Mounds in Arkansas

 

SAncient Architecs

“The Mississippi River remains what it always was,” wrote author John Gunther, “the Nile of the Western Hemisphere.”

People have always been drawn to the river. St. Louis . . . Memphis . . . New Orleans . . . the cities of today still draw life from the ancient Mississippi. For centuries, the river has been a giver of life.

Because of the Mississippi, the soil of the delta is deep and rich, and as a consequence so is the region’s history.

The first people to behold the Mississippi must have had some inkling of this power. The river brought a cornucopia of aquatic life and animals as well as contact with communities from afar. A language was devised for the exchange of goods and services. Tales of the legendary city of Cahokia, in what is now Illinois, no doubt were passed up and down the great body of water. Probably renowned to anyone at the time, Cahokia was a sprawling metropolis, an enormous complex of earthen mounds and villages, crowded with people and noisy with industry.

Cahokia was not a singular wonder. Today, Emerald, Parkin, Poverty Point, Toltec and other mound complexes survive as silent monuments in rural settings where, for generations, the land bore the distinctive mark of a thriving people.

From the great moundbuilding cultures through the early westward expansion, the Civil War, and to the Industrial Revolution and beyond, the Mississippi has shaped the settlement and societies of the region. Today the river continues to give life. The bottomland forests that once lined its banks were cleared to yield thousands of tons of cotton, rice, corn, and soybeans annually. Many cultures have flourished in the abundance, leaving their own distinct impressions on the landscape as well as on music and literature.

State Parks

 

A mural in the exhibit gallery of Parkin State Park depicts life at Parkin in the 1500s.
(Courtesy Arkansas Department of Parks & Tourism).

 

When the Plum Bayou people of the Toltec site, and other groups in the Mississippi Valley, combined the domesticated plants of the eastern agricultural complex of North America with corn and beans from Mexico, they laid the foundation for the Mississippian way of life, a way of life based solidly on agriculture, rather than on gathering wild plant foods.

From A.D. 900 on, more places like Toltec began to appear in the Mississippi Valley, from Memphis north to St. Louis, and Toltec itself was soon overshadowed. Between A.D. 900 and A.D. 1200, the people of this area, whom archeologists call the Mississippians, went from being part-time gardeners who still depended on the old reliable wild foods such as nuts, seeds, meat and fish, to being almost full-time farmers. This greatly expanded the population.Since the Mississippians were primarily farmers, they were far more dependent on their fields of corn, beans and squash than any people previously.

 

 

This image was taken from Henry Clyde
Shetrone’s book The Mound-Builders,
copyright 1930. The life-size figure depicted
here was executed for the Ohio State Museum
and is the first known attempt to portray the builders
of the ancient mounds as they appeared in life. 


While the Europeans were experiencing the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, Native Americans who lived along the Mississippi River and its tributaries were developing their own unique culture. These prehistoric Native Americans, who are called Mississippian Indians by archaeologists, lived in permanent towns which were built in a fairly standard pattern. Ceremonial buildings on large four sided flat-topped mounds faced a plaza. The villagers gathered in the plaza for important events, ceremonies, and to watch various games such as stickball and chunkey. There were literally hundreds of these mound sites located in Arkansas as well as the entire Lower Mississippi Valley.

Today, most of these sites are found on private land. However, some have been made into state parks or other public sites. Click here to see a map showing some of the archeological sites in the area that are open to the public.

parkin

Many questions still remain about these ancient monuments. One thing archeologists do know is that earthen mounds were built over a period of years. Perhaps they began as a slight rise with an important building on it. After a time, the building burned. Maybe the people set it on fire because it had become infested with vermin or perhaps the grass roof caught fire accidently. Whatever the cause of the fire, the people brought basketful after basketful of dirt to make a mound. When they were satisfied, they built a new building on top. Archeologists do not know what purpose these buildings fulfilled. The most widely accepted ideas are that these buildings were either religious structures, or the homes of chiefs or other important families.

In the early 1990s as part of a collaboration effort, the Center for Advanced Spatial Technologies, the National Park Service, The Arkansas Archeological Survey, the University of Arkansas Museum and the Arkansas Department Of Parks And Tourism collected and organized information about two such sites in Arkansas:
The Toltec Mounds site is one of the most notable sites in Arkansas.  The large group of ancient earthworks at Toltec has attracted national interest for over 100 years and was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1978. It is one of the largest and most complex sites in the Lower Mississippi Valley.

 

This image was taken from Henry Clyde Shetrone’s book The Mound-Builders, copyright 1930. The life-size figure depicted here was executed for the Ohio State Museum and is the first known attempt to portray the builders of the ancient mounds as they appeared in life.


While the Europeans were experiencing the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, Native Americans who lived along the Mississippi River and its tributaries were developing their own unique culture. These prehistoric Native Americans, who are called Mississippian Indians by archaeologists, lived in permanent towns which were built on a fairly standard pattern. Ceremonial buildings on large four sided flat-topped mounds faced a plaza. The villagers gathered in the plaza for important events, ceremonies, and to watch various games such as stickball and chunkey.

The earthen mounds were built over a period of years. Perhaps they began as a slight rise with an important building on it. After a time, the building burned. Maybe the people set it on fire because it had become infested with vermin or perhaps the grass roof caught fire accidently. Whatever the cause of the fire, the people brought basketful after basketful of dirt to make a mound. When they were satisfied, they built a new building on top. Archeologists do not know what purpose these buildings fulfilled. The most widely accepted ideas are that these buildings were either religious structures, or the homes of chiefs or other important families.

 

The Parkin Mound site is another important archeological site in Arkansas. Many scholars believe it is the Native American village of Casqui, visited by the expedition of Hernando de Soto in the summer of 1541. It was the site of a 17-acre Native American village from A.D. 1300 to 1550 and has also been designated a National Historic Landmark. A large ceremonial mound along the bank of the river still remains today.

 

Photos on these pages were provided by the Arkansas Archeological Survey and the Arkansas Department of Parks & Tourism. The image of the sitting Native American Indian was reproduced from Henry Clyde Shetrone’s book The Mound-Builders, copyright 1930.

 

 

The Parkin Site, located on the St. Francis River, is a 17-acre Native American village which was occupied from A.D. 1300 to 1550. This fascinating archeological site is very important for understanding the history and prehistory of northeast Arkansas. Many scholars believe it is the Native American village of Casqui, visited by the expedition of Hernando de Soto in the summer of 1541. The four written accounts of this expedition are valuable sources of information about the Native American groups living in the southeastern United States when the first Europeans arrived.

 

Years after the DeSoto expedition visited this area, a sawmill was established at the Parkin site by the Northern Ohio Cooperage and Lumber Company in the early 1900s. Some of the mill workers built houses and lived next to the factory. Sawdust from the mill was dumped into the moat around the Native American village site. The area became known as Sawdust Hill. The sawmill operated at the site until the Great Depression.

 

Mound at Parkin SiteThis photograph, provided by the University of Arkansas Museum, shows the mound at Parkin in 1934.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Parkin Site head pot

 

In 1967, the Parkin Archeological State Park was established with funding from the state legislature and help from the Archeological Conservancy. In addition, the Parkin site was designated as a National Historic Landmark by the U.S. National Park Service, one of only five such sites in Arkansas. It is also listed on the National Register of Historic Places. An Arkansas Archeological Survey Research Station has been established at Parkin, providing for long-term excavations and research at the site. This provides visitors with a unique opportunity to observe archeology in progress.

 

 

 

Head effigy vessel from Parkin, courtesy Parkin Archeological State Park.

 

There were once many archeological sites similar to Parkin throughout this region, but careless digging and modern agricultural practices have destroyed almost all of these. The Parkin site is unique because it has been protected from destruction. Although there has been some careless digging by looters in the past, Parkin is the best-preserved village site of this time period in the region.

For further information about the Parkin site, click here for a list of references.

 

Platform mound at the Parkin site. (Courtesy Arkansas Archeological Survey).


 

  • See an aerial view of the Parkin site.The temple mound at Parkin is located in the center of the western edge of the site, on the east bank of the St. Francis River. Several large trees are present on the western side of the mound. This is a typical Mississippian flat-topped pyramidal mound, which functioned as the foundation for either a temple or a chief’s residence. The 1.5 meter high apron or extension on the southern end of the temple mound also probably supported one or several structures. Other smaller mounds that have been partly leveled by farming were observed at the site. Six such mounds, measuring from a half meter to a meter in height, were mapped in 1940 by Philip Phillips, James Ford and James B. Griffin. These may have been house mounds supporting residences of important persons. Five of the small mounds are located near the large temple mound and were probably on the edge of a plaza area where ceremonies and games took place.(Parkin plan view,courtesy Arkansas Archeological Survey).No modern professional excavation was undertaken at the Parkin site until 1965. At that time, the University of Arkansas Museum held a nine-day training session for 50 members of theArkansas Archeological Society at the site.

    This photograph, provided by the University of Arkansas Museum, shows Society members taking part in the excavation at Parkin. The major objective of this excavation was to discern whether years of previous unprofessional digging had completely destroyed all aboriginal features. The artifacts uncovered during the training session included pottery sherds, Nodena points, small thumb nail scrapers, worked bone awls, needles and fishhooks.

    In the summer of 1966, a University of Arkansasarcheological field school was held at the Parkin site. A series of 1 by 2 m pits were excavated at the site, principally in the mound apron area. Several potholes on the top of the mound itself were squared off and cleaned out to observe whether there was any discernible stratigraphy.

    This photograph from the University of Arkansas Museum shows a member of the field school cleaning out potholes on top of the mound with a southwest view of the village area in the background.

    The information contained on this page was taken primarily from Arkansas Archeological Survey Research Series No. 13, by Phyllis A. Morse. Click here to see further references on the Parkin site.

Other The Parkin Mound areas:

Aerial view of Parkin with St. Francis River in the background.
Photograph courtesy University of Arkansas Museum.

 

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