November 23, 2010

Poverty Point National Monument (and State Park), Louisiana

Poverty Point National Monument represents the greatest known set of earthworks from the archaic period of North American Indians. Dating from 1400-800 BC, these earthworks and mounds are massive in scale and very sophisticated in structure. No other place on the continent has this type of structure of this antiquity. In fact, mounds of this size and nature would not be built again for another 1500 years with the growth of the Mississippian and Puebloan cultures. Although, there are dozens of smaller mounds across Louisiana that are actually older.

The 70 foot Bird Effigy Mound from below
This site was first discovered after people were studying an aerial photograph taken in 1913 noticed the patterns in the topography. The six concentric rings, each almost of kilometer in length were once up to 5 feet tall. But, hundreds of years of natural erosion, followed by decades of plowing by farmers have lowered them to 1-2 feet in height. But, the huge bird mound, which once stood over 100 feet tall is still 70 feet above the surrounding lowlands. The eagle is thought to have been a spiritual symbol to these people, showing up on clay figures and being that this enormous mound was shaped like one.

Excited archeologists began to study this site and came across some of the most astounding finds ever seen on this continent. Not only where there these massive Earthworks, but a vast array of artifacts of a very sophisticated and heretofore unknown culture. They petitioned the U.S. Government to declare it a national monument to protect the site. Initially, Congress was relunctant to do so because they didn't want to take away any "private land". But, when pressure really began to ramp up, the state of Louisiana purchased the lands to make a state park. In 1984, Congress finally declared it a national monument and put the National Park Service in charge of preservation, but at this time the site is still operated by Louisiana State Parks.

This image shows trees that have encroached onto the large bird-shaped mound.  They are currently working on removing the trees to protect the mound from the wedging action of tree-roots. Many of these trees are aging and decaying and when they fall in windstorms, they have huge damage to the mound and increase the rate of erosion.

These are examples of votive figures made out of clay.  Most depict women, many in a state of pregnancy.  These are thought to represent fertility.

These are examples of rich experimentation with shape and pattern, reflecting the natural world, as well as abstract geometric patterns.  They are formed out of clay.  The function is unclear, but some guess that some of these pieces might have been involved in gaming.

Bayou Macon was an important water course for this site
Although not pictured here, another interesting find has been many clay cooking balls.  Historically, people used heated rocks to heat up liquids and to evenly cook foods in earthen ovens.  However, in this area, being covered deeply with river sediment, there are virtually no naturally occurring rocks.  So the people created and fired clay balls to serve the purpose of heating and cooking their foods.  They had clay balls of different sizes and shapes that would cook food differently, such as quickly or slowly depending on shape and size.

This map shows the location of mound sites that have been discovered in Louisiana.  We had no idea that there were so many!  This was an amazing landscape full of food on the land and in the water. It was described that the fish were so plentiful in the bayous that they could set up a net overnight and had a whole village worth of food the next morning. So, even before agriculture was developed, they could settle down in permanent sites and spend time building mounds. It is yet another proof of what a rich history the Americas had before our recent, written history.
From the ground-level, it is very difficult to notice the six concentric semi-cirles since they are only about 1 foot high.  However, from the air (as you can see from arial photographs) they are very apparant.
View from the top of the bird mound
There are other mounds on site. There was just one burial mound and a large flat mound that has been interpreted as a stick-ball court.

It is estimated that it would have taken thousands of workers over 5 million man hours to create these earthworks one basket of dirt at a time. They may have brought in tribal groups from across the region for this activity. Based on examining the dirt and the layers, it appears they must have been built in ONE season. That is because there was no vegetated matter in the dirt layers. No pollen, no sticks, no leaves. That indicates no vegetation grew on the mounds in the seasons inbetween the sites growth. That is a truly amazing thing to imagine when you are walking amonst this over 100 acre site.

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