Ocmulgee Mounds: Indigenous Earthworks in the Southeast and Mound Power
This week’s hidden history is equal parts hidden history and known secret. It’s all about land and how it has been shaped by Indigenous people in the South, through the example of Ocmulgee Mounds. Everyone who’s thought about land in the United States has at least thought about the existence of Indigenous people, even if the well runs dry there and the person has no greater knowledge of how land, bodies of water, and names for places and spaces have been taken from Indigenous people.
Ocmulgee Mounds — known officially as Ocmulgee Mounds National Historic Park — lies in the center of what is now called Macon, Georgia. The mounds are flat-topped earthen pyramids that were built by Muscogee (Mvskoke) people from 900-1200 AD. Generations after generations added upon existing mounds and created large summits. The land the mounds sit on, called the Macon Plateau, holds archaeological evidence that shows that proto-Mississippian and Mississippian people moved away from and back to the area for 17,000 years. To this day, the area is considered sacred by Muscogee people who were displaced to what is now Oklahoma during the Trail of Tears from the 1830s to the 1850s.
The entire park contains a 173-acre town, four mounds, and a trading post erected by English colonists. The mounds, known as Great Temple Mound, Lesser Temple Mound, Funeral Mound, and Cornfield Mound, were built in several stages. The mounds range from 6.5 to 55 feet tall and span as wide as 979 square feet at their base.[i] The mounds were constructed and progressively added upon by generations of Muscogee people. The mounds likely mark things such as: the lives of rulers, spiritual leaders, and ancestors; understandings of the fluidity of the earthly, spiritual, and celestial; and cosmological events and phenomena, among other things.
Great Temple Mound was likely the foundational level atop which chiefs’ residences and temples sat. Archaeologists believe Lesser Temple Mound was built in four stages and also had summit structure. Little is known about Lesser Temple Mound because it was destroyed by railroad construction like many other Indigenous earthworks. Funeral Mound, as the name hints at, was likely used as a burial site. It seems that each summit on the mound, built across generations, was capped with a mortuary. Cornfield Mound was built in one stage and had several buildings that sat atop it. The space was likely a cornfield used for ceremonial purposes first, with the mound and other structures being built on the field later. Lastly, Earth Lodge, a 1,000-year-old structure, has been reconstructed to model its original: an earth-embanked room with its original burnt clay floor. The large bird effigy on the clay floor, atop which three council members sat in a larger circle, is also the preserved original. The Earth Lodge may have also served as a calendar marker and site for seasonal ceremonies, as sunlight falls directly on the lodge’s firepit and effigy through the wooden support beams twice a year.[ii]
The Ocmulgee Mounds contain such rich cultural importance for Muscogee people and remain under-researched and problematically researched, with inconsistent findings, by Euro-American archaeologists.[iii] The exclusion of Muscogee people and Indigenous people in general, alongside the roots of anthropology and archaeology in empire and colonization, explains this.
Many Muscogee people now live in Oklahoma as a result of the U.S. federal government violently displacing them through policies of genocide and the Trail of Tears. Since removal, Muscogee people have remained energized around returning to their ancestral homeland. Ocmulgee Mounds, along with many other Indigenous earthworks, have been important for (re)connecting with ancestries, histories, and futures because of the memory of events, people, and culture that they hold. This continued return to and interaction with ancestral homelands of Muscogee people is within a larger tradition of protecting and claiming sacred sites and land in the LandBack Movement.
Remaining earthen mounds, or flat-topped pyramids, sit atop many landscapes across the Southeast. These mounds were part of cities built by Indigenous people of proto-Mississippian and Mississippian cultures. Moundville in Alabama, Poverty Point in Louisiana, Bynum and Pharr Mounds in Mississippi, and Caddo Mounds in Texas are just a few examples of such sites. Archaeologists and Euro-American laypeople have perverted and desecrated these mounds in many ways: building homes and resorts on the sides of mounds[iv]; crediting the construction of mounds to distant “mound builders” and a “lost race,” people said to be distinct from and more intelligent than Indigenous people today[v]; dating mounds to “prehistoric” times and labeling them as “ruins,” relegating Indigenous people and their creations to a past long gone; mining mounds for dirt fill that would be used in railroad and highway construction[vi].
Amidst continued desecration, mounds challenge the labels of ‘ruins’ and ‘extinction’ simply by continuing to exist. Mounds are sites where ancestries and information about civilizations exists. They are sites of memory for Indigenous people. The finality of colonization is questioned through what L. June Bloch calls “mound power,” in her article titled “Animate Earth, Settler Ruins” (which I cite and recommend reading). Mound power is, in my simplified summation, the power of mounds to move outside of settler-colonialism’s omnipresence to ultimately invite Indigenous descendants to care for mounds and wounded landscapes and ancestors that’re tied to those landscapes.[vii] Similarly, Jamie Arjona details the “uncanny affects,” or unsettling feelings, that mounds produce(d) in Euro-American tourists who frequented mounds and other sacred sites. These mounds queer, or trouble and make malleable, the past-present colonial binary, causing tourists to feel unsettled and haunted by how present the mounds and, thus, Indigenous lives, are within the bounds of America. Similarly, Jamie Arjona details the “uncanny affects,” or unsettling feelings, that mounds produce(d) in Euro-American tourists, including writer Charles Dickens, who visits mounds and other sacred Indigenous sites in the 19th century. These mounds queer, or trouble and make malleable, the past-present colonial binary, causing tourists to feel unsettled and haunted by how present the mounds and, thus, Indigenous lives, are within the bounds of the U.S.
Janay Draughn is the MDC Dan Broun Summer Intern. She is from Greenville, North Carolina and is a rising junior at the University of Pennsylvania, studying English with a concentration in Africana Literature and Culture. She enjoys learning about the South and loves reading imaginative, Black Feminist, and experimental literature. She fiercely believes that orange juice is much better than apple juice. If you find any errors in this article, please reach out to [email protected]
Here are some prompts and questions that you can reflect on independently or in community with others:
- Did you already know about the Ocmulgee Mounds or other Indigenous earthworks in North America before reading this?
- If so, which one(s) and what did you already know? Did you learn anything new about Indigenous earthworks from today’s Hidden History?
- If not, what curiosities, desires, and thoughts does your knowledge of the Ocmulgee Mounds stir up?
- Find the closest Indigenous earthwork — still standing or destroyed — to your current location or hometown. Learn a little bit about it and the Indigenous people whose ancestors built it.
- Can you find the name by which Indigenous descendants call the site?
- What relationship do the respective Indigenous tribe(s) maintain with the site today?
- Is there a local history of destruction and/or desecration around the site?
- Has the Indigenous tribe(s)/nation(s)/people reclaimed the land and site? Are there any local struggles or movements toward land return?
Arjona, Jamie M. “Sublime Perversions: Capturing the Uncanny Affects of Queer Temporalities in Mississippian Ruins.” Journal of Social Archaeology, vol. 16, no. 2, 2016, pp. 189-215.
Bloch, Leigh. “Animate Earth, Settler Ruins”: Mound Landscapes and Decolonial Futures in the Native South.” Cultural Anthropology, vol. 35, no. 4, 2020, pp. 516-545.
Bowne, Eric E. “The Emergent and Early Mississippian Period, AD 800–1200.” In Mound Sites of the Ancient South a Guide to the Mississippian Chiefdoms. Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press, 2013, pp. 63-108.
Bigman, Daniel P., and Peter M. Lanzarone. “Investigating Construction History, Labour Investment and Social Change at Ocmulgee National Monument’s Mound A, Georgia, USA, using Ground-Penetrating Radar.” Archaeological Prospection, vol. 21, no. 3, 2014, pp. 213-224.
Blitz, John H., and Patrick Livingood. “Sociopolitical Implications of Mississippian Mound Volume.” American Antiquity, vol. 69, no. 2, 2004, pp. 291-301.
Mucher, Christen. “Earthworks, Indigenous Subjects, and the Creation of American Anthropology.” Reviews in American History, vol. 45, no. 2, 2017, pp. 198-207.
[i] Bowne provides information about the size of the mounds from pages 98-102.
[ii] See Bowne for a description of the mounds and their functions
[iii] See Bigman and Lanzarone’s article for a discussion of the gaps and contradictions in research about Ocmulgee Mounds
[iv] See Arjona’s article from pp. 109-202 to learn more about Daniel Baldwin and his family building their house into the side of Emerald Mound in Illinois. The family estate, named Mound Farm, became a resort extending across nearby farmlands. Curious, Romantic, Euro-American tourists frequented the resort in the mid-1800s.
[v] See pp. 190 in Arjona’s article
[vi] See pp. 520 of Bloch’s article to learn about the “powering of settler economies through Indigenous sacred places and ancestors”