Poverty Point is a large, C-shaped, 3,500-year-old earthwork located on the Maçon Ridge in the Mississippi River trench, in the northeastern part of the American state of Louisiana. The site consists of a semicircular or perhaps semi-octagonal series of five or perhaps six concentric rings or ridges, cut by three or perhaps four radial avenues or aisles. These ridges circle around an artificially raised plaza, and there are five additional mounds, within an area of approximately seven square kilometers (about 17 acres). The site's original configuration has been a topic of debate for the past fifty years or more, partly due to the erosive forces of the adjacent Bayou Macon.
No doubt about this, though: Poverty Point was built and occupied by Archaic period hunter-gatherers between 1750 and 979 calibrated years BC (cal BC), and as such it is one of the oldest mound complexes in North America.
Archaeologists have segregated Poverty Point's ridges into five sectors, based on interpretations of the cross-cutting avenues. Mound A is the largest of the mounds at the site, west of the western sector and rising to a height of some 22 meters (72 feet), with a base of about 200x200 m (650x650 ft). It is composed of two sections, a tall, conical section and a shorter, flat-topped section, leading researchers to consider Mound A an effigy mound, the representation of a bird in flight.
Mound B is a large, conical mound, close to the northwestern ridge sector, 6 m (20 ft) tall and approximately 60 m (200 ft) in diameter. Mound E is a large, sub-rectangular, flat topped platform mound, 3.5-4 m (11.5-13 ft) tall and with a 100x110 m (328x360 ft) basal dimension. Mound D is another platform mound, a short, flat-topped, sub-rectangular feature about 40x35 m (130x115 ft), and rising about 35 centimeters (14 inches). It has been capped by several 19th century burials. Mound C is on the plaza, rising only approximately 2 m (6.5 ft) above the plaza and it is approximately 20 m (65 ft) in diameter.
The ridges are numbered 1 (innermost) through 6 (outermost), and they were built to an original height of 1.2 to 1.8 m (4-6 ft); the two innermost were apparently higher and more regularly spaced than the others. The plaza includes an area of approximately 14 hectares (35 acres).
A large suite of radiocarbon dates was reported in 2010 (Ortmann), who used that to estimate the dates of construction and occupation between 1750-979 cal BC. The earliest construction at the site was Lower Jackson Mound, built ca 3948-3661 cal BC, the only earthwork attributed to the Middle Archaic (and not really considered part of Poverty Point proper). Mounds B, E, C, A, and D were all built during the Late Archaic, likely in that order and with dates ranging from 1872-1431 cal BC. Ridge construction began sometime during or shortly after the 18th century BC.
Remapping Poverty Point
Maps made by various investigators have codified the notion that Poverty Point had a nearly symmetrical configuration. However, considerable erosion has damaged the site, and other issues arose concerning the accuracy of early maps. In 1999-2000, a team led by Tristram Kidder comprehensively mapped the site using a total station laser transit. The cumulative map and comparison with aerial photographs indicated that there appear to be only five extant ridges at the site: a sixth has been nearly completely obliterated, although faint traces and evidence from excavations yet survive.
In addition, the new map calls into question the symmetry of the ridge system, particularly the manner in which they are bisected by the avenues: the rings are not continuous elevations across long distances. Most importantly, the new mapping did not identify either a southern or a northern aisle: there appear to be no consistent linear break in the ridges at these locations. Kidder postulates that the southern avenue may have been obliterated by modern activities, but the northern avenue, portrayed on maps since the early 1950s, appears to never have existed.
Pottery Point has been interpreted in a number of ways. Most scholars consider the site a permanent residence of a large, socially, politically and economically ranked population. The town was spatially organized in a geometrically symmetrical order, or so the theory goes, that must have included a significant political structure capable of organizing and mobilizing sufficient labor to plan and construct the mound itself.
A second, minority viewpoint, is that he town was a small center, with a modest community that evolved over time with little or no planning. Continuing analysis and ongoing excavations in support of the conservation of the site may assist in determining the site function.
In the early 1980s, archaeoastronomers Kenneth Brecher and William Haag made a case for solar alignments at Poverty Point. The shape of the overall site is semi-octagonal, different in design from any others in the United States. The aisles or avenues define a central point within the site, although it is not marked in anyway that has been identified. Azimuths estimated for the four avenues extending out from the central point are at 191° (south or 1), 241° (west or 2), 299° (northwest or 3) and 344° (north or 4) degrees: summer and winter solstice setting azimuths were at 241° and 299°, in circa 1000 BC. The other two avenues, suggest Brecher and Haag, may have pointed to the setting location of Canopus (190° degrees) and Gamma Draconis (344° degrees). According to the latest research, of course, the northern avenue is probably not truly an avenue.
Investigators of Poverty Point include C.B. Moore, who published the first survey in 1913; Moore simply described a site with six mounds. In the 1950s, James A. Ford used aerial photographs to identify the geometric configuration of the concentric rings, which were invisible to Moore because of the site's scale: four of Moore's mounds were actually part of the ridge system.
Poverty Point was extensively mapped by Tristram Kidder in 1999-2000, and new excavations were undertaken beginning in 2001 by Anthony Ortmann on each of the five mounds making up the main earthwork complex.
Brecher K, and Haag WG. 1983. Astronomical Alignments at Poverty Point. American Antiquity 48(1):161-163.
Gibson JL. 2000. The Ancient Mounds of Poverty Point. Gainesville: University Press of Florida.
Gibson JL. 2007. “Formed from the Earth at That Place:” The Material Side of Community at Poverty Point. American Antiquity 72(3):509-523.
Hargrave ML, Britt T, and Reynolds MD. 2007. Magnetic Evidence of Ridge Constructon and Use at Poverty Point. American Antiquity 72(4):757-770.
Kidder TR. 2002. Mapping Poverty Point. American Antiquity 67(1):89-102.
Kidder TR. 2006. Climate change and the Archaic to Woodland transition (3000-2500 cal B.P.) in the Mississippi River basin. American Antiquity 71:195-232.
Ortmann AL. 2010. Placing the Poverty Point mounds in their Temporal context. American Antiquity 75(3):657-678.
Purrington RD. 1983. Supposed Solar Alignments at Poverty Point. American Antiquity 48(1):157-161.
Webb CH. 1968. The Extent and Content of Poverty Point Culture. American Antiquity 33(3):297-321.