Paper No. 5
Presentation Time: 9:35 AM


SHERWOOD, Sarah C., Environmental Studies, The University of the South, 735 University Ave, Sewanee, TN 37383,

When Euroamerican settlers first entered eastern North America they observed thousands of earthen mounds in various shapes and sizes. The Moundbuilder myth, popular up to the late 19th century, developed when observers and scholars of the day were unable and unwilling to attribute this monumental construction to the ancestors of the Native Americans. Instead, the so called moundbuilder myth maintained that a race of superior beings, perhaps one of the Lost Tribes of Israel, were responsible for the construction of these edifices. By the 1870s, after extensive research sponsored by the Bureau of American Ethnology, the mounds were finally officially linked to indigenous populations. Meanwhile the myth stays firmly implanted in some sectors of the local memory.

As American Archaeology has developed from a focus on culture history to the desire to understand more complex issues relating to social and economic systems, behavioral ecology, ideology and ritual practice, archaeologists have turned their attention again to the mounds. Until recently the emphasis has been on their staged surfaces and the buildings and artifacts recovered there. Mound construction was simplified to volume, and the type of labor and oversight necessary to move basket loads of dirt. With interdisciplinary research directed to geophysical survey and finally rigorous attention to stratigraphy, there is a new interest and awareness of these earthen monuments as complex constructions. Selection, preparation, placement and maintenance of earthen materials allowed the establishment of mounds that were able to support substantial architecture, convey important cultural information as well as withstand natural forces that would have removed simple piles of dirt. Archaeologists are using interdisciplinary approaches to explore the links between cultural and natural landscapes to consider complex construction techniques and the level of geotechnical engineering they demonstrate. Using examples from archaeological sites ranging in age from 3,000 to 800 years old, we can follow the story of the Moundbuilder Myth from its origins and demise to recent advancements in our methodological and conceptual approaches to shed new light on these significant monumental earthworks.