University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology

5,000 Years of Native American Moundbuilding Traditions are Explored
in a New Exhibition Opening June 24 at the Penn Museum

Moundbuilders logo

PHILADELPHIA, PA 2017—The Great Pyramids in Egypt, Stonehenge in England, and the Maya city of Teotihuacan were all built thousands of years ago. Add to that list of extraordinary achievements the earthen mounds—some rising to heights of 70 or 100 feet, some more than 5,000 years old—that dot the landscape of North America.

Moundbuilders: Ancient Architects of North America, a new exhibition opening June 24 at the Penn Museum in Philadelphia, tells the sometimes enigmatic story of more than 5,000 years of Native American moundbuilding through photographs, archival excavation records, and more than 60 artifacts excavated at mound sites throughout the eastern United States. The exhibition runs through December 2017.

About the Mounds

Photo of Mound

Earthen mounds—including some of the earliest monumental constructions in the world— have been engineered by diverse Native American groups over millennia. Yet the sizes, shapes, and purposes of mounds have varied greatly over time and geographical distance. Mounds have played and continue to play important roles in the religious, social, and political lives of Native American people. Some have been burial mounds; others have been centers of trade and community gatherings; still others have served as the foundations for important buildings or activities.

Archaeologists, fascinated by the extraordinary engineering feats of the moundbuilders, have been excavating and mapping this tradition since the 18th century. To date, many thousands of mounds have been discovered, from those at Cahokia, the massive Native American city outside Saint Louis, Missouri, to smaller mound sites like Smith Creek in Mississippi where the Penn Museum currently excavates. Over time, many mounds have been destroyed by farmers or leveled due to urban expansion; many more are believed to exist, not yet discovered.

A Chronological Approach

Moundbuilders explores the changing patterns of the construction and use of Native American mounds through time, beginning with the earliest known mounds, built by small groups of hunter-gatherers in the Lower Mississippi Valley as early as 3700 BCE. Without the help of metal tools, these early mound builders worked by hand moving basket loads of dirt. By 1400 BCE, the Poverty Point site in Louisiana was home to mounds that required thousands of laborers. In addition, exquisitely carved stone artifacts uncovered at the site suggest specialized artisans and an extensive trade network for materials.

Moundbuilding became much more common in later years. These constructions began to serve as burial places and certain burials were accompanied by elaborate grave goods. Some sites, like those associated with the Hopewell culture in Ohio (1 to 400 CE), included huge geometric enclosures that served as ceremonial centers for the surrounding populations. Around 600 CE, dramatic shifts in moundbuilding practices occured. In the Upper Mississippi Valley, people built thousands of effigy mounds in the shapes of animals. Further south, flat-topped platform mounds were built, serving as foundations for structures or stages for public activities.

Platform mounds were the most common mound form in the centuries leading up to European contact when corn agriculture developed and people congregated in major cities ruled by powerful chiefs. Though moundbuilding had largely ceased, some of these sites were still occupied when Europeans visited them in the 16th and 17th centuries. A small renaissance of moundbuilding has begun today, as the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians continues to construct the Kituwah mound in the mountains of North Carolina.

Artifacts from the Mounds

The exhibition includes excavated artifacts made from a variety of materials, including stone, such as the intricately carved underwater panther boatstone believed to be used as a weight on a spear thrower; ceramic, such as pots formed in the shape of human effigy figures; and shell, such as pendants from Key Marco, Florida. These latter objects bear sacred designs associated with the Southeastern Ceremonial Complex—a system of signs and symbols shared among different groups living hundreds of miles apart ca. 1000 – 1500 CE. In addition, visitors have an insider’s view into modern-day mound excavation through video footage of Dr. Kassabaum and her students excavating at Smith Creek in 2015. A case displaying hundreds of artifacts recovered on that expedition gives the visitor a sense of what most archaeological material looks like right after it is excavated.

Photographing the Mounds

Photographing the North American mounds, often surrounded by lush greenery, farm fields, or nearby roadways, can be a challenge. For this exhibition, 38 photographs, the black and white work of two contemporary photographers—Jenny Ellerbe and Tom Patton—is featured. Their work captures the serene quality of these ancient sites while also illustrating how they are squeezed into today’s modern landscapes.

About the Curator

Dr. Megan Kassabaum, Weingarten Assistant Curator for North America at the Penn Museum and an archaeologist who directs the Smith Creek Archaeological Project, is curator of the exhibition. She has worked on mound sites throughout the eastern United States since 1999. Since 2005, she has worked in the Lower Mississippi Valley, exploring mounds constructed by the Coles Creek culture (700 to 1200 CE). As part of this fieldwork, she leads tours of many of the mound sites that are publically visible and has helped to develop a driving trail that allows visitors to explore sites that were built over the course of 5000 years along the Mississippi River.

“You don’t need a passport to visit extraordinary ancient monuments,” she noted. “I hope this exhibition will encourage more Americans to visit mound sites and gain a better understanding of the deep history of Native American peoples who’ve lived in North America for many thousands of years.”

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Photos, top left: Clay human effigy vessel, circa 1200 - 1500 BCE, Mississippian period. Top right: Underwater panther boatstone figure, circa 700 - 1000 CE, from MIssissippi. Bottom image: Seip Mound, Near Bainbridge, Ohio, circa 100 - 400 CE. A man standing atop Seip mound near Bainbridge, Ohio provides a sense of scale, in this black and white photograph by Tom Patton.

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