The Moundville site of west-central Alabama was the seat of a Mississippian chiefdom that originated in the thirteenth century and rapidly rose to regional prominence. At its political height it was a place with all of the monumental hallmarks of a Mississippian capital town, a built ceremonial landscape composed of 29 earthen mounds arranged in pairs around an expansive plaza, all of it enclosed within a mile-long wooden palisade studded with archers towers. The rectangular mound layout forms a “sociogram,” a massive social and cosmological symbol in which the size and position of each mound pair correlates with the size and status of the segmentary kin-group that used it. Mound summits were crammed with special structures: craft workshops, ritual buildings, and the residences of influential families. Some of these were large, over-engineered constructions employing meter-wide cypress logs as internal roof supports. Moundville was built to impress.
Moundville artisans were some of the most talented in the Mississippian world. They crafted in stone, shell, copper, and clay in addition to media that have not survived the intervening centuries of Southern humidity: wood, cane, and natural fiber. They created images of the creatures that populated their world. These included frogs, fish, bats, ducks, woodpeckers, owls, raptorial birds, panthers, and others animals with which we are all familiar, in addition to a pantheon of composite monsters and supernatural men and women.
The chiefdom incorporated a population of at least 10,000 men, women, and children who were distributed among small farming settlements along a forty-kilometer stretch of the Black Warrior River and its tributaries. Each household made what it needed to survive (tools, food, cooking pots), but were connected to more distant populations through trade networks that funneled through the capital town. Titles and property, including agricultural fields but excluding weapons, were probably handed down through women. Men pursued social advancement through war. Healthy individuals who survived childhood could expect to live between 40 and 50 years.
The rise and fall of Moundville parallels that of other large Mississippian polities: rapid coalescence within the span of two or three generations, a subsequent period of relative stability, and a final protracted decline. By the 15th century, the chiefdom was a shadow of its former self. The bulk of Moundville’s populace had lost faith in its leaders, the great compromise chartered with the mound and plaza arrangement over 150 years before dissolved amidst political factionalism. The less influential families who had resided in the southern part of the capital town, abandoned the mounds of their ancestors and dispersed into the hinterlands. Their followers came with them. They established new communities centered on new mounds, but periodically returned to the depopulated capital to conduct solemn burial rites at the exact locations of their former dwellings.
Hernando de Soto passed through the area in the early 1540s. His chroniclers make no mention of what was surely the largest mound center along the route. Moundville had been falling into ruin for decades by then. The Black Warrior Valley, once the center of one of the largest and most socially and politically complex societies in prehistoric North America, was an uninhabited borderland between warring proto-Creeks and Choctaws by the end of sixteenth century.