30 Days of Tennessee Archaeology, Day 13

A Visit to Mound Bottom

Aaron Deter-Wolf
Tennessee Division of Archaeology

Mound Bottom State Archaeological Area is located along the Harpeth River in Cheatham County, and includes one of the largest Mississippian period archaeological sites in Middle Tennessee. The main site area was purchased by the State of Tennessee in 1973, and in 2005 became part of the Harpeth River State Park. In 2008 an adjacent 65-acre parcel including additional site area was purchased with the assistance of Tennessee Parks and Greenways Foundation.

1923 map of Mound Bottom by Crawford C. Anderson

1923 map of Mound Bottom by Crawford C. Anderson

Since the late 19th century Mound Bottom has been the subject of limited archaeological investigations including those by the Peabody Museum at Harvard (1878; link opens a large report PDF), William E. Myers (1923), Tennessee’s first State Archaeologist Parmenio E. Cox (1926), and the University of Tennessee (1936-1937). The only modern excavations at the site were conducted in 1974-1975 by the Tennessee Division of Archaeology and published in 2012 in the journal Southeastern Archaeology.

View of Mound A from the site entrance, facing east towards the main plaza.

View of Mound A from the site entrance, facing east towards the main plaza.

When you visit Mound Bottom today you approach the main plaza from the west and are presented with a view of the rear face of Mound A, the largest of the 14 mounds at the site. Mound A measures about 246 feet on each side, originally stood more than 36 feet tall (in an 1878 map the height is identified as 45 feet), and is oriented approximately 11 degrees east-of-north. The 1974 and 1975 excavations by the Tennessee Division of Archaeology determined that following initial construction Mound A was enlarged in three stages, first around AD 976 and again around AD 1147. The uppermost mound stage has been disturbed by historic plowing, and the time frame for the final construction phase is unknown.

In his 1823 volume The Natural and Aboriginal History of Tennessee. Judge John Haywood described that the eastern slope of Mound A featured a visible access ramp, “wide enough for two men to walk abreast, and sloping to the top. Steps were no doubt once there, though not now visible.” The ramp Haywood describes is no longer present, but can be seen to the right of the mound in the 1926 photo below. Today the summit of Mound A is accessed via a ramp cut into its north face to facilitate historic agriculture.

View of Mound A in 1926. Image courtesy the P.E. Cox papers, Tennessee State Library and Archives

View of Mound A in 1926. Image courtesy the P.E. Cox papers, Tennessee State Library and Archives.

The main plaza at Mound Bottom encompasses 6.5-acres east of Mound A and is bounded to the north, south, and east by a total of ten smaller mounds. A single mound known as Mound L is situated along the eastern edge of the plaza, and two other mounds are located to the east of the plaza group. Many of these mounds exhibit multiple construction stages indicating they too were improved and expanded throughout the history of the site.

Today when we visit Mississippian mound sites we see grass-covered, empty spaces. However, in their heyday there was likely little grass to be found in these thriving centers. Plazas consisted of hard-packed earth, while the mounds themselves would have been covered in clay or in some cases colored earth. Flat-topped mounds like Mound A supported one or more residential or ritual structures on their summits, and the areas surrounding mounds and plazas were filled with wattle and daub houses. Other important non-mound structures were sometimes situated within the plazas. The floodplain of the Harpeth River surrounding Mound Bottom would have been thickly planted with fields of corn, the main staple of the Mississippian diet.

Excavated house footprints west of Mound A, dated to dated to about AD 976. Image courtesy the Tennessee Division of Archaeology.

Excavated house footprints west of Mound A, dated to about AD 976. Image courtesy the Tennessee Division of Archaeology.

A large wooden palisade surrounded the Mound Bottom site area between the mounds and the river. Although the remains of that fortification can now only be seen under certain conditions, its layout – which included both gateways and redoubts – was still clearly visible in the 19th century. Haywood wrote that “All around the bend, except at the place of entrance, is a wall on the margin of the river. […] On the north side of the bend and wall, is a gateway, and also on the south. On parts of this wall, at the distance of about 40 yards apart, are projected banks, like redoubts on which persons might have stood.” He further describes visible traces of a road that passed through the gateways and connected Mound Bottom to the Pack Site, another multi-mound Mississippian center located to the south on private property. No modern excavations have been conducted at the Pack Site, and the precise relationship between the two mound groups is not understood at this time.

View of Mound Bottom from Mace Bluff.

View of Mound Bottom from Mace Bluff.

Major occupation at Mound Bottom appears to have ended by around AD 1300, corresponding with a period when numerous smaller Mississippian chiefdoms began to spread throughout the Nashville Basin. While there is still some evidence of occupation at Mound Bottom around that time (several house footprints have been dated to about AD 1350), it is believed that major moundbuilding activity at the site ceased during the late 13th century.

In addition to the Pack Site, Mound Bottom is also associated with several pieces of rock art located along the same stretch of the Harpeth River. The most famous of these is Mace Bluff, which features a petroglyph incised into a stone outcrop and provides a fantastic view of Mound Bottom. You can learn more about Mace Bluff – and see the 2014 Tennessee Archaeology Awareness Month poster! – in tomorrow’s post for 30 Days of Tennessee Archaeology by Dr. Tanya Peres.

Access to Mound Bottom is by appointment only, and can be arranged through the Harpeth River State Park. The Tennessee Division of Archaeology gives periodic tours of the site throughout the year, which are announced on the Tennessee State Parks Facebook feed.