|Poverty Point National Monument|
A map of the Poverty Point site
|Location||West Carroll Parish, Louisiana, U.S.|
|Nearest city||Epps, Louisiana|
|Area||910.85 acres (368.61 ha)|
|Authorized||October 31, 1988|
|Governing body||Louisiana Office of State Parks|
|Website||Poverty Point National Monument|
|Official name||Monumental Earthworks of Poverty Point|
|Designated||2014 (38th session)|
|State Party||United States|
|Region||Europe and North America|
Poverty Point State Historic Site (French: Pointe de Pauvreté; 16 WC 5) is a prehistoric earthwork constructed by the Poverty Point culture. The Poverty Point site is located in present-day northeastern Louisiana though evidence of the Poverty Point culture extends throughout much of the Southeastern United States. The culture extended 100 miles (160 km) across the Mississippi Delta and south to the Gulf Coast. The Poverty Point site has been designated as a U.S. National Monument and UNESCO World Heritage Site. Located in the Southern United States, the site is 15.5 miles (24.9 km) from the current flow of the Mississippi River, and situated on the edge of Maçon Ridge, near the village of Epps in West Carroll Parish, Louisiana.
The Poverty Point site is made of earthen ridges and mounds, built between 1700 and 1100 BC (3700 - 3100 BP) during the Late Archaic period in North America.Archaeologists have proposed a variety of possible functions for the site including as a settlement, a trading center, and/or a ceremonial religious complex. Other writers have proposed pseudo-archaeological and New Age associations.
The 402-acre (163 ha) site has been described as "the largest and most complex Late Archaic earthwork occupation and ceremonial site yet found in North America". The site was discovered in the modern era in the early 20th century and has been the focus of professional excavations since the 1950s . The Poverty Point earthworks are named after a nearby plantation.
The Monumental Earthworks of Poverty Point consist of a series of ridges, earthen mounds, and a central plaza area. The plaza was leveled and erosional gullies filled by the prehistoric builders. The core of the site measures 402-acres (163 ha), although archaeological investigations have shown that the total occupation area extended for more than three miles (5 km) along the Bayou Macon. The monumental earthwork construction contains a group of six concentric, C-shaped ridges that extend to edge of the Bayou Macon. The ridges are divided by five aisles. The site also contains several mounds both on the outside and inside of the earthwork ridges.
The main part of the monument is the six concentric C-shaped ridges. Each ridge is separated from the next by a swale of gulley. The ridges are divided by 5 aisles forming earthwork sectors. Two additional linear ridges or causeways connect earthen features in the southern half of the ridges. Today the ridges vary from one to six feet (10 -200 cm) in height. Archaeologists believe they were once five feet high, but have been worn down through agricultural ploughing over the last few centuries. The slightly rounded crest of each ridge varies from 15-25 m. in width. The width of the intervening swales is 20 - 30 m. The approximate diameter of the outside ridge is three-quarters of a mile, while the innermost ridge's diameter is about three-eighths of a mile.
In addition to the ridges are other earthworks, primarily earthen mounds. The largest of these, Mound A, is to the west of the ridges, and is roughly T-shaped when viewed from above. Many have interpreted it as being in the shape of a bird or as an "Earth island", representing the cosmological center of the site.
Researchers have learned that Mound A was constructed quickly, probably over a period of less than three months. Prior to construction, the vegetation covering the area of Mound A was burned. According to radiocarbon analysis, this burning occurred between 1450 and 1250 BCE. The prehistoric builders immediately covered the burnt area with a cap of silt, followed quickly by the main construction effort. There are no signs of construction phases or weathering of the mound fill even at microscopic levels, indicating that construction proceeded in a single massive effort over a short period. In total volume, Mound A is made up of approximately 238,000 cubic meters of fill, making it the second-largest earthen mound (by volume) in eastern North America. It is second in overall size to the later Mississippian-culture Monks Mound at Cahokia, built beginning about 950-1000 CE in present-day Illinois near the Mississippi River.
Mounds A, aligns with Mounds B and E on an approximate north-south line.
Shallow borrow pits are located near Mounds A and B. Presumably the Poverty Point people carried dirt from the borrow pits to build the mounds.
Mound B is located north and west of the six concentric ridges and 625 m north of Mound A. The mound is subconical in form is approximately 6.5 m in height with a 55 m basal diameter. The floor of the mound contains charcoal, fire pits and possible postmolds. The impressions of woven baskets were preserved in the fill of an upper stage of the mound construction. The final stage of the mound construction was a conical silt loam lens that covered the entire mound surface. From excavations in the mid-1950s, at the base of the mound a human bone was reported within an ash lens. At the time, this finding was reported as evidence of a cremation. However, recent research failed to find any evidence of the ash lens. Researchers suggest instead the reported lens represents a fine gray silt common to E horizon soils on the Macon Ridge. The recovery of the human bone (reported as the proximal end of an infant's femur) has also been disputed and the material is not curated in any known collection from the site.
Mound C is located inside the plaza area near the eastern edge of Bayou Macon. Mound C is 2 m in height, 80 m long, and today 25 m wide. The width is truncated by erosion along the eastern edge. The depression that divides the mound was caused by a 19th-century wagon road which proceeded northward to the old town of Floyd, Louisiana. Multiple radiocarbon dates for Mound C bracket the entire occupation of the site suggesting the mound is one of the earliest constructions at the site and its 16 layers of distinct soils were added over time. The sixteenth level gave the mound its final dome shape.
Mound D is a rectangular earthwork having a flat summit that today contains a historic cemetery. Several lines of evidence suggest that Mound D was built, at least in part, by the Coles Creek culture nearly 2000 years after the Poverty Point culture occupation of the site. First, Coles Creek culture ceramics were recovered near Mound D. Second, Coles Creek culture ceramics were recovered 40 cm below the ground surface near Mound D.
The Mound E is a platform mound sometimes referred to as Ballcourt Mound. The Ballcourt designation comes from "two shallow depressions on its flattened top reminded some archaeologists of playing areas in front of outdoor basketball goals, not because of any suggestion of any actual activities at Poverty Point."
Mound E is located 405 m south of Mound A and is a rectangular platform structure with a ramp extending from the northeast corner. Mound E is 4 m in height and 110 by 90 m at its base. The profile of an excavation unit on the edge of Mound E revealed five construction stages that were corroborated by series of soil cores recovered across the mound surface. Dating of Mound E relies on similarity with the construction of Mound B and their relatively similar soil development. No features were recorded in the excavations and only a small number of artifacts were recovered. Several of the recovered artifacts were of nonlocal chert, such as novaculite, characteristic of the Poverty Point site raw material assemblage.
2.9 km south of the Poverty Point site center is the Lower Jackson Mound (16WC10) a conical structure 3 m height and 35 m in diameter at its base. For many years, archaeologists believed the Lower Jackson Mound was built during the same time as the Poverty Point site. However, modern radiocarbon dates from the base of the Mound demonstrate that the Lower Jackson Mound was built 3900 to 3600 BC which predates the Poverty Point earthworks by about 1500 years. Artifacts typical of the early date were recovered from the site such as baked loess blocks and Evans points.
2.2 km to the north of Poverty Point earthworks is the Motley Mound (16WC7), 16 m in height with a base that measures 170 by 125 m. Motley Mound has some similarity in form to Mound A, however, the cultural affiliation remains speculative for this earthwork.
Poverty Point was not constructed all at once, but appears to have been built by successive generations over a considerable period of time. The exact sequence and timeframe of earthwork construction is not precisely known. Radiocarbon dating of the site has produced a wide variety of results, and suggests that most of the ridges were constructed between 1600 and 1300 BCE. A synthesis of radiocarbon dates from the site suggests earthwork construction began as early as 1800 BC and continued until as late as 1200 BC.
Archaeological excavations determined that prior to the construction of the earthworks, workers leveled the land around the site and filled in ditches to create the flat central plaza and surfaces on which to build the mounds and ridges. The main building material was loess, a type of soil which is easy to dig but erodes when exposed to water. For this reason, clay was often used to cap the loess in order to protect the loess surfaces from erosion. The earthworks were constructed by dumping basket loads of dirt in piles and filling in the gaps between them. The baskets, depending on the size of the bearer, could hold between 30- 50 pounds of dirt, suggesting that men, women, and children participated in the construction.
The number of individuals involved in the construction of Poverty Point is unknown, although archeologist Jon L. Gibson provides multiple scenarios for how long it would have taken to build the earthwork depending on the number and intensity of individual efforts. For example, he estimated that the earthwork could have been produced in a century by three generations if one hundred individuals spent six or seven days a month on the construction project. Gibson also suggests that workers lived on-site during construction, possibly setting up temporary homes on top of the very earthworks that they were building. Most archaeological excavations of the ridges at Poverty Point consist of small 1 by 1 m units that would not reveal the extent of an entire household. An exception is the 1980-1982 excavations by archaeologist Sharon Goad that explored a 5 x 30 m trench placed on the Northwest Ridge 1. The trench excavation revealed multiple sequential levels of domestic activity over time. Archaeologists have interpreted this zone as possible evidence for more long-term habitation of the site.
Excavations in 2009 by the University of Louisiana at Monroe and Mississippi State University revealed evidence of multiple wooden-post circular structures (timber circles) 82 feet (25 m) to 206 feet (63 m) wide in the plaza area; whether these features were contemporaneous with other constructions at the site is not currently known.
Archaeologists have debated the functions of the Poverty Point site since its rediscovery. One of the main questions has been whether it was used for a settlement, or only for periodic events. Archaeologists including Jon L. Gibson postulate that houses were constructed on top of the concentric ridges. Postholes have been found on the ridges, indicating the former presence of a building. Other archaeologists believe that regular residence would have produced more postholes. Gibson and others note the postholes could have been destroyed by the historic plowing that took place on much of the site and also note the limited excavations that would reveal posthole patterns of houses.
Archaeologists such as Sherwood Gagliano and Edwin Jackson support the interpretation that Poverty Point was a site where groups came to meet and trade on an occasional basis. Gibson believes there is evidence of too much rubbish left by original inhabitants to indicate only occasional habitation, and that it would be implausible for such a monument to be built to be used only as a trading center.
Some archaeologists interpret Poverty Point as having religious symbolism and importance. Archaeologist William Haag, who excavated at the site in the 1970s, interpreted a large post recorded in the central plaza as having astronomical significance aligned to the solstices. Examples of wooden post astronomical circles, were recorded and reconstructed at the later Mississippian culture site of Cahokia in western Illinois. Astronomer Robert Purrington believes the posts at Poverty Point were geometrically, rather than astronomically, aligned. Researchers have also studied historic and contemporary Native American religious beliefs for parallels. Gibson believes that the ridges were built with their arcs against the west to keep malevolent spirits of evil and death out of the complex.
The Poverty Point culture people who constructed the earthworks were hunter-gatherers rather than agriculturalists. They are an example of a complex hunter-gatherer society that constructed large scale monuments. The vast majority of other prehistoric monuments, ranging from Stonehenge in England to Khufu's Great Pyramid at Giza in Egypt, were constructed by agricultural societies, in which crop surpluses allowed greater density of population and stratification of society. Another exception to this general rule is the Göbekli Tepe complex in southern Anatolia (Turkey), also built by hunter-gatherers, which dates from around 10,000 BCE.
The people who lived at Poverty Point were Native Americans, descendants of the immigrants who came to North America across the Bering Straight land bridge approximately twelve to fifteen thousand years ago. The people identified with the Poverty Point culture developed a distinct set of cultural traits different from other contemporary inhabitants in the Lower Mississippi Valley.
The food sources of the people at Poverty Point came from the local animals and plant life in the region. The Poverty Point people's food was acquired through fishing, gathering, and hunting. Poverty Point subsistence was broad-based due to the different seasonal foods that were available. Their diet consisted of large mammals like deer, small mammals like rabbits, various fish and turtles, mollusks, nuts, fruits, berries, and aquatic roots. They cooked food in hearths and pits that served as earth ovens, some of which had plastered walls. Firewood was chosen carefully, with specific trees being used, namely oak and to a lesser degree hickory and cane, which archaeologist Jon L. Gibson believed was due to the fact that oak and hickory add a specific savoury flavour to food.
Changes in temperature, precipitation, and increased flooding, caused an ecological imbalance that led to abandonment of Poverty Point. Archeologists use this change as a time boundary between the Archaic and later Woodland periods. Gibson theorizes that the descendants of the Poverty Point people are the Karoa, Tunica, and Tioux people, based on their use of mounds and plazas for staged ceremonies.
The vast majority of artifacts recovered at Poverty Point are small, baked shapes made of loess, in a wide variety of forms, all of which are referred to as "Poverty Point Objects" or PPOs. Archaeologists generally conclude the fired earth objects were used in cooking, based on the artifacts recovery context and supported by experimental archaeology. When placed in earth ovens, the objects were shown to hold heat and aid in cooking food.
The inhabitants of Poverty Point produced small amounts of pottery, creating a variety of different types such as fiber-tempered, sand-tempered, clay grit-tempered, and untempered with both the Wheeler and Old Floyd Tchefuncte design styles as decoration. More commonly, however, they used stone vessels made of steatite, some of which were made on-site and which would have taken greater effort than the production of pottery.
Most of the Poverty Point tools appear to have been made on-site, as there is evidence of debris from their manufacturing process found across the ridges. An analysis of artifacts recovered from the ridges demonstrates that individual ridges and sectors of the earthwork complex were used for specialized activities. For example, based on the analysis of projectile points and production debris, the north sector of the earthwork was the favored location for manufacturing the tools and the South sectors were the location where the manufactured projectile points were used as tools in other activities. Beads, pendants and other lapidary items were recovered primarily in the West sector. However, clay figurines are evenly distributed throughout the ridge system. Based on the analysis of artifacts recovered from successive strata of ridge construction, there are clear changes in artifact styles through time. For example, cylindrical grooved Poverty Point Objects are the earliest form of the artifact type produced and biconical forms occur later in time.
Based on the raw materials of artifacts recovered at Poverty Point, archaeologists conclude that the inhabitants were also active in trade with other Native Americans. A disproportional amount of imported items, consisting of projectile points and microliths, have been determined to have originated from raw materials found in the Ouachita and Ozark Mountains and in the Ohio and Tennessee River valleys. Traditionally, archaeologists assumed that materials derived from trade that included soapstone from the southern Appalachian Mountains of Alabama and Georgia, and copper and galena artifacts, indicating trade with the prehistoric copper-producing tribes in the upper Great Lakes region. However, artifact analysis with modern scientific techniques demonstrate that the Poverty Point trade and exchange networks were not as geographically expansive as initially believed. For example, the analysis of copper artifacts recovered from Poverty Point suggests they are made from materials available in the southern Appalachian Mountains where soapstone or steatite used for stone vessels at Poverty Point is also sourced.
Jon Gibson speculates that the first evidence for a later human encountering the Poverty Point site comes from a burial of a twelfth-century AD Caddo Native American. His grave was excavated at the Mounds Plantation, a village on the Red River in northwestern Louisiana, approximately 150 miles (240 km) to the west of this monument. This individual, Gibson speculates was a konah, or medicine man, was buried with various charms within his medicine bundle including artifacts possibly from Poverty Point, such as two red stone beads, a slate pendant, and a hematite plummet. Gibson speculates the individual visited the Poverty Point site, or encountered someone else who did, and obtained ancient artifacts taken from the site, perhaps believing they had a spiritual reference or power and could be used as amulets. However, all of these artifacts occur in cultures both before and after the occupation of Poverty Point.
In the 1830s Jacob Walter, an American man searching for lead ore in the area, came across Poverty Point and wrote about it in his diary. Walter wrote "On my arrival at the place of my destination, on bayou Mason at which place I had been informed lead ore had been found. But on examination I soon discovered how the lead ore came to this place. & with this discovery, all hope of finding a lead mine disapate. Instead of a lead mine, I found myself on the site of an old indian town. The surface of the earth at this place, for several acres around, were strewed in grate profusion, with fragments of indian crockery. & a large number clay made by the indians for edible purposes indicating the fact that the inhabitants who located the town were a tribe of clay eating indians. The clay balls (Poverty Point Objects) were the size of a green walnut & had been baked in fire. Thus disappointed in the discovery of a lead mine, I mounted my horse. I rode out to look & see what the country looked like in the vicinity of this old town site. I soon discovered a mound of colossal size (Mound A). The figure of the base of this superstructure was a rectangle twice as long as wide & about 1000 long by 500 broad & 150 feet in altitude with top or terrace, of 20 feet wide & 500 feet long . . ." 
The first published account of the site was in 1873 by Samuel Lockett, who served as an officer in the Confederate Army during the American Civil War. During the early 20th century, archaeologists took an interest in the site. Poverty Point was investigated and mapped by Clarence B. Moore between 1911-1912, by Gerard Fowke of the Smithsonian Institution in 1926, by Clarence H. Webb in 1935, and by Michael Beckman in 1946. Three excavation seasons in 1952, 1953 and 1954 were undertaken by James A. Ford and Clarence Webb, leading to the publication of Poverty Point, a Late Archaic Site in Louisiana in 1956. It was during this excavation that "Poverty Point witnessed some of the first experimental archaeology done in North America." Excavations have continued at the site into the 21st century, as researchers explore the site and culture. These research efforts include Sharon Goad's (1980-1982) excavation trench on Northwest Ridge 1, Jon Gibson's (1983 - 1995) excavations at numerous ridge locations across the site, Glen Greene's (1983-1992) research on soil development and cultural landscaping of the site, and other archaeologists conducting limited site research. In the early 2000s T.R. Kidder and Anthony Ortmann conducted research on various mounds at the site and completed a topographic survey of the entire Poverty Point site. The Louisiana Division of Archaeology established the Station Archaeology Program at Poverty Point in 1996 to oversee, coordinate, and conduct site research. The program remains active and has conducted numerous excavations at the site along with curating and analyzing collections from previous excavations at Poverty Point.
In 1960, John Griffin, who at the time was the Southeast Regional Archaeologist for the National Park Service, suggested to the Federal government that Poverty Point be declared and established as a National Monument. He described the site: "Poverty Point is the largest and most complex Late Archaic earthwork occupation and ceremonial site yet found in North America". At first the United States Congress declined to support the protection, fearing the unpopularity of acquiring the land from local landowners, but the site was designated as a National Historic Landmark on June 13, 1962.
In 1972, the State of Louisiana purchased a 400-acre (1.6 km2) section of the site. In 1975, the state opened the site to the public as the Poverty Point Commemorative Area. The state built a museum devoted to interpreting the monument and the artifacts uncovered there. In 1988 Congress designated the site as a U.S. National Monument. It has become a popular tourist destination.
Today Poverty Point National Monument is open for visitors daily from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. except for Thanksgiving, Christmas Day, and New Year's Day. The cost of the entrance is $4 per person; those over the age of 62 and children 12 and under are admitted without charge. As the site is managed by the Louisiana State Parks System, a National Parks pass is not accepted for admission. Louisiana works with the Vicksburg U.S. Army Corps of Engineers division in developing plans for erosion control.
In 2013, Lieutenant Governor Jay Dardenne, the ex officio head of the Louisiana Department of Culture, Recreation and Tourism, requested $750,000 in emergency state funding to limit erosion at Poverty Point. The request was made to the Interim Emergency Board, which considers projects that arise when the legislature is not in session. Dardenne asked the emergency board to expedite funding in advance of the beginning of the legislative session on April 8. The erosion which threatens the prehistoric earthworks is caused by Harlin Bayou in the northern part of the site. The funding request was approved.
In January 2013, the United States Department of the Interior nominated Poverty Point for inclusion on the UNESCO World Heritage List. State Senator Francis C. Thompson of Delhi in Richland Parish said the matter is not "just a local or even state issue [but] of international importance. The prestige of having a World Heritage Site in our region and state would be of great significance both culturally and economically."
On June 22, 2014, UNESCO approved Poverty Point as a World Heritage Site at its convention in Doha, Qatar. Lieutenant Governor Jay Dardenne had sent a two-person delegation to the UNESCO conference taking place in the Qatar to urge the inclusion of Poverty Point in this group, alongside such cultural landmarks as Stonehenge in England, the Pyramid Fields at Giza in Egypt, and the Great Wall of China. The designation makes Poverty Point the first World Heritage Site in Louisiana and the 22nd in the United States.
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