Moundville comes to life in slim new volume

Submitted by Sammy Smith (sammy@thesga.org)

Moundville_oblique_viewS_GoogleEarth

Oblique view of Moundville facing south, with the Black Warrior River in the foreground, from Google Earth.

John H. Blitz doesn’t mince words. Answering the question who built the mounds at the famous Mississippian settlement next to the Black Warrior River at Moundville, Alabama, Blitz writes: “We don’t know” (page 4).

Moundville_coverIn a slim volume (116 pages; also called a “pocket guide”) simply titled “Moundville” (University of Alabama Press, 2008), Blitz, an archaeologist on the faculty of the University of Alabama at Tuscaloosa, summarizes “the story of Moundville and the people who once lived there” (page 6). Liberally illustrated with color and black-and-white photographs, this book is easy to read yet chock-full of information.

Blitz tells both the story of research at the site and the developing understanding of the Mississippian period, and the role of the Moundville community in the local area, and in the Mississippian Southeast.

Moundville’s first substantial occupation began in approximately AD 1120. Residents “lived in small one-room houses dispersed across the natural terrace above the river” (page 61). Moundville was one of many settlements at this time that were built around civic-ceremonial mounds. At Moundville, people built two non-residential raised areas archaeologists call platforms, because they seem to have been constructed as a special place to erect special buildings.

Around AD 1200 Moundville’s resident population increased dramatically, and people constructed more monumental architecture—a complex with mounds, a large plaza or open area lacking buildings, and an encircling palisade wall, and many new houses. The population change is too much to have been a natural demographic increase; instead, people must have immigrated to the community. Perhaps people were attracted by the prospect of living in a palisaded (essentially fortified) settlement, where residents felt safer. Indeed, Blitz says (page 65) about a thousand people lived within the palisaded area, and Moundville was probably the political and ritual capital of the region.

By shortly after AD 1300, that is, less one hundred years later, or only a few generations, Moundville’s population had decreased and it had become “a sparsely populated ceremonial center” (page 66). People moved out for reasons archaeologists have yet to identify. Perhaps there were shortages in important resources, like firewood and game. Perhaps people felt safer so they moved away from the palisaded area. Perhaps leaders made lower-ranked people leave. “Whatever the case,” Blitz writes on page 68, “Moundville became a place of pilgrimage, ceremonies, and funerals.” Moundville was not a ghost town (page 68); houses in the northern part of the settlement continued to be occupied, and graves with fancy highly crafted burial goods continued to be created.

After AD 1450, Moundville gradually declined in population and funerary activity diminished. Burials from this period lack the fancy grave goods that characterized those of the previous period. Although activities at Moundville declined, other nearby civic-ceremonial settlements also with mounds continued to be occupied and important (page 70). Some parts of southeastern North America suffered extensive drought in the 1400s, which could have affected residents of Moundville and the Moundville region. Further, in 1540, Hernando de Soto and his army passed through small villages in this area, although there’s not evidence they came to Moundville itself. The Spanish brought Old World diseases that devastated Native American populations, and “Moundville was abandoned by 1600, if not before” (page 71).

Researchers continue moderate excavations at Moundville, and also reanalyze collections stored there. Continued research across the Southeast also amplify our understanding of this dramatic settlement, now the 320-acre Moundville Archaeological Park.

The summary in this review just skims the surface of the detailed material Blitz presents. Some readers may find his fictional story about what it might have been like to live at Moundville the most thought-provoking section of this small yet worthwhile publication (pages 85–97).

Read about Moundville in the online Encyclopedia of Alabama here.

Where to find it