Civilizations have risen and fallen on the North American continent for thousands of years. Ancient Native American tribes once thrived across the region and built an extensive network of earthen mounds used for ceremonies and burials. Today, visitors can catch a glimpse of these impressive structures.
Most of these mounds were constructed by the Mississippian Native American civilization and centered around the Mississippi River basin. The construction period was between the years 800 CE and 1600 CE. Researchers have found mounds as far east as the Atlantic seaboard to the northern plains of Wisconsin.
Due to modern developments during the construction of buildings, roadways, dams, and reservoirs, many of these mounds have been destroyed. To our benefit, dozens of Native American mounds are located throughout the American South and Midwest. Here are six of the best places to visit these mounds in the State of Georgia.
Etowah Mounds State Historic Site – Cartersville, GA
Etowah Mounds State Historic Site is a 54-acre archeological site located just south of Cartersville, GA (about an hour north of Atlanta). Built along the banks of the Etowah River, the site’s name comes from the native word italwa which means “town”. The Muskogee Creek nation (now based in Oklahoma) recognizes Etowah as one of their most important ancestral sites.
The site features three main platform-type mounds (flat-topped mounds that would have had a structure built on top). The largest of the three (Mound A) stands taller than a six-story building and covers a total area of 3 acres. Mounds B and C are smaller standing at 25 feet and 10 feet tall. Special scans conducted by archaeologists found the footprint of nearly 140 different structures at Etowah. This indicates that the site is much more expansive than originally thought and was likely the home of a few thousand people.
The park is open to the public seven days a week (except for Christmas, Thanksgiving, and New Year’s Day). The cost for entrance is $6 for adults and $4 for children. Visitors can climb to the top of some of the mounds or check out artifacts in the Etowah Archeological Museum.
Leake Mounds Interpretive Trail – Cartersville, GA
If you are visiting Etowah, you might consider taking a quick walk along the nearby Leake Mounds Interpretive Trail. Archeologists have determined that the Leake Mounds predate Etowah by hundreds of years (approximately 300 BCE to 650 CE). The 1.5-mile trail offers interpretive signs along the way to teach visitors about the history of the site and Mississippian mound culture. This is a great educational option to complement your visit to Etowah Mounds State Historic Site.
Kolomoki Native American Mounds State Park – near Blakely, GA
Kolomoki Mounds State Park is located near Blakely, GA just an hour west of Albany, GA. This park is home to the largest Native American mound site in the Southeastern United States. This site was active between 350 CE to 750 CE and features the oldest earthen mound in Georgia. Standing at 57 feet tall, visitors can have the opportunity to climb to the top. The park also has seven other mounds and a museum detailing the history of the site.
The park is open year-round (except Christmas) and has lots of other outdoor activities including hiking, camping, and kayaking on the two lakes.
Sautee Nacoochee Indian Mound – Sautee, GA
Sautee Nacoochee Indian Mound is a single mound that is a part of Hardman Farm Historic Site. Legend has it that the mound is the final resting place of two lovers from opposing Native American tribes. While this makes for a great story, archeologists now believe that this is purely a fairytale. Nevertheless, the mound is still an impressive sight.
The farm is open to visitors year-round. Admission and parking to see the Sautee Nacoochee Indian Mound are free. While you are visiting, you can also take a guided tour of the historic farm that dates back to the 1870s.
Ocmulgee Mounds National Historical Park – Macon, GA
Ocmulgee Mounds National Historical Park is located about an hour and a half southeast of Atlanta. The park features the Great Temple. The Great Temple was used for religious purposes, other smaller ceremonial and burial mounds, and defensive trenches used to protect the site. One of the most popular attractions is the Earth Lodge, an earthen mound that was once used as a council chamber for the tribe. While most of the mound is a reconstruction, the clay tile floor is original and dates back to the year 1015 CE.
The site was once the largest archeological dig in American history that involved over 100 men working at one time. The over 2.5 million artifacts (that include pottery, beads, and stone tools and weapons) have contributed immensely to researchers’ understanding of this amazing culture.
Ocmulgee Mounds National Historic Park is free to visit and is open to the public year-round (except Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s Day)
Eagle Rock Effigy Mound – Eatonton, GA
Eagle Rock Effigy Mound is located about halfway between Atlanta and Augusta. What’s unique about this mound is not its size but rather its design. The mound is constructed of white quartz rock laid out in a pattern to resemble a giant bird. Researchers have long debated the type of bird represented. The general consensus is that it depicts an eagle. However, some believe that the bird is a vulture that the Native Americans associated with death. The wingspan of the bird is 120 feet.
There is only one other example of this type of design (Rock Hawk Effigy Mound, also found in Putnam County). However, Eagle Rock Effigy Mound is by far the best-preserved. Archeologists estimate that this site could be up to 3,000 years old.
Admission to see the mound is free and open to visitors year-round.
The Downfall of the Mississippian Tribes
Beginning in the 16th century, the Mississippian tribes started getting exposed to European expeditions looking for new land to settle and claim for their countries. One of the most notable explorers who visited the area was Hernando de Soto (during his expedition of 1539 to 1543). Some of the encounters with de Soto’s expedition were harmless, but others turned violent.
While hundreds of Native Americans are estimated to have died in the conflicts, the real damage was caused by diseases that the Europeans brought that the tribes had no immunity to including smallpox and measles.
As more and more European settlers arrived, the Mississippian culture collapsed forcing the tribes out of their ancestral homes. Fortunately, we still have the chance to learn about and explore this fascinating society that existed before the birth of the United States through the mounds they left behind.