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Moundville Archaeological Site
Moundville aerial HRoe 2020.jpg
Artist's conception of the Moundville Archaeological Site
Location 634 Mound State Parkway
Moundville, Alabama, USA
Nearest city Tuscaloosa
NRHP reference No. 66000149
Quick facts for kids
Significant dates
Added to NRHP October 15, 1966
Designated NHL July 19, 1964

Moundville Archaeological Site, also known as the Moundville Archaeological Park, is a Mississippian culture archaeological site on the Black Warrior River in Hale County, near the modern city of Tuscaloosa, Alabama. Extensive archaeological investigation has shown that the site was the political and ceremonial center of a regionally organized Mississippian culture chiefdom polity between the 11th and 16th centuries. The archaeological park portion of the site is administered by the University of Alabama Museums and encompasses 185 acres (75 ha), consisting of 29 platform mounds around a rectangular plaza.

The site was declared a National Historic Landmark in 1964 and was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1966.

Moundville is the second-largest site in the United States of the classic Middle Mississippian era, after Cahokia in Illinois. The culture was expressed in villages and chiefdoms throughout the central Mississippi River Valley, the lower Ohio River Valley, and most of the Mid-South area, including Kentucky, Tennessee, Alabama, and Mississippi as the core of the classic Mississippian culture area. The park contains a museum and an archaeological laboratory.

History

Moundville was mentioned by E. G. Squier and Edwin Hamilton Davis in their work, Ancient Monuments of the Mississippi Valley (c1848), a survey conducted for the Smithsonian Institution. Later in the century, Nathaniel Thomas Lupton created a fairly accurate map of the site.

Little excavation work was conducted at Moundville by the Bureau of Ethnology’s Division of Mound Exploration, partly because the landowner imposed a fee. The first significant archaeological investigations were not conducted until the early 20th century, by Clarence Bloomfield Moore, a lawyer from Philadelphia. He dug extensively at Moundville in 1906, and his detailed records of his work and finds have been of use to modern archaeologists. But looters dug into the mounds over the next two decades and took many artifacts, in addition to destroying stratigraphy of some structures.

In the mid-1920s concerned citizens, including Walter B. Jones (geologist) (after whom the site's museum is named) had begun a concerted effort to save the site. With the help of the Alabama Museum of Natural History, they purchased the land containing the mounds. By 1933 the site had officially become known as Mound State Park, but the park was not developed for visitors until 1938. During this period of the Great Depression, workers of the Civilian Conservation Corps were brought in to stabilize the mounds against erosion. They also constructed roads and buildings to allow public uses at the site. The name of the park was changed to Mound State Monument and was opened to the public in 1939.

In 1991, the park's name was officially changed to Moundville Archaeological Park.

Site

Moundville Archaeological Site Alabama
A view of the site from the top of Mound B looking toward Mound A and the plaza
Moundville mounds J, A, B HRoe 2005
A view across the plaza from mound J to mound B, with mound A in the center

The site was occupied by Native Americans of the Mississippian culture from around 1000 AD to 1450 AD. Around 1150 AD the settlement's leaders began their rise from a local to a regional center, known as a chiefdom. At its height, the community took the form of a roughly 300-acre (121 ha) residential and political area, protected on three sides by a bastioned wooden palisade wall. The remaining side was protected by the river bluff.

The largest platform mounds were built on the northern edge of the plaza; they become increasingly smaller going either clockwise or counter clockwise around the plaza to the south. Scholars theorize that the highest-ranking clans occupied the large northern mounds, with the smaller mounds' supporting buildings used for residences, mortuary, and other purposes. A total of 29 mounds remain on the site.

Of the two largest mounds in the group, Mound A occupies a central position in the great plaza, and Mound B lies just to the north. It is a steep, 58 feet (18 m)-tall pyramidal mound with two access ramps. Archaeologists have also found evidence at the site of borrow pits, other public buildings, and a dozen small houses constructed of pole and thatch.

Archaeologists have interpreted this community plan as a sociogram, an architectural depiction of a social order based on ranked clans. According to this model, the Moundville community was segmented into a variety of different clan precincts, the ranked positions of which were represented in the size and arrangement of paired earthen mounds around the central plaza. By 1300, the site was being used more as a religious and political center than as a residential town. This signaled the beginning of a decline, and by 1500 most of the area was abandoned.

People

Moundville Archaeological Park 64
Engraved stone palette from Moundville, illustrating two horned rattlesnakes, perhaps referring to The Great Serpent of the Southeastern Ceremonial Complex

The surrounding area appears to have been densely populated, but the people built relatively few mounds before 1200 AD, after which the public architecture of the plaza and mounds was constructed. At its height, the population is estimated to have been around 1000 people within the walls, with 10,000 additional people in the surrounding countryside.

Based on findings during excavations, the residents of the site were skilled in agriculture, especially the cultivation of maize. Production of maize surpluses gave the people produce to trade for other goods, supported population density, and allowed the specialization of artisans. Extensive amounts of imported luxury goods, such as copper, mica, galena, and marine shell, have been excavated from the site. The site is renowned by scholars for the artistic excellence of its artifacts of pottery, stonework, and embossed copper left by the former residents.

Geography

The Moundville Archaeological Site is located on a bluff overlooking the Black Warrior River. The site and other affiliated settlements are located within a portion of the Black Warrior River Valley starting below the fall line, just south of present-day Tuscaloosa, Alabama, and extending 25 miles (40 km) downriver. Below the fall line, the valley widens and the uplands consist of rolling hills dissected by intermittent streams. This region corresponds with the transition between the Piedmont and Coastal Plain and encompasses considerable physiographic and ecological diversity. Environmentally this portion of the Black Warrior Valley was an ecotone that had floral and faunal characteristics from temperate oak-hickory, maritime magnolia, and pine forests.

Representation in media

The American independent film, A Genesis Found (2009), was largely shot and set at the Moundville Archaeological Site. The plot concerns a search for a supposed anomalous skeleton linked to the site's founding. It features a dramatized dig from a University of Alabama Field School. The film also features dramatizations of Civilian Conservation Corps digs in the 1930s, as well as details about some of the site's more popular motifs and imagery.

Theft

During a 1980 break-in at the Erskine Ramsay Archaeological Repository at Moundville, 264 pottery vessels, one-fifth of the vessel collection curated by the Alabama Museum of Natural History, were stolen. The highest-quality specimens were taken and have not been recovered from private markets. removed and are still missing. Despite an investigation by the Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI), none of the artifacts was seen again until 2018. Three ceremonial bowls were recovered. The crime was not widely publicized at the time for unknown reasons.

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