Monday, August 22, 2011

Mound Bottom

by Dee Newman

Just up river from the Narrows in a horseshoe bend of the Harpeth River is an ancient aboriginal complex called Mound Bottom, consisting of several burial mounds, a central plaza, habitation area and a large platform mound (25 feet in height and some 47 square feet at its base).

Farther up river, another mound complex known as the Pack site, or Great Mound Division, is believed to have been a sister or contemporary site to Mound Bottom.

Together, the Mound Bottom site and the Pack site, contain 29 prehistoric mounds, including several flat-topped platform mounds that once supported large ceremonial buildings and/or elite residences.

At Mound Bottom, the remains of an earthen ramp leading from the plaza to the top of the large flat-topped mound can still be seen. The entire complex, archaeologist believe, once included hundreds of houses, surrounded by an earthen wall topped with a palisade constructed of upright logs.

When the first European settlers arrived in the area they reported seeing what they describe as “large fortifications” along the Harpeth River. Later, in 1823 John Haywood, an early Tennessee historian, asserted Mound Bottom to be an import aboriginal site.

After the Civil War in the late 1860s, Joseph Jones of the Smithsonian Institution, while investigating several prehistoric sites in Tennessee, took note of the "extraordinary aboriginal works" at Mound Bottom.

But, it was not until 1923 that the first modern investigation of the Mound Bottom site was actually conducted. William E. Myer, also working for the Smithsonian, uncovered evidence of 10 ancient houses at Mound Bottom, as well as, evidence of a structure and hearth atop one of the mounds at the Pack site a mile and half up river.

It was Myer who excavated the mound that sits on my land atop the ridge that overlooks the Narrows of the Harpeth. He determined that the mound was most likely an observation mound, housing a small shelter, that at the time provided a panoramic view of the Harpeth River valley that could easily be seen by the inhabitants of Mound Bottom a mile up stream.

In 1926, P.E. Cox, a Tennessee state archaeologist, followed up on Myer's discoveries, uncovering a number of burial sites and baked clay floors. In the late 1930s and early 1940s, excavations conducted by the University of Tennessee disclosed several house sites, graves, and sections of the ancient palisade that once help to provided protection for this prehistoric city.

Finally in 1972, the State of Tennessee purchased the Mound Bottom site in order to preserve it as a state archaeological area. Two years later, Carl Kuttruff and Michael O'Brien were assigned by the Tennessee Division of Archaeology to conduct major excavations at the site. Their radiocarbon dating of Mound Bottom showed that the site was occupied as early as 800 AD.

North, on a ridge (across and 300 feet above the river) overlooking Mound Bottom is “Mace Bluff”. There, atop a limestone cliff, is an ancient rock carving or petroglyph. The Mace Bluff Petroglyph depicts a mace (the ornamental head of a scepter or staff) used by a chief or priest in special ceremonies and rituals. Though we will never know its cryptic meaning, archaeologist believe the person who carved it belonged to the inhabitants of Mound Bottom.


mythopolis said...

Wow, and you live in the middle of this very ancient history. I am familiar with the mound sites, but there is so much I do not know. I didn't know abut the Mace Bluff petragyph, for instance. And who were these people. Were they part of that Mississippian era? And where did they come from? And by the way, I heard there was some legend about someone leaping off the top of the Narrows to escape indians...or maybe, it was an indian trying to escape ...know anything about this? Its incredible to think what that whole area must have been like in 800 AD. I still have an arrow head I fished out of the river there long ago. Ah, I wish it was fall, and I was out hiking that area again, or at least wading in the waters!

Stickup Artist said...

How fascinating! And to think you live amongst all this, left relatively undisturbed in this lush, rich setting. Evidence of a life well lived I should say! A wonderful post that stirs my imagination and thirst for adventure...