Courtesy of The Advocate
Volume 8, Number 5, Saturday, January 31, 1998
By Kevin Markuson
More than just a "bunch of old Indian Mounds," Mound Bottom represents the remains of a sophisticated prehistoric agricultural society that belonged to the Mississippian culture. This culture flourished not only in our Harpeth Valley but throughout the entire Southeast from around 800 AD to 1450 AD. Centered around intensive corn agriculture, these people developed a complex social system, and built large mound centers for both civic and ceremonial use with villages, hamlets, and farmsteads stretching for miles up and down the river valley. They also engaged in long distance trade in copper, marine shell, and other materials.
Mound Bottom contains 14 mounds outlining an open level plaza which was presumably used for social and ceremonial gatherings. The largest and most visible mound, called a platform mound, faces the plaza to the east. The remains of the staircase or rampis still visible today on the east face as a rounded hump in the side of the mound extending from the plaza level to the summit. This large platform mound was constructed in four, possibly five stages during the occupation of the site. This mound was certainly the main focal point of the center as it held the residence of the leader, a temple, a townhouse, or other communal building of importance. The other smaller mounds are thought to have supported the residences of lesser ranking officials and their families as well as other communal or ceremonial structures.
The residential area of the center was located on the other side of the mounds that outline the plaza and housed the majority of the population. Cemetery areas have also been documented on the site and received much attention from the early archaeologists.
The entire Mound complex and residential area was surrounded on at least three sides by an earthen embankment topped by a wooden stockade of upright logs, similar to a frontier fort. It appears this stockade was situated on the secondary terrace on the north, east, and south sides of the site.
Also associated with the site are two long low earthen embankments on a bluff to the southwest and the remains of several smaller mounds on the tops of the surrounding hills. Another associated feature is a rare and unusual petroglyph, or rock carving, of a mace.
The Mace was a symbol of authority or leadership within the Mississippian culture and appears in shell art and chipped flint from several sites throughout the southeast.
As impressive as Mound Bottom is in itself, it is thought to be but a part of a larger complex. Another mound group, the Pack site -- sometimes called the Great Mound Group or the South Mound Group - is located to the south of Hwy 70 about 1/2 mile past the Harpeth River bridge on privately owned property. This mound center with it's associated residential areas and field spaces is actually about 4 times larger in surface area than it's sister site -- Mound Bottom. The town at the Pack site extended from the river up to the area of J.T.'s Auto on Hwy 70. This town was also surrounded by a palisade and had a main east/west trail running through it. The old trail, later to become the Nashville-Charlotte Pike, ran out of Nashville following the general course of the present Old Charlotte Pike. The trail ran on top of the ridge, to the north of Pegram and came down into the Harpeth Valley along Dog Creek, where it forded the river and continued on along present day Hwy 70 through the Pack site. It then took a northwest direction and intersected with another trail at Dull in Dickson County and on to Charlotte.
Although the Pack site was excavated prior to the advent of radiocarbon dating, archaeologists believe the two mound centers were contemporary based on a similarity of pottery and house styles, mortuary practices, and the design of the Mound plaza configuration. An intersecting trail was also documented between the two mound centers on top of the ridge to the west of the river valley. Another indication of a relationship between the two sites lies in the North-South orientation of the two large platform mound. At the Pack site the long axis of the primary platform mound measures N 12 degree E while the axis of the same at Mound Bottom measures N 11 degrees E. It's amazing to think this alignment could be accomplished without the aid of compass or transit considering the two mounds are about 1 1/2 miles apart. Questions that remain unanswered include: Were the two sites contemporary by radiocarbon dating? Why were two mound complexes constructed in close proximity? Was there a different function for each mound center? The answers to these and other questions will come only through the preservation of this site.
The earliest description of Mound Bottom was written by Haywood in 1823 in the Natural and Aboriginal History of Tennessee:
On the Harpeth River, in a bend of the river below the road which crosses near the mouth of Dog Creek from Nashville to Charlotte, is a square mound 47 by 47 at the base, twenty-five feet high, and two others in a row with it, of inferior size, from 5 to 10 feet high. At some distance from them, and near the eastern extremity of the bend, are three others in a parallel row, with a space like a public square between the rows. Near these mounds are other small ones, to the amount of 12 in all. All around the bend except at the place of entrance, is a wall on the margin of the river. The mounds are upon the area enclosed by the wall. There are besides the entrance two gateways; from thence to the river is the distance of 40 yards.
The wall is upon the second bank. On the top of the large mound an image was found some years ago, eighteen inches long from the feet to the head. Soapstone was the material of which it was composed. The arms were slipped into the socket, and there retained with hooks. They hung downwards when not lifted up (Haywood 1973:120).
Another early description was given by Joseph Jones in 1876 in his Explorations of the Aboriginal Remains in Tennessee.
Extensive fortifications several miles in extent enclosing two systems of mounds, and numerous stone graves, lie along the Big Harpeth River about sixteen miles below Old Town, at Mound Bottom, and on Osborne's Place. Within this extraordinary aboriginal works, which inclose the site of two ancient cities, are found three pyramidal mounds about fifty feet in elevation, and each one exposing about an acre on its summit: and besides these, are numerous lesser mounds (Jones 1876:36).
After these early descriptions were published mentions of Mound Bottom appears in a few other publications but remained quiet, in cultivation and pasture, until a notable archaeologist began to investigate in the 1920's.
Take knowledge and combine that with imagination then go to a historic place - take in the sights and smells, feel the earth upon which you stand - then you being to experience history - to feel the spirit of the past.
To arrange a visit to Mound Bottom call Montgomery Bell State Park at 797-9051.
Courtesy of The Advocate
Volume 8, Number 6, Saturday, February 7, 1998
By Kevin Markuson
Second in a series
Who these people were that built this large complex, how they lived and what became of them is the subject of this second article in this series.
Around 750 AD to 800 AD life our Harpeth Valley was about to change. Previous to this time, the natural resources of this area had been utilized by Native peoples of earlier cultural periods. The nomadic big game hunters of the Paleo culture (15,000 BC - 8,000 BC), the hunter-gatherers of the Archaic culture (8,000 BC - 500 BC) and the hunter-gatherer-farmers of the Woodland culture (500 BC - 800 AD). all came through this alley to hunt and to gather nuts, fruits and other wild plants. In some areas temporary camps and small seasonal settlements were established.
During the 8th century AD, the people of the Harpeth Valley were about to undergo more culture change in a shorter time than any other period in our prehistory. It was these late Woodland People whose descendants were to become the Mississippian People. The catalyst that initiated such rapid, intense cultural change was the introduction of corn agriculture. The significance of corn agriculture to our prehistoric peoples could be compared to the discovery of electricity to our present technological culture.
Current research indicates that the rudiments of agriculture and the domestication of certain indigenous plants goes back to the late Archaic period, being further refined during the ensuing Woodland Period. With a preexisting agricultural system in place, the introduction of corn allowed for a surplus crop which further hastened the cultural evolution from the Woodland to the Mississippian Period.
The Mississippian culture is thought to have arose in the American Bottoms area of the Mississippi Valley near St. Louis, around the same time corn agriculture appeared in the area. The ideas, art forms, and life ways which comprised this culture spread throughout the Mississippi Valley and major tributaries quite rapidly. The size of the Mississippian cultural sphere is about the size of Western Europe. Archaeologists have defined three major areas of distinct but interrelated development: the central Mississippi or American Bottoms with Cahokia as its center; the Caddoan area of Eastern Oklahoma, Texas, and Louisiana with Spiro as its center; and the Tennessee-Cumberland area with many large sites, one of which is Mound Bottom.
The People who lived at Mound Bottom and throughout the Valley lived in similar ways to other groups of people with the cultural sphere. After the introduction of core agriculture, the surplus crop allowed for a decrease in time spent on food procurement which in turn facilitated social and cultural evolution. The social structure that evolved is called a chiefdom by anthropologists. The chiefdom was headed by a "priest-elite" or "shaman-chief" who influenced as a leader widespread farming populations. He also directed the construction of monumental public works such as the mound/plaza configuration and palisades, regulated trade, and conducted warfare. Current research suggests that the range of influence from Mound Bottom may have stretched from the Cumberland River up the Harpeth to somewhere past the Bellevue area. The next mound center upriver from Mound Bottom is Old Town on Natchez Trace Road in Williamson County.
In addition to the leader of the chiefdom, notable warriors and other community officials held positions of influence within the society and formed the social nucleus of the mound centers. The majority of the population were farmers, some living within the walls of the town and others living in secondary villages, family based hamlets= and isolated farmsteads for miles up and down the river valley. It's believed that the people in these outlying settlements came to the large mound centers for seasonal ceremonies and other functions of social importance.
The Mound Bottom people lived in square-to-rectangular wattle and daub houses usually averaging 4 meters in length. These houses were constructed by placing large upright timbers in the ground and weaving smaller branches or sometimes cane between them (wattle). A clay plaster was then applied to the walls (daub), and the whole was covered with a thatch roof. A circular-to-elliptical structure was found during the 1974-75 excavations, commonly called a beehive style house. In the Tennessee area this usually represents a later style of architecture. The radiocarbon date for House #14 at Mound Bottom was found to be 1320 AD, plus or minus 75 years - the terminal date for Mound Bottom occupation.
The houses within the walls of the town were laid out in rows. This was noted for the Pack site in the field notes for the 1936-3 excavations and demonstrated at Mound Bottom, where a row of houses was excavated to the west of the platform mound during the 1974-75 field work.
In addition to corn as a staple of the Mississippian diet, other cultivated plant foods included squash, gourds, sunflower, sumpweed, and the common bean. Although atriculture became more intense, the people continued to utilize, to a large degree, local wild plant foods including lambsquarter, passion flower (which happens to be the Tennessee state wildflower), knotweed, maygrass, nuts, berries, and so on. Plants were collected for use as medicine also, and are far more numerous than can be listed here.
Hunting also remained an important activity and food source for the Mound Bottom people. The products of the hunt were not only used for food, but also supplied the raw materials for tools, clothing, and adornments. Data from the 1974-75 faunal remains shows that the remains of white tail deer were the most numerous, comprising 95% of the meat yield. Turkey was also an important meat source, second only to deer. A small enclosure attached to a house was found at Mound Bottom and has been identified as possibly being a turkey pen. To quote archaeology Dr. Kevin Smith, "Certainly a live turkey in a pen would be worth a deer in the bush..."
Other hunted species included grey squirrel, fox squirrel, rabbit, and raccoon, as well as ducks, geese and pigeons. Of the reptiles, box turtle was the most represented utilized as a food source and supplying the material for rattles and other adornments.
It appears Black bear and elk may have held a special place in the Mound Bottom diet. The remains of both were found only in the area to the west of the large mound which is presumed to be an area of craft specialization and/or an area reserved for the leaders.
Fishing was also a source of food but less important than agriculture and hunting, which provided the dietary mainstay. Drum, redhorse, catfish, and bass were all used, as well as shellfish for food and the crushed shell used as temper in pottery. An archaeological survey of the area conducted in the 1970s identified the remains of a stone "fish trap" in the Harpeth River close to the towns.
Craft specialization was also an aspect of Mississippian culture that reached previously unattained heights and relied on the extensive trail networks that had developed over hundreds of years. By the late Mississippian era pottery, shell engraving, stone carving, copperwork, and other art forms reached a level of refinement that in some areas remains unparalleled today. Soapstone, marine shell, mica, copper, flint, and pottery pieces all were traded extensively and usually associated with the leadership.
What became of these people has been a burning question since the remains of this culture was first discovered. Many years ago wild theories were put forth to explain the emergence and disappearance of these people. The culture than was called the Mound Builders and was generally viewed as a mysterious reace of people who invaded this area, built large earthen works, and then abruptly abandoned their large towns and disappeared. A common theme in the disappearance usually included warfare and annihilation with conflict on the level that would have beek like a world war to these people. These theories have been disproved by modern archaeology.
Current archaeological and anthropological thought now recognizes a probable multitude of factors which lead to the abandonment of the large centers. As the local populations grew, they may have overextended the carrying capacity of the environment. Hence, the game may have become depleted and the local wood supply diminished, requiring longer trips to procure the same. Although there are no published population estimates for the Mound Bottom area, it must have numbered in the thousands, having a possible density 5 to 10 times greater than today's population in the valley. The thousands that lived in and around the mound center occupied this valley for some 400-600 years, roughly half the time we have been here.
Soil exhaustion may also be another factor after hundreds of years of intensive corn agriculture. Climatic change, not favorable to agriculture has also been suggested. A period of cold known as the LIttle Ice Age occurred around 1250 AD when the mean temperature dropped by 1 degree Celcius resulting in a drop in the average temperature by 34 degrees. All of these factors could have resulted in a dminishing population which would have in turn weakened the social system until the chiefdom failed and the site was eventually abandoned. Current research indicates that in Late Mississippian times the population grew in the area of the outer Nashville Basin where soil types are suited to agriculture. Perhaps the last of the Mound Bottom people left this area and helped to form new towns in this area.
Courtesy of The Advocate
Volume 8, Number 7, Saturday, February 14, 1998
By Kevin Markuson
Third in a series
The first systematic archaeological study of Mound Bottom was conducted by Wm. E. Myer, special archaeologist for the Smithsonian Institution during May and June of 1923. Myer, a resident of Carthage, Tenn., also excavated other well known sites including Gordontown and the Fewkes Group near Brentwood and Castalian Springs in Sumner County. He also surveyed and reported on the large mound group at Pinson, now a state archaeological park and reported on other mounds in the Harpeth Valley.
Myer's field work concentrated on the Pack site or South Mound Group. It appears that these mounds and several house sites were excavated as well as a section of the palisade. A large baked floor and the remains of a large structure were recorded on one of the mounds. In addition to the excavations, aerial photographs were taken and topographic maps were made of both mound centers. Twenty mounds and 42 house sites were recorded at the Pack site. Eleven mounds, 10 house sites and linear earthworks were recorded at the Mound Bottom site.
The mace petroglyph was discovered at this time by Albert F. Ganier, a noted ornithologist and local amateur archaeologist. Ganier reported his find to Myer and produced a measured drawing of the mace. He also assisted Myer by providing a map of the Harpeth Valley from Kingston Springs to the mouth of the Harpeth. Apparently in appreciation for his assistance, a portion of the town at the Pack Site was named in his honor, that being Ganier Point.
In February and March 1926, P.E. Cox, then state archaeologist, carried out 27 days of field work at the Mound Bottom site. A contour map of the site was produced by C.C. Fisher and 14 mounds were recorded. Cox also explored another mound in the immediate vicinity and discovered a rock with crude human and animal carvings on both sides. According to Cox, this rock was preserved for the "museum" but has not been located. His most notable finding was baked clay floors located 2-3 feet below the surface of all the mounds surrounding the plaza. This indicates buildings of some sort were located on the summits of the mounds. In addition to work on the mounds, he also located four cemetery areas and opened a number of graves.
In 1936 and into 1937 the University of Tennessee conducted excavations at both mound centers under the direction of George K. Neumann and Stuart Neitzel. Using W.P.A. labor, most of the work concentrated at the Pack Site. The work there included the excavation of a secondary platform mound, several house sites, several sections of the palisade as well as grave studies. At the Mound Bottom site, a small stone box cemetery was excavated. Another was intended for excavation until a directive was sent to the field discontinuing work at the site as of Jan. 13, 1937.
In a letter to archaeologist Carl Kuttruff, Stuart Neitzel described that season of field work:
Mainly I froze living in tents with my booze buried in a pile of snow by the door. Luther Dobson used to bring in his walker dogs and a jug of corn and sit on my doorstep running rabbits through the camp. Other times I was getting shot at - accidentally - by exchanges between the Herters and Dobson. Everybody carried a hawgleg tucked away somewhere in their overalls or belts. Mostly big talk though. One Sunday evening Brown Pack and I were under fire for about three hours. Every time we tried to sneak home through the bush, a new sortie ran us out into the open - with hands up. They weren't after us, just any other suspicious movement in the shadows.
The University of Tennessee again returned in 1940 and excavations resumed under Charles H. Nash at the MOund Bottom site. This season of field work concentrated primarily on grave studies.
The next period of archaeological work at the Mound Bottom Site was in 1974 and 1975. Under the direction of Carl Kuttruff, Tennessee Division of Archaeology, and Michael O'Brien. Work was conducted in two seasons of field work. During 1974, Mound J, which lies at the northwest corner of the plaza, was investigated. The work exposed a prepared clay floor on the first stage of construction and a palisade around the mound. A radiocarbon date of 860 AD plus or minus 60 years provided the earliest date for the occupation of Mound Bottom. The second stage of construction revealed a parallel double palisade similar to a structure found at the Angel Site in Evansville, Indiana. A row of houses was partially excavated to the west of the main platform mound.
During the 1975 season, work on the row of houses was completed as well as a sampling taken from several residential areas outside the plaza area. The construction of several mounds around the plaza was explored and a controlled surface collection was undertaken over several large areas of the site in order to provide a broader interpretation of the site structure and function.
Archaeology has undergone much change over the past decades. The antiquarian of the late 1800's and early 1900's concentrated on objects with little attention paid to the context from which they were taken. Objects of exotic materials or ceremonial association were highly sought after. Today, archaeology recognizes that most of the information comes from the context of an object. The special relationship of that object to its surroundings is of primary importance to today's archaeologist. Excavations are no longer conducted simply to collect specimens. Today excavations are conducted to answer specific research questions with an emphasis on "every day life" or to comply with laws regarding historic and prehistoric sites. The conservation and preservation of archaeological sites are also of increasing importance today. Archaeological sites are now recognized as finite resources that are being rapidly destroyed in the face of our present rate of growth and development. It's in this spirit of preservation that the State of Tennessee purchased the Mound Bottom Site in 1972 and holds it in trust for the people of Tennessee both present and future.
Courtesy of The Advocate
Volume 8, Number 8, Saturday, February 21, 1998
By Kevin Markuson
Fourth in a series
When I go into Ohio and some other states and see the immense amount of interest taken in their ancient remains, and the great educational value thereof, it makes me exceedingly anxious for my native state to bring to the light of day her great remains .... I am endeavoring to bring out the story and the beauty of my own state. Tennesseans need arousing as to her beauty and story.
The next record of any interest in the preservation of Mound Bottom is found in a preliminary report on the Mound Bottom Archaeological area submitted by J. Charles Poe, Commissioner of Conservation for consideration as a state park area. Dated February 27, 1939, the report was submitted by William H. Hay, land use planner, with assistance from T.M.N. Lewis, Professor of Anthropology, University of Tennessee. The opening sentences are worthy of note as they apply to today's efforts:
There is no richer archaeological area in the United States than that comprising the State of Tennessee... The conservation of historical and archaeological resources is becoming increasingly a public responsibility and unless that responsibility is recognized, resources of great value are liable to all the hazards of commercial exploitation, or idle and thoughtless destruction. Because they represent an important element in the cultural background of the state, their preservation can properly be construed as the public responsibility.
Words echoing from 59 years ago still hold truth for today.
The report went on to discuss the importance of the site and the new scientific methods of archaeology -- differentiating between scientific inquiry and the curio or relic collecting of the antiquarian. The newer "systematic methods of excavation" were proposed for the development as well as an adequate approach road and the construction of museum building over the excavations "to protect them in their original state." It was further proposed that the land, some 640 acres, be acquired for state park purposes and developed with the aid of the C.C.C.
An examination of existing progress reports and correspondence regarding the 1936-1937 excavation by U.T. indicates these excavations were carried out with a museum and archaeological park in mind. To date, no documents have been located addressing what became of this proposal other than no action was taken.
The next effort was conducted by the S.I.A.S., the Southeastern Indian Antiquities Survey. Incorporated February 14, 1967 and headed by Robert Ferguson, a major project of the organization was the purchase and development of Mound Bottom as an educational center. Named the Southeastern American Indian Center, plans called for a museum, research buildings, facilities for an archaeological field school, reconstructed "temple" and houses, trails, picnic areas and what appears to be a vehicular bridge spanning the river.
Ferguson, a senior producer at RCA recording studies enlisted the aid of many country music stars including Porter Waggoner, Dolly Parton, Mel Tillis, and Johnny Cash. A goal of raising $500,000 was set by Ferguson with $60,00 marked for acquisition of the property and the remainder was to cover construction and operating costs. Horace Street, the owner of the site, had agreed to sell with S.I.A.S. holding an option to buy in 1969.
Through a course of events, their project died out. The Tennessee Division of Archaeology was created in 1970, largely as a result of lobbying efforts by the S.I.A.S. After Ferguson left Nashville to pursue other career opportunities in Mississippi, it was only logical that the Division of Archaeology assume the project to acquire the Mound Bottom site. This resulted in the 1973 purchase of Mound Bottom by the State of Tennessee. Since this time, Mound Bottom has been held as an undeveloped archaeological preserve.
Some say all things happen for a reason. In the case of plans for the Southeastern American Indian Center and the previous effort in the 1930's, this may be true. Although well intended, both plans contained elements that would not be consistent with today's archaeological or cultural resource management standards. For example, current Tennessee state law makes it illegal to display human remains, whereas in 1936 this type of exhibit was proposed. Current preliminary proposals for Mound Bottom call for all facilities to be located across the river from the mound center on a state owned 50 acre tract known as the Gossett tract, adjacent to Scott Cemetery. No development will take place on the Mound Bottom site itself. Preliminary proposals also call for a foot bridge across the river to provide access. In plans of 1969, all the facilities and parking were planned to be located directly on the archaeological site itself with a reconstructed "temple" on the primary platform mound; clearly unacceptable by current standards.
Today, 75 years after the first mention of preserving Mound Bottom, a project is underway to develop the site into a state archaeological park as part of a new state park unit.
The current project involved the State of Tennessee, a community support group and participating individuals in the community. This project was born out of a loss of the Nashville Zoo to the county when it relocated to Grassmere Park in Nashville. A presentation was made 1 and 1/2 years ago to leadership Cheatham County by state archaeologist Nick Fielder regarding historic and archaeological sites in Cheatham County, interest being in the development of tourism. After that presentation, Friends of Mound Bottom was formed in Kingston Springs. Their mission statement: "To assist and support the State of Tennessee in the preservation, education, and interpretive development of Mound Bottom within its historical context."
Led by President David Zauner, the activities of the group have centered around lobbying efforts, the collection of information to be offered for possible inclusion in a feasibility study and a series of public meetings to discuss the project with the community at large. Fund raising and grant proposals have also been discussed.
This writer has also been involved over the past year in several projects regarding Mound Bottom. These include archival research, locating artifact collections, organization and inventory of research materials at the Division of Archaeology and the development of educational programs, one of which has been this series of articles.
Another project undertaken by this writer has been to assist the state with the physical preservation of the site. With assistance provided by Friends of Mound Bottom in the form of a work day last April and continued assistance by Toye Heape of the Alliance for Native American Indian Rights throughout May, the main mound was cleared of 8 years overgrowth. A total of 15 days and some 200 hours of work were equired to clear the mound. The mound was again cleared in December of the past year's growth. Currently an old barn is being removed from part of the residential area and several smaller mounds are scheduled to have the overgrowth removed.
A joint resolution (SJR379/HJR472) is currently under consideration by the Tennessee Legislature directing the Department of Environment and Conservation to conduct a feasibility study to examine the creation of a new park management unit along the Harpeth River. Sponsored by Senator Rosalind Kurita and Representative Mike Williams, the resolution calls for the inclusion of state owned properties - Newsom's Mill, Hidden Lakes, Mound Bottom, The Narrows of the Harpeth and the Harpeth River connecting them in this proposed park unit. The resolution also directs the study to evaluate the feasibility of an interpretive center, a location for Native American Indian events and festivals and a location for reinterment of Native American Indian remains at Mound Bottom. This resolutionw has passed (32-0-0) in the Tennessee State Senate. As of the writing of this article, the resolution has not been presented in the House but will be the week of February 16th according to Representative Mike Williams. Representative Williams also expects this to pass the House without debate.
Once the resolution is passed in the House, an amendment will be added to the state budget bill for monies to be allocated for the feasibility study. According to Nick Fielder, state archaeologist, the study will be subcontracted to an independent consulting firm who will be directed to seek input from community groups, Native American groups, local and county governments and canoeing groups.
Once the study is completed over the next year, it will then be subject to review and final approval by the Department of Environment and Conservation. Current plans call for a combination of State and private monies to fund the constructions and operation of the park.
Courtesy of The Advocate
Volume 8, Number 9, Saturday, February 28, 1998
By Kevin Markuson
Fifth in a series
The year -- 1325 AD
The people of the town of Mound Bottom had occupied this site for over four hundred years. The town, situated in a beautiful winding river valley was flanked by wooded hills teeming with wildlife and contained an abundance of usable wild plants. The soils of the river bottoms were well suited for agriculture being easily broken with flint hoes. The town was part of a large settlement that included another mound center 1 1/2 miles upriver. This large settlement containing two separate towns and was the center of a vast chiefdom stretching from the Cumberland River on the North to well past the mouth of the Little Harpeth River on the South. Scattered villages and farmsteads were found all throughout the Harpeth River Valley in this area. With abundant wildlife, good soils and water it was a good place to live and the people flourished. Archaeologists in centuries to come would estimate to population to be between 10,000 and 20,000 individuals in this large area at one time.
Only a few families and an old man living alone were left in the town now. Over the past fifty or so years families began to move away from the town and other valley settlements. New towns were being formed in an area that would later be called the Outer Nashville Basin. This was a time of tremendous change for the people. The old chiefdoms that for centuries had served to bind them together were dying out. The medium to low phosphate soils of the middle and lower Harpeth drainage were becoming exhausted after centuries of cultivation. The deer population had been diminishing in the face of unparalleled population growth. As the new towns were developed no longer were large mounds built to honor their leaders. New social systems were being formed with fortified villages and towns replacing the old Mound centers and dispersed settlements in the river valley. Conflict and violence were also on the increase.
The town lay in what appeared to be ruins. After the last leader died several years ago most of the remaining people in the town left for the new settlement. WIth only a few families and the old man left it was impossible to maintain the town as it had been for centuries. The plaza and residential areas already were overgrown. The houses that were left were now deteriorating with ruins scattered throughout the town. The palisade had fallen in several places. Even the large platform mound was becoming overgrown with brush, briars and weeds. The last leader's townhouse on the summit lay in ruins with the roof collapsed and daub falling from still upright walls. In times past when a leader died his townhouse was always burned and the mound capped with fresh dirt and a new townhouse constructed. However, when the last leader died, the social changes had already started. Many people had moved away and already some of the old traditions were dying out. After his death, enough people were still present to bury him in the proper way but the townhouse was left -- standing as a ghostly reminder of what had been.
The last days of late summer were here and already the night air was becoming chilly. The small garden plots kept by the remaining families only produced a marginal crop this year and the deer were nowhere to be found. They decided to move to one of the new settlements that in centuries to come would be known as Old Town. They begged the old man to come, but he was steadfast in his resolve to stay at Mound Bottom. No matter how they begged and pleaded, it was to no avail. As the last families left the town that day through the old south gate they turned for one last look at the town. There, bent over with age and arthritis stood the old man next to his house. His heart heavy with the changing times, two tears streaked down his wrinkled cheeks. He knew this moment marked the death of his beloved town of Mound Bottom.
The old man turned and entered his house. Archaeologists in 1974 found this house and named it House #14. A circular wattle daub house, it was situated to the southwest of the platform mound. The old man was the last of a long lineage that went back to the beginning of his people -- the Mississippian People of the Harpeth River. His ancestors were blood relatives of the leadership lineage and were known as the Moundkeepers. It was they who preserved the traditions and history of the people and carried on the healing arts. They were the ones who had the honor of building and the responsibility of maintaining the leader's mound. He was the last of this long line of Moundkeepers.
For seven days he stayed in his house fasting and praying. He was deeply troubled with these changing times and yet felt he had something to do -- something of great importance. He recalled all he could about his people and their ways. The old stories were told once again through his remembrances. He recalled the grand days of his people when thousands would come to Mound Bottoms for seasonal ceremonies. He remembered the story told by his grandfather about the early corn ceremonies, one on which was carried on for centuries to come as the Green Corn Ceremony celebrated by many Southeastern Native Peoples. He recalled the elaborate rituals performed before a bear kill. The bear was long recognized as a powerful animal spirit having qualities of both the animal world, or four legged ones, and the human world, or two legged ones. Bear teeth carved from cedar, a sacred wood, and covered with copper symbolized their power and were worn with great reverence for that very powerful spirit. He remembered the summer solstice ceremony when thousands would come to Mound Bottom the day before. Dancing, singing, and ceremonies lasting all night and then the moment. Thousands all standing motionless, in silence, their gaze fixed on the sun rising over hill to the east. The solstice sunrise aligned in a straight line with Mound L in the middle of the plaza and with the center of the large platform mound. In the old days this was one of the most sacred times of the year.
He recalled the story of how Mound Bottom came to be. The people first settled the upriver site, later known as the Pack site or South Mouth Group. After several decades of good crops, plentiful deer and an influx of some new people along with an increasing birthrate, the population grew. Leaders soon emerged and the chiefdom was established. MOund Bottom was long known as a special place. It was nearly surrounded by water; a barrier against harmful spirits and the bluffs to the north and east contained caves which were known to be portals to the underworld. The leaders decided to build another town here. This would be a place where they and their lineage group would live but would also be a ceremonial place for the people of the Harpeth Valley. So it came to be the place we now call Mound Bottom.
For the seven days he fasted, prayed and remembered all these things. His voice echoed throughout the valley as he sang the old songs and the earth pulsated to the rhythm of the old dances he danced again. As he did these things he became stronger, his mind clear and his heart pure. Filled with the spirit of his people, their traditions and this place, the Creator Spirit then spoke to him. He now knew this time of change was necessary for the future to come about. He knew that by remembering the old ways, sincing the old songs, dancing the old dances and recalled to old stories for a last time he gave life to the essence of these things. They would now be here for all of time for those who would seek to know them. He also knew that although he was an old man of 70 years, it was his duty to clear the old leader's mound and repair the townhouse for the last time. With the knowledge and insight given to him he became one with all people. He became the embodiment of all who had been or were to be.
With the strength of the spirit he came out from his house. No longer did he walk bent over with age and arthritis, but stood erect with the strength of a young warrior. In the middle of the plaza, there waiting for him was the spirit council who would watch over this place; the four deer, two red-tailed hawks and a kestrel.
For several weeks he worked on the mound and had all the brush and weeds cleared off. The briars had already grown thick and everyday he was cut and scratched, blood dripping from the wounds on his arms. He willingly accepted the wounds and the bleeding. He knew that each drop of blood that fell on the side of the mound was there as a sacrifice for the people both past and future. He knew of the troubled times ahead, of the aggressive conquering race of people that would overrun the land. He knew that terrible atrocities would be inflicted upon the people and for generations they would not e understood. But he also knew this would change and sometime the descendants of these people would learn from the sins of their ancestors with peace and understanding returning to all people. It was for these things that he bled.
After he finished the moud he repaired the old townhouse with a new roof and the walls redaubed. All the time he worked the spirit council was with him. Sometimes he would look up from his work and there would be the four deer; silently walking across the plaza - watching. Sometimes he would hear the cry of the hawk and look up to see them circling above the mound bringing him strength and endurance. The kestrel, also watching hovered over the smaller mounds on the east end of the plaza. He was not alone. Every morning at sunrise he left offerings in the plaza for the council, four handfuls of corn and three pieces of meat.
The people who were the last to leave the town were becoming very worried about the old man. No one had heard of him since they left. Several were visiting at a village on the Cumberland River, later known as the Ganier Site, when they decided to take the Harpeth Trail and see about the old man. When they reached the area of Mound Bottom they climbed the hill across the river to the east and looked down on the old town. What they saw they couldn't believe. Among the ruins of the old town there stood the old platform mound cleaned of brush and weeds, the shape and angles of the mound standing out sharply against the wooded hillsides. The old townhouse on the summit was repaired and appeared much like it did before the last leader died. The mound and townhouse appeared to glow among the decaying ruins for once again it was alive with the spirit of the people. The people also saw the four deer on the plaza in front of the mound and the kestrel perched on the roof of the townhouse while the two hawks circled above. Overcome with emotion they wept, not from pain or sorrow, but from the emotion that sometimes comes when touched by the Spirit. They knew this was a powerful thing that had taken place here. In silence they left and walked back to their village never speaking a word.
That night a strange reddish orange light was seen reflecting off the clouds to the west and the following day the people returned again to Mound Bottom still thinking of the welfare of the old man. When they arrived they found the townhouse gone and the mound had been capped with a mantle of fresh dirt. The old man was no where to be found and his house appeared as if no one had lived there for a long time. For generations to come the story of the last moundkeeper was retold over and over aain.
To this day the spirit council remains watching over and guarding this place. If you go to see Mound Bottom be very quiet and look carefully. You may still see today the four deer out on the plaza or the two hawks perched in the large sycamore tree growing at the base of Mound C or the kestrel hovering over the old town site. All are still there - waiting.
Courtesy of The Advocate
Volume 8, Number 18, Saturday, May 2, 1998
By Kevin Markuson
Sixth in a series
Hill Taylor was born on the family farm near the Creech bridge in the Harpeth Valley on March 14, 1881. Married to Clittie Taylor, the couple had eight children: Bell, Martha, Joe, William, Mary Ann, Sadie, Hilda, and George Washington, also known as "Wash."
After living for a short time in Bell's Bend, Hill bought a 200 acre farm from Foster Hutton in late 1918 or early 1919 which included Mound Bottom and a portion of Butterworth Bend. The farmhouse was situated at the end of Butterworth Rd. where Leonard Lampley's house now sits. According to Mrs. Hilda Taylor Bell, one of the last surviving children of Hill Taylor, the house was two stories, weatherboarded, and had stone chimneys and a front porch.
Like farm families of the times, the Taylor family was nearly self sufficient, raising hogs, cattle, corn, hay and sorghum as well as vegetables and other produce. "These were hard times back then and there wasn't much money around" said Miss Hilda. "We were raised to work hard and know the value of work." Miss Hilda recalled that flour, sugar and coffee were the only store bought items in the household.
Hill Taylor used the Mound Bottom portion of the farm to raise corn, hay and sometimes sorghum as well as pasture cattle on the upper end. Miss Hilda recalled how her father used to plant the sides of the large platform mound in corn. "He would start at the bottom with a mule and work his way around and around the mound all the way to the top so there was a single row of corn all around the mound from top to bottom," she said with a chuckle and twinkle in her eye. Hill also used the top of the large mound to grow watermelons. He used a mule and a slide to carry the melons down from the top. Miss Hilda recalled "One of those watermelons weighed 33 pounds!"
According to daughter Hilda, Hill Taylor was very concerned with taking care of the land and always kept the large mound cleared off. The whole family loved and cherished Mound Bottom and spent many hours together working the land. Hill never used pesticides or chemical fertilizer on the land and only used barn manure to fertilize his crops. He would "rest the ground up" according to Miss Hilda by alternating his crops every couple of years. Hill also strictly forbid any disturbance of the mounds or graves by relic hunters and other curiosity seekers. It was only when approached by the professional archaeologists in the name of "scientific inquiry" that he allowed any excavations to be done.
Writing in 1974, archaeologist Stuart Neitzel recalled the condition of Mound Bottom. "The Mound Bottom location was virtually pristine in 1937 -- a remarkable condition for stone box grave cemeteries in the Nashville area." The pristine condition of this important archaeological site was due, in large part, to the efforts by Hill Taylor to preserve and protect this land.
Wm. E. Myer from the Smithsonian had come to the Valley in 1923 but his excavations were conducted at the nearby Pack site. However, he did survey, photograph, and map Mound Bottom, and produced the first published photographs of the site. Perhaps Hill Taylor became more aware of the significance of Mound Bottom after meeting with Myer. The first professional archaeologist that Hill Taylor allowed to excavate was P.E. Cox, state archaeologist, in 1926. Located in the Tennessee State Library and Archives is a signed contract between P.E. Cox on the one part and J.H. Taylor and Clittie Taylor on the other part which allowed Cox to excavate Mound Bottom. Following are the terms of that contract:
Mound Bottom remained as a part of the Hill Taylor farm until after his death on January 24, 1957. It seems only fitting that both Hill and Clittie Taylor were laid to rest in the Scott Cemetery, overlooking their beloved Mound Bottom, their home of 38 y ears and the place that helped sustain their family as it had for Native American families 800 years ago.
We, of today's generation, owe a tremendous debt of gratitude to Hill Taylor for preserving and protecting Mound Bottom. It was through his caring for the place that we have been handed down such a well preserved and relatively intact major prehistoric mound center. If an interpretive center is every established at Mound Bottom, perhaps it would be appropriate to erect a plaque in honor of John Hill Taylor for his contributions in preserving this site. An interpretive center should not only stand as a monument to the Native American people who lived there, but also to those individuals and families who have cared for and protected this land since then.
With honor and respect, we of the Harpeth Valley today thank you, Hill Taylor, for protecting and taking care of this place that we all care so much for. The memory of Hill and Clittie Taylor and their family will forever be a part of Mound Bottom.
Published: The Advocate is published weekly by the South Cheatham Advocate, Inc. Jim Lewis, Editor. The Advocate is delivered each Saturday to all postal patrons in Kingston Springs and Pegram.
Office Location: The Advocate's Mailing Address is P.O. Box 208, Kingston Springs, Tennessee 37082. The phone numbe is 952-5554, the FAX $ is 952-9387, and E-mail is SCAdvocate@aol.com. The office for The Advocate is located at 1500 Fallen Bee Tree Road, Kingston Springs, TN.