Thursday, June 6, 2013

Etowah Indian Mounds: The Ancient Village of Etowah

Etowah Indian Mounds B, C, A

The village of Etowah was occupied over about 600 years from c. 950-1550 AD by ancestors of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation, reaching its peak around 1325.

Etowah River
Etowah was protected by the Etowah River on its southern border, which also supplied them with water, fish, and a highway farther into the mountains upstream. Downstream, the Etowah joined with the Oostanaula River to form the Coosa and gave them a trade route across Alabama and eventually to the Gulf of Mexico.

To build their mounds, the mound builders dug, using handmade stone tools, a number of borrow pits which were then connected by a large defensive ditch nine to ten feet deep enclosing the remaining three sides of an area of over 50 acres. Dirt was then carried in baskets to build the three large and three small mounds.

Overlooking a borrow pit
The steep side (left) of the borrow pit
Borrow pit overlook

Over the last 1000 years, the pit has grown up with vegetation, making excellent habitat
for deer, turkeys, small mammals, and birds.

A defensive ditch connected the borrow pits to surround the village.

Archaeological evidence shows that a palisade of twelve-foot-high logs was built inside the ditch with a series of rectangular bastions for additional defense. (See the photo of the diorama from Part 1) The palisade could only be entered at easily defended openings.
(The ditch really wasn't surrounded by a chain link fence and guardrail in 1325 AD.)

(Ancient Indian trails to Etowah weren't paved with asphalt in 1325 either.)
Although the site had been inhabited for three centuries, archaeologists believe the palisade was not completed until after 1325. Charred posts indicate that the palisade burned some time after 1350, but it is not known if that was due to warfare, accidental fire, or abandonment.

The outdoor classroom for ranger talks (right) sits
in the shade beside the ditch.

The ditch could have been crossed by either wooden or earthen bridges.

Inside the village defenses and out, the working class supported the elite of the society. Agriculture, hunting, and fishing fed the population. Hides were prepared, clothing, baskets, tools, pottery, and copper ornaments crafted. Trade with other villages supplied items they did not make themselves. Non-working hours were spent playing stick ball and chunky, training their children, celebrating seasons, and worshiping their gods.

Defensive ditch

Looking from the plaza toward the defensive ditch at the first tree line.
The visitor center is beyond the ditch. Inside is a museum with
historical and archaeological displays.

Occasional disasters such as storms, flood, drought, disease, famine, or war might call for a temporary abandonment of the site, but the ceremonial and political importance of the capital city always drew the inhabitants back. The site was finally permanently abandoned in the mid-16th century, not long after the Hernando De Soto visited the site around 1540, when the residents moved farther down river toward the Coosa River and Alabama. It is possible that European contact played a part in the relocation. It is well documented that European diseases such as small pox and measles decimated many Native populations.

The Cherokee later expanded into the vacated area from their base in Tennessee and North Carolina, but by the time white settlers began encroaching, the mound builders were only remembered in Cherokee oral tradition as an ancient people long gone.

Etowah River

Etowah Indian Mounds State Historic Site website

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