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The Mound Builders


Pinson Mounds--Cahokia Mounds--Teotihuacan

The mound builder cultures of the Americas that we are going to examine include two sites in the United States, Cahokia Mounds, a few miles west of Collinsville, Illinois; Pinson Mounds, ten miles south of Jackson, Tennessee; and the pyramids of Teotihuacan (Teo), forty miles northeast of Mexico City. Your textbook, ArtForms, by Preble, Preble and Frank (2002), also discusses the Great Serpent Mound in Ohio, the Tikal Temple in Guatemala, and Machu Picchu in Peru as well as the pyramids at Teotihuacan. You will also see that there is a connection to Stonehenge in Wiltshire, England, which was built about 2000 B.C.E. Each of the "mounds" have had some areas that were excavated and/or restored, where artifacts and burial sights with human remains have been found.

Pinson Mounds

It is believed that Pinson Mounds, located ten miles south of Jackson, Tennessee, functioned as a ceremonial center and did not have a residential population. It contains more than 17 mounds with an earthen geometric enclosure, on approximately 400 acres. Radiocarbon dating indicates that the major mound building occurred about 50 B.C.E. to 380 C.E., and is considered to be of the Middle Woodland Period, although there are also features of the Mississippian Culture. It is the largest Middle Woodland Period mound complex in the southeast.

Placement of some of the mounds suggests that they were used to determine the solar equinox and solstice sunrise. From the largest mound, Saulís Mound, the sun may be observed rising at the spring and fall equinoxes over top of Mound 29. Saulís Mound is 72 feet tall with each corner pointing toward a cardinal direction.

Cahokia Mounds

Cahokia, which is named after the tribe that was living in that area when the French arrived in 1600, was originally inhabited about 700 to 1400 C.E. and had an estimated population of from 10,000 to 25,000. It was the most sophisticated prehistory Native American civilization north of Mexico.

Archeologists have named the first inhabitants the Late Woodland Culture and later inhabitants are called the Mississippian culture. It became a regional center for the Mississippian culture after 1000 CE and may have been abandoned due to depletion of natural resources from possible climatic changes. Although there were more than 120 mounds originally, only 109 have been recorded. Some were destroyed by farming and urban construction. The mounds were built from earth that was transported in baskets on peopleís backs and it is estimated that more than 50 million cubic feet of earth were moved to form the mounds.

Nearby are the remains of four, and possible five circular sun calendars, made from evenly spaced log posts. They are called Woodhenge because their function was similar to Stonehenge and were probably used for ceremonies to determine the seasons, which is important for an agricultural society.

Monksí mound is the largest mound north of Mexico and has a base that is larger than the base of the Sun Pyramid at Teo and the Great Pyramid at Giza in Egypt. Its height is equivalent to a ten-story building and there is a forty-acre plaza in front of the mound. The steps going up the mound are made from logs. Although it was built between 900 and 1200 CE, it received its name from the French Trappist Monks who lived near there in the 17th century. The top of the mound contained a ceremonial building or residences for the elite.

Nearby are the remains of four, and possible five circular sun calendars, made from evenly spaced log posts. They have been named  Woodhenge because their function was similar to Stonehenge and were probably used for ceremonies to determine the seasons, which are important for an agricultural society.


Thirty miles northeast of Mexico City, are the pyramids of Teo located on 80 square miles. Teotihuacan means the City of the Gods and was believed to be the place where the Gods created the world. They were built from around 900 B.C.E. to 850 C.E.  Between 400 and 700 C.E. the population was estimated to be between 125,000 and 250,000 and then the area was abandoned in 700 C.E., and there is evidence of the city being destroyed by fire. The pyramids were built from rubble carried in baskets and then covered with thick white plaster, which was then painted red or sometimes decorated with mythical scenes. The people who built the site are believed to be the Toltec, which means "artist of the spirit", and they left giant mammoth bones which caused the Aztecs to believe that the city was built by giants. The earlier Toltec supposedly made sacrifices of flower, seeds, butterflies, fruits and occasionally birds and there were no objects of war or fortifications found.  

The ancient city was entered by the Avenue of the Dead, which runs slightly off of true north and south. The Pyramid of the Moon is at the north end and the Pyramid of the Sun is on the east side of the avenue. The layout of the city was based on grids with apartment buildings holding up to 100 people. There was craft specialization, especially in obsidian because of the nearby quarries, and much trading took place. A network of aqueducts was found where water could flow from the many springs. There are more than 200 ruins of temples along the two-mile strip of the Avenue of the Dead. In the 1800's, it was known as the Way of the Dead or Way of the Stars, with implications that it represented the Milky Way, where the soul passed through on its journey after death.

The first structure that was built was the Pyramid of the Sun, with the very center located above a natural cave with a spring in it, which was why this particular location was chosen for the City of the Gods. It was enlarged by the ancient peoples into a four-room chamber shaped like a clover leaf and was reached by a straight tunnel. It is built in four tiers and is 210 feet high, while the moon pyramid is 135 feet high. The Pyramid of the Sun is aligned to the east west movement of the sun and to the rising of the Pleiades star cluster on the spring and fall equinox days. Originally the pyramid was covered with polished lime plaster applied over bricks faced with stone and some parts were painted in color. The open area of the plaza in front of the pyramid is the same size as the base of the pyramid, so that the positive area of the pyramid is reflected in the negative space or void of the plaza.

The Feathered Serpent Pyramid is located at the southeast end of the Avenue of the Dead and is part of the Cuidadela complex. Excavations have discovered four human graves at the four corners of the pyramid. Originally stone sculptures covered the four sides of the pyramid and it is speculated that there were originally 366, to represent the days of the solar year. Sculptures of the Feathered Serpent or Quetzalcoatl, the god of agriculture, alternate with another god believed to be Tlaloc, the rain god, or Quetzalpapalotl, the butterfly god. In the Toltec spirituality, the butterfly represented the soulís immortality. The Temple of the Butterfly is located in front of the Moon Pyramid and contains a staircase with large snake heads. Originally the sculptures were covered with plaster and painted mostly in red and white. After the third century, paintings were used to decorate the temples instead of sculpture ornamentation.


Teotihuacan, page 2

Bibliography and References


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