The visitors – many of them Native Americans — come by the thousands every year to Moundville Archaeological Park 14 miles from Tuscaloosa.
They are drawn by the knowledge that something spectacularly significant went down here, something archaeologists and historians believe holds clues to the origins and history of several Southeastern tribes, including the Chickasaw and Choctaw. This site, dating back to 1100, holds the remains of one of the largest prehistoric Native American settlements in the United States.
By 1300, Moundville had become a sort of early walled city on the Black Warrior River, creating something akin to the kind of awe tourists exhibit upon their first look at Manhattan.
The 300-acre site, once surrounded on three sides by a log-walled palisade 10 feet tall, is a treasure chest of early architecture, engineering and artifacts from the Mississippian Period, roughly 900 to 1600 A.D. The people who lived in this vast complex of 29 mounds of varying sizes and purposes were a powerful, highly centralized society. With perhaps a thousand people living here, it was easily the largest city in Alabama.
The chieftain and his family had their own house on the grandest mound, nearly 60 feet tall. There were apparently nobles with similar mound privileges and mounds for ceremonial purposes, a mound with a council house that could handle large gatherings, mounds for burial.
No one really knows why the complex finally broke up, but the museum, enlarged and renovated in 2010, does a good job of probing the stories of people who lived here. Murals depicting daily life and exhibits with life-sized models of Moundville inhabitants direct visitors through a series of scenes including a wedding, a chief’s house, and a medicine maker telling stories in an earth lodge. Among the 200 artifacts on display are the famous bird-serpent bowl carved from a single stone and the rattlesnake disc that may hint at constellations and an afterlife.
Here, it is easy to forget that this is 2016. And that you are not a resident of Moundville.
Photos by Chi Kalu
The Meek School faculty and students published “Unconquered and Unconquerable” online on August 19, 2016, to tell stories of the people and culture of the Chickasaw. The publication is the result of Bill Rose’s depth reporting class taught in the spring. Emily Bowen-Moore, Instructor of Media Design, designed the magazine.
“The reason we did this was because we discovered that many of them had no clue about the rich Indian history of Mississippi,” said Rose. “It was an eye-opening experience for the students. They found out a lot of stuff that Mississippians will be surprised about.”
Print copies are available October 2016.
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