Deciphering Etowah's Mound C: The Construction History and Mortuary Record of a Mississippian Burial Mound

Article excerpt

When Lewis H. Larson, Jr. began work on Etowah's Mound C in 1954, he was faced with a mound remnant. The summits and part of the inner core had been removed by the unsystematic digging of previous excavators. Despite the difficult conditions, Larson's careful excavations recorded invaluable information about Mound C and its now famous mortuary record, which lay largely undisturbed along the flanks and base of the mound. In this paper, I use data collected primarily by Larson to present the construction history of Mound C and discuss the implications of the dating and distributions of copper plates and shell gorgets within the mound.

The Etowah site (Figure 1), along with Moundville and Cahokia, is often considered one of the "big three" Mississippian mound centers-those large and important places that have figured prominently in our understanding of Mississippian chiefdoms. Not being on the same scale as Moundville and Cahokia, Etowah qualifies for inclusion in this group because of Mound C and its contents. Three separate excavation projects spanning 78 years removed some 366 burials from Mound C, along with one of the most impressive collections of Southeastern Ceremonial Complex (secC) goods ever found. This collection has played and continues to play a key role in our ever-changing undertanding of Mississippian elites, ranking systems, prestige goods exchange, and artistic expression.

Lewis H. Larson, Jr. directed the most recent and thorough of the Mound C excavations (Larson 1971, 1989, 1993, this issue; see also Brain and Phillips 1996 and King 2003). Larson's exacting work anchors the earlier and less detailed investigations to modern archaeology, and makes the entire Mound C data set accessible to modern scholars. I use that data set to reconstruct the burial and building history of Mound C as well as discuss the implications of the dating and distribution of a limited set of the secC goods interred in the mound-copper ornaments and shell gorgets. The interpretations I present also serve to highlight the importance of the contributions of Lewis H. Larson, Jr. to chiefdom studies in the Southeast.

Excavations at Mound C

As anyone who has ever listened to George Stuart or Dan and Phyllis Morse talk about their experiences working at Mound C knows, the history of the Mound C excavations alone makes a fascinating story (Editor's note: see papers by Stuart, and Morse and Morse in this issue). Besides making a great story, that history also highlights just how important Lewis Larson's contribution has been to Southeastern archaeology.

Excavations at Mound C began in 1884 with the work of John Rogan (Thomas 1894). Rogan focused on a small area of the mound's summit and recovered 11 burials accompanied by copper plates and other elaborate grave goods. As might be expected, Rogan's recording and recovery techniques left a lot to be desired. Between 1925 and 1927, Warren K. Moorehead (1932) conducted more extensive excavations at the mound, using recording and recovery techniques only marginally better than his predecessor. Still focusing on the summits of the mound, Moorehead recovered somewhere around 111 more burials and associated secC goods (see also Brain and Phillips 1996).

By the time young Lewis Larson returned to the mound in 1954, the popular conception was that most of the burials had been removed (see Moorehead 1932:87). Larson's task was to clean up the mess left by Rogan and Moorehead so that Mound C could be reconstructed as part of a new state park. Of course, it did not take long before the archaeological community discovered that there was a great deal left in Mound C. Between 1954 and 1961, Larson's crews recorded an additional 244 burials, many with secC goods (see Brain and Phillips 1996; Larson 1971; King 1996).

When Larson began his work at Mound C, he was faced with a remnant with the summits and part of the inner core removed by the unsystematic digging of Moorehead and Rogan. …