Mounds and Mounds: Emerald Mound Site and Poverty Point National Monument

It’s been seven months since I last posted, by far the longest time I’ve gone without writing since I started blogging in 2013. For now at least I don’t want to write about the reasons for my absence and so I guess I’ll just pick up where I left off despite it feeling awkward to be writing about events that occurred in February 2022. Fifteen months is somewhat of a long time and a lot feels different but in regards to this blog the most noticeable thing is Allie’s size (!): she was barely 7 months old at the time and not even 50 pounds. And still full of (way too much) puppy energy, though of course my photos don’t capture her boundless enthusiasm.

In any case, after leaving the Atchafalaya Basin in southern Louisiana we visited two archaeological sites, Emerald Mound in Mississippi and Poverty Point National Monument in Louisiana. Though both feature large earthen mounds, the sites preserve two different cultures and were constructed over a thousand years apart.

We visited Emerald Mound, the later site, first. Covering 8 acres and rising 65 feet above the surrounding floodplain, this platform mound is the second largest earthwork of the Mississippian Era (after Cahokia Mound site in Illinois). Believed to be primarily a ceremonial center used by the surrounding villagers, the mound did house a small number of inhabitants however, likely the family of the ruling chiefdom. Sadly much of the evidence and original earthworks were destroyed by looting, plowing, and unscientific 19th century archaeological excavations, preventing us from knowing much about the site but it known to have been the center of a small chiefdom in the Plaquemine culture, a late regional variant of the broader Mississippian culture. Constructed between approximately 1200 and 1600AD, the mound originally hosted 8 smaller mounds and a plaza space on it’s summit. Though most of it’s summit structures are gone, the massive platform remains relatively intact (as does one 30-foot summit mound) thanks to stabilization efforts in the mid-20th century by the park service.

In comparison to Emerald Mound, Poverty Point is much larger in area, comprising 345 acres and containing six concentric earthen ridges as well as a half dozen mounds. Constructed between 1700 and 1100 BC (a minimum of 1,300 years before Emerald Mound), the site was the center of a large trading network and an eponymous Archaic-era culture. Unlike the later Mississippian Culture which emerged due to intensification of agriculture, the inhabitants of the Poverty Point were hunter-gatherers– and especially fisherpeople. Located along the Bayou Macon, the site afforded direct access to bountiful waterways that provided residents a plethora of aquatic sustenance and the means to transport trade items to the Ouachita and Ozark Mountains of present day Arkansas, as far north as the Ohio River Valley, and southeast to the Appalachian Mountains in Georgia.

Evidence of occupation on the Macon Ridge dates back more than 11,000 years – the natural abundance of the landscape first supported populations of migratory Clovis people before hosting more sedentary peoples of the early and middle Archaic – but it was the development of fishing technology in the form of iron-ore plummets that is thought to have given rise to the Poverty Point Culture. These weights to sink nets provided a significant expansion of fishing into the fast-flowing sections of Bayou Macon, creating a surplus of food that both attracted more residents and could be traded for desired goods. This growing population, well-fed and with access to tools and goods acquired through exchange, first built the six concentric C-shaped ridges – the largest over 3/4 mile in diameter – on which many of them lived. They then began intensive mound construction and the creation of a 37-acre plaza, transforming the 2 ½ miles stretch along the bayou into the largest settlement of the time.

Most of the main site is protected today, administered jointly by the state of Louisiana and the national park service, and includes a museum, stairway access to the summit of 70-foot tall Mound A, as well as a 2.6 mile path that winds through the plaza, mounds, and the the earthen ridges. Our visit happened to be on a rainy day with a high temperature of 34 degrees, but the chilly, wet walking conditions did little to damper my enthusiasm – the site is truly an awesome place to visit if you have any interest in prehistoric Native American cultures.