SCRAP Reading Group, Week 35: The complexity of mound building.

Thank you to Matt, who selected our excellent article for discussion this week, focused on geoarchaeological perspectives on mound building. It is an excellent resource for our SCRAP team, which deals with complex earthen-core architecture at Alabama. See below for article reference, summary, and discussion questions.

Initiating excavations at Str. 10 of Alabama, with complex earthen stratigraphy both within the mound (access ramp and main platform) and outside in the North Plaza (e.g., red clay has been brought in from elsewhere).

Sherwood, Sarah C., and Tristram R. Kidder. “The DaVincis of dirt: Geoarchaeological perspectives on Native American mound building in the Mississippi River basin.” Journal of Anthropological Archaeology 30.1 (2011): 69-87.

Sherwood and Kidder challenge the assumption that earthen mounds are “simple” instead of arguing that mound construction was complex, requiring engineering know-how, substantial planning, considerable knowledge of soil properties, and the ability to mobilize labour. They advocate for studying the process of mound construction, arguing this approach can reveal as much, if not more, cultural information than functional perspectives that only consider mounds as an end-product. Put another way, the mounds themselves can be viewed as culturally significant artifacts that can tell us much about their builders’ society, economy, politics, and culture.

Using examples of monumental earthen-core mounds in the Mississippi River basin–Cahokia, Poverty Point, and Shiloh Mounds–the authors demonstrate the utility of employing multiple scales of evidence generated through geoarchaeological investigations to decipher the process of mound construction. These include regional soils and geomorphology, field observation of lithostratigraphic units, and micro-scale identification of mineralogy and soil development. They argue this data can be used to understand the organization of labour and the pace of construction, and evaluate past decisions related to the selection of materials and use of specific construction techniques. 

Possible Discussion Questions:

  1. What do you think of the concept of mounds as artifacts? Do you agree with the authors that by studying the process of mound construction, we can learn as much about society, economy, politics, and culture as we do from other forms of evidence (e.g., artifacts, settlement patterns, land use)?  
  2. The authors provide compelling evidence to challenge the assumption that “mounds are composed of the cumulative deposition of earthen material (typically local unconsolidated soil), accomplished by piling up consecutive ‘‘basket loads.’’ Should we discard this assumption in our analyses, or does it still have validity in certain contexts? Either way, do we need to change our language when we talk about core/fill contexts? Do we have sufficient evidence to distinguish between “loaded,” “homogenous,” or “zoned” fills? 
  3. The authors suggest the only significant difference between constructing smaller mounds and monumental mounds was the degree of labour investment. Is this a fair assumption? 
  4. The examples presented in this article have clearly distinguishable stratigraphy and deposits related to building materials and techniques. For example, sod and soil blocks, zoned fill, and veneers, are pretty obvious. Should we be looking for similar features in our architecture (recognizing the soils and sediments used for construction at Alabama are far more homogenous)? 
  5. How can we introduce some of the methodologies presented in this article to our research? Can we do this ourselves as “generalists,” or do we require in-field “specialists” to support data collection and analysis?
  6. Are there lessons in the article that those of us who work in regions of the Maya lowlands that predominantly feature boulder/rubble core/fill can apply to our research? 
  7. I’m intrigued by the idea that veneers were applied to the outside of mounds, especially since lime plaster gets all the attention. What do we think of the idea that clay-based veneers were applied to earthen-core mounds in Stann Creek (or other limestone-poor regions)? Any evidence? If so, aside from obvious functional concerns (repelling water, for example), can we hypothesize about cultural implications of this outward-facing choice in building technique (i.e., indexical vs. canonical communication)?