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Exploring wonders of the Mississippians' culture

Seven centuries old, many of the 26 earth mounds built by the Mississippians encircle an open field near the Black Warrior River. Seven centuries old, many of the 26 earth mounds built by the Mississippians encircle an open field near the Black Warrior River. (Tom Haines/Globe Staff)
Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Tom Haines
Globe Staff / June 8, 2008

MOUNDVILLE - Things seemed pretty epic at the top of Mound B, for the kid.

"I feel so powerful," the 5-year-old said with a grin, "since I climbed up all the way."

Question was, just what had he climbed?

Mound B, at six stories tall, is the largest of 26 earth mounds at the Moundville Archaeological Park, a 300-acre preserve along the wooded banks of the Black Warrior River. Seven centuries ago, Mississippian Indians built the mounds as the center of a city and of native culture. What was life like when these riverbank rises were home?

For the kid, such ideas struck a sweet spot. Young minds expand quickly, and he had long ago dispatched the amusements of Bob the Builder for wonder about Wild West cowboys, and then Native Americans.

Spinning on Mound B above a vast meadow and its silent sentinels, more than a dozen other high-grassed mounds, the kid sighed. He was only now seeing that the Mississippians and their city really were long gone. How did he feel?

"Sad, because I wanted it to still be here," he said. "I wanted to go inside the houses."

Happily, spirits swing swiftly for a 5-year-old. The kid hopped down Mound B's steep steps to a flat field of the Black Warrior Valley, and followed a trail into the woods.

"I bet this is what it was like in the old days," he said, "except no trail."

A lot more has changed, of course, since the Mississippians abandoned the Moundville site, largely by 1450. In 1540, the Spaniard Hernando De Soto, first of the Europeans to arrive in the area, led an exploration party nearby. Slavery and the Civil War came later, and, later still, civil rights.

Before it all, the Mississippian residents had cleared much of the land. First formed around the year 1000, the settlement became home to an estimated 1,000 people living in a fenced compound between the river and a ravine on Carthage Creek. More than 10,000 others lived nearby in the valley. The fertile land offered a long growing season for maize. The river provided an avenue for trade of copper and other luxury items north and south.

The kid pressed on to trail's end: a high bank above the slate-smooth waters of the Black Warrior. His early adventures had been simpler forays into the wild, to ponder tall trees near the Pacific, or the autumn view from a New Hampshire notch. With each year, of course, a child encounters more.

This wander around Moundville was a chance to consider, beneath the cloak of a somber winter day, cultural change. It can seem to a young mind, after all, that things have always been as they are. Time tolls, though, even for those at the peak of their power.

No deep musings at the moment for the kid, who looked up to follow the flight of a bird of prey, perhaps a vulture, then hatched a plan to hike down the slope to the river's edge. The hillside was too steep and slippery, the water too cold. The kid was told there would be no climbing down. He bristled:

"How come the Native Americans got to go down there?"

Difference is often a delicate thing. Since Moundville's archeological remains sit in modern-day Alabama, even traveling to the park an outsider notices not-so-subtle nuances. The drive from Birmingham passed through Tuscaloosa, home to the University of Alabama and its fabled Crimson Tide. "Roll Tide" signs here, "Bama" bumper stickers there. It wasn't even football season. The kid made a note:

"I keep seeing red stuff everywhere. Red. Red. Red. Red. Red."

Color, of course, has long cut deep in Alabama. On the route to and from Moundville, the kid often found himself - at a small-town post office, for example, and while trying on shoes in a city store, and buying fresh-cracked pecans - among a modern mingling of people long separated by race, black and white. There was no avoiding how hard-won even such semblance of equality had been, though, the morning after the Moundville visit, in Selma.

The kid walked through a scruffy park beneath the Edmund Pettus Bridge, site of freedom marches that sparked the civil rights movement. He heard about Martin Luther King Jr., and the man who shot him.

Why did he shoot King, the kid asked.

A more simplified version: King was trying to help people, and other people didn't like that.

"Why?" the kid said.

Another try: King wanted everyone to share, and some people who had more than others didn't want to.

An hour later, the kid piped up from the back seat.

"Why," he said, "did that man shoot Martin Luther King?"

The settlement at Moundville, for all its mysteries, perplexed less. The kid knew the basic story line.

"There aren't as many Indians as there used to be," he said. "There used to be thousands of them. They were the first people in America."

The Moundville settlement, though, predates European arrival, and links are unclear between its residents and later tribes in the area, such as the Choctaw, Cherokee, and others who were forcibly moved west in the 1830s on the Trail of Tears.

For much of the past 150 years, archeologists have mined the mounds, and discoveries of the remains of residences, burial sites, and more enforced the area's transition from 19th-century cotton fields to preservation park.

After his woodsy walk, the kid headed into the Moundville museum, a 1930s building undergoing a multimillion-dollar renovation to be completed next year.

The kid sized up a stone disc, the most cherished artifact from decades of digs. It had an intricately etched design in which two rattlesnakes with serpent heads surround a human hand with an eye in the palm.

He stared at the disc, and coveted an authentic dugout canoe. But he quickly put his energies into coaxing, as a souvenir, a $5 plastic bow-and-arrow set from the gift shop.

He pried the casing open, and practiced taking aim around the museum as others talked nearby.

One adult, Moundville director Bill Bomar, shared a theory that groups of Mississippians from distant chieftains traveled to Moundville for arranged marriages.

"We're starting to think of Moundville much more as a cosmopolitan place, where there was this infusion of influences," Bomar said.

The kid sprawled on the floor, ready for action.

"Come on!"

He marched back into the daylight and shot a few arrows at a tree. Then he turned toward the field, or plaza, as archeologists call it, and strode among the ring of mounds. Was this where the Mississippians gathered for chores and trade, where hunters and farmers delivered tribute to their leaders, and where children played in idle hours?

Professionals dig for details. It is enough for a visitor to stand in the center of the plaza, beneath the soft spread of the mounds, and wonder.

The kid connected again to the energy of imagination, turning slowly and pointing at the first of more than a dozen mounds.

"Big. Little. Big. Little. Little. Big. Big. Little. Big," he said.

He gave up: "It's mostly big."

The kid took a few more shots with the bow, arrows arcing weakly 10 feet before falling on thick grass. He soon followed, slumping on his side.

Then he sprang up and grabbed an arrow. He'd found a sandy ant hill, thick with the methodical marching of another civilization. He dug quickly, unearthing the ants' trails.

"Hey," he said, "want to play archeologist?"

Tom Haines can be reached at thaines@globe.com.

If You Go

What to do

Moundville Archaeological Park
Highway 69 South, Moundville

205-371-2234

moundville.ua.edu

Park open daily 8 a.m.-8 p.m., museum 9-5. Adults $5, children $3.

For more on the research at Moundville and what it has uncovered about lives of the residents seven centuries ago, read "Archaeology of the Moundville Chiefdom," by Vernon James Knight Jr. and Vincas Steponaitis (Smithsonian Institution Press, 1998).

Where to stay

Four Points by Sheraton Tuscaloosa Capstone
320 Paul W. Bryant Drive

Tuscaloosa

205-752-3200

Near the football stadium and University of Alabama campus. Doubles $135.

Where to eat

Rama Jama's Cafe
1000 Paul W. Bryant Drive

Tuscaloosa

205-750-0901

The short-order fare is filling. Breakfast for two $13.

Truman's Original Bar-B-Q

39616 Highway 69 South

Moundville

205-371-2275

Red-checked tableclothes and good roadside barbecue. Pulled pork sandwiches and sides, two $14.

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