Moundville (USA) : Moundville grounds offer portal to the stars


Moundville grounds offer portal to the stars

Kay Campbell

Source - The Huntsville Times 



Mississippian mounds, some 57 feet high, seem to float above the morning mists from the nearby Black Warrior River. (Courtesy Moundville Archaeological Park) 

The Mississippian people who constructed the monuments at Moundville, just outside of Tuscaloosa, believed that human beings trod the earth on a crust between the World Beneath and the World Above, moving in a universe full of living spirits.

So does Jeremy Davis, a doctoral archaeology student at the University of Alabama.

Last week, Davis followed some University of Alabama archaeology students as they ran in from a sudden rainstorm. The rain had chased them away from the careful pits they are digging on the plaza at the center of the 326-acre Moundville Archaeological Park. In square pits covered by tarps, they are painstakingly sifting soil, reading in those colors and textures the geologic record of building poles and home fires, and recording everything in detailed notebooks.

"Archaeologists have always thought that the plaza was just a big, empty area," Davis said, looking out from the museum's coffee shop tables over the broad green lawn between the mounds. "But there is something below the plaza. This is a planned and built environment that symbolizes their cosmology."

Looking at the site through Davis' eyes conjures the ancient metropolis full of people working and living. He motions through the window to areas of the park, describing dwellings and buildings where workshops or ritual areas have been found, noting sites of graves and of apparent executions. He describes the area with the familiarity of a small town postman.

Evidence is that the area was a city that eventually contained up to 3,000 people from about 1120 to 1300. Afterwards, perhaps because of a leader's vision, the population dispersed, but it remained a ceremonial center, including for burials, through the 1500s and perhaps later.

Tattoo patterns on the mannequins in Moundville's central displays have been meticulously patterned after ancient drawings found on pottery or etchings near the site.

When Davis passes the museum's life-sized mannequins, whose faces were cast from impressions of the faces of living Muscogee Indians, he says he feels like they're neighbors.

"We're digging to the surfaces that people like that walked on 800 years ago!" Davis said. "Eight hundred years ago, and these were the fires they sat around."

Family space

Betsy Irwin, the long-time education outreach coordinator for the park, which is administered by the University of Alabama, worked with anthropologists, archaeologists, folklorists and Native American historians and leaders to make sure that the new exhibit is authentic down to every last detail. Their art, she says, cannot be understood apart from their religious views.

The museum, which several years ago sealed the exhibit of human bones visible through a window in the floor, closed in 2008 for a two-year renovation. The new exhibit, which opened last spring, places the relics that have been found on the site in an interactive environment centered around the dramatic performance of a marriage between noble families.

"The previous exhibit was more about how to make a pot or flint a tip," Irwin said last week as she walked through the exhibits, complete with the sounds of distant children laughing, people playing music and talking. "But we wanted something that would really tell a story and really show more what the Mississippian people were like. We wanted something that the Southeastern people could really be proud of."

Religion in place

The evidence found at Moundville expresses that find, with local variants, in the belief systems of indigenous people from the Rockies to the Atlantic and from the Great Lakes to the Gulf of Mexico, says F. Kent Reilly III, an anthropologist at Texas State University-San Marcos, who has studied the Mississippian cultures.

"Native American spirituality has a beauty, aesthetic, complexity that makes American Christianity look like children's games," Reilly said during a break from a conference he was leading at the university this week.

Reilly emphasizes how each location gave rise to local expressions of these beliefs, an aspect of Native American spirituality that made the forced relocation to reservations particularly destructive to spiritual practices that were tied to particular locations.

Reilly said the main points of the belief system that differ greatly from Western Christian thought are three: A perspective that they, as a people, have been here a very long time; a sense of responsibility to consider consequences down to the seventh generation before making a decision; and a sense of connection - as equals and caretakers but not as overlords - with all creation.

That distinguishes, Reilly said, the indigenous Americans' concept of the divine from the typical Western Christian. The creative spirit is not a supernatural being outside of this web of inter-connectivity, but integrated into all of it.


The Rattlesnake Palette, which was used to hold sacred objects or on which to mix oil and minerals for medicine or body paint, is one of the best-preserved examples of the iconography found at Moundville.

Carving the past

Dan Townsend, one of the best-respected traditional shell carvers in the world whose work is part of the displays at Moundville and in the Smithsonian's Museum of the American Indian, has encountered that web through his work.

Raised amid a network of his relatives in the Seminole-Creek communities in Florida, Townsend, 56, began etching traditional designs into shells so he could prepare tools for traditional ceremonies. He was among traditional artisans invited to be part of creating the displays at Moundville.

"Betsy brought in tribal leaders from all over the Southeast," Townsend said this week from Florida. "It was like a traditional artists' community out there for two years."

Townsend said that Moundville still is alive with spirits and revelations. While staying on the site and at other times, he has been given designs in dreams that he, much later, has found in ancient carvings. The designs emphasize the interplay of light and darkness necessary for a well-balanced life, and the revelations convince him of the web of life that extends beyond what we can see on Earth.

Quantum wisdom

Mississippian people believed the universe was multi-dimensional. The lessons of ancient wisdom encoded in the symbols at Moundville seem to teach the same thing to modern Americans gazing at the exhibits or climbing the mounds that rise like celestial islands over the early morning mists that drift in from the nearby Black Warrior River.

Here, in 21st century America, when we have conquered disease at the same time we created bombs that can destroy, in one blast, more than smallpox ever did, we seem to have come to the end of all our learning and inventions only to arrive where we started: Wondering at the theories that catapult reality into dimensions and time shifts that dazzle the mind.

Irwin believes the Mississippian builders of the city at Moundville understood that shape-shifting, time-shifting nature of the universe at an even deeper level than we do now.

"It's really kind of like quantum physics," Irwin said. "The more I talk to them, the more I get that impression."