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Pinson Mounds State Archaeological Park

About 11 miles south of Jackson, Tennessee, outside the small town of Pinson, lies one of the largest mound sites in the Eastern United States. The site is a ceremonial earthwork complex that includes 17 mounds, covers an area of approximately 400 acres, and contains the second-highest surviving mound in the United States.

As you approach the visitors centre, you will be struck by a couple of things. First, the centre itself is built to look like a large platform mound. Just a little ways behind it though, stands what is thought to be the centre of the complex, a 72-foot-tall earthwork mound, known as Sauls’ Mound.

As I approached it, the size of the construction and its age was almost incomprehensible to me. It would require a line of bumper-to-bumper, average-sized dump trucks 42 km (26 miles) long to transport the roughly 60,500 cubic meters of dirt that composes the mound. And all of it was excavated, transported, deposited, shaped, and aligned entirely by hand. And it had persisted, more or less as it was, for nearly 2,000years.

My awe was only reinforced when I climbed to the observation platform built on top of the mound. As the trees atop the mound had recently been cleared, it offered an especially commanding view of the park and surrounding area. Even the town of Jackson was just about visible 11 miles away! Sauls’ Mound is a marvel of engineering and organization, plain and simple. But it is one that seems to remain relatively unknown. When I visited the site, it was a fairly quiet experience, only running into a handful of people.

William Myer 1922, Archaeologist, Smithsonian Institution

It is hard to realize that in the State of Tennessee ruins of a great ancient walled city with outer defences measuring fully six miles in length, with elaborate outer and inner citadels, with 35 mounds of various sizes should have remained almost unknown beyond the bare fact that near the little railroad station of Pinson, in Madison County, there were some mounds and enclosures.

Pinson Mounds History

The Pinson Mound site was constructed sometime in the Middle Woodland Period, around 0 – 500 CE. This period in the Eastern United States was marked by an increase in monument building and agricultural development, but broadly speaking, populations maintained a fairly dispersed and nomadic lifestyle. Some archaeologists refer to their strategy as hunter-gatherer-gardener, as they grew domesticated, low-maintenance crops, like squash, sunflowers, and the newly introduced maize. This suite of crops is known as the Eastern Agricultural Complex.

The complex is located on the South Fork of the Forked Deer River, on a relatively flat location that overlooks the nearby floodplain. There is evidence to suggest that the river was navigable at least as far as Jackson, TN before the deforestation of West Tennessee in the 1800s. It is associated with two other mound sites along this stretch of the South Fork Forked Deer River, the Johnston site, and the Elijah Bray group. Like Pinson, they were built during the Middle Woodland Period, and their presence alongside Pinson suggests that this stretch of the river held significance to the people who built them.

What is the significance of the Pinson Mounds?

What is interesting to note is that the Pinson Mounds site actually has more in common with those constructed by the contemporary, but physically distant, Ohio Hopewell culture group than the later, but local, Mississippian culture group. As opposed to Mississippian mound sites, like Cahokia or Etowah, these were not fortified cities and were not permanently inhabited. Instead, these sites are thought instead theorized to have a more ceremonial and religious role, serving as the sites for periodic rituals, ceremonies, or exchanges.

Pinson was likely constructed overtime, with mounds and embankments added to it as needed by its builders. While we can’t know exactly what went on at the site, archaeology allows us to propose informed ideas. Some elements of the site suggest a religious purpose: it features burial mounds, the four corners of Sauls’ Mound are oriented to the four cardinal directions, and Mound 29 is aligned with Sauls’ Mound to the equinox sunrise.

Additionally, the ceramics found at the site, especially at the Duck’s Nest, come from a wide variety of styles, originating as far away as southern Georgia and southern Appalachia. This corroborates the standing theory that the earthworks were constructed by pilgrims to the site who came from different areas but were united in a cosmological or religious sense.

After 350 CE, earthen work construction at Pinson stopped, and ceramic assemblages suggest that the site was no longer a pilgrimage destination. There are no known habitation sites within the mound complex until around 1000 CE when a few families of the Mississippian culture group built their homes in an area previously used for short-term occupation during the original activity at Pinson.

Who Built the Pinson Mounds?

We don’t know for certain who constructed these mounds. Since they were constructed nearly 2,000 years ago, the people groups involved may have moved, changed, split, intermingled with other groups, or any combination thereof since then. We do know, however, that when American colonizers took over the area, it was previously occupied by the people now known as the Chickasaw Nation.
Pinson Mounds State Archaeological Park Museum. © Thomas R Machnitzki / Wikimedia

What is there to See and Do in the Pinson Mounds State Archaeological Park

The Park

The park contains over five miles of walking and hiking trails that will take you through beautiful forests, across gullies, down into the cypress swamp bottomlands, and around the mounds, borrow pits, and other archaeological features of the park.

Along the paths, there are several interpretive signs that detail the specific history, findings, and purposes of the site’s many archaeological features.

Depending on the time of day, you may also be able to see some of the wildlife at the park, like turkeys, deer, or rabbits. The beauty of the grasslands and forests is all around you, as are the songs of the native birds and insects. Standing on the path, staring out into the tall grass, with Sauls’ Mound peaking out over the trees as the cicadas and the birds sing is a humbling and calming experience. You feel a connection to the natural world and the people who moulded this place into what it is now.

And at the same time, there is this ever-present and insurmountable chasm of time and cultural difference between you and them. We will never be able to experience this landscape the same way the Middle Woodland folks would have, but we can still gaze in wonder at all they were able to do.

If you have any interest in North American archaeology, Native American monuments, or impressive examples of non-Western engineering, Pinson Mounds State Archaeological Park is absolutely worth a visit. If you happen to live in the area, the many trails make it an excellent place to exercise or experience the outdoors. And, as it is located roughly halfway between the cities of Memphis and Nashville, it is a convenient and interesting addition to road-trips through some of the well-known cities of the state.

Displays inside the Pinson Mounds State Archaeological Park Museum. © Thomas R Machnitzki / Wikimedia

The Museum

The Pinson Mounds Museum is located within the visitor center. It is easily identifiable as it is designed to look like a Woodland era platform mound.

The museum focuses on pre-contact Native American archaeology and history in Tennessee. It features Native American tools and pottery, as well as interpretations of Woodland era ceremony and trade using some of the incredible artefacts found at the site. You can also find depictions of archaeological fieldwork, and the pre-contact and archaeological history of the Pinson site.

One of my favourite parts of the museum is a fenced off section with a glass floor. The glass floor was built into the museum looking down into an archaeology lab, turning actual archaeologists into a display. Unfortunately, the lab does not get used regularly, so there is no guarantee that archaeologists will be working in that space when you visit.

The museum also holds an 80-seat theatre that shows a documentary about the site, and a gift shop selling books, shirts, and other assorted knickknacks.

Visiting Pinson Mounds State Archaeological Park

Pinson Mounds State Archaeological Park is about 25 minutes drive south east of Jackson, TN. From Jackson, dive south east on the US 45 to the town of Pinson, then take the TN-197 east to the park.

Find Pinson Mounds on an Interactive Map of the USA.

Official Website

Opening Hours

The park is open every day from 07h00 to 17h00 during the Winter (November 1st – March 15th), and every day from 07h00 to 19h00 during the Summer (March 16th – October 31st).

The Visitor Center is open Monday through Saturday from 08h00 to 16h30, and Sundays 13h00 to 16h30.

The park and visitor center are closed on all state and federal holidays.

Ticket Prices

Entry to the park and visitor center is free.

Events

Pinson Mounds State Archaeological Park holds an annual Archeofest on the third weekend of September. Entry is free but donations are accepted. The festival is a celebration of Native American culture and archaeology that includes various vendors, activities, craft demonstrations, storytelling sessions, and more.

Facilities

The visitors center contains the park’s museum, gift shop, and a theater playing a documentary about the site. The museum displays some of the unique and fascinating artifacts found there, including items found in burial sites in the park. The facilities at Pinson Mounds State Archaeological Park also contain a camping facility available for reservation. It has air conditioning and heating, fully furnished kitchen, shower/restroom facilities, common area, the four cabins can house 32 occupants, and it is available year-round. The park also has picnic areas, grills, and a small playground available.

Accessibility at Pinson Mounds

While the main loop trail is well paved, the other trails that branch off are gravel or dirt paths and the observation platform at the top of Sauls’ Mound is accessible only by a wooden, switchback staircase, so those with mobility issues will have limited access to areas not on the main paved path.
Wooden staircase to reach the observation latform on Saul's Mound. © Thomas R Machnitzki / Wikimedia

Archaeology Travel Tip

As with any outdoor site in the southern United States, comfortable shoes, sunscreen, water, and bug spray are all strongly recommended, especially during the summer months. As someone who has worked outside in Tennessee in June, believe me, you’re going to need it. To avoid the brunt of the summer heat, try visiting earlier in the morning, or a few hours before closing. These times are also the best times to encounter deer, so be careful when driving to or from the park.

Archaeology Travel WRITER

Nicholas Vamvakias

Nicholas Vamvakias has a Master’s degree in Applied Anthropology from the University of Maryland, College Park, and a Bachelor’s in Anthropology from Appalachian State University. Raised in North Carolina, much of his archaeology experience has focused on the many Native American and antebellum sites in the south eastern US. Nicholas currently lives in Chapel Hill, where he works as the editor for the Americas on Archaeology Travel and as a laboratory technician for an archaeology firm.

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