Thank God for Mississippians: Houndstooth Necropolis

If you don’t know about Moundville, then that link is a great place to start. If you know about Moundville but haven’t visited it yet then get in the car and drive to Tuscaloosa. Moundville contains some 20 to 30 mounds built by a localized form of the Mississippian culture along the Black Warrior River between 1000 and 1500 CE. The oldest mounds on the site are about a thousand years old and a series of man-made lakes dot the landscape. Moundville violently reminds us that the southeast hosted a variety of massive urban centers prior to De Soto’s expedition spreading disease across the land.

Its position along the Black Warrior River meant that the Mississippians at Moundville not only possessed access to extensive trading networks but also took advantage of the river’s astounding bounty. With 127 species of freshwater fish the Black Warrior River boasts almost twice as many indigenous fish species as the entire state of California. One of the only rivers that beats it for overall biodiversity is its neighbor, the Cahaba, which runs parallel to it. As such, fish made up a massive part of the Moundville diet and the inhabitants suffered lower rates of malnutrition than similar Mississippian cultures of the period.

Of course, simply being wealthy does not prevent the collapse of a community, and by the time of De Soto’s expedition the majority of Moundville inhabitants already relocated. They either went further north to Apafalaya or south to Zabusta. Both cities under the control of the Tuskaloosa Kingdom which was itself a likely descendant of the Moundville polity. The ruler of the kingdom, also known as Tuskaloosa, lent his name not only to the modern town but calqued his way onto the river so readily used by his ancestors and contemporaries. For Tuskaloosa translates into English as Black Warrior, so a half-hearted relic of Mississippian heritage survives to the present day.

Moundville’s dominance extended beyond its wooden palisades and a surrounding series of villages owed some form of fealty to the ancient site. Mississippian artifacts abound around modern day Tuscaloosa. As Moundville grew in power its function seemed to take on an increasingly ceremonial role and the site itself slowly transformed into a necropolis and aging palace complex.

It is this period in Moundville’s history that most accurately reflects the modern state of its former fiefdom. There’s something about the geography of the Black Warrior watershed that attracts people and entices them to perform elaborate ritual. As the Mississippians migrated from surrounding polities to practice their faith and bury their dead, so too do modern Alabamians flock to Tuscaloosa during the fall and winter months. When one stands at Moundville and imagines the city slowly emptying over the centuries, one cannot help but think of traffic streaming away from the town following a game. Modern Tuscaloosa doubles in population every few weeks during the period of ceremonial warfare known as football season. In fact, the large religious complex known as Bryant-Denny stadium occasionally serves as an impromptu or planned burial site.

There’s power in the land down there. The blue sky, rushing waters, and strong black soil have told people for almost a thousand years that central Alabama is a great place to die.

citation:

Schoeninger, Margaret J. and Mark R. Schurr. “Human Subsistence at Moundville, The Stable-Isotope Data.” In Archaeology of the Moundville Chiefdom, edited by Vernon James Knight Jr. and Vincas P. Steponaitis, 120-133. Tuscaloosa: The University of Alabama Press, 2007.

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