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|The Emerald Mound Mystery|
By Jim Barnett
Emerald Mound, located in Adams County, Mississippi, is one of the largest prehistoric Indian earthworks in North America.
The ancestors of the Natchez Indians constructed this mound sometime around A.D. 1400, probably as a tribute to a powerful chief whose identity we will never know. (Named for a local plantation, the mound is also sometimes called the Selzertown Mound, after the community that once existed in the vicinity.) The National Park Service owns and maintains this National Historic Landmark as part of the Natchez Trace Parkway.
Travelers on the Parkway who take the short side trip to see the mound are usually stunned by the size of this ancient monument. Laid out in the shape of an immense coffin, the earthwork is 730 feet long and 420 feet wide, topping out at about sixty feet at its highest point. Thanks to the Park Service, there is a parking area and a path to the top, with interpretive signs and sturdy wooden steps for visitors who wish to climb all the way to the summit.
When I go out to Emerald Mound and make that ascent to the top, two thoughts usually come to mind. First of all, I am always impressed with the amount of free time enjoyed by these prehistoric people, time that they could devote to building and maintaining this mound. Although we can never know what was in the minds of the people who constructed Emerald, most archaeologists agree that such earthworks were ceremonial in nature. The mounds were evidently public works projects resulting from the contributed labor of the entire tribe. The free time came from the rich natural environment of the Natchez area, where wild plant foods, game, and fish were (and still are) abundant. The builders of Emerald also had agriculture, mainly corn, beans, and squash. Having plenty of food sources meant that the people could spend a lot of time socializing, another thing that mound building provided.
At mound building time, everyone would have gathered at the site from the tribe's several settlement districts (one was adjacent to the Grand Village), with some people digging up dirt with sticks while others filled cane baskets and walked to the mound to dump the contents and stomp it down firmly. Off to the side, people cooked food for the workers and children ran to and fro playing. Everyone was singing, gossiping, and doing what people do when whole communities gather together for a common purpose.
Before I get to the other thought (the mystery) that comes to mind when I climb Emerald Mound, I want to mention that the earthwork incorporates a two-part design. First, the builders took advantage of a natural hill, which they leveled off and enlarged to form the distinctive coffin-shaped platform. Upon this enormous platform, they built eight ceremonial mounds. The tallest mound, about thirty feet high, is at the west end of the platform, while a smaller mound sits at the eastern end. Missing today are six more small mounds -- three on each side of the platform, which have disappeared due to erosion. Atop each of these mounds were impressive sacred structures, with walls of mud plastered over a wooden pole framework and capped with domed grass-thatched roofs. The buildings would have likely been covered inside and out with decorative and protective woven cane matting. These were the residences of high-ranking chiefs and one of the buildings probably functioned as a sacred temple, similar to the structure that the French witnessed on Mound C at the Grand Village of the Natchez Indians.
Now, for the other thing that I ponder when I'm up on top of Emerald Mound -- the great mystery that surrounds this place. For unknown reasons, the people who built and used this monumental earthwork abandoned it sometime before the end of the seventeenth century. Archaeological investigations at Emerald Mound have failed to find any European trade items such as glass beads and metal implements, which would indicate use of the mound during the colonial period. Why did the Natchez Indians stop using what was perhaps their greatest architectural achievement?
Before the coming of Europeans, going back to around A.D 1400-1500, Emerald Mound was undoubtedly the main ceremonial center for the Natchez Indians' ancestors. In those days, the Natchez chiefdom encompassed several outlying settlement districts and each district had its own small mound center that served as the residence of relatives of the paramount chief living at Emerald Mound. Two of those "satellite" mound centers survive today as the Grand Village and Foster's Mound (the latter is located on the Adams County road of the same name). Unfortunately, we will probably never find out for sure why the Natchez Indians abandoned Emerald Mound, but the French colonial records clearly reveal what happened next.
When La Salle arrived at the Natchez landing in March 1682 and asked to be taken to meet the tribal chief, the Natchez warriors took him and his party to the Grand Village, which had become the tribe's main ceremonial center. This could have been the result of a power play within the chiefly lineage, but I think it far more likely that Emerald Mound's abandonment had something to do with the arrival of Europeans in this hemisphere. The Indian societies in this region witnessed the coming and going of the Hernando De Soto expedition in 1540-1543 and also saw or heard about the passing of Spain's tall sailing ships within sight of the Gulf Coast. Did these encounters reveal to the Indians the existence of an alien force more powerful than their chiefly lineages? There is no doubt that mound building, an expression of the people's belief in the power of their hereditary chiefs, ceased everywhere in North America after the mid-seventeenth century. By the time of La Salle's expedition, the role of Natchez chief, called the Great Sun, had been reduced to a ceremonial position, while the real political power in the tribe rested with the chiefs of the five Natchez settlement districts. Instead of inheriting their positions of leadership, these individuals became chiefs by demonstrating to their constituents that they could successfully cope with the agents of England, France, and Spain.
Jim Barnett is Director, Division of Historic Properties, Grand Village of the Natchez Indians, Mississippi Department of Archives and History. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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