Almost one thousand years ago, a thriving city of several thousand Native Americans was situated in a bend of the Harpeth River not far downstream from Kingston Springs in Cheatham County. Around A.D. 950 Mound Bottom emerged as a sacred ceremonial center for hundreds of farming families scattered throughout the Harpeth River valley, and over the succeeding three hundred years the site grew into a fortified city, serving as the social political, economic, and religious center for one of North America’s most complex native civilizations.
Located in a well-protected horseshoe bend, Mound Bottom, along with the adjacent Pack mounds, comprises a five-hundred-acre archaeological site which includes at least twenty-nine flat-topped earthen pyramids and burial mounds. An estimated five miles of earthen embankments and wooden palisades once surrounded these mounds and protected hundreds of houses, storehouses, craft production centers, and other buildings within the compound. Faced with increasing competition from similar towns in the Central Basin, Mound Bottom declined as an important center in Middle Tennessee around A.D. 1300. Because this Tennessee civilization disappeared centuries before written records, archaeologists will never know the original name of Mound Bottom, nor that of the people who lived there. Instead, archaeologists refer to these eastern North American societies as Mississippian.
In Middle Tennessee, Mississippian cultures lasted from A.D. 900 to 1450. Their most significant achievements included the construction and use of large flat-topped earthen pyramids as platforms for temples and elite residences and the creation of one of the most spectacular artistic traditions of the western hemisphere. They conducted intensive agriculture based on corn, beans, squash, and many other domesticated plants. In addition, their trading networks spanned eastern North America, extending from the Great Lakes in the north to the Gulf of Mexico in the south, and from the eastern Great Plains in the west to the eastern Appalachian Mountains of the Carolinas.
Archaeological investigations over the past two centuries have demonstrated the trade connections between the ruling families of Mound Bottom and chiefs of similar civilizations: copper necklaces, earspools, and headdresses were imported from the Lake Superior and Appalachian regions; fragile pottery vessels were imported from southern Illinois and the Tennessee River Valley; and conch shell cups and jewelry from the Gulf Coast. Around A.D. 1200, probably few leaders in eastern North America were unaware of the city at “Mound Bottom.”
In recognition of its importance as an archaeological site, the State of Tennessee purchased Mound Bottom in 1973. Originally attached to Montgomery Bell State Park, Harpeth River State Park and the Tennessee Division of Archaeology currently manage the area as an archaeological preserve. The site is closed to the public, and it is hoped that a future archaeological park with an interpretive center will be created to promote appreciation for the achievements of Tennessee’s late prehistoric native people.