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Who Where the Mound builders?

Learn more about the culture that inspires my work.

Mound Builders As far back as 2500 BC and up to 1500 AD there existed a culture that extended throughout much of eastern North America, including the Midwest, the Southeast, the Northeast and the Eastern Great Plains. These were the Mound Builders. This time period included what is called the Woodland Tradition and later was replaced by other cultures such as the Mississippian in the Southeast and the Plains Village Tradition on the Great Plains.

Much of the lifestyle of these precontact societies will remain a secret, mostly due to the fact that there is no written history and the first direct European contact found the mound societies had been on the decline for at least a century and a half. Diseases also hit the societies hard. A smallpox epidemic may have reached the inland populations within a generation after Columbus landed in San Salvador. These depleted Mississippian people found themselves facing alien invaders and slavers.

Construction of a Mound Mounds are greatly scattered, found as far north as Aztalan (WI), as far south as Davis (TX) and east of both. Their purposes are as mysterious as their builders. They were anywhere from very small to as large as Monks Mound at Cahokia (IL). It is 100 feet high, covers 16 acres and contains almost 22 million cubic feet of earth. Most mounds were flat-topped or pyramidal in shape. Some were used to make large enclosures but others took animal shapes such as the Serpent Mounds in southern Ohio. Many were burial mounds, sometimes containing one grave with elaborate grave goods, sometimes many graves. Other mounds were believed to be temple mounds, perhaps used just once a year for ceremonial purposes or competitions. Usually found on or near the mounds were carefully cleared areas of ground called Chunkey yards. Chunkey was a popular disc game of the time.

Among the many exquisite items that have been excavated from some mound sites, the finest surviving "graphic" art is that inscribed on shell. The most frequent shell form is the shell gorget, a flat piece of shell generally circular in shape. The tops were perforated by two holes through which a leather thong was inserted so it could be worn around the neck.

Monks Mound in Fog In general the religion of this culture revolved around the belief that the world was a great flat island resting on a surface of water suspended from a sky vault by cords attached at the four cardinal directions. The sky vault was an inverted bowl of solid rock that rose and fell twice a day to let the sun and moon pass beneath it. Above this was the Upper World and below the island was the Under World. In these worlds were seven levels with the highest being nearest to the Upper World. The Upper World represented perfect order, structure, expectableness and stability. It was inhabited by the creatures of the air, the most important being the falcon and the serene grandparent the bald eagle. The Under World epitomized total disorder, change, inversion, madness and contained monsters of such combinations as great horned snakes and water panthers. They were the chiefs of the Under World and lived in the deepest parts of lakes and streams. They carried on a never ceasing battle with the powers of the Upper World. The Middle World contained men, four-footed animals and plants and were forever to survive between these two worlds that were not totally friendly or totally hostile toward them. This quest for balance and harmony is still basic in the belief system of today’s Native American Indian.

  1. Chief greeting the sun, by Michael Hampshire
    Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site, Michael Hampshire
  2. Community life at Cahokia, by Michael Hampshire
    Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site, Michael Hampshire
  3. Monks Mound in fog. by Michael Hampshire
    Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site
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