Winterville Mounds is a 42-acre site near Greenville, Mississippi, featuring 12 prehistoric Native American mounds, two large plazas, and a museum. Normal hours are 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Saturday and 1:30 to 5 p.m. Sunday. Admission is free. Call 662-334-4684 or email firstname.lastname@example.org for more information.
Winterville Mounds, named for a nearby community, is the site of a prehistoric ceremonial center built by a Native American civilization that thrived from about A.D. 1000 to 1450. The mounds, part of the Winterville society’s religious system, were the site of sacred structures and ceremonies. Archaeological evidence indicates that the Winterville people lived away from the mound center on family farms in scattered settlement districts throughout the Yazoo-Mississippi River Delta basin. Only a few of the highest-ranking tribal officials lived at the mound center.
The Winterville ceremonial center originally contained at least 23 mounds. Some of the mounds located outside the park boundaries have been leveled by highway construction and farming. Twelve of the site’s largest mounds, including the 55-foot-high Temple Mound, are currently the focus of a long-range preservation plan being developed by the Mississippi Department of Archives and History and the University of Mississippi’s Center for Archaeological Research.
Archaeological evidence indicates that the Indians who used the Winterville Mounds may have had a civilization similar to that of the Natchez Indians, a Mississippi tribe documented by French explorers and settlers in the early 1700s. The Natchez Indians’ society was divided into upper and lower ranks, with a person’s social rank determined by heredity through the female line. The chief and other tribal officials inherited their positions as members of the royal family. The elaborate leadership network made mound building by a civilian labor force possible.
An explosion of mound construction activity between 1200 and 1350 AD suggests the Winterville chiefdom was a dominant power in the region then. Varieties of pottery indicate there was contact with far-distant chiefdoms.
The people who were responsible for these great earthworks were American Indians, but not Chickasaws, Choctaws, or other tribes we know today. Construction of the mounds at Winterville began about 1100 AD, a time when the population was organized in chiefdoms instead of tribes. Many of these chiefdoms were destroyed after the expedition of Hernando de Soto passed through in 1539–43, presumably by European diseases to which the native population had no immunity. The remnants of these groups banded together, creating the contemporary tribes.
Artist rendering of prehistoric Winterville Mounds
Massive amounts of labor were needed to construct these mounds, plazas, and other earthworks. Since no beasts of burden existed in North America, all the work was done by hand. Dirt was dug and loaded into baskets, then carried to the site, dumped out, and stamped down. This process was repeated until the desired shape and height was reached. Each mound was enlarged several times after its initial construction using this method. It seems to have been common practice to burn any structure at its summit before enlarging a mound and then build another structure when new construction was completed.
At 55 feet, Mound A is among the ten tallest in the United States, roughly the same height as a five story building. Until modern construction techniques were developed, it was the highest point between Emerald Mound in Natchez and the great mounds at Cahokia, Illinois. From its top you can see the Mississippi River to the west. The river’s course has shifted over the centuries but it was only a mile away when the mounds were constructed.
At about 30 feet, Mound B is the second-tallest mound at Winterville and sits at the southwest end of the mound group. It has also proven one of the richest sources for information over the last hundred years. Mound B probably was the site of a charnel house, a structure where bones of the dead were cleaned of flesh and stored in baskets. It may be that important leaders or other members of the Winterville elite were buried at their death, at which time the stored bones in the charnel house would be interred along with them.
Mound C is one of three (along with Mounds G and L) with an oval shape rather than the more commonly found round or quadrilateral shape. The mound’s present shape is due to slumping and erosion. No burials have been encountered in excavations there. The discovery of an assortment of unusual artifacts and repeating destruction of the structures atop it point to its use as the residence of an elite family.
Mounds D and F are part of the western border of the site. Mound D was constructed on an earlier, pre-mound occupation deposit dating to the end of the Coles Creek period (1000–1200 AD). In 2007, University of Southern Mississippi excavations uncovered a trash-filled pit near Mound D containing layers of bone (squirrel, rabbit, waterfowl, and other birds) and broken pottery that date to about 1200 AD. The pit may have been excavated to provide materials to form Mound D, and the layers of trash may represent feasts associated with its construction.
A great fire during the late 1300s consumed the original building on the Temple Mound at Winterville, according to archaeological evidence. The cause of the fire remains a mystery. The site continued to be used afterwards, but no more mounds were built or maintained. Even though the site continued to be occupied after the fire, the general population declined at Winterville while increasing at settlements and mound sites 50 miles to the south, in the lower Yazoo River basin. By 1450 A.D. the Winterville Mounds site appears to have been abandoned completely.
Aerial photo of Winterville Mounds, spring 2002
During the late 19th and early 20th centuries, relic collectors occasionally visited the site, although few artifacts were discovered. The National Park Service and Harvard University’s Lower Mississippi Survey conducted the first modern archaeological studies at Winterville in the 1940s. Lower Mississippi Survey archaeologist Jeffrey P. Brain directed extensive excavations at Winterville in 1967. His final report, Winterville: Late Prehistoric Culture Contact in the Lower Mississippi Valley, was published in 1989 by the Mississippi Department of Archives and History.
Preservation of the Site
In 1939, the Greenville Garden Club led a community effort to purchase 42 acres of the Winterville Mounds site and to convey the property to the City of Greenville. Supported by the Winterville Mounds Association, the Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries, and Parks (formerly the Mississippi Park Commission) operated Winterville as a state park from 1960 until 2000, when the property was conveyed to the Mississippi Department of Archives and History. In 1993, Winterville Mounds was designated a National Historic Landmark.
Visiting the Site
Directions: Winterville Mounds is located at 2415 Highway 1 North, Greenville, MS 38703.
For additional information, contact:
2415 Highway 1 North
Greenville, MS 38701
Tel. (662) 334-4684