Native Americans at Etowah
The north Georgia city Hernando De Soto rode into in 1540, now known as
Cartersville's Etowah Indian Mounds, is one of the best examples of
a Mississippian Period town in existence. When you drive up today, you
won't see much evidence of the city that once ruled thousands of people.
The people are gone. Their homes and temples and roads are gone. But you
can't miss the grand earthen mounds on which their leaders' temples
once stood. The ceremonial plaza - or town square - around which the great
mounds are clustered, is clear and flat, as it was 500 years ago. You
can't miss the defensive ditch (think of it as a moat without water)
which is still about10-feet deep in places. The ditch formed a semicircle
around the 52-acre city connecting with the Etowah River on the western side.
As you walk into town, you'll cross a wooden bridge over the ditch.
Look to your right and imagine an earthen footpath that the Etowah townspeople
used to cross almost one thousand years ago. Among other reasons for leaving
town, they might have crossed the path to go to the "borrow pit."
(That's the large pit in the ground easily seen from the road if you
drive to Etowah from the south.) For hundreds of years, the townspeople
carried baskets of soil from this pit to build their ceremonial mounds
or add another layer to an existing one. But they also left town to farm,
hunt and visit outlying villages.
When people went back into Etowah over that earthen footpath, they would
have walked through an opening in a high wooden fence that protected the
city. This palisade disintegrated long ago, but it stood at least 12-feet
high and was dotted with towers jutting over the defensive ditch. When
the city was threatened, warriors could climb inside the towers and hurl
weapons at attackers from a safe vantage.
If you had crossed that earthen footpath past the palisade, first you
would have encountered a cluster of homes, just as subdivisions grow along
the outskirts of cities today. Archeologists call these "mud &
daub" structures. They were permanent, single family dwellings. Here
you would have seen men and women going about their daily routine and
heard children playing and smelled dinner cooking - corn, squash, beans,
and roasting meats or fresh fish or mussels from the Etowah River.
As you walked through the outskirts toward the town center, you would
have noticed the homes becoming more prestigious near the plaza and the
63-foot temple mound (known as Mound A). Here the Chief Priest and his
family lived. From here he presided over ceremonies that took place in
the plaza below. He was the ultimate superior not only of the people within
the boundaries of Etowah, but of those within about a 60-mile radius as
well. His position was so sublime that upon his death his wives soon were
sent to join him and his temple was burned. The people then set about
to build another layer to the mound and construct a new temple from which
their next Chief Priest would reign. Coincidentally, the steps you climb
today to the top of Mound A are positioned directly over the steps the
mound builders used. (This scenario is based upon archeological findings
from other Mississippian Temple Mounds. Etowah's Mound A has never
Directly to the south of the great temple mound toward the river stands
another temple mound. The chief that lived here had great prestige but
was less prominence than the Chief Priest. From the top of this mound
you have a wonderful view of the fish traps the people of Etowah built
to catch fresh fish and mussels. These are V-shaped traps of piled stone.
The people put baskets at the point of the V and the flow of the river
channeled fish into them.
The third most prominent mound at Etowah is one that has told us the most.
It is the only one that has been completely excavated. The male and female
effigy statues that you saw on the home page of this site were excavated
from this mound and often are used in association with the Etowah Indian
Mounds. These statues are two of the finest examples of Mississippian
Period stone carving in existence and came from one of the 350 burials
studied from this mound.
Archeologists learned much about the social structure, ceremonial practices,
dress, diet and trading patterns of the people of Etowah from these burials.
They tell us that the mound builders enjoyed a stable, advanced society.
Their agricultural practices nourished the people and made them larger
in stature than the Europeans of the time. Art was valued and reflected
in their everyday utensils as well as sacred ceremonial articles. They
were well traveled and had trade agreements with Mississippian Period
cities from as far north and west as today's Wisconsin and New Orleans.
The very alignment of the city, as well as their travels, tells us that
they were knowledgeable of astronomy. What the mound builders did not
have, however, was the European's technological knowledge or resistance
to their diseases.
There is no evidence of violence between DeSoto's expedition and the
people of Etowah. But shortly after they rode into town, the temples were
abandoned, the palisade crumbled, and nature began to reclaim the town
square and fill up the great ditch that had defended the city for hundreds of years.
Tour the site of the Ancient Indian City today at the
Etowah Indian Mounds State Historic Sitein Cartersville, Georgia.