Sunday, March 18, 2012

Architecture of the Southeast

Sherwood, Sarah C. and Tristram R. Kidder
2011 The DaVincis of Dirt: Geoarchaeological Perspectives on Native American Mound Building in the Mississippi River Basin. Journal of Anthropological Archaeology 30: 69-87

  The Mississippi River Basin contains thousands of mounds built over a 6000 year time period. The authors primarily studied the mounds of three pre-contact sites of the southeast: Poverty Point (3600-3000 cal B.P.), Shiloh Mounds (900-400 cal B.P.), and Cahokia (1000-600 cal B.P.) in order to display the sophisticated techniques and knowledge used by American Indians to create such monumental architecture. They discuss the construction and selection of mounds and the types of deposits used to create them. Monumental architecture is defined as construction whose scale is so large that it is more than enough for practical applications of the monument and is generally associated with complex societies. In the east, monumental architecture began at 5700 cal B.P. Earthen platform mounds in particular are monumental architecture that are elevated and quadrilateral flat-topped earthen pyramids that are usually constructed in raised stages. These mounds served as elite residences; temples, mortuaries, or shrines; platforms for non-residential building such as sweat lodges; and courtyards open to the public.
Using a geoarchaeological approach, the researchers studied the organization of space using microscopic fields such as lithostratigraphic characteristics as well as micromorphology such as the composition used to in the material making up the mounds. Location of mounds determined by a larger plan of a plaza and adjacent mounds based on the distance and orientation of construction within space. Poverty Point Mound A was built in and over a 1-2 m depression in which vegetation was first burned and the mound built over this surface. Shiloh’s Mound A required the removal of natural soil profile with the construction of a structure and the accumulation of midden refuse. The types of materials used to construct the mounds was based on contrasting color and soil or sediment types for geotechnical and/or ritual purposes. At Poverty Point, purposeful mining of pure E-horizon material was utilized. At Shiloh, red sediment was mined. Also at these two sites, mixing of sediment prior to the placement of the mounds was used.
Types of construction deposits include sod blocks that are held together by roots and used at Shiloh and Monks Mound; soil blocks that do not contain surface material with no roots; fills; zoned fills in which light and dark layers were juxtaposed which were used at Shiloh; and prepared veneers in which a different source material was applied to an external slope and were used at Shiloh and Cahokia. At Poverty Point, Cahokia, and Shiloh, mound construction occurred rapidly. The Poverty Point mound took weeks or months whereas Shiloh and Monks Mound construction stages were constructed rapidly but mound built over several generations. Some mounds were built for immediate use and others for long-term use to serve as platforms for buildings.
The research presented here is important because it displays that mound building required considerable planning with extensive architectural, engineering, and soil property knowledge. Contrary to belief, mound building was complex and incorporated social, historical, and political meaning in their construction. The research also points out that not all mound construction is uniform. There are differences in materials used, time frame for construction, techniques, purpose, and labor required.


Kidder, Tristram R., Anthony Ortmann, Thurman Allen
2004 Testing of Mounds B and E at Poverty Point. Southeastern Archaeology 23: 98-113.

Ford, James A., and Clarence H. Webb
1956 Poverty Point, a Late Archaic Site in Louisiana. Anthropological Papers 46, no. 1. American Museum of Natural History, New York.

The purposes of the architectural features at Poverty Point are not well understood. The ages of the mounds are unclear and Mound B is the only mound that has been extensively excavated. The authors discuss the results of the testing and coring of Mounds E and B during the 2001 and 2002 field seasons as well as compare their results with those of Ford and Webb’s (1956) excavations.
Ford and Webb (1956) proposed that Mound B was constructed in five stages. There was no evidence of erosion along the edges of the mound so they believed it was built rapidly. The authors placed five course in mound B in order to confirm Ford and Webb’s stratigraphy and to research the “ash bed” that they reported. Cores B-4 and B-5 are in accordance with the results of Ford and Webb’s results. The “ash bed” reported by Ford and Webb was believed to be composed primarily out of ash and to be the initial anthropogenic stratum in Mound B. The authors disagree with Ford and Webb on these two points. Cores B-4 and B-5 contain and culturally loaded stratum that are underneath the “ash bed.” Also, the gray stratum is a fine silt that is not ash.
Mound E, the Ballcourt Mound, is a low and flat-topped mound that is 100 m long and 80 m wide and is barely 4 m tall. It is rectangular but is thought by the authors to once be originally oval-shaped like Mound B and was partly destroyed due to road construction. Although it was once believed to be a naturally formed mound, the authors affirm that it was created by Native Americans. The mound was built in five stages and nine artifacts were found in Stage II of the mound and include three flake cores and six fired clay fragments. Dating by Optically Stimulated Luminescence of these artifacts is inaccurate because they lack stratigraphic concordance and do not make sense stratigraphically.Thus, the date of Mound E is still amibigous.
Both mounds were built in stages and constructed rapidly. The research done by the archaeologists is significant because it sheds more light on the mounds at Poverty Point, one of the most important sites in the Southeast. Mound E was confirmed to be constructed by Native people rather than naturally formed and a stratigraphic sequence of mound construction was created. The purposes of the mounds are unclear; however, mound B contains floors that had fires with scattered ash and charcoal. Questions still remain such as the age of Mound E, if the mounds were built at the same time, and was the construction history the same for both.

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