An Overview of Poverty Point

Poverty Point is not the only mound building site in Louisiana. Our state and nation are gifted with an abundance of ancient earthworks constructed by the original inhabitants of our land. There are many different types of mounds which were built for various reasons by many different cultures of Native American peoples. Many of these are found along the Mississippi River and its connecting waterways and in the southeast region of the country.

The Poverty Point site is enormous in size, has unusual artifacts, and once was a major regional cultural center. Indians built the mounds and ridges there about 3,500 years ago. It is the largest earthworks site found in Louisiana, as well as one of the most fascinating. Poverty Point is an extremely important archaeological site which is still being excavated. At the current time, only about 1% of the site has been scientifically excavated, and many questions about ancient life at the site remain unanswered. The earthworks at Poverty Point are truly one of the state's most precious nonrenewable resources.

The site was not called Poverty Point by its builders. We do not know what the mound builders called their home because they had no written language to tell us. The site was named after the Poverty Point plantation which occupied the same land at a much later time. The archaeological site at Poverty Point was the largest and most outstanding example of a group of sites. All of the sites having the same characteristics became known as Poverty Point Culture sites. Thus, the name Poverty Point may refer to either the Poverty Point site or the Poverty Point Culture.

The Poverty Point site is located in West Carroll Parish near the present day town of Epps, Louisiana. This is slightly northeast of Monroe, Louisiana.

The ridges and mounds composing the site were constructed on the Macon (ma sen) Ridge overlooking Bayou Macon (m scn). The earthworks at Poverty Point include six concentric rings of ridges which border on the bayou, forming a C-shaped design around an enormous plaza. The outer ridges are over 3/4 mile apart and currently range from about one to six feet high. More than 30 million basket loads of earth were needed to construct the mounds and ridges at the Poverty Point site. Each basket of soil would have weighed about 50 pounds. This adds up to a total of .75 million cubic yards of soil.

The Mounds

Mound A is the tallest earthen structure at the Poverty Point site. This amazing mound is located along the western edge of the concentric rings of ridges and is thought by some to resemble a bird in flight. This is why some people call it the Bird Mound. It measures over 70 feet tall, 640 feet between the wing tips, and 710 feet from head to tail. Archaeologists have found evidence of basket loading construction on Mound A. This means that the mound was built by having basket loads of soil dumped on top of each other.

Several other mounds were built at the Poverty Point site. Motley Mound is located 1.5 miles north of the ridges. Its shape is similar to that of Mound A, but it is smaller. Motley Mound is oriented in a north/south position with a ramp-like "tail" extending to the south. Like Mound A, Motley Mound is sometimes called a bird effigy mound.


drawing by Jon Gibson

Mound B is a conical mound located .4 mile north of Mound A. It is shaped like a dome or the top of a cupcake. Mound B is 180 feet in diameter and 20 feet tall. Archaeologists in the 1950s partially excavated Mound B. They reported that Mound B was constructed in stages and that remains of baskets filled with soil were found on the upper surface.

Mound C (Dunbar Mound) is reported to have nine different stages of building in the bottom, rectangular part. There is also a dome of earth on top of the rectangular base. Evidence of wooden structures has been found in the nine basal levels. Archaeologists have discovered post holes there. A post hole is the hole where a wooden support post for a building once stood. Mound D (Sarah's Mount) is a rectangular mound with a flat top. During recent historic times, this mound has served as a cemetery. Archaeologists have found Indian pottery at Mound D made 2,000 years later than most artifacts found at the site. It is possible that Indians built Mound D long after people constructed the other mounds at Poverty Point.

Mound E (Ballcourt Mound) is another platform structure at the site. It is a square shaped mound with sides measuring about 300 feet. The mound is called the Ballcourt because of its shape, but there is no evidence that the Poverty Point people used the mound for games.

Characteristics of the Poverty Point Culture

All of the Poverty Point Culture sites share similar characteristics. These characteristics help us to understand how the Poverty Point people lived and worked. Archaeologists have identified these common ways of life in areas as far north as where the Mississippi and Arkansas rivers join, and south all the way to the Gulf coast. This includes parts of Louisiana, Mississippi, and Arkansas. Poverty Point tools and ornaments have also been found as far away as Tennessee and Missouri, along the Mississippi River, and as far east as Florida and Georgia. This is one indication that the Poverty Point people had an extensive trading network.


courtesy of Jon Gibson
Poverty Point
Artifacts

Stone Point

Stone Hoe

Plummet

Microlith

Steatite Bowl

Stone Beads

Figurines

The Poverty Point Culture is primarily identified by its artifacts and the imported rocks used to make them. Rocks such as cherts, flints, soapstone, hematite, magnetite, and galena were brought in to be used in making tools and ornaments. Some of these rocks came from as far away as the Great Lakes and the Appalachian Mountains. The people trading these stones were linked by either streams or rivers connected to the Mississippi River. These streams and rivers formed a watery highway which was used to carry materials up to 1,400 miles.

Poverty Point people can also be identified by the many unique objects which they made. Rocks were used to make spear points, axes, hoes, and microliths. Microliths are small stone tools used as perforators or drill bits on pump drills.

Stones were also used to make other artifacts. These include large bowls carved from steatite, plummets used as weights on fishing nets, atlatl weights, beads, and pendants. Beads carved in the form of birds or small owls are also found at the site.

Cooking balls were hand formed from the local soil and used in earth ovens to help cook the food. In fact, archaeologists have found so many of these cooking balls that they are called Poverty Point Objects, or PPOs for short. Several different shapes of PPOs have been identified.

Clay figurines also have been found at the site. Models of females were formed by hand before being baked in a fire. Most of these clay figurines have had their heads knocked off. Archaeologists are uncertain of the reason, but hypothesize that the heads may have been removed at some important life event.

The activity handouts will provide more detailed information about these Poverty Point artifacts.

Cooking Balls or PPOs
Clarence H. Webb (1982)
courtesy of LSU Dept. of
Geography and Anthropology

Mounds throughout Prehistory

The earthworks and mounds were built at Poverty Point around 1500 B.C. This was not the only era during which Louisiana Indians built mounds. Different types of mound building occurred before and after this time. Indians built round-top mounds as much as 2,500 years before the mounds and ridges were constructed at Poverty Point. At the Watson Brake site in Louisiana, archaeologists have found 11 mounds and ridges which connect them. These earthworks were built 2,000 years before Poverty Point. The mounds at Louisiana State University also predate Poverty Point.

Other types of mounds were built after Poverty Point. Later cultures constructed burial mounds and flat-topped temple mounds. The mounds at the Marksville State Commemorative Area are an excellent example of later mound building in Louisiana. There are other noteworthy mound sites in the southeastern and central regions of the United States. Studies of these mounds and cultures would surely intrigue students and provide outlets for independent research.

Site Protection

All archaeological sites and artifacts on state and federal property are protected by law. Visitors to Poverty Point or other archaeological sites on public land should leave all artifacts and remains exactly as they were found. Even small broken artifacts and stains in the soil can give important clues about the people who once lived there. Help preserve Louisiana's heritage by reporting artifacts and possible sites to archaeologists. To contact an archaeologist, or to find out how to protect a site on private property, call the Division of Archaeology at 1-225-342-8170.