Monday, June 4, 2012

Day 13: Moundville

Tucked away in the woods of west Alabama, along the Black Warrior River, there is hidden a Native American site that rivals the great empires of Europe, Africa, and Asia.  It is called Moundville, a name given in recent times since the original name of the site and its architects has been lost.  The name is derived from the twenty nine earthen mounds that ring the area.  These mounds are massive constructions that loom overhead, impossible to ignore.

The story of the mounds and the site that they border coincides with and nearly heralds the emergence of the Mississippian culture in North America.  This culture group extended throughout much of North America, spreading mainly via the Mississippi River.  It was marked by fortified towns, extensive trade, and shared religious symbols.  It was not a tribe, rather it was a number of cultural practices that permeated throughout several tribes.

One such Mississippian group arrived at Moundville sometime in the 1300s and set about the task of radically altering the landscape for the purpose of habitation.  The most striking change is, of course, the mounds themselves.  The existing hills were torn down and twenty nine new ones eventually sprouted up.  Much of the earth came from sources called borrow pits, which are now small lakes and ponds.  Leaders of the community lived atop the mounds.  When they died, their homes were razed and a new layer of earth was built atop them.  The flat expanse between the mounds, known as the plaza, was the site of most residences.  No longer visible today is the massive wooden palisade that surrounded the site.

The construction of this site was far from haphazard; it required exhaustive planning and assiduous care.  The mounds are built in a repeating cycle of large-small, large-small.  They align very stringently to the cardinal directions, with the exception of Mound A.

One of the most puzzling aspects of Moundville is the fact that it was only occupied for about fifty years after its completion.  After this point, its people stayed close by, but used the site primarily as a burial place for their dead.

Moundville went largely ignored for the next few hundred years until farmers began to find strange and enticing artifacts.  This had the effect of drawing in curious academics.  Interest eventually peaked in the 1930s when the Civilian Conservations Corp was tasked with excavating the site.  Today it is a stunningly picturesque park and archaeological site that, unfortunately, goes mostly forgotten by the rest of the world.

The field school was fortunate enough to not only have the opportunity to visit the park but also to receive a wonderfully informative inside look by two very kind individuals: Jeremy Davis, PhD student at the University of Alabama; and Betsy Irwin, Educational Outreach Director at Moundville Archaeological Park.
Jeremy Davis (left) and Betsy Irwin (center)

We were immediately jealous when we saw the working conditions at the park.  Tombecbe offers cloying dirt and crumbling chalk, which is very tricky to work with.  Lines refuse to stay square, bases refuse to remain level.  In contrast, the soil at Moundville is eminently shapeable.  It’s also fairly sandy, which has to be a lot easier on the washing machines.
Jeremy explaining the site while we look on with jealousy

We walked to the edge of the plaza behind the museum.  The plaza is completely flat and featureless, allowing an unobstructed view of most of the mounds.  An interesting fact, and one that most people probably miss, is that the plaza is just as artificial as the mounds. 

Families tended to cluster in groups of houses around a central courtyard.  The unit itself is very likely situated on a prestige residence that would have had a commanding view of the plaza. 

The museum was painstakingly designed.  The interior was painted to look like a representation of the exterior as it existed at Moundville’s peak.  What this means is that if you look at any given direction while inside, you will see the mound beyond the wall.  The centerpiece of the museum is the wedding procession, which offers a narrative for visitors to follow throughout the exhibits.  A bride is coming to Moundville to be wed to the chief’s son.  Around her is situated a number of artifacts in cases and recreations of artifacts in the open.  Facing her is the wedding party: the groom, craning his neck to see his bride for the first time; his mother, offering advice; his mother’s brother, standing at the ready; and the maker of medicine, preparing to officiate the ceremony.  All of these characters display recreations of artifacts found in displays all around them, which is an effective way of drawing in the visitors.
Jeremy speaking about the famous Serpent-bird effigy stone bowl, one of the most well-preserved artifacts in the museum

There is a story that surrounds one of the artifacts that I found particularly engaging.  Moundville offers up a number of large stone disks that were likely used as ceremonial palettes.  The Rattlesnake Disk, which is the state artifact of Alabama, is the prime example.  The story concerns one of the other disks, however.  It was apparently very common to shatter these objects to prevent their powerful magic from being repurposed by others.  Those shards are then buried throughout a number of separate graves.  The disk in question was pieced together from several such shards.  One of the shards, however, does not quite fit with the others.  It is likely that the original piece was thrown in the Black Warrior River as a means of keeping the disk from ever being reassembled, even by well-meaning archaeologists.

The museum eventually winds around to a holographic display of the Maker of Medicine as seen in the central display.  He goes on to explain how he was invested with his supernatural powers by traveling to the underworld.  From there, he goes on to elucidate on the religious aspects of the Moundville people, using his own life as a narrative.  It’s a very effective display that coordinates the lighting of encased artifacts situated around the room and darkened symbols on the wall to create a sense of mystery.

The museum is fairly small, and that about wrapped up the tour.  Jeremy, however, was then kind enough to break out his computer and share the magnetometer data of the site.  The most intriguing aspect of this data is the possibility of a wooden henge, similar to Stonehenge, that would have marked the passage of heavenly bodies.  This is very early speculation but still very exciting.

Jeremy then took the time to point out the Willoughby Disk, an artifact housed in the same chamber as the Maker of Medicine display.  This is a very peculiar artifact that seems to display a narrative, though it is still fairly cryptic.  He was able to decipher a large part of the iconography, however.  The symbol on the left side represented a hawk moth.  This was a very important creature to the people of Moundville.  As a moth, it displays a transformative aspect, which was considered a very important sign in their religion.  The hawk moth also builds its cocoon on the tobacco plant while in its caterpillar stage; the tobacco plant was also deeply important to their religion.  In fact, the symbol on the far right is of a pair of hands (hands are a recurring symbol among their artwork) dropping what appears to be a pipe from the heavens.

At this point, Jeremy took his leave and we students were left to our own devices.
Jeremy posing for a photo with us before we parted ways

No visit to the site is complete with a trip to Mound B, the highest mound in the park.  It was very likely the home of the chief and would have given him an untrammeled view of most of the city.  The climb is a steep one, equivalent to perhaps four or five stories worth of stairs.  It is well worth the effort to briefly share in the view of the still impressive site.

Of course, the climb had the effect of tiring us out at the end of an already long and fully packed day.  We departed, reluctantly, each of us already planning his or her next visit.

Respectfully Submitted,

Brett Shaw

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