Guest Author - Phyllis Doyle Burns
Along the banks of the Etowah River in northwest Georgia, USA, an ancient tribe, the Muskogee people, lived and flourished in what archaeologists term the early Mississippian culture (A.D. 850 to A.D. 1,150). They were hunters, gatherers, and mound builders. They built the earthwork platform mounds known as the Etowah Indian Mounds, which is now a National Historic Landmark and state park. It is considered the most intact site of the Mississippian culture period.
Since the first sighting of unusual mounds by early Europeans settlers, myths about giants or lost tribes of Israel exploded. When myths were debunked and archaeologists let it be known that Native American peoples built the mounds the interest in the mythical legends began to dwindle. However, people were not told just how valuable those mounds were to history.
Many mounds that could have given archaeologists valuable clues to the past were destroyed. Early settlers, after losing their fascination with the mounds, often just plowed them down for farming needs.
The construction of a platform mound was a combined effort by the entire tribe. The mounds served several purposes, including burial sites for high ranking personages. At Etowah there are three platform mounds and three smaller mounds of heaped soil and fill. The platform mounds originally had structures atop them that were made of log and thatch. The largest mound, the Temple Mound (Mound A), is 63 feet high and its base spreads out to cover three acres. Mound C there were over 100 burials found, along with artifacts that give many clues showing that the people were quite creative, artistic, and had advanced technical skills.
The platform mounds are four-sided pyramids with steps on one side to reach the original building that was on top. The steps were made of wooden logs, which have since been replaced in the same fashion.
The study of several clay figurines and stone statues give an example of how the people dressed. For instance, the female figurines have wrap skirts, males have no clothing, and both have hairstyles that would have taken great care and skill, with elaborate adornments.
Another surprising find was fabric remnants of bright colors and ornate patterns. Tools, weapons and plates found were made from copper. The copper was beneficial in preserving the bright colors of the fabric remnants found. One very intricate female figurine, made of copper, may have been made with the intention to represent an Earth Mother goddess of fertility.
The artifacts found at the Etowah Mounds, along with artifacts from mound sites in different locations of the southeast, enabled archaeologists to define the Southeastern Ceremonial Complex (SECC), originally known as the Southern Death Cult, and understand more about the religion of the Mississippian culture.
There is a museum at the site that has displays of the artifacts found within the mounds. For more information and directions to this state park see Etowah Indian Mounds State Historic Site.