The Mississippians I am referring to are Indians that were part of the Mississippian culture. This culture was characterized by mound building chiefdoms, and it lasted from around 1000 to 1500 AD. It centered around the Mississippi River area and spread from there, hence its name.
Allow me to attempt to win you over, reader, to learning more about them. These mounds that I mentioned are not your ordinary rounded earth dwelling or small dome; these Indians were building huge pyramid-like earth platforms on top of which their chiefs and royals lived. Yes, they had an elaborate social hierarchy, and they were creating massive land works with their limited tools and hard labor. How and why were these communities formed? What was life like with a royal family? We visited the Etowah Archaeological Museum to find out.
At the museum site, you can actually explore the three main mounds (several other smaller mounds remain as well). Here is the layout of the site. The museum building is shown at the bottom to the left. The historical site itself features Mound A (the largest of the mounds and home to the chief’s family), Mound B (the second largest and home to other important people such as priests), and finally Mound C (the burial mound where over 350 bodies were unearthed during excavation). Part of the defensive ditch that surrounded the community are still recognizable. The Etowah River runs across the top of the photo, and the yellow dotted line indicates our path as a visitor to the site…How do you explore these mounds? By climbing the million steps (actually 132 steps for Mound A) to the top. Mound A had stairs built of clay and logs as unearthed in the photo below. That was the only excavation completed on this mound. It remains in tact, minus its top layer of soil which was actually farmed in the 1800s. Can you imagine the intense possessive feeling for the land that the farmer must have felt in order to use the mound as another field?And the chief’s view from the top? Thought you would never ask. You can see Mound B and Mound C, along with the edge of the woods where the river runs. You can climb the stairs at the other two mounds as well for a closer view.
Mound B was partially excavated on its west side in a test pit, which revealed trash pits and the remnants of a large building. Mound C is the only mound that has been completely excavated and then rebuilt. This is the mound that was the burial temple. The oldest burials being at its center, and the layers added outward over the years. It also held marble effigies of a man and woman that are now displayed in the museum. We can surely appreciate the precision and physical effort that would have been involved in creating these pieces; but can we accurately value the emotions that would have been involved? Are such creations the offspring of reason, or something deeper that connects us as a part of humanity? There is no writing to tell us exactly why they were created and buried among the layers of the burial temple, but it is easy to see that they were important.After visiting the mounds, a walk along the river reveals the rivercane and other plants that were an integral part of the Etowah’s living, as well as the fish weir. The fish weir is still visible when the river water is shallow (the flow is now regulated by a downstream power plant). The villagers laid stone in a V-shape across the river so that fish would be funneled to the center point where they used baskets to trap them.
The village also had a raised plaza where trade, business, ceremonies and games would have been performed. At its height, the village is thought to have contained 1 to 2 thousand villagers, who lived in wattle and daub houses like the rendition on site…
A lot of what archaeologists give us is speculation, so keep that in mind. I think that there are some facts that are easy to appreciate about the Etowah Indians. The complexity of their village and daily life show the sophistication of their chiefdoms. Their community lifestyle is apparent, as well as their respect for the dead. The fact that they traded extensively is proven in the artifacts that were unearthed on the village site from all over the country. I think that it is safe to say that we should not limit these people, their thoughts, their actions or their emotional and spiritual connections.
So, what happened to these sophisticated people? It is believed that diseases spread from DeSoto’s men, who are thought to have visited the area in 1540, wiped these communities from existence. Any relatives that may have survived are thought to have joined with other survivors and eventually became the Creeks. The Creeks, however, lost their oral tradition of history; so the details are uncertain.
The Etowah and other mound builders coincide with cliff dwelling Ancient Puebloan sites that we visited in Utah. Fascinating to think of these cultures coexisting before the European explorers found them. So, if you are looking to learn about the ancient American cultures, and you would like to visit a great Mississippian site, then Etowah Burial Mounds in Cartersville, GA is a great stop for you! The parking lot is large enough for small RVs to stop and visit too!