Archaeology Month

Every October we celebrate the stories written in the soil by dedicating a month to all things archaeology with Alabama Archaeology Month. This annual commemoration celebrates cultural heritage as revealed through the archaeology. You can dig in, too, with our friends and partners across the state, each with a variety of programs, exhibits, hands-on activities, and tours at parks, museums, universities, libraries, and elsewhere.

Archaeology is a huge part of our mission at the Alabama Historical Commission, critical to investigating, identifying and properly preserving Alabama’s historic places. Each year during Archaeology Month we select a theme to highlight an area of archaeology and its unique connections to our state. For 2021, we have chosen to highlight the Alabama Indigenous Mound Trail. An indigenous mound – also commonly called Indian mound – is a name that may be applied to a variety of monuments erected by some of the indigenous people of the United States. Before the arrival of Europeans, highly organized indigenous societies began constructing mounds and associated earthworks out of earth, shell, and stone throughout Alabama’s landscape.

"Alabama has a wide variety of indigenous mound sites. These were constructed over thousands of years by different native cultures, for varying purposes. They were constructed of earth, shell, or dry stone and the earthen mounds were often capped in clay. Mounds are usually part of a much larger archaeological site so people should be conscious of identifying and preserving the entire archaeological site and not just the mound itself,” said Stacye Hathorn, State Archaeologist.

“These archaeological sites are an important part of Alabama’s heritage and they hold special meaning to indigenous people so they should be treated with the same sort of respect and reverence with which we treat churches.”

There were hundreds of Native American mound sites across Alabama. These mounds were once associated with thriving villages, towns, cities, and ceremonial complexes. Many have been destroyed or obscured over time but there are a number that you can still visit today to learn their story and the story of the people who built them, which is an important part of our collective heritage. That was the reason behind the development of the Alabama Indigenous Mound Trail or AIMT. The AIMT webpage, states, “The Alabama Indigenous Mound Trail seeks to enhance public understanding of the purpose and significance of these sites by highlighting those that are open to the public. We encourage everyone to visit each site to experience their uniqueness as cultural landscapes, and to learn more about the people who created them.”

The Trail opened in 2019 with 13 sites spanning across Alabama. The AIMT is a project of The University of Alabama’s Center for Economic Development and Office of Archaeological Research and partnering groups, funded in part by the Alabama Bicentennial Commission and the Alabama Association of RC&D Councils, and with the help of the Alabama Historical Commission and several sovereign tribal nations.

The program has promoted the development of community-based celebrations of indigenous cultures as well. Future phases of the program hope to add more sites as other opportunities to share these incredible places are identified. Although the concept was developed as part of planning to include the role of indigenous people in the story of Alabama’s first 200 years (1819-2019), organizers understood the opportunity to share a history much longer than that. With input from archaeologists and tribal representatives, the trail seeks to promote a better understanding of our shared heritage spanning thousands of years.

“If you consider Alabama’s heritage, you have to appreciate the incredible depth of history connected with indigenous people, spanning 13,500 years or more,” said Matthew Gage, Director of the Office of Archaeological Research, at The University of Alabama Museums.

The AIMT website notes the zenith of monumental construction in Alabama took place between 1000 A.D. and 1500 A.D. when the Mississippian mound complexes of the Tennessee, Coosa, Alabama, Tombigbee, Mobile-Tensaw, Black Warrior River Valleys, and Alabama’s Gulf Coast dominated the landscape of the region. Each complex site was a bustling center of cultural activity, with tribute and goods from half a continent away pouring in as part of complex economies and belief systems.

“These sites represent incredible cultures, political structures, religion, trade networks and settlement patterns. They highlight how incredible our state is. It’s amazing to see the remnants of cities and huge ceremonial centers and then to understand that you are looking at evidence of cultures that existed long before Europeans arrived and that were built by amazing artists and engineers,” Gage says.

What makes visiting the Indigenous Mounds even more exciting is the fact that these cultures are still very much alive throughout Alabama and across the nation, allowing people to learn about the past and then meet their descendants and their thriving cultures today.

“The opportunity to examine where our state was, in terms of past cultures, and compare that with where it is now, and to experience the mixture of them all is exciting,” Gage said. “Lots of places don’t have the opportunity where people can interact with Native Americans, see how vibrant their communities are, and have a chance to appreciate that they are still practicing a lot of the same traditions from centuries ago.”

Most of the Trail sites provide opportunities for self-guided tours that visitors can do at their own pace and some sites also have museums. Because the sites span the state, it’s easy to find a local Indigenous Mound site nearby to start the exploration and do it in a way that preserves our cultural heritage. If you visit any archaeological site, remember that they are non-renewable heritage resources and all of us have a responsibility to preserve and protect them.

There is a wealth of resources online to help plan a visit to the Alabama Indigenous Mound Trail and learn more about the sites and their people. Visit Alabama Mound Trail to get started. You can also connect with Trail news and events on Facebook at Facebook - MoundTrail.