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Etowah Mounds

Mississippian Archaeological Site in Georgia

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1890-1891 Plan of Etowah Group by Cyrus Thomas

1890-1891 Plan of Etowah Group by Cyrus Thomas

Published in Cyrus Thomas's 1894 report to the Bureau of Ethnology

Etowah (Eh-toe-wah) is a group of large rammed earth mounds located on the Etowah River in Bartow county in northwestern Georgia in the southeastern United States. Etowah includes six major mounds, all built about AD 950 and abandoned by about 1600, within an area of approxiately 21 hectares (54 acres). The three sides of the Etowah group facing away from the river are surrounded by a large fortification ditch which once enclosed the town and late in its occupation contained a wooden palisade.

Etowah is the Cherokee name for the mounds, and it is often spelled Itawa or Italwa. Some scholars have suggested that the name is a corruption of the English name for the site: "High Tower" referring to the stunning height of Mound A. Etowah is part of the Southeastern Ceremonial Complex (SECC, also known as Southern Cult), and a part of the extensive and powerful Mississippian civilization.

Archaeological evidence suggests that Etowah was an important center for the Mississippian culture. Its earliest development was as an organization that was based on a shared, group-level ruled community, with little evidence of status differentiation. By the Late Etowah phase of the 13th century AD, Etowah's power grew, eventually establishing trade connections within the SECC corridor throughout the lower Mississippi valley.

Chronology at Etowah

  • AD 1600, abandoned
  • 1475-1600, reoccupation by Late Mississippian
  • 1375-1475, abandoned
  • 1250-1375, Middle Mississippian, Wilbanks phases
  • 1000-1200 Early Mississippian, Etowah phases
  • AD 950-1000, founded

Building at Etowah

The largest mound at Etowah, Mound A, is over 60 feet (19 meters) tall. On its eastern side, Mound A has a prominent ramp; a two-tiered terrace projects from its southern side. Mounds B and C are both large flat-topped pyramidal mounds each standing between 6 and 7 meters tall. Three smaller mounds were built at Etowah, but have been severely eroded and are only marked as low rises within the site.

In the early 1960s, the presence of a palisade wall with bastions was identified. Excavations conducted in the 1960s and again in the 1990s, indicate that the palisade consisted of a row of posts placed within a ditch. Radiocarbon dates on burned postholes and artifacts found within the ditch suggest that the palisade was likely constructed between 1325 and 1375 AD, during the Late Wilbanks phase. The palisade was burned shortly before Etowah was abandoned.

Population estimates for Etowah at its heyday include approximately 1400 people living in about 350 houses. Other parts of the site include basin-shaped borrow pits connected by a large ditch; some of the borrow pits were in-filled by midden deposits with some evidence for occasional feasting. In the 1850s, the ditch was between 1.5 and 7.6 meters deep and 6-23 meters wide; it was most likely the source of the earth for mound construction. On the river, and between refuse pits, was a large plaza and several small communal buildings. Agricultural fields where corn, beans and squash were grown were likely placed within the nearby floodplain.

Grave goods found within some of the mounds such as beaten copper plates are evidence that Etowah was part of the Southern Cult.

Etowah Palettes

One characteristic object found at Etowah are stone palettes, flat stone objects about the size and shape of a dinner plate, which are commonly found in many Mississippian communities, including Moundville and Cahokia. Ten palettes have been found to date at Etowah: the first of these types of artifacts were found at the site in 1859. The palettes are round to rectangular in shape, and generally measure between 23-30 centimeters (~8 to 12 inches) in length and about 2.5 centimeters (one inch) in thickness. The bottoms are slightly rounded to convex, and the tops are flat, sometimes with a depression in the center.

Decorations on the palettes is fairly consistent, with a scalloped, notched or rayed edge and an incised band along its edge. Most of the palettes recovered have been found to contain remnants of red ochre, graphite, and kaolinite, along with a resin; this strongly suggests that the palettes were used to grind and mix paint for ceremonial use. Many of the examples were recovered from burials from Mound C, apparently wrapped in textiles and bundled with a pestle and other objects that suggest to researchers they were part of a "tool kit" for paint-making.

Archaeology at Etowah

Etowah was investigated in the mid-nineteenth by C.C. Jones and by Cyrus Thomas in the late 19th century. Excavations were conducted sporadically throughout the 20th century, by Warren Moorehead, W.A. Freeman, Adam King, C. Dahlberg and S. Ray, and Lewis Larson, among many others.

Visiting Etowah

Today Etowah is owned and managed by the State of Georgia, and open for visitors.

Sources

This article is a part of the About.com Guide to the Mississippian Civilization, and part of the Dictionary of Archaeology.

Bigman DP, King A, and Walker CP. 2011. Recent geophysical investigations and new interpretations of Etowah's palisade. Southeastern Archaeology 30(1):38-50.

King A. 2003. Over a Century of Explorations at Etowah. Journal of Archaeological Research 11(4):279-306.

King A, Walker CP, Sharp RV, Kent RF, and McKinnon DP. 2011. Remote sensing from Etowah's Mound A: Architecture and the re-creation of Mississippian tradition. American Antiquity 76(2):335-371.

Steponaitis VP, Swanson SE, Wheeler G, and Drooker PB. 2011. The provenance and use of Etowah palettes. American Antiquity 76(1):81-106.

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