Native American Ingenuity | Sharon Henry
Blink and you’ll miss it; the signpost for the Winterville Mounds just off the Great River Road in the state of Mississippi, USA. Totally unaware of what mounds were but in need of a leg stretch we entered the museum built into what looked like a cave.
The cool blast of AC alone was enough to endear me to the place, and that’s before we learned that mounds are the ancient burial and ceremonial sites of America’s indigenous people. Dating back nearly a thousand years, before Christopher Columbus’ great exploration, this very land was home to Native Americans who’s civilisations have now long disappeared.
The mounds are solid man-made ‘hills’ built between 1100-1350 AD. They were painstakingly constructed of dirt carried on-site in baskets, dumped and stomped until the desired height and shape had been achieved.
Why Did The Native Americans Build Mounds?
We were blown away; this was the first time we had ever heard of such a thing about Native American culture. Pow-wows, wigwams, peace pipes and dream catchers, yes, but never mounds.
Even more astonishing was that mounds can be found at numerous places across the whole of the USA, although mainly concentrated along rivers like the Mississippi.
It’s fascinating that these knolls were constructed solely through manual labour without the use of machinery or even animals. The largest one on site reaches 55 ft, almost the height of a five storey building and has the shape of a flat-topped pyramid. The plateau on top is perhaps 200 square metres.
No one knows for sure the purpose of the mounds but it is believed they were platforms on which to build temples and homes of high ranking tribe members. Each time a chief died the structures on top were burned and buried together with the chief’s body. Another layer would then be added, enlarging the mound and new structures built on top.
The largest Winterville mound has eight layers although archaeologists have only discovered the remains of seven chiefs. Those skeletal remains are still intact.
Museum custodian, Susie Smith is passionate about the subject but told us although she’s lived in the region her whole life she had only heard about the mounds 13 years ago. “I was looking at footage of the 1927 flood, and they said, ‘look at the cows and horses on top of the mounds in Winterville, Mississippi.’ Well, I thought, that is the best kept secret because I had never heard of it!”
The Facts About The Winterville Mounds
Susie has since made it a mission to expose that ‘secret’ by raising awareness on this aspect of American history to schools and the wider community. It’s working. The museum’s summer programme now hosts 800 kids, it used to be 50. They also hold an annual Native American festival and attendance has grown from 500 to 6,000.
The Winterville grounds cover 42 acres and has 11 mounds but originally there were 23. They were mainly destroyed through highway construction or levelled by farmers for agriculture. The latest happened in the 1990s.
New discoveries on the mounds are still being made today. When we were there an archaeological excavation was underway, but unfortunately we missed the team. A structural floor had been discovered the previous year prompting this new study to plot its size. Using a tube boring device, like a long, thin metal rod, layers of dirt is extracted and examined. On that day they found human bone where the core had gone through a skull. That fragment of bone was respectfully returned to the hole it came from.
In the past the state of Mississippi accommodated a large number of indigenous tribes. Many had been destroyed or forcibly removed from their homelands. Today, the only native tribe that lives in Mississippi are the Choctaw.
The mounds and their excavated artefacts are extraordinary legacies left behind of a long lost culture. We feel privileged to have found out about them.
The Mississippi Department of Archives and History manages the preservation of these ancient earthworks. Admission into the Winterville Mounds museum is free although they do welcome donations.