Native Trails

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By the time the European explorers arrived the Native Americans could only tell them that these earthworks were built by people whose names and culture were lost in the mists of time. Archeologists today studying the ruins of these mysterious people have learned much but the more they learn, the more mysteries they uncover. Who were the mound builders? Why did they go to the trouble to build mounds that would have take hundreds of people many years to construct? What happened to cause the culture to suddenly die out?


Scientist may never find the answer to all of the questions but visiting some of these mounds is a great way to spend a weekend or even a vacation . Here are a few I have visited and enjoyed.

One of the Pinson Mounds
Pinson Mounds about 10 miles south of Jackson, in Madison County,  Tennessee on the South Fork of the Forked Deer River, is the largest Middle Woodland Period (ca. 200 B.C.-A.D. 400) mound site in the Southeast.

Today, it's a Tennessee archaeological state park and offers ranger led tours. It's a day park with lots of picnic sites and five trails. There is also a group camp consisting of a central lodge containing sleeping areas, kitchen and bathroom facilities and four cabins.

The Visitor Center is unique in that it is build to resemble a mound. You enter and are surrounded by a museum filled with artifacts and art that tell the story of the mysterious people who built Pinson Mounds. It is also home to a theater and an archeological research library.

A fossil exhibit at Pinson's Visitor Center
Their video is worth watching to help understand the mounds and what is known of the people who built them. Our ranger guide said it would have taken 100 people 20 years to build. The mounds-there were at least 17-were not dwellings. So why all the work to build something not needed for day to day survival?  These people must have had a deep belief system. The mounds were used for burials both whole body and cremations. Also the platform type mounds were probably used for ceremonies.

The ceremonial site includes a mound complex of more than 400 acres with unique earthworks dating to about 1-500 A.D. 

Saul Mound, the largest in the complex, is rectangular in formation and almost perfectly aligned with the four cardinal directions. A trail leads to a viewing platform built on top of the mound for park visitors. This mound is the second highest  in the country at 72 feet. From the top you get a great view of the park layout.

Besides the mounds, the park has other interesting features. There are lots of wild life. Our ranger told of the park and local beaver relations. "We're in constant battle with our beavers. They keep damming the river. All we can do is keep breaking them up."

Beaver are not the only wildlife. You will find deer, wild turkey and lots of bird life. The ranger told us, "We do have a bald eagle nest."

The entrance to one of the Ocmulgee Mounds
Ocmulgee National Monument

The Mississippian culture arrived near the present day city of Macon, Georgia around 900AD. The huge earthen mounds at Ocmulgee National Monument are all that is left of their civilization.

Actually these people displaced an earlier group of nomads and started a farming culture on the banks of the river. Several mounds and a reconstructed earth lodge offer a glimpse into a way of life that stretches back into prehistory.

I took a candlelight tour of the mounds once and it was as if I could sense the presence of these ancient inhabitants.

A daytime tour reveals  more detail if less psychic atmosphere. The park has seven mounds. The tallest is the Great Temple Mound at 55 feet. These mounds are of solid earth for the most part and were built to construct houses on top. Perhaps they served as watchtowers of a sort of maybe just got the inhabitants up away from the mosquitoes. One mound was used for burials.

This floor is just as it was 1000 years ago.
One of the most interesting features is a reconstructed council chamber of the Mississippian people. with the original 1000 year old floor still intact. You can visualize the chieftains sitting in the circle of seats facing the symbolic bird effigy and deciding tribal policy.

The Visitor Center is filled with around 2,000 artifacts , the oldest dating to 12,000 BC.  There is a short film here to help understand the Mississippian Culture. The park also had picnic sites and trails for hiking.


Inagine the work involved in building this with no modern tools

Rock Eagle Effigy Mound

The giant Rock Eagle Effigy Just north of Eatonton, Georgia adjacent to the Oconee National Forest is a stone mound or tumulus in the shape of a bird with outstretched wings. The wing span is 120 feet. The body stands about ten feet high. It can be viewed from a tower built for that purpose. The site is on 4-H Center land maintained by the University of Georgia.

Native Americans in the area when the settlers arrived stated they didn't know who built the mound. It was there when their ancestors arrived. Scientist believe it to be built by a Middle Woodland Period mound building culture about 2000 BC.

Not too far away is a similar mound called the Rock Hawk. The area around this mound has recently been upgraded into a huge outdoor classroom and park. It comprises about 1,000 acres with trails, camping, canoeing or kayaking, wildlife watching, playground and a swimming beach. Two towers are built for viewing the mysterious effigy. One theory is that these mounds were religious sites perhaps associated with burials.

The site has interpretive centers, hiking trails and is also great for birding.

"Stelae" at Crystal River
Crystal River State Archaeological Site with six mounds dating back to pre-historic times is worth a visit. An unusual feature of the site are two upright ceremonial stones or "stelae," one with the likeness of a human head carved on its surface

These mounds the early people left behind, temple and burial mounds, point to an increased level of ceremony and social development. Pottery, copper artifacts and tools were often buried with the dead.

The site is within Crystal River Preserve State Park making it unique in its marriage of ecology and culture.

The park is a wild 20-mile stretch of estuary and shoreline bordering the Gulf of Mexico. Its six nature trails are a naturalist's delight. The park provides an interesting heritage/eco boat tour on the "Monroe." The tour, called The Ancient River Dwellers, takes you into the lower river and the estuary and explains how the pre-Columbian inhabitants used the earth's bounty to survive.

Whether your interest lies in anthropology, ecology or just a fun boat ride you will enjoy this 90-minute trip.


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