Ancient Site

artistic rendering of Moundville over 800 years ago
An artistic rendering of how the site might have looked 800 years ago

The Moundville site, occupied from around A.D. 1000 until A.D. 1450, is a large settlement of Mississippian culture on the Black Warrior River in central Alabama. At the time of Moundville’s heaviest residential population, the community took the form of a three-hundred-acre village built on a bluff overlooking the river.

The plan of the town was roughly square and protected on three sides by a bastioned wooden palisade. Moundville, in size and complexity second only to the Cahokia site in Illinois, was at once a populous town, as well as a political center and a religious center.

Within the enclosure, surrounding a central plaza, were twenty-six earthen mounds, the larger ones apparently supporting noble’s residences alternating with small ones that supported buildings used for mortuary and other purposes.

Neither the rise of Moundville nor its eventual decline is well understood by scholars. The immediate area appears to have been thickly populated, containing a few very small single-mound centers just before the creation of the public architecture of the great plaza and erection of the palisade about A.D. 1200.

However, by about A.D. 1350, Moundville seems to have undergone a change in use. The site lost the appearance of a town but retained its ceremonial and political functions. A decline ensued, marked by the abandonment of some mounds and the loss of religious importance in others. There was also a decrease in the importation of goods which had given prestige to the nobility.

By the 1500s, most of the area was abandoned with only a few portions of the site still occupied. Although the first Europeans reached the Southeast in the 1540s, the precise ethnic and linguistic links between Moundville’s inhabitants and what became the historic Native American tribes are still not well understood. 

Dr. Vernon James Knight, Associate Professor of Anthropology at the University of Alabama, is the Museum’s Curator of Southeastern Archaeology.