Winterville Mounds Museum, Greenville Mississippi

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Winterville Mounds Museum, Greenville Mississippi

Winterville Mounds Museum entrance. The mound in this case is constructed for the museum and is not an original mound.

Winterville Mounds Museum entrance. The mound in this case is constructed for the museum and is not an original mound.

 

Choctaw Culture Exposure | Sharon Henry

The Winterville Mounds Museum, Mississippi was a surprise native American history lesson during our Great River Road trip.

Following Highway 1 northbound on our map of the Mississippi River, our arrival near the town of Winterville in Greenville MS was a convenient time for a driving break.

The Winterville Mounds, or Indian Mounds as they are also known, are not a high profile attraction when it comes to Mississippi tourism. They are a surviving legacy of Native American tribes in Mississippi which were once plentiful. Today the Choctaw nation are the only Mississippian tribe left, although, of course, on a much smaller scale. The Winterville site is now preserved by the Mississippi Department of Archives and History.

 

America’s Indigenous People Did This

Totally unaware of what mounds were, but in need of a leg stretch, we entered the Winterville Mounds Museum, built into what looked like a cave. We were soon to find out we were entering one of the most unique places to visit in Mississippi.

The cool blast of AC alone was enough to endear me to the place. And that’s before we learned that Indian mounds in Mississippi 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 whose civilisations have now long disappeared.

Winterville mounds Greenville MS - Walking to the top of one of the smaller mounds.

Winterville mounds Greenville MS – Walking to the top of one of the smaller mounds.

 

Winterville Mounds Museum History

The Winterville 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.

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.

A map inside the museum shows locations in the US of other significant mounds.

A map inside the Winterville Mounds museum shows locations in the US of other significant mounds.

I'm here at the bottom of one of the biggest Winterville mounds which gives an idea of scale.  That's a lot of basketfuls of earth.

I’m here at the bottom of one of the biggest Winterville mounds which gives an idea of scale. That’s a lot of basketfuls of earth.

We had been granted special permission to climb the steps. Access is closed off because of an accident where a school child fell and broke an arm.

We had been granted special permission to climb the 50+ steps. Access is closed off because of an accident where a school child fell and broke an arm.

 

Why Did The Native Americans Build Mounds?

It’s fascinating that these knolls were constructed solely through manual labour without the use of machinery or even animals. The largest one on the Winterville 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 400 square metres.

Winterville Mounds - here we are on top of the largest mound.

Winterville Mounds – here we are on top of the largest mound.

View from the top of the mound.

View from the top of the mound.

Winterville Mounds museum has tried a number of options for controlling vegetation on Mound A, including goats and working local prisoners. These fell through, there were difficulties in getting goat insurance and some thought using prisoners was a modern-day form of slave labour.

Winterville Mounds museum has tried a number of options for controlling vegetation on Mound A, including goats and working local prisoners. These fell through, there were difficulties in getting goat insurance and some thought using prisoners was a modern-day form of slave labour.

 

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 Best Kept Secret Of Mississippi

The largest Winterville mound has eight layers although archaeologists have only discovered the remains of seven chiefs. Those skeletal remains are still intact.

Winterville Mounds original layout as depicted on the museum brochure.

Winterville Mounds original layout as depicted on the museum brochure.

Winterville Indian Mounds Museum Curator, Susie Smith.

Winterville Indian Mounds Museum Curator, Susie Smith.

Greenville Mississippi history - a picture in the museum of the 1927 floods and the mounds standing tall. Can you see the cows and horses taking refuge on mounds?

Greenville Mississippi history – a picture in the museum of the 1927 floods and the mounds standing tall. Can you see the cows and horses taking refuge on mounds?

 

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!”

 

Winterville Mound Builders Facts

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 Mounds Museum 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 mound removal 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.

Two Bears and Nina Marshall of the Native American Cultural Exchange Apache at the Winterville festival. Two Bears has appeared in a number of movies including 12 Years a Slave and Terminator Genisys.

Two Bears and Nina Marshall of the Native American Cultural Exchange Apache at the Winterville festival. Two Bears has appeared in a number of movies including 12 Years a Slave and Terminator Genisys.

Susie giving me a personalised tour of the museum. Very interesting.

Susie giving us a personalised tour of the museum. Very interesting.

A primitive dugout canoe made of cypress wood which dates back to 1200-1300 AD. It was found 50 feet underground by the highway authority.

A primitive dugout canoe made of cypress wood which dates back to 1200-1300 AD. It was found 50 feet underground by the highway authority.

Discoidal stones.

Discoidal stones excavated from the Winterville Mounds site.

Tribes from across the US attend Winterville's annual Native American festival. They tell stories, dance, and do demonstrations. These events help keep traditions alive.

Artist’s impression of a Native American who lived on or near the Winterville Mounds.

A stone pipe (left) from the time of the Native American Indians.

A stone pipe (left) excavated from the site dates around 1100-1200 AD.  Tribes (right) from across the US attend Winterville’s annual Native American festival.  They tell stories, dance and do demonstrations.  These events help to keep traditions alive.

 

In the past the state of Mississippi was home to a large number of indigenous tribes. Many had been destroyed or forcibly removed from their homelands. Today, the Choctaw Indian tribe is the only one that lives in Mississippi.

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.

Winterville Mounds - it's been an unexpected but fantastic visit for us.

Winterville Mounds – it’s been an unexpected but fantastic visit for us.

 

By |2018-10-05T01:05:14+00:00September 12th, 2015|Tourist Attraction, USA|1 Comment

One Comment

  1. James Cliffton July 23, 2018 at 9:53 am - Reply

    Love this story from my home state of Mississippi. It’s not something I knew about before but now it’s on my to-do list and will definitely check it out. You taught me something new.
    Great blog, love your stories.

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