Was Moundville, Alabama a university town or a permanent world’s fair?
It was the second largest Middle Mississippian town in North America and continued to exist about a century after Cahokia was abandoned. However, the reason or reasons for Moundville’s existence and even its real name remain enigmas. There is no doubt that it was a regional political and religious center, but its site plan and architecture suggest that something else was also going on there.
Recent discoveries by archaeologists from the University of Alabama shed light on this town’s activities, but also make its interpretation even more complex. Was Moundville also a place where people came from long distances to get an education or perhaps a permanent “worlds fair” where families would travel to be enlightened and entertained? It’s possible.
On the right is the Pyramid of the Sun at Chichen Itza. On the left is the Sun Temple mound at Moundville. This mound seems to represent a cultural influence from the Post Classic Itza Mayas.
Covering at least 300 acres and contained 29 platform mounds, Moundville is not an archaeological zone that can be adequately described in a short article . . . so we won’t try to. It will suffice to tell the reader this:
The Moundville site was first settled around 1000 AD, so it is at least 200 years younger than the Proto-Mississippian settlements at Ocmulgee, the Nacoochee Valley and Hiwassee Island and about the same age as Etula (Etowah Mounds). It was a modest village until around 1150 AD, the same time period when the acropolis at Ocmulgee was abandoned. After then, both the village’s and region’s population began growing rapidly, but there was little mound building activity until after 1200 AD.
Between 1200 AD and 1350 AD numerous platform mounds, both large and small, were constructed at Moundville. At this point, it really could be described as a city. The population within the timber palisades grew to about 1,000, while archaeologists currently believe that the surrounding countryside contained around 10,000 people. Between 1350 AD and 1450 AD the population declined, but the town apparently was still being used periodically by large groups of people. After about 1450 AD there was only a residual population and the temples were abandoned.
The city plan says something else was going on here
There is something very odd about the site plan of Moundville. It does not appear to be aligned to the solar azimuth. All the other great towns that are ancestral to the Muskogean Peoples are aligned to either the Winter Solstice Sunset, the Summer Solstice Sunrise or noon on the Summer Solstice. As can be seen below on the satellite image, the only thing that Moundville aligns to is the northern tip of Apalachee Bay . . . perhaps a little west at the mouth of the Apalachicola-Chattahoochee River System. It also does not seem to be geospatially related to any of the other major towns of its era. Is there something we are missing? Maybe or maybe not.
The first time that I walked onto the main plaza at Moundville, I was astonished. Urban designers and city planners see things that often are not apparent to archaeologists. Commercial artists had portrayed the town as piles of dirt erected by semi-naked stone age people. The artists showed the mounds covered in non-indigenous grasses, who seeds did not arrive from Eurasia until the 1800s.
When in its glory, Moundville was obviously much, much more than that. The scale of the massive horseshoe-shaped plaza is like that of St. Peters Square or the Zocalo in Mexico City. It could have easily held 50,000 people . . . but for what? A massive regional market? Seasonal religious festivals that drew people from throughout Eastern North America? Something akin to the Olympic games? Perhaps a place for the entire population to camp out when a terribly feared enemy approached?
That leads us to the military aspects of Moundville. They are also an enigma. The initial location of the village was on the top of a cliff overlooking a horseshoe bend in the Black Warrior River. Its situation was identical to that of New Orleans. That would have been a ideal location for an intrusive people to build a compact fort that could dominate river trade.
In its final form, however, Moundville had a timber palisade that undulated across the landscape for over three miles, counting the cliff above the river. Apparently, the deep ravines that penetrate the site now, were already somewhat present. Today there is little or no evidence that Moundville’s palisade had the broad ditch, closely spaced guard towers and stout earthen reinforcements of its contemporary, Etula (Etowah Mounds.) It is possible that the palisade was erected quickly when word reached the town of an approaching enemy.
If the population within the walls was only about 1,000 people in family households, that would mean that only about 200 men would be of military age. Two hundred soldiers couldn’t defend three miles of timber palisade. A Native American general would need at least 3,000 or more soldiers to defend a concentrated attack. The entire population of the province, 10,000 persons, probably would not produced that many young men. So was the timber palisade mainly to keep out thieves and predatory animals?
The arrangement of the pyramidal mounds and shrines around the massive plaza is reminiscent of some major universities like the University of Virginia. The architect of UVA, Thomas Jefferson, arranged the classroom buildings and dormitories around the university commons. Later, some of the nation’s oldest fraternities built houses next to the green. That leads us to another possibility.
In recent years, archaeologists have found several large caches of engraved slates such as the one above. They represent multiple copies of various designs. Anthropologists have speculated that these slate palates may have been the equivalent of diplomas. Accompanying that theory is the belief that Moundville was cosmopolitan community, which gathered experts from Southeastern North America on a variety of aspects of “civilization”. If so, each of the pyramidal mounds may have actually been the headquarters of ateliers, guilds or sects that specialized in a particular professional specialty.
The concentration of large mounds in the northern end of the town may have constituted the district in which the administrators of the province and university lived. The neighborhood clusters may have been the equivalent of dormitories, where commoner families took in students as boarders.
Moundville was obviously a complex town. Muskogean National University, if it did indeed exist, was probably only one of the community’s functions. The vast open space in the center of the city plan may have represented the locations where visitors, tourists and sports fans camped out during special events. These are all speculations that have not fully been answered by scientific studies.
The truth is out there somewhere!
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