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 about 10 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. Archaeologists 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 archaeological findings from other Mississippian Temple Mounds. Etowah’s Mound A has never been excavated.)
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.
Archaeologists 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 Site in Cartersville, Georgia.
Leake Mounds Site
Discover more mounds in Cartersville at the Leake Mounds Interpretive Trail marking a major cultural center during the prehistoric Middle Woodland period and predating the inhabitants at the Etowah Mounds.