Moundville: A Breathtaking Archaeological Find in Alabama

MOUNDVILLE, Ala. -- The bowl is dusky black, crowned with the crested head of a wood duck and sculpted with an elegant simplicity that is still breathtaking after half a millennium.

Almost 100 years ago, its discovery at Moundville set the archeological world "agog," according to one contemporary account. Nowadays, that celebrated Indian vessel sits in obscurity inside a Smithsonian museum storage cabinet on the outskirts of Washington, D.C.

"Man, is it a wonderful piece," Assistant Collections Manager Mark Clark told the Mobile Register during a specially arranged visit to view the bowl and other Moundville artifacts this fall.

To some, however, there's a bittersweet tang to the fact that a brilliant reminder of Alabama's heritage hasn't been seen here since its discovery. For that, they can credit -- or blame -- the pioneering Yankee who unearthed it: Clarence Bloomfield Moore.

If Moore is not exactly a household name, archeologists view him as a one man Lewis-and-Clark -- the first serious researcher to set foot on countless Southeastern Indian sites. At Moundville in west Alabama, his excavations in 1905-06 were instrumental in drawing national attention to a locale now recognized as a great ceremonial center of the "Mississippian" Indian culture that flourished across the Southeast long before Columbus.

The story of Moore and Moundville is worth retelling, if only as the cautionary tale of a state's indifference to one of its richest treasures. Moore, a Philadelphia native, was able to discern grandeur where Alabamians of the day saw little more than a worthless jumble of earthworks.

Years later, apparently in reaction to his activities, a jealous Legislature passed a law barring the removal of artifacts from the state. By then, it was too late. Moore was long gone from Moundville, and with him, many choice specimens.

The rest of the South had nothing like Moundville, he once wrote a colleague. "The time will come when the state of Alabama will regret not having purchased and preserved these wonderful monuments."

The site was ultimately rescued, but only decades later and largely through the efforts of then-state Geologist Walter Jones, who twice mortgaged his house to help pay for the property. The 320-acre Moundville Archeological Park is now part of the University of Alabama.

Even today, one can fairly argue that the haunting assembly of 30 earthen pyramids near the banks of the Black Warrior River is still awaits its rightful due. Moundville is one of the largest prehistoric settlements discovered north of Mexico. Recent scholarship hypothesizes that the site later evolved into a sanctuary so sacred that Indians considered it a transit point to the afterlife.

But Alabamians are more likely to know Moundville as a routine stop on the grade school field trip circuit. Its cramped 63-year-old museum hasn't had a facelift in three decades; Director Bill Bomar frankly calls some of the park's exhibits "embarrassing." Some, such as a replica of a chief's house atop the largest mound, have had to be closed because they are unsafe or not presentable, he said.

To supplement a shoestring budget, a first-ever fund-raising campaign for capital improvements is in the works. At this point, no target has been announced, and it's uncertain how much money will be available.

"Folks around here, they don't really realize quite how important it is," said Jim Knight, a University of Alabama anthropology professor who has done extensive work at Moundville.

Give Clarence Moore his due: He did.

Moore died in 1936, well into his 80s. While his fame never fully dimmed in scholarly circles, perhaps only now is he getting his deserved moment in the sun. The University of Alabama Press is reprinting the detailed and handsomely illustrated accounts that he faithfully published after each expedition. There's talk of a biography.

"This is certainly an amazing career. The work that he did is sort of the foundation of an awful lot of work that people are doing now, 100 years later," said Larry Aten, a retired National Park Service archeologist in Washington, D.C., who has spent the last six years researching Moore's life.

Moore was among the legion of gentlemen researchers who filled the ranks of 19th century scientists and scholars. The only son of a Philadelphia paper company magnate, he walked away from the family business at age 47 to devote himself to archeology.

Love Moore or hate him -- and some professionals confess ambivalence over his relatively crude excavation techniques -- there's no escaping his importance. Between 1891 and 1918, he roamed from east Florida to Mobile Bay to Indiana on a single-minded quest to explore every major Indian site that could be reached by water.

His work salvaged countless remnants of prehistoric civilization. Sites that Moore explored in the Tennessee Valley later ended up under water after hydroelectric dams were built. Indian shell mounds in Georgia became road pavement.

But for someone devoted to unearthing the traces of the past, Moore was no slouch at covering his own. He kept his personal life so discreetly cloaked that for years researchers knew of only a single portrait -- his college graduation photo. Even the circumstances that drew him into archeology aren't known for sure.

As a member of Philadelphia society, Moore had been an early Florida snowbird. There, the theory goes, he might have been intrigued by the Indian shell mounds found on riverbanks. Or, according to another line of speculation, he came under the spell of an earlier trailblazer, Jeffries Wyman of what is now Harvard University.

Whatever led him down that road, Moore was pretty much traveling it alone. Southeastern Indians have never had the historical star power of their free-roaming counterparts on the Great Plains. Moore, furthermore, was concerned with the Mississippians, a far-flung culture that had largely disappeared by the time whites appeared on the scene.

The Mississippians -- so called because their civilization spread outward from the Mississippi Valley -- thrived from around 1200 A.D. to 1500 A.D. They depended heavily on production of corn, produced memorable pottery and built imposing structures on top of earthen mounds.

Throughout the 19th century, the origin of those mounds was fitfully -- if ignorantly -- debated. One line of thought had it that Moundville was the handiwork of one of the lost tribes of Israel. During a separate expedition to coastal Georgia, Moore had to explain to a newspaper reporter that the mounds there were not the final resting place of giants.

Against that backdrop, the South "was wide open, absolutely wide open," said Knight, the University of Alabama anthropologist.

It was no assignment for the comfort-loving. Much of the South was still a primitive, roadless place. By the standards of the day, Moore traveled in style aboard a flat-bottomed steamboat named the "Gopher of Philadelphia," with a crew of up to about 20 men. But if life on the water had its amenities, such as nightly poker games, the daily digging was a grind.

Frederick Swift, a New York salesman who enjoyed hunting and yachting, once spent a day in the field with Moore. He found the monotony unbearable.

"It struck me as being a very dead kind of sport," Swift later wrote in an account that also says much about the sensibilities of the time. "I felt at the end of the day as if I wanted to stick up one of the Indian skulls and shoot at an eye-hole to see if it wouldn't wink once more."

Fairly typical was a 1905 expedition to Mobile Bay, which produced "meager" results, Moore reported. An accompanying survey of Mississippi Sound was so discouraging that he gave up around Biloxi.

It was only a month or so later, in March 1905, that Moore arrived at Moundville as part of a survey of sites along the Black Warrior River south of Tuscaloosa. The site was mostly part of two plantations; upon disembarking, Moore had to tramp through a cotton field to reach the mounds nearby.

Up to then, Moore's Alabama expeditions had been long on sweat and short on finds. Here, he struck the archeological equivalent of the mother lode. Whatever else was known of its long-vanished inhabitants, Moore later wrote, they "figured among the foremost in the art of the ancient peoples of what is now the United States." He was so impressed that he made a follow-up visit in 1906. Among the finds that presumably drew him back was the crested duck bowl. Not given to overstatement, Moore described it as a "triumph of aboriginal endeavor."

Moore was not the first archeologist to visit Moundville. Scholars from the Smithsonian had made perfunctory stops decades before. Not only were Moore's excavations far more extensive, he later published his findings in two volumes that in effect introduced Moundville to the world.

By that point, it was known that Moundville was the product of an Indian culture that predated the Choctaws and other tribes that later dominated west Alabama. Much else remained a mystery. By 1200 A.D., however, it had swollen to a trading center that was home to as many as 1,000 people, with perhaps 10,000 more living under its control some 50 miles up and down the Black Warrior.

In some respects, the inhabitants lived up to Hollywood stereotypes. Tattoos were elaborate. The men wore small coverings of buckskin. To foster attractiveness, infants' skulls were flattened by binding them to cradleboards.

But Moundville was a complex, highly stratified society, Moundville Park Director Bill Bomar said. Indeed, although the mounds sometimes served as graves, they began as building platforms, constructed through the laborious accumulation of basket after basket of dirt. Then as now, height conferred status. The largest of the mounds is some 60 feet high, and contains 111,000 cubic yards of earthen, Bomar said, or the equivalent of 20,000 small truck loads.

Moundville is not the largest Mississippian site -- Cahokia, near St. Louis, is considerably bigger -- but to archeologists, it's valued for its unusually well-preserved mounds and the artifacts that survived.

What also makes Moundville exceptional, Knight said, is that its character changed dramatically over time. No more a bustling center of commerce, Moundville became a "necropolis" -- literally a city of the dead.

The only inhabitants were caretakers, responsible for interring the bodies that arrived regularly. "It became not just a place where you bring the dead to bury, but a place where the priests knew how to get you to the afterlife," Knight said.

That may explain the most striking motif in Moundville art: the eye embedded in an open palm. The symbol is found in the famed rattlesnake disk and many other objects. The rattlesnake-like creature circling along the disk's border represents the master of the underworld, Knight said. The eye at its center is the gateway to the next world.

The rattlesnake disk, incidentally, was one artifact that Moore didn't get. Uncovered by a farmer in the mid-1800s, it is now on display in the Moundville museum.

Moore was nothing if not industrious. A contemporary newspaper account of his work in Georgia noted that newly discovered artifacts "are shipped to Philadelphia as fast as they are unearthed."

The Smithsonian counts 504 Moundville objects in its possession, all of them collected by Moore.

Originally, Moore's finds went to his sponsor, the Philadelphia Academy of Natural Sciences. Many of those holdings later wound up in a Bronx, N.Y. warehouse and are now gradually being transferred to a Smithsonian facility in Washington

Even before Moore went to work in Moundville, his forays into Alabama were no secret. In a 1900 report to the governor, a state historical commission glumly noted that mound exploration had largely been "limited to ignorant search for treasure or to the spasmodic digging of the seeker after relics."

Only Moore, the report continued, had attempted any systematic effort. "While further exploration is desirable," the authors wrote, it would be better left to Alabamians.

To reinforce the point, the Legislature in 1915 passed a largely unenforceable law that barred the removal of prehistoric antiquities from the state. Although scavengers and treasure hunters continued to be a nuisance after Moore's departure, it was not until 1923 that the Moundville Historical Society came into existence with the goal of putting the site under state ownership.

When the group sponsored a "homecoming" that year to rally support, The Birmingham News treated the event to a lavish two-page spread, complete with photos of one mound overgrown with trees and a bit of editorial finger-wagging.

"Southern people have been too careless, not only about their history, but about their places of interest," the reporter lamented. "California, the Great Northwest and New England have learned the value of playing up their points of historic interest, as well as their scenery."

State leaders didn't rush to accept the challenge even as erosion increasingly threatened Moundville. Between 1929 and 1939, Jones, the state geologist, had to twice borrow against his house and also risk three life insurance policies to raise the money to buy the site.

The state finally came across with a $6,000 appropriation in 1939. By that point, the Depression-era Civilian Conservation Corps had embarked on the first thorough digging since Moore. Just this year, a University of Alabama team made a surprise discovery of a ceremonial "earth lodge." Over all the years, only about 15 percent of the entire site has been excavated.

One of the harsh realities of archeology is that, once unearthed, artifacts can end up a long way from home.

For the better part of two centuries, some of the most famous sculptures of the ancient Greeks have been the property of the British Museum in London. Similarly, many of the finest artifacts from Moundville now reside some 800 miles away in suburban Washington.

They are not even on display: Along with a wealth of other items gathered by Moore from around the Southeast, they are in storage in the Cultural Resources Center of the Smithsonian's National Museum of the American Indian. The museum itself is still under construction on the National Mall. Given that less than 1 percent of a museum's holdings are typically put on exhibit, however, it's a safe bet that few Moundville artifacts will ever be seen by the general public.

That's irks some Alabamians who would like to see the material returned.

"There's nothing wrong with making replicas to be put in the Smithsonian, but I feel like the originals should be in Moundville," said McDonald Brooms, an associate anthropology professor at Troy State University.

Such sentiments aren't exclusive to Alabama. At the Florida Museum of Natural History in Gainesville, Curator J.T. Milanich would "love" to get back some of what Moore took from that state -- so much so that years ago he once offered to trade some Plains Indian artifacts. "They just sort of giggled at me."

Those objects were then in different hands, but Thomas Sweeney, a spokesman for the Smithsonian's Indian museum, isn't much more enthusiastic now about the idea of giving anything back permanently.

"How could there ever be a national museum?" Sweeney asked, if objects had to remain in the regions where they were found.

Moore, it should be noted, was scrupulous about getting landowners' permission before digging on their property. He did nothing illegal in taking the artifacts from Alabama.

"It's basically a story of 100 years ago," said Larry Aten, the retired park service archeologist. "He was concerned ... about preservation of the sites and preservation of the items in them." Knight and other colleagues said the only real hope now lies in persuading the Smithsonian to loan back some items. That's assuming money could be found to upgrade and expand Moundville's own aging museum.

"In an ideal world, I think it would be great if the University of Alabama could come up with a secure facility to house not all of the (Moundville collections), but the best of it, the most interesting part of it," Knight said.

But that, he continued, would take money and someone who could articulate that goal politically. "So I don't know -- certainly no time soon."