Why did Native Americans build so many mounds in this locale?
Pinson Mounds National Historic Landmark is located in Madison County, TN – in the southwestern section of the state. Between 0 AD – 500 AD, it functioned as an enormous 400 acre+ ceremonial complex. Unlike its contemporaries in Georgia, the Six Flags Village, Leake Mounds and Kolomoki Mounds, it did not have many permanent residents. Few remains of houses have been discovered. (See articles on Sweet Potato Village, Etalwa-hassee and Kolomoki.) The primary cultural level of Pinson Mounds has been determined by archaeologists to be the Middle Woodland Period.
The archaeological zone consists of several clusters of mounds and earthworks built on a terrace along the South Fork of the Forked Deer River and riverine wetlands. The level flood plain of the river was highly suitable for agriculture, but as yet, no evidence of large scale agriculture has been identified. There are 30 known mounds, of which 17 have been proven by archaeologists to be pre-European. One mound was evidently started during the Early Woodland Period (900 BC – 0 AD.) There is also evidence of some habitations from that period. Concentrations of the debris from Woodland Period type artifact fabrication suggests that some areas of the Pinson Archaeological Zone were once used for workshops to make ceremonial or trade objects. Large, circular plazas suggest that ceremonies, which drew large numbers of pilgrims from the region, occurred at Pinson. Some artifacts that were definitely made in other parts of the Eastern United States have also been discovered at Pinson.
The mounds and earthworks were used for a variety of ceremonial purposes. Some mounds contain few or no human burials and had flat areas on top for ceremonies. Other mounds are conical or hemispherical, and contain several burials. Obviously, these were primarily burial mounds. Raised earth berms also define ceremonial plazas or enclose mounds. An area near Mound 11 was used during the Late Woodland-Early Mississippian Cultural Periods (750 AD-1100 AD) as the site of a village.
The most spectacular structure at Pinson is Saul’s Mound. It is now 67 feet high, making it the tallest known Woodland Period structure. It was originally a truncated, rectangular pyramid, but now has more of a conical shape. Visitors can climb up the steep steps of Saul’s Mound and stand on an observation platform, which has a magnificent view of the entire archaeological zone. The base of the mound is approximately 367 feet by 300 feet. The sides of the mound are aligned to the cardinal directions. Several smaller platform mounds are clustered around Saul’s Mound.
The eastern section of the Pinson Archaeological Zone contains several mounds, plus a semi-circular earth berm that is 1,201 feet in diameter. Today, this earth berm is about five feet in height, but 1500 years ago, it was probably much taller. Mound 29 is aligned with Saul’s Mound to the azimuth of the Equinox sunrise. Mound 12 is approximately aligned with Saul’s Mound to the azimuth of the Summer Solstice sunrise.
The western section of the Pinson Archaeological Zone contains a few mounds, plus an area that was probably used by temporary housing during the Middle Woodland Period. One of the Twin Mounds contained the burials of eight young women, who were wearing headdresses with copper adornments. These burials may be evidence of human sacrifice. It is known for a fact that the peoples of the Middle Mississippi Basin practiced human sacrifice. One of its most grisly forms was a sacrifice to Venus, the Morning Star. A young woman, of exceptional beauty, would be treated “as a princess” for a period of time. Then, on a day designated by astronomer-priests, she would be tied to a wood sapling framework. Archers would repeatedly shoot her with arrows at locations on her body that would not cause immediately fatal wounds. The longer she lived, and the more blood she poured; the more successful was considered the sacrifice. The Pawnee Indians also practiced this form of human sacrifice into the early 1800s.
It is not known what ethnic group or groups built these mounds. Too few artifacts and human remains have been discovered to give a definitive answer. The Chickasaws occupied the region during the 1700s, but they were not inclined to build large mounds at the time of European Contact. In contrast, there is cultural continuity between the contemporaneous Swift Creek Culture of the lower Southeastern United States, and the modern day Creek Indians. (See the article on the Swift Creek Culture.)
Pinson Mounds is maintained by the State of Tennessee as an archaeological park. It is, indeed, a park. Unlike many archaeological sites in the Eastern United State, suburbia has not crept up to its boundaries. The parks environs are pristine. A large museum has been constructed at the park in the form of a truncated platform mound. It blends in well to the landscape and does an excellent job of explaining what is known about the archaeology of the site at this time.
Archaeologists continue to work at Pinson, because it is a huge site and many questions have not been answered. It still not understood why Native Americans repeatedly journeyed to this particular spot and built so many earthworks. There is nothing particularly unique about its location or terrain.
If visiting Pinson Mounds State Archaeological Park, plan to spend at least half a day. The man-made structures are spread out over considerable distances. It will take at least two hours to see all the exhibits in the museum and the documentary movie. Pinson, though, is a wonderful place to have a picnic, if the weather is not too hot. It is well worth the trip, if vacationing in the vicinity of Jackson or Memphis, TN. Besides, that part of Tennessee probably makes the best barbecue in the world!