The Moundville site, occupied from around A.D. 1000 until A.D. 1450, is a large settlement of Mississippian culture on the Black Warrior River in central Alabama. At the time of Moundville’s heaviest residential population, the community took the form of a three hundred-acre village built on a bluff overlooking the river.
The plan of the town was roughly square and protected on three sides by a bastioned wooden palisade. Moundville, in size and complexity second only to the Cahokia site in Illinois, was at once a populous town, as well as a political center and a religious center.
Within the enclosure, surrounding a central plaza, were twenty-six earthen mounds, the larger ones apparently supporting noble’s residences alternating with small ones that supported buildings used for mortuary and other purposes.
Of the two largest mounds in the group, Mound A occupies the center of the great plaza, and Mound B lies just to the north on the site’s central axis. The latter is a steep pyramid with two ramps, rising to a height of fifty-eight feet. The arrangement of the mounds and plaza gives the impression of symmetry and planning. In addition, archaeologists have found evidence of borrow pits, other public buildings, and dozens of small houses constructed of pole and thatch, many of which have yielded burials beneath the floors.
Striking differences between the nobles and commoners showing a highly stratified society can be seen among the excavated burials with their grave goods. Some include rare artifacts that may be associated with particular political or religious offices. Evidence shows that Moundville was sustained by tribute of food and labor provided by the people who lived in the nearby Black Warrior Valley floodplain farmsteads as well as other smaller mound centers. At its height the Moundville community contained a population of about one thousand with around ten thousand in the entire valley. Like other Mississippian societies, Moundville’s growth and prosperity were made possible by intensive cultivation of maize, or Indian corn. The nobility dominated a traffic in such imported luxury goods as copper, mica, galena, and marine shell. Renowned particularly for their artistic excellence in pottery, stonework, and embossed copper, the inhabitants of Moundville produced artifacts bearing a high degree of skilled workmanship, making the site a benchmark in the study of Mississippian imagery.
Neither the rise of Moundville nor its eventual decline is well understood by scholars. The immediate area appears to have been thickly populated, containing a few very small single-mound centers just before the creation of the public architecture of the great plaza and erection of the palisade about A.D. 1200. However, by about A.D. 1350, Moundville seems to have undergone a change in use. The site lost the appearance of a town, but retained its ceremonial and political functions. A decline ensued, marked by abandonment of some mounds and the loss of religious importance in others. There was also a decrease in the importation of goods which had given prestige to the nobility. By the 1500s, most of the area was abandoned with only a few portions of the site still occupied. Although the first Europeans reached the Southeast in the 1540s, the precise ethnic and linguistic links between Moundville’s inhabitants and what became the historic Native American tribes are still not well understood. Dr. Vernon James Knight, Associate Professor of Anthropology at the University of Alabama, is the Museum’s Curator of Southeastern Archaeology.
*Courtesy of Moundville Archaeological Park