Saturday Art and Archaeology; Poverty Point, Louisiana
The home of tribal ceremonial construction by original inhabitants of the North American continent, Poverty Point has proved to be exceptional in skill of execution, artwork, and the extent of the tribal center of inhabitation. The mounds were not excavated until in 1950’s when aerial views were examined and showed the shape of what appears to be a bird in flight, contained in a detailed community of mound building, that showed form and structure beyond what had been envisioned previously as the development of civilization reached by the inhabitants of this bayou area.
In the 1830s Jacob Walter, a man searching for lead ore in the area, came across Poverty Point and wrote about it in his diary. The first published account of the site was in 1873 by Samuel Lockett, who had served as an officer in the Confederate Army during the War Between the States.
During the early 20th century, archaeologists took interest in the site, with it being briefly investigated by Clarence B. Moore over 1911–1912, by Gerard Fowke of the Smithsonian Institution in 1926, by Clarence H. Webb in 1935, and by Michael Beckman in 1946, while he was searching for oil. Three excavation seasons in 1952, 1953 and 1954 were undertaken by James A. Ford and Robert Neitzel, leading to the publication of Poverty Point, a Late Archaic Site in Louisiana in 1956. It was during this excavation that “Poverty Point witnessed some of the first experimental archaeology done in North America.”
I arrived on a bad travel day, with flooding in the bayou area, and was the only visitor for awhile in the site which is many miles off the beaten track. The staff of well informed archaeologists opened the center for me and were helpful in every way, even allowing me to drive the paved route through the mound area and courteously telling me about the many artifacts in the information center. It is particularly helpful when a visitor has come so far, to have the items found on the site displayed there. The experience of visiting remote sites such as Spiro Mounds in Oklahoma and Meadowcroft Rock Shelter in Pennsylvania can be somewhat disappointing since the many evidences of inhabitation and culture found there have been dispersed to collectors and institutions instead of being there to experience where they belong.
Archaeologists such as Sherwood Gagliano and Edwin Jackson support the concept that Poverty Point was a site where various groups came to meet and trade on an occasional basis. Gibson believes there was evidence of too much rubbish left by original inhabitants to indicate only occasional habitation, and that it would be implausible for such a monument to be built to be used simply as a trading center.
Some archeologists have interpreted Poverty Point as having religious symbolism and importance. A posthole discovered in the central plaza showed that a large post was possibly erected there. The archaeologist Professor William Haag, who excavated at the site during the 1970s, interpreted this post as having astronomical significance in being aligned to the solstices. Examples of wooden post astronomical circles, since called Woodhenge, have been found and reconstructed at the Mississippian culture site of Cahokia in western Illinois. However, the astronomerRobert Purrington believes the posts at Poverty Point were geometrically,rather than astronomically, aligned. Researchers have also studied historic and contemporary Native American religious beliefs for parallels, with many noting that the west is seen as the direction of evil and death. Gibson believed that the rings were built with their arcs against the west to keep malevolent spirits out of the complex.
The time was eight centuries after Egyptian laborers dragged huge stones across the desert to build the Great Pyramids, and before the great Mayan pyramids were constructed. The place was a site in what is now northeastern Louisiana. The people were a sophisticated group who left behind one of the most important archaeological sites in North America.
The Poverty Point inhabitants set for themselves an enormous task as they built a complex array of earthen mounds and ridges overlooking the Mississippi River flood plain. This accomplishment is particularly impressive for a pre-agricultural society. The central construction consists of six rows of concentric ridges, parts of which were as high as five feet. The ridges form a semi-ellipse or C-shape, divided into sections by at least four aisles. The diameter of the outermost ridge measures nearly three-quarters of a mile. It is thought that these ridges served as foundations for dwellings although little evidence of structures has been found. However, features and midden deposits uncovered during excavations support this hypothesis.
Poverty Point is indeed a rare remnant of an exceptional culture. It has been estimated that landscape preparation and earthworks construction may have required moving as many as 53 million cubic feet of soil. Considering that a cubic foot of soil weighs 75-100 pounds, and that the laborers carried this dirt in roughly 50-pound basket loads, it is obvious that this was a great communal engineering feat.
Poverty Point’s inhabitants imported stone and ore over great distances. Projectile points and other stone tools found at Poverty Point were made from raw materials which originated in the Ouachita and Ozark Mountains and in the Ohio and Tennessee River valleys. Soapstone for vessels came from the Appalachian foothills of northern Alabama and Georgia. Other materials came from distant places in the eastern United States. The extensive trade network attests to the complex and sophisticated society that built the Poverty Point earthworks.
Dated between 1700 and 1100 B.C., this site of more than 400 acres is unique among archaeological sites on this continent.
The excavation was commendable particularly for keeping treasures that belonged to this civilization on site, and available for those who visit and explore their scene of building and development by the peoples who preceded us.