Alabama Archaeology: Prehistoric Alabama


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Paleoindian | Archaic | Woodland | Mississippian
Lithics | Rock Art | Pottery | Southeastern Ceremonial Complex

Mississippian Indians

The traits that categorize the Mississippian Stage were first identified in the Mississippi Valley (Mississippi, Tennessee, Arkansas, and Missouri). As a result, the early researchers named this stage after that area.

The Mississippian Stage is characterized by the construction of large, flat topped mounds, small triangular projectile points, shell tempered pottery, an increased dependence on maize agriculture, and the organization of the population into a chiefdom society.

Illustration by C. B. Dupree, courtesy of the Alabama Museum of Natural History.

About Mississippian Life...

Like the Woodland Indians, Mississippian Indians lived in structures built of timber, mud, and thatch. Unlike the circular houses of the Woodland Indians, Mississippian structures were square or rectangular in shape. Furthermore, public buildings and elite residences were built on mound summits, and the structures were generally larger and more ornate than their domestic counterparts.

Reconstructed Mississippian residences
These reconstructions of Mississippian residences are located at the Moundville Archaeological Park.

Building Mounds

One of the characteristics of Mississippian settlements is the construction of large earthen, flat-topped mounds. These were generally built by the local population toting and depositing baskets filled with dirt. The areas where the dirt came from, or was borrowed, are called borrow pits. At Moundville, these were filled with water and stocked with fish.

The construction of large building projects, such as mounds, is often indicative of a powerful and influential ruling class. In the case of Mississippian Indians, this ruling class was organized as a chiefdom, in which their are two groups of people, elites and non-elites, or commoners.

Illustration to the right was provided courtesy of the University of Alabama Museums.

Building the mounds one basketload at a time
Location of the mounds at Moundville

Mississippian Settlements

The Mississippian stage is marked by the aggregation of large numbers of people to live in communities. The largest of these communities in Alabama was located at Moundville, on the Black Warrior River in Tuscaloosa and Hale Counties. The large population served as a work force for the elites, building earthen mounds used for elite residences, funerary remains, and public ceremonies. At its height, Moundville was also surrounded by a palisade, and was the home to hundreds of Indians in the area. Moundville has approximately 26 mounds which are arranged around a central plaza in which Mound A is located.

Map of Moundville provided courtesy of the University of Alabama Museums.
Building a palisade

Palisades and other structures such as residences, were constructed of wattle and daub. First, wooden posts were set into holes or trenches dug in the ground, and then cane (wattle) was weaved through the posts. Finally, the entire structure was pastered with mud (daub) on the inside and outside.

Illustration to the right was drawn by Roy S. Dickens, Jr. and is reproduced from Frontiers in the Soil: The Archaeology of Georgia.

A woman tending her crops using a celt

Cultivation

In Alabama corn, or maize, was the most common crop raised by the Mississippian Indians. Other crops that were grown include beans, squash, pumpkin, and sunflower. The crops were generally tended by the women of the society.

The fields of the Mississippian Indians looked quite different than those we see today. Mississippian fields were not divided by crops as ours are today. Instead, beans, corn, squash, and other crops grew alongside of one another. This was an efficient use of land because the corn stalks provided shade for the lower crops and acted as supports, or stakes, for the beans to wind around.

Illustration by Roy S. Dickens, Jr. Reproduced from Frontiers in the Soil: the Archaeology of Georgia.

About Mississippian Artifacts...

Greenstone Celts

Celts, or hoes, were used to tend gardens. They could be made of any stone, or lithic, material type, but perhaps the most impressive are made from greenstone. Outcrops of greenstone occur along Hatchet Creek in Coosa, Clay, and Talldega Counties.

A greenstone celt Many greenstone celts have been recovered from burials at Moundville without any indication that they were used to tend crops. Rather, they have been polished in such a way that archaeologists believe these celts were used more for ceremonial purposes.
Photograph courtesy of the Office of Archaeological Research, University of Alabama Museums.

Chunkey

Games were an important part of Misssissippian life, and one of the best known is chunkey. In this game, a large stone disk was thrown and as it rolled, a player tried to toss his spear closest to where he thought the disk would stop rolling.

Illustration by Roy S. Dickens, Jr. Reproduced from Frontiers in the Soil: The Archaeology of Georgia.

A chunkey game
A Native American making a dugout canoe

Canoes

For Indians, the primary mode of transportation was by canoe. Canoes were made by hollowing out large trees with fire. Then the canoe was shaped with the use of stone tools, such as an adze.

Illustration by Roy S. Dickens, Jr. Reproduced from Frontiers in the Soil: The Archaeology of Georgia.
A dugout canoe on display at Moundville

This canoe is currently on display at the Moundville Archaeological Park Museum. It was found in Florida. Similar canoes have been found in the Tombigbee, Alabama, Escawtaba, and Mobile Rivers and the Mobile Delta.

The Rattlesnake Disc on display at Moundville

Palettes

Commonly found at Moundville and throughout the Southeast at larger Mississippian towns are stone palettes. In several contexts, these palettes have been found with traces of graphite, red ocher, and other pigments, suggesting that either they were used for mixing pigments or were painted themselves. The Rattlesnake disk is perhaps one of the more recognizable palettes and was found by a farmer while plowing his field in the vicinity of Moundville.

Photograph courtesy of the University of Alabama Museums.

The Southeastern Ceremonial Complex

The Moundville Indians were part of a larger cultural group that was tied by a common ideological belief system. To fully understand how important Moundville was in Alabama, one must also understand its role in the Southeastern region.

Check out this link about the SECC.

Mounds a and B across the plaza at Moundville
The central plaza at Moundville with Mounds A, B, and S in the background.

References

Dickens, Roy S. Jr. and James L. McKinley

1979 Frontiers in the Soil: The Archaeology of Georgia. Frontiers Publishing: Chapel Hill.

 

Hudson, Charles

1976 The Southeastern Indians. University of Tennessee Press: Knoxville.

 

Walthall, John A.

1980 Prehistoric Indians of the Southeast: Archaeology of Alabama and the Middle South. University of Alabama Press: Tuscaloosa.


Paleoindian | Archaic | Woodland | Mississippian
Lithics | Rock Art | Pottery | Southeastern Ceremonial Complex


Home | What is Archaeology | Archaeological Methods | Prehistoric Alabama
Historic Alabama | Glossary

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Historic Alabama | Glossary