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Pinson Mounds State Archaeological Park

The largest Middle Woodland Period (ca. 200 B.C.-A.D. 400) archaeological site in the Southeast, Pinson Mounds is located about ten miles south of Jackson on the South Fork of the Forked Deer River. Within an area of approximately four hundred acres, the site includes at least twelve mounds, a geometric earthen enclosure, and associated ritual activity areas. While the site's large size and immense volume of earth fill are very impressive, the presence of five large rectangular platform mounds (ranging in height from 7 to 72 feet) of Middle Woodland age underscores the unique nature of the Pinson Mounds site.

Archaeological excavations conducted on Ozier Mound (Mound 5) in 1981 provided the first unequivocal evidence in eastern North America for the construction of rectangular platform mounds during the Middle Woodland period. Prior to this, mounds of this type were thought to be confined to the later Mississippian Period (post-A.D. 1000).

Approximately 33 feet tall with a ramp on one side, Ozier Mound was constructed in at least six stages. Each successive summit was covered with a thin layer of pale yellow sand. Copper, mica, and microblades of nonlocal chert were found in association with the uppermost mound summit. These materials have been recovered from ritual activity areas elsewhere within the site, thus providing clues about the use of Ozier Mound for rituals.

Few earthworks at Pinson Mounds were constructed specifically for burial of the dead. In fact, only three burial mounds have been identified at the site. The largest of these, the Twin Mounds (Mound 6), consists of a pair of large, intersecting conical mounds, each about 23 feet tall and 80 feet in diameter. Partial excavation of the northern Twin Mound provided a rare view of a large, undisturbed Middle Woodland burial mound.

At the base of the earthwork, four log- and/or fabric-covered tombs containing the remains of sixteen adults were excavated. Several of the individuals wore fiber headdresses decorated with copper ornaments as well as necklaces of freshwater pearls. A pair of engraved rattles cut from portions of two human skulls and decorated with a bird motif in the Hopewellian style were found at the knees of an elderly man. Each rattle contained a number of small quartzite river pebbles to produce sound. Also recovered from the burials were a small mica mirror, a schist pendant, and a finely crafted boatstone of green speckled schist.

Radiocarbon dated to ca. A.D. 100, the northern Twin Mound exhibits unusually complex stratigraphy reflecting the following construction sequence. First, a layer of puddled clay (moistened to thick liquid consistency) was placed over the tombs and associated ritual features. Then, over the area in which the tombs were located, a circular, flat-topped primary mound, covered with alternating bands of multicolored earth and sand, was constructed. Numerous sharpened wooden poles were driven into the surface of the primary mound at intervals of approximately 1.7 feet. Separated from this mound by a narrow walkway was a low, sand-covered platform that supported a number of large, outslanting posts. Finally, the primary mound, the walkway, and the circular platform were covered with several distinctive layers of fill dirt, bringing the northern Twin Mound to a height of approximately 23 feet.

Like most large Middle Woodland ceremonial sites, Pinson Mounds was not built by a single small village or group of villages. Based on a variety of distinctive pottery types found at the site, it appears that individuals from as far away as southern Georgia and Louisiana participated in rituals at Pinson Mounds. For example, numerous sherds of nonlocal pottery were found at the Duck's Nest Sector, a ritual activity area dating to approximately A.D. 300. These include limestone-tempered wares (characteristic of the Tennessee River valley), Swift Creek Complicated Stamped (a southern Georgia type), McLeod Simple Stamped (commonly found in the Mobile Bay area), and several other types of pottery with no known local counterparts.

Other interesting features at Pinson Mounds include the second-tallest mound in the United States (Sauls Mound, at 72 feet) and a circular earthen enclosure similar to earthworks found in the Ohio Valley.

Pinson Mounds has been designated a National Historic Landmark and is managed by the State of Tennessee as an archaeological park.

Suggested Reading

Robert C. Mainfort Jr., "Middle Woodland Ceremonialism at Pinson Mounds, Tennessee," American Antiquity 53.1 (1988): 158-73; Robert C. Mainfort Jr. and Richard Walling, "1989 Excavations at Pinson Mounds: Ozier Mound," Midcontinental Journal of Archaeology 17.1 (1992): 112-36.

Published » December 25, 2009 | Last Updated » January 01, 2010