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Big Mound City, Florida

The immensely rich archaeological heritage of South Florida is little known outside the southern tip of the Florida Peninsula.  Perhaps least known are the large town sites east of Lake Okeechobee.  Several have been studied by professional archaeologists and the large town sites are all now protected by some form of public ownership.

The 143 acre Big Mound City Archaeological Zone is located in central Palm Beach County, Florida. It is about 10 miles east of Canal Point, in the J.W. Corbett Wildlife Management Area.  Big Mound City is the only site from the Belle Glade culture on the National Register of Historic Places.  It was added in 1973 as an example of a Calusa ceremonial complex, but is now understood to have originally been constructed by the same ethnic group that built the Ortona and Wakate towns – probably ancestors of the Mayami.

Richard Thornton's vector recreation of what Big Mound City in the Florida Everglades would have looked like.

Richard Thornton’s vector recreation of what Big Mound City in the Florida Everglades would have looked like.

What really makes Big Mound City stand out among large town sites in the Southeastern United States are the paired earth berms that connect conical mounds of various sizes to a central crescent shaped causeway that even today is nine feet high and nine feet wide across the top.  The earth berms form radians that seem to have astronomical functions, but to date, have not been defined.  What exist today are speculations that have not been confirmed by scientific analysis.

Even though its final earthworks are about 1000 to 1500 years older than those of Fort Center in northern Glades County, the architecture was extremely similar.  Its final phase of occupation was probably by an ethnic group either related to the Tekesta or Mayami, but under the political domination of the Calusa.

This large archaeological zone is located on a geographical boundary, where the Everglades portion of the Lake Okeechobee Basin meets the Pinewood Flats.  It has been theorized that the location was either a convenient place for ceremonial activities or trading, perhaps both activities.  The environs of this ceremonial site were flooded at least six months out of the year. The earthworks would have raised any temples or houses above the floodwaters.  This is also an architectural trait of several cultures in the Upper Amazon Basin of Brazil and Peru. The similarity may be evidence of a cultural connection or mere coincidence.

Big Mound City’s occupation has been radiocarbon dated from about 500 BC until about AD 1650. Thus, it was contemporary with the early stages of Fort Center and is older than the Ortona and Wakate sites. It was occupied for centuries after Ortona and Wakate were pretty much abandoned. The site began as a village around 500 BC as a small village, which over time constructed several small mounds.  Currently, archaeologists believe that most of the visible structures in the archaeological zone were completed after Wakate was abandoned. Later, the original mounds were greatly expanded, new mounds were built and ultimately all mounds were linked with causeways or earth berms. The most intense construction seems to date from the Late Mississippian Period (1450 AD – 1600s AD.) This may be a misinterpretation of the radiocarbon dates of surface materials due to later repairs, however.

Within this zone are at least 23 mounds, including two or more burial mounds.  The intricate geometric arrangements of earthworks were made of yellow and white sand, except for a massive oval platform that contained extensive midden remains.  This mound apparently was the location of a village for elite families or priests.

The large semicircular embankment measures 1,520 feet in diameter.  There are five circular mounds within the central enclosure, all measuring around 9 feet in height.  Eight conical truncated mounds are connected to the embankment by radial causeways.  The largest mound measures 220 feet in diameter at its base and reaches 25 feet high.  The walls of the causeway are nine feet high.

The architecture of Big Mound City may have represented practical concerns and cultural influences from elsewhere.  Earthen, sand and shell platforms raised temples and elite residences above frequent flooding.  Like at Wakate and several other town sites, commoner housing was typically built on timber posts that also raised the sleeping levels above flood waters, poisonous water moccasin snakes, bears, cougars and alligators.

Photo by John Kunkel Small. Photo Credit: State Archives of Florida, Florida Memory,

Photo by John Kunkel Small. Photo Credit: State Archives of Florida, Florida Memory,

It was botanical research that first brought Big Mound City to the attention of archaeologists. During the 1920s, John Kunkel Small, Curator of the New York Botanic Garden, participated in several expeditions in  South Florida in order to collect and document plant specimens. On one trip in 1928-1929, Small photographed Big Mound City. His photographs are the earliest known documentation efforts of the monument.

The Works Progress Administration (WPA) sponsored the initial archaeological studies of Big Mound City. During 1933 and 1934 by archaeologist, Gene Sterling, was hired by the WPA to survey and excavate the ruins.  While large sections of the site were excavated, very few artifacts were recovered. This would indicate that very few people were living at the site or the site was only occupied for brief periods during the year.

Since the 1930s, archaeologists have periodically debated and speculated the functions of the site.  Unlike Wakate, it appears to have been primarily ceremonial in function, although it did contain a substantial permanent population.  Recent research by archaeologists, who specialize in astronomical analysis, suggests the radiating earthen berms in the archaeological zone may be aligned to celestial events like solstices, equinoxes or other events like the rise and fall of Venus. However, no scientific instruments have been utilized to precisely measure the relationship between the radians and celestial bodies.

Like the other large town and ceremonial sites in South Florida,  the Big City Mounds archaeological zone suffers from lack of maintenance and disinterest from archaeological professionals.  For example, the National Park Service’s Southeastern Archaeological Center in Tallahassee, FL has produced a base map of archaeological sites in the Southeastern United States, which is published on the web.  The map completely excludes the southern third of the Florida Peninsula.  Because the South Florida sites are so different from conventional “Mississippian” mound centers elsewhere in the Southeastern United States, the profession appears to be avoiding discussion of a cultural phenomenon that it does not understand.

Winter is a great time to visit South Florida’s incredible Native American archaeological sites. Later in the fall of 2014, Access Genealogy will be publishing a sixteen part series on this little known showcase of advanced indigenous culture.

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Richard Thornton is a professional architect, city planner, author and museum exhibit designer-builder. He is today considered one of the nation’s leading experts on the Southeastern Indians. However, that was not always the case. While at Georgia Tech Richard was the first winner of the Barrett Fellowship, which enabled him to study Mesoamerican architecture and culture in Mexico under the auspices of the Institutio Nacional de Antropoligia e Historia. Dr. Roman Piňa-Chan, the famous archaeologist and director of the Museo Nacional de Antropologia, was his fellowship coordinator. For decades afterward, he lectured at universities and professional societies around the Southeast on Mesoamerican architecture, while knowing very little about his own Creek heritage. Then he was hired to carry out projects for the Muscogee-Creek Nation in Oklahoma. The rest is history. Richard is the Tribal Historic Preservation Officer for the KVWETV (Coweta) Creek Tribe and a member of the Perdido Bay Creek Tribe. In 2009 he was the architect for Oklahoma’s Trail of Tears Memorial at Council Oak Park in Tulsa. He is the president of the Apalache Foundation, which is sponsoring research into the advanced indigenous societies of the Lower Southeast.



    nice article Richard
    we wrote an article for American Surveyor magazine a few years pertaining to the mounds of Florida you might enjoy reading, during the mapping of the trail of tears across Florida we made some interesting discoveries

    • Graham,
      What does Ris stand for? One of my roommates at Georgia Tech had a last name of Ris.
      I look forward to reading your article.
      What I am learning is that there are a whole lot more archaeological sites in the coastal areas that either have been forgotten or that no one has noticed. Satellite imagery is an amazing tool for finding lost communities. NASA also produces several bands of infrared imagery also.


        Beesh uh bell, shehontamo Richard
        I looked it up on Ancestry dot com somewhat reliable info
        Ris derived from Henry ..Ri
        its Nordiic or Germanic shortened name

        i’m certainly not a language expert


        The Southeast was a thriving metropolis of mound builders , just think whats under water since the sea has risen over 340′? in our coastal areas.


    trails of the mesoamericans in lakkin itza was the name of the article


    Good afternoon Richard,
    I’d be interested in helping you remap these sites if you’d be interested. I’m working with a drone archaeology group and they have recently been investigating some other sites in Florida. I’m their mapping contingent. I’d love to get a conversation in with you about this if you’re interested. Call or email me at any time. You can check out my site too – if you’d like to see my work.
    Thanks and have a good one!
    Lucy M


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