It looks like a hill, but what is a 45-foot-high hill doing in the middle of the Mobile-Tensaw Delta?
It’s really a Native American mound. But why would Native Americans have built a town on an island that floods rather than on a bluff overlooking a river?
And how did the Mississippians, ancestors of such tribes as the Alabama, Apalachee, Chickasaw, Cherokee, Choctaw, Mobilian and Seminole, know the site was the dead center of the delta?
A remote location and a minimum of archaeology make the Bottle Creek Indian Mounds historically valuable and a place of mystery. With nothing modern on the site other than a worn historical marker, visitors step centuries back into the past.
The site is one of only a few of its kind that hasn’t been turned into a park, according to Greg Waselkov, director of the Center for Archaeological Studies at the University of South Alabama.
At other sites, he says, “You see lots of mowed grass and museums and all kinds of amenities. Here it’s just pretty much untouched. It’s almost unique in that regard. We’re actually quite proud of the fact that it has been preserved.”
A town was established somewhere around 1200-1250. The Mississippians built mounds on which they constructed their homes and temples. On this site, they used small clam shells and clay hauled with baskets to build mounds.
“You dig a trench to put an upright pole in for structure of the walls,” Waselkov said. “Then you plaster that over with mud and put a thatch roof on. In very short order, you have a weatherproof house.” Those houses were good for about 20 years, before being methodically destroyed and rebuilt.
The island holds 18 mounds. The largest is the 45-foot-high Mound A, among the largest in the Southeast. Lower, wider mounds most likely held two or three houses. Higher mounds were built to last longer.
“We don’t know what buildings stood on the big mounds, but from other sites it’s pretty clear that they were primarily the houses of the chiefs, the elites,” Waselkov said.
Visiting the National Historic Landmark
Getting there isn’t easy. The only way is by boat. Historic Blakeley State Park sponsors two boat tours in December aboard the Delta Explorer, for 50 people at a time. They usually sell out.
December is the best time to visit the mounds because water levels are at their lowest. Snakes and alligators have, one hopes, retired for the winter. Visitors don’t have to contend with heat, humidity and mosquitoes. They are asked to wear orange vests in case any deer hunters are about, although it’s unlikely deer are sticking around once 50 people have landed.
“During really big floods, the only land above water is mounds A and B,” Waselkov said. “Hunters who have come out here have told me the deer congregate on top of those mounds.”
The trip involves a one-hour boat ride into the Delta, a scramble onto the island bank (keep moving on two planks and don’t think about it), a hike on a trail that’s clear except for the most recently fallen trees, and the climb to the top of Mound A.
At the top, there’s a fresh hole Waselkov said was probably dug by someone looking (illegally) for artifacts. Because the top hasn’t been excavated, no one knows exactly what Mound A was used for.
On this particular day it’s dry enough to stand in one of the borrow pits from which clay was dug; usually the pit is under water, said Waselkov. The Mississippians couldn’t have stayed at the site year-round. “It’s actually kind of a crazy place to build a town,” he said.
Significance lost to time
The Bottle Creek location, directly in the middle of the delta, may have had a symbolic religious or political significance, Waselkov said. It’s possible the Mississippians were trying to lay claim to the coast.
The Mississippians were a farming culture, so the edges of delta land were used for farm fields that were fertilized by regular flooding. They also hunted, and they may have migrated seasonally to the Gulf Coast, where shell mounds on Dauphin Island date from the same period.
The Mississippian era ran roughly from 1250 to 1550, when the culture began to change. When the French arrived on the Gulf Coast in 1699, smaller nations of Mississippian descendants lived here.
By then, those descendants considered Bottle Creek a sacred site. The explorer Jean Baptiste LeMoyne de Bienville probably gave an Indian a gun in return for taking him to the island and its temple. There Bienville removed five statues while his guide refused to go inside. Waselkov said the statues were sent to France, but no one has been able to locate them.
The McMillan family held the land for more than 100 years. Scott Paper Co. purchased the land in the early 1990s and donated it to the state of Alabama. It is now controlled by the Alabama Historical Commission.
In 1994 and 1995 the University of Alabama conducted the first large excavation, but the site is extensive, Waselkov said. “Far less than 1 percent has been excavated.”
There are no future excavations planned. Because everything and everyone would have to come and go by boat, such a project would be extremely expensive, Waselkov said. People at USA still want to do more surveying to confirm the existence of additional mounds that were located by remote sensing.
So the Bottle Creek Indian Mounds will likely remain undisturbed, and that’s largely what makes them unique. Archaeologists still have much to learn, Waselkov said.
And visitors have much to wonder about.
The last Bottle Creek Mounds trip this year is set for Dec. 17, although some trips could be scheduled in January if there is enough demand and weather permits. Check the events section at www.blakeleypark.com for more information.