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Moundbuilders of Native North America, Before the Pyramids, at Penn Museum

A new Penn Museum exhibit titled Moundbuilders: Ancient Architects of North America highlights more than 5,000 years of building.
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Marvels of the ancient world include the extraordinary earthen mounds built by Native people in North America. There is a new exhibition that highlights these achievements: Moundbuilders: Ancient Architects of North America opened June 24 at the Penn Museum in Philadelphia. It tells part of the story of more than 5,000 years of Native American moundbuilding through photographs, archival excavation records, and more than 60 artifacts excavated at mound sites throughout the eastern United States. The exhibition runs through December 2017.

“Places don’t make it into museum exhibits as often as objects do, but Moundbuilders highlights the amazing earthen monuments constructed by Native American populations over the course of the last 5,000-plus years,” said Dr. Megan Kassabaum, Weingarten Assistant Curator for North America at the Penn Museum and an archaeologist who directs the Smith Creek Archaeological Project, curator of the exhibition.

“By opening visitors’ eyes to these incredible engineering achievements and the people who built them, the exhibit emphasizes the complexity and variation of pre-contact Native cultures across the eastern United States and ties these places, people, and practices to contemporary groups.”


Many thousands of mounds were built across the U.S. over the last several millennia. They include the Watson Brake site in northeast Louisiana from 3500 BCE—built 1,000 years before the Great Pyramid at Giza—to Cahokia, a city of well over 10,000 people by the 1050 CE located near St. Louis, Missouri as well as the ancient mounds and complex community of Poverty Point in southern Louisiana.

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The exhibition includes excavated artifacts made from a variety of materials such as a carved underwater panther boatstone believed to be used as a spear weight along with pots and pendants, some bearing sacred designs associated with the Southeastern Ceremonial Complex; that site featured a system of signs and symbols shared among different groups living hundreds of miles apart ca. 1000-1500 CE.

Photos of the mounds include those of Cahokia, Poverty Point and other spots in the eastern part of the country but mainly from the Mississippi Valley.

The Cahokia site was set amid the “largest prehistoric concentration of people and monumental architecture north of Mexico,” according to Dr. Kassabaum. The entire city had approximately 120 mounds and the ceremonial core of the city spans about five square miles.

One of Cahokia’s important features is Monk’s Mound, the largest site discovered so far, which stood at 100 feet and included five separate terraces and spans across 14 acres.

The Poverty Point site consisted of one 70 feet-tall mound, four smaller mounds and six concentric earthen ridges surrounding a central open area. Artifacts collected from the site indicate the presence of skilled artisans and extensive long-distance trade extending from the Great Lakes to the Gulf of Mexico.

Penn Museum staff reported that they are working on other Native American projects for the future.