Archive for June, 2017


Park Map Sign, Pinson Mounds, Pinson, Tennessee

Today is the summer solstice, on which I traditionally post about archaeoastronomy, which is a major topic of interest in studying Chaco Canyon. Lately, however, I’ve been very busy and have not been keeping up on recent developments in Chaco studies (not helped by the fact that I don’t currently have access to the academic databases where recent research can be found), so this time I thought I would talk about the archaeoastronomy of a fascinating and unjustly obscure site in a different part of North America, the Pinson Mounds site in western Tennessee.

I visited Pinson a few years back more or less on a whim; I was driving across the country after finishing grad school, taking a meandering route and hitting a variety of archaeological and historical sites as I went. Pinson was not originally on my list of sites to visit, but for some reason that I no longer remember I decided to go there as I made my way through the Mid-South. It was a good decision.


Sauls Mound, Pinson Mounds, Pinson, Tennessee

There are a lot of prehistoric mound sites in the Southeast, and at first glance Pinson doesn’t seem particularly distinctive among them except that one of its mounds, known as Sauls Mound or Mound 9, is unusually large. And indeed, although the site was first documented in 1823 it was not until the 1970s when it became a Tennessee state park that extensive archaeological work was done there and its true nature became apparent. There are various types of mounds at Pinson, but the most prominent, including Sauls, are of the type known as “platform mounds” which are square or rectangular, often with buildings of presumed ritual function at the top, and are generally associated with the Mississippian period of circa AD 900 to 1600. Earlier Woodland period mound sites are more known for burial mounds, which are typically rounded or conical without buildings on top, with the Hopewell Culture sites in Ohio being the most prominent examples.

The platform mounds at Pinson, along with a single house of Mississippian “wall-trench” form excavated back in the 1960s, led most archaeologists to assume that this was a relatively minor Mississippian site until the excavations of the 1970s and the resulting radiocarbon dates showed that it actually dated to the Middle Woodland period in the early centuries AD, contemporaneous with Hopewell. And some of these dates were directly associated with the platform mounds, demonstrating clearly that they too dated to this early period! This led to a major reëvaluation of the Middle Woodland period in the Midsouth, which is in some ways still ongoing. It also led to the reëvaluation of some other platform-mound sites in the same general area which also ended up dating to the Middle Woodland. It remains unclear what the exact nature was of the relationship between these precocious southern platform-mound sites and the contemporaneous Hopewell sites to the north, and the same is true of their relationship to the later Mississippian sites.


Stairs to the top of Sauls Mound, Pison Mounds, Pinson, Tennessee

One thing that does appear to be true of these sites, however, as well as of the Hopewell ones, is that they were primarily ritual or ceremonial centers without substantial residential components. They appear to have served dispersed communities of small hamlets, who were likely small-scale farmers growing indigenous plants of the Eastern Agricultural Complex. This is in contrast to Mississippian mound centers, which are now considered to have been large residential settlements of farmers growing crops of Mesoamerican origins (especially maize). Also unlike the strongly hierarchical Mississippian chiefdoms, Middle Woodland communities are also generally thought to have been relatively egalitarian in structure.

Some of these ideas may seem familiar to those familiar with Chaco. A similarly egalitarian structure has been proposed by some archaeologists to explain Chacoan great-house communities, based on models proposed by earlier generations of archaeologists to explain the Classic Maya polities. These models are now falling out of fashion for Chaco, much as they eventually did for the Maya, based on new research that makes them less tenable. It might seem odd that they have remained so tenacious for the Hopewell and other Middle Woodland societies in the east, but they have, which to me suggests that they really might be on to something here. I know a lot of people find these explanations of Chaco as an empty ceremonial center for a dispersed society of small-scale egalitarian farmers inspiring as a vision of what a society can be; as Chacoan research makes this a less plausible reconstruction they may wish to turn their eyes eastward, and further back in time, for a better example.

Anyway, on to the astronomy. The arrangement of the mounds at Pinson, as at many other Hopewell/Middle Woodland sites, has suggested to archaeologists for a while that there might be astronomical aspects to the site. One extensive, though admittedly speculative, exploration of this idea was published by Charles H. McNutt in a 2005 paper, which I will focus on here. McNutt proposed that Sauls Mound was the central focus of a set of astronomical alignments with other mounds at the site, and he compared the angles of these various inter-mound alignments to rising and setting positions of the sun, moon, and stars.


Sign at Mound 28, Pinson Mounds, Pinson, Tennessee

The most straightforward of the alignments he found were to solar events, i.e., the solstices and equinoxes. Mound 29 is due east of Sauls Mound within a circular feature known as the Eastern Citadel (which may have its own internal astronomical features), and it appears that this relationship may represent an equinox sunrise marker. Mound 28, northeast of Sauls Mound at a similar distance to Mound 29, has been proposed as a summer solstice sunrise marker (as indicated by a sign posted at the site, even), but McNutt found that it is not really close enough to the solstice alignment for this to be plausible. However, another mound indicated on early maps of the site, but not visible today, does appear at the proper angle on those maps to have been a solstice marker.

McNutt describes other possible alignments, to the lunar standstills as well as various stars, but he is rightly cautious about these and notes that the stellar alignments in particular are dubious because there are so many stars that alignments can easily arise due to chance. He then goes on to look at other contemporaneous mound sites in the same general area to determine if they have similar possible alignments, and finds that they do, although the quality of the data is not great for all of them and these too need to be treated with caution.


Mound 28, Pinson Mounds, Pinson, Tennessee

Finally, McNutt ties the existence of these celestial alignments back to the presumed reliance of the Middle Woodland people on agriculture, specifically of the crops of the Eastern Agricultural Complex. Farming peoples do rely on accurate calendars, it is true, and this may well have been the impetus for the astronomical observations that appear to be encoded at Pinson and other sites. I would note, however, that the immense effort required to build these mounds, especially for a dispersed and relatively egalitarian society, suggests that something more than utilitarian timekeeping needs led to their construction. But this may ultimately be a matter of perspective and emphasis more than anything else.

I may have more to say about Pinson in the future; it really is a fascinating place, well worth visiting. But for now I just want to draw some attention to it on this solstice day. Happy solstice!


Turtle at Pinson Mounds, Pinson, Tennessee

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