The Construction of Moundville’s Plaza in Cultural and Historical Context

By A.D. 1120, approximately eighty years prior to the first traces of a recognizable Moundville chiefdom, the culturally diverse community settled on the high terrace at Hemphill Bend on the Black Warrior River was in the early stages of a sociopolitical transition. Little of what would later typify Moundville material culture had been decided upon at this early date. Households expanded and fissioned in nonpatterned ways, with families seemingly striking out at random rather than maintaining claims to specific spots on the landscape as they would in the centuries to come. Some built houses that combined traditional single-set post styles with the newly introduced wall-trench forms while others kept them distinct. Likewise, they adhered to local potting techniques, wholly subscribed to foreign ones, or blended these in novel ways. These people built the first two mounds in the valley: Mound X at the Moundville site and Asphalt Plant mound on the same terrace about 800 meters to the northeast. The mounds were pivot points in the reconciliation of a traditional egalitarianism with an emerging institutionalized hierarchy.

The massive building project that accompanied Moundville’s formal political consolidation around A.D. 1250 occurred against this backdrop of sociocultural differentiation and political tension. It was a deliberate attempt to spatialize and, therefore, fix key social and political distinctions in a massive monumental layout that privileged some groups at the expense of others. But even as they conclude that it was implemented in less than only five decades and with the coordinated labor of at least one thousand people, archaeologists place little emphasis on the role of outright coercion, recognizing that the remaking of traditional landscapes in a formative context comes about through the permission of communities-at-large. The Moundville people had decided upon an inclusive tradition – a collective identity – for which a new social memory was required; the mound-and-plaza arrangement was its negotiated materialization, the cornerstone not just of what was to come, but of what had come before. The purposeful destruction of Mound X, for example, reveals that even former monuments were subject to reevaluation. John Blitz interprets the act as an example of “repressive erasure,” a form of selective forgetting instigated by political agents to ensure discontinuity and obliteration.

It is likely that Mound X was not the only symbol deemed contrary to the new social order. The plaza, in particular, probably played a crucial role in erasing and replacing what had come before. Once regarded as so much empty space, trenching, small-scale excavations, and auger and shovel test surveys now make it clear that Moundville’s plaza has a complex history of use. It was physically constructed at a time when the multiple-mound and palisade arrangement was first established. Measured conservatively at 23 hectares, it obscures far more of the early community plan than all 29 mounds combined. The primary goal of the Moundville Plaza Project is to determine exactly what types of constructions the plaza replaced.

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