Mississippian Mounds – Impressive Engineering

As we discussed in class, the Mississippian culture dedicated a large majority of their time and energy to building mounds all across North America, ranging in size and shape from small, conical burial mounds, to massive flat top mounds such as Monks Mound at Cahokia rising 10 stories above the ground. Each mound tells its own story of what it was meant for, whether they were to honor the dead, filled with their possessions, or central meeting places within communities. We did not discuss much in class, however, how these mounds were actually constructed.

Unlike some other ancient cultures that created inventions such as pulleys, carts, or harnessed the power of animal labor to build their great architectural creations, the Mississippians used much more basic forms of construction and labor. It was all done with man power. Using baskets carried on workers’ backs, materials such as topsoil or clay were carried – sometimes across very far distances – to the mound building sites. In today’s society, that amount of manual labor is not usually taken on by many humans without some form of help or accommodation to make the task easier. These people, possibly hundreds of workers over the extent of the mound building process, willingly took on a massive, labor intensive task to benefit their community, relatives, or spiritual beliefs.

The organization of the mound building process must have been very sophisticated for these people, who for centuries were viewed as “primitive” and incapable of such a feat. The great earthworks such as the Serpent Mound in Ohio show that not only were these people capable of doing the work, they also had intensive planning skills and artistic insight to create something that cannot be seen as a whole from the ground level. The Mississippians’ motivation behind their mound building work was clearly a goal to benefit their population and community as a whole, representing religious ideas and symbols to honor their deities and bring the people together at community centers like Cahokia. The social complexity and hierarchy among the Mississippian people shows that the culture willingly followed leadership of individuals and worked together to form a society that benefitted all. Investing the time and man-power to these great works was part of Mississippian daily life, and was wholly embraced by the members of this culture. The construction of mounds is widespread proof that these were knowledgable, advanced, and organized people that worked together to construct countless monuments to their culture.

2 thoughts on “Mississippian Mounds – Impressive Engineering

  1. I had never really explored the thought of how the mounds were built, so I am glad you explained how the construction of these mounds occurred. It is amazing that it was pure labor that caused these mounds to be built. I wonder what the reason was that they did not use tools or inventions as you mentioned to make the labor easier and more efficient. Perhaps it was for their spiritual beliefs or some cultural aspect. The length of time to conceptualize and build these mounds, especially the larger and more ornate ones such as the community center in Cahokia, probably needed a whole community or force of skilled and unskilled laborers over a long period of time.

    An aspect of the mound building process not covered was the soil used to construct the mounds. These different types of soils may have had spiritual reasoning, but more than that, I’m sure there were construction aspects to them as well. For instance, clay was used in blocks for a sturdy foundation and center to certain mounds. There were also layered mounds where different soils were layered alternately. This was to prevent erosion, and also for a pleasing look to the mound.

    To be honest if I had never taken this class and had seen a mound built by the Mississippians, I would have assumed it was either a natural land feature or something excavated and landscaped by modern tools. This makes the mounds built by the Mississippians even more impressive.

  2. I thought your discussion of the Mississippians and mound building was very interesting and I shared some similar thoughts while we were learning about these people. Your discussion of the Serpent Mound, for example, was an idea I thought about as well. When viewed from above, the mound forms an incredible image; an image that is balanced, geometrically correct and eye appealing. Like you talked about this is a very incredible feat of engineering. These people would not have been able to view the mound from above like we can today or have access to satellite images to plan the architecture for such a project. In today’s world, if something like this were to be constructed, in depth planning and design would have to be used with the latest technology in order to create a structure such as this. For people in this time period to construct mounds such as the Serpent Mound, they must have had a unique sense of relative space and area that many people today don’t have.

    A thought I did not have at first that you discussed was the physical construction of mounds by these people. Much thought has been put into how the Egyptians may have built the pyramids but you don’t hear much about the mounds even though, in their own right, they are large feats of construction. I agree with your thoughts regarding the Mississippian people and their willingness to do this manual labor for the benefit of their society and beliefs. I have never seen a mound in person but after learning about these people and the talents they had to construct these structures, I would like to see them someday in person.

Comments are closed.