Archaic Period Mounds in the Southeastern United States

Without a doubt, the most important characteristic (to me at least) of Middle and Late Archaic mounds is that they were built by non-agricultural societies. Richard Bradley’s thesis in The Significance of Monuments (1998) is simply that mound building in Neolithic Europe can be directly attributed to the spread of agriculture from the Near East.  Bradley believes Mesolithic Europeans did not distinguish themselves from the natural world, and therefore they did not mark the landscape with monuments. With the eventual adoption of agriculture, Neolithic farmers began building long barrows and cairns to mark the landscape and inter their dead. Bradley’s thesis, while applicable in Neolithic Europe, does not stand up to the fertile floodplains of the Lower Mississippi Valley.  The connection between agriculture and monuments does not hold up here in the Americas, where shell and earthen mounds first started marking the landscape as early as the Middle Archaic period (ca. 5000 years ago)[1]. However, Bradley’s assertion that the continuation of circular architectural forms from the Neolithic into the Early and then Later Bronze Age, as seen in the way later circular settlements and houses cite back to earlier circular barrows, is perhaps tenable here in the Lower Mississippi Valley, where mound and plaza architecture persists from 5000 BP to 500 BP. Keeping Bradley in mind, this post describes the major Middle and Late Archaic mound centers in the Southeast, and demonstrates their significance as related to duration on the landscape, and for what implications they may have on how we think about social organization amongst fisher-hunter-gathers.

Middle Archaic mound sites exhibit significant variation in their current surface manifestations, containing anywhere from 1 to 11 mounds, and appearing either as lone dots on the landscape, or two mounds in a line, or in a circular/arcuate shape of multiple mounds. Smaller sites like Hedgepeth and Frenchman’s Bend in Louisiana contain two mounds each (although the latter may have had two more), one at 8 feet tall and the other at 20 feet tall. A newly discovered Archaic culture site in Mississippi, 22LI504, has revealed evidence for only one 3 meter tall mound.  On the other side of the spectrum, large sites like Watson Brake exist, which have 11 differentially-sized mounds built in a mound and plaza configuration, meant to invoke, as Jon Gibson puts it, “the spirit of the gift of protection conferred by the spirit world” (Gibson 2004:260). Of course, it is possible that other mounds at Hedgepeth and 22LI504 were once present, but they either never existed, or have eroded away and been destroyed.

According to Gibson, bounded mound settlements like Watson Brake created a sense of belonging and identity for a social collective. This idea, that mound and plaza arrangements created social collectives is incredibly powerful, especially given the persistent use of plazas across time and space (La Plaza Mayor in Madrid, the Zocolo in Mexico city, the National Mall, Moundville, and the central plaza of Monte Alban are just a few examples). But it is not only the shape and configuration of mounds that indexes meaning – the way in which mounds were made is also telling. As seen today, Middle Archaic mound sites vary in the number and size of mounds they contain, however, this tells us very little about the people that actually built them – we cannot state that the people who lived at and built Frenchman’s Bend were more complex than the people that built Hedgepeth just by looking at the mounds.  We can however study the number of mantles and stages of a mound and the rate at which it was constructed to make inferences on prehistoric social organization.

We know from subsistence-related remains recovered from rockshelters and caves that sedentism among Archaic peoples was becoming more prevalent. Spare time is a requirement for mound-buildings but full-scale sedentism is not – ethnographic studies of hunter-gatherer societies often claim they spend around 15-20 hours a week collected resources.  Contrast this claim with the 40 hour workweek?!? Archaic peoples in the Middle Holocene were likely heavily dependent on riparian ecosystems for food, as seen at, among others, the Black Earth site.  The availability of game, fish, and wild foods in the slow-moving aquatic ecosystems of the Lower Mississippi Valley likely resulted in a social context in which both food and time were readily available.

One manner in which relatively mobile peoples can build mounds is by constructing small stages over a long period of time. This type of construction method is seen at Watson Brake and at 22LI504, where each of the excavated mounds has small and thin construction stages.  The mound at 22LI504 was built in a series of 5 stages  – Watson Brake, among many other Middle Archaic mounds, was also built in small seasonal stages.  However, several Middle Archaic mound sites were not built in small stages – the LSU Campus mounds, Hedgepeth, and Stelly were all built relative quickly in large stages that would have required Middle Archaic peoples to stay in one place longer than for just one season. Archaeologists think it is possible that Middle Archaic hunter-gatherers could have stayed sedentary for multiple seasons because they lived in a highly fertile environment like the Lower Mississippi Valley. Given the number of mounds at Watson Brake and the mound-plaza arrangement, I think large numbers of fairly sedentary people likely constructed the site, albeit slowly. Although some of the mantles in the mounds are fairly thin, with so many mounds creating an enclosure, and in many ways creating a community, the builders of Watson Brake were not likely a highly mobile people.

Mound building continues into the Late Archaic at sites like Jaketown, Claiborne, Cedarland, and Poverty Point.  At Poverty Point, the largest mound was thought to have been constructed very quickly, perhaps within a matter of months.  While Claiborne and Cedarland have both been destroyed, data from amateur archaeologists and early investigations indicate the monuments were arcuate shaped, although it is unclear how “monumental” they truly were or how quickly they were built. Earthen mounds at Poverty Point and Jaketown, however, were truly impressive. Mound A at Poverty Point was unprecedented and remained so until Monks Mound was erected at Cahokia almost 2000 years later.  Although very little evidence for social stratification has been recovered at the site itself, there is variation in the height of the mounds, which must have been meaningful to some degree. Using a perspective based on the philosophy of Foucault, I might suggest the height of Mound A, and its command over the surrounding landscape, indexes the ability of either a collective or an individual leader to exert power over a community. This power may have originated through economic, political or ritual processes, or a combination thereof.  Furthermore,  I would suggest the nearby presence of a much older mound, the Lower Jackson mound (and perhaps the Motley mound), created a connection to a specific place and a local history that either a leader or a collective harnessed for the purposes of mound building.

Recalling Bradley’s assertion about the continuation of circular forms through Europe’s culture-history, I think it is important that a Middle Archaic mound is located a small distance from Mound A at Poverty Point. Furthermore, Poverty Point may be citing and intentionally mimicking the overall layout of the Jaketown site. Jaketown dates slightly earlier than Poverty Point and it was constructed on the inside of a point bar with ridge-swale topography surrounding it in a ring shape, much as how the semi-circle shaped rings at Poverty Point were made. Although this semi-circle shape is quite different from the mound-plaza arrangement of Watson Brake, it is not without antecedents in the Southeast –  semi-circle or arcuate shaped shell rings dating to the Archaic period have also been documented .

From the material evidence of monuments presented at Middle and Late Archaic shell and earthen sites, I think it is likely that minimally complex, transegalitarian cultures were responsible for the degree of monumentality seen at this time (Ken Sassaman has also made this argument). The two relatively larger mounds at Watson Brake and the very large mound at Poverty Point demonstrate, if you follow Foucault’s panoptic, that the space around the mounds at these two sites was subject to the power of whatever entity, whether individual or collective, claimed that powerful spot. Movement itself is observed, and bodily action itself is disciplined in this type of setting. Jon Gibson relates that mound building at the very least implies some degree of organization and control – people can certainly participate in labor willingly and build mounds as part of a communal effort; Gibson’s beneficent obligation makes this clear.  Nevertheless, at the end of the day when all the mound building is done, whoever or whatever that claims the organization of these mound-builders will eventually take the summit.

Furthermore, I think Bradley’s principle of citationality  is important to apply in the Lower Mississippi Valley. Mound and plaza arrangements and semi-circle shaped monuments are a long-lived tradition in the Lower Valley, and I think, ancient signs of a connection to place. The Natchez claimed to be descended from the Sun – this assertion legitimated power and created a sense of permanence to a particular spot on the landscape. Similarly, whatever Poverty Point entity was responsible for building at the site, whether individual or collective, it is clear they obviously found connections to the landscape through the Lower Jackson mound and decided to recreate the more-ancient mounded landscape of the Jaketown site onto a landform bookended by at least one Middle Archaic mound. Scholars have not found more recent recreations of the Poverty Point site, but many other mound and plaza type archaeological sites have been documented in the Southeast. It may not be fair to say that all mound and plaza cites are referencing one another, but perhaps it is reasonable to think that mound and plaza construction in the Lower Valley, a long and robust tradition, was facilitated not only by a fertile environment, but also by the presence of highly powerful and symbol-laden anthropogenic landscape containing many signs of power in the form of earthen and shell monuments.


[1] Oddly enough, shell rings and shell mounds begin appearing in South America along the Atlantic coast at approximately the same time,  ca. 5000 years ago.  They are generally known as sambaquis.

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