The Moundville site, occupied from around A.D. 1000 until A.D. 1450, is a large Mississippian culture settlement situated 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 city built on a bluff overlooking the river.
The plan of the city was roughly square and was protected on three sides by a bastioned wooden palisade. Moundville, second only to the city of Cahokia (Illinois) in its size and complexity, was at once a populous town, as well as a political and religious center.
Within the palisade wall, surrounding a central plaza, were more than 30 earthen platform mounds supporting noble’s residences and buildings used for other activities.
Of the two largest mounds in the group, Mound A occupies the center of the great plaza, and Mound B lies at the northern edge of the site adjacent to the Black Warrior River. 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. Archaeologists have found evidence of borrow pits, other public buildings, and dozens of small houses that would likely have been constructed using a pole and thatch system.
Striking differences in the grave goods from burials suggest a highly stratified society of elites and commoners. Some burials include exotic artifacts that may be associated with political or religious offices. Evidence shows that Moundville was sustained by the 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 1,000-3,000 people within the city walls and around ten thousand in the entire valley. Like other Mississippian societies, Moundville’s growth and prosperity were made possible by the intensive cultivation of maize (corn). Trade items included luxury goods such as copper, mica, galena, and marine shell that might have traveled hundreds or thousands of miles before reaching the city. Renowned for their artistic excellence in pottery, stonework, and embossed copper, the inhabitants of Moundville produced artifacts bearing a high degree of skilled workmanship.
Neither the rise of Moundville nor its eventual decline is well understood by scholars. The immediate area appears to have been heavily 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 city but retained its ceremonial and political functions. The period was marked by the abandonment of some mounds. There was also a decrease in the importation of exotic goods. 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.