surrounding the rectangular area that contains the mounds.  There is also a gift shop with authentic Native American handmade gifts and a café with Native American specialty coffees and teas. There are also campgrounds available for up to fourteen consecutive days. If you’d like to plan a trip, or just want to find out more about the park, you can find hour and ticket information at the University of Alabama’s Moundville Website. If you’re not able to get to Hale County to see the mounds, a virtual tour of some of the area is available on the Alabama 360 Virtual Tour Website.

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