Student handout

Topography Training

drawing by Jon Gibson

Imagine that it is some time between 2000 B.C. and 1000 B.C.! You are living with your family at the Poverty Point settlement in what will later become northeastern Louisiana. Halfway across the world, King Tut is a little boy playing by the banks of the Nile. Stonehenge is being built in England and Hammurabi is thinking about the first laws for ancient Babylon. Construction has begun at Poverty Point on the sacred "Bird" Mound and you are hoping to be chosen to help. Every day you watch the workers as they make countless trips up the side of the growing mound, tossing basketfuls of soil on the top of the pile and stomping the dirt down with their bare feet.

Of course, we aren't really living in the distant past and we won't be moving the 30 million basket loads of earth which would be needed to construct the mounds and ridges at Poverty Point. But you can construct a scale model of the mound so that you can see just how BIG the "Bird" Mound and ridges at Poverty Point really are!

Before you are allowed to become a sacred "Bird" Mound builder, you must complete topography training by building and mapping a conical mound. A conical mound has a circular base and sides which slope up to a narrow top. Mound B is a prominent mound found at Poverty Point which is called a conical mound. It is really more the shape of an upside down cereal bowl because it is about 180 feet in diameter and only 20 feet tall. Your mound will not be scaled to the same size as Mound B because you are just practicing the basics of topography! Do your best and qualify to be a sacred "Bird" Mound Builder!

Card stock or white paper
Cardboard base for clay mound


1. Place a large dot in the center of a piece of card stock or white paper. This will be the location of the tallest part of your mound.

2. Use a ruler to draw a straight line from the dot to the edge of the paper. Label the end of the line North. You may add the other compass directions if you like.

3. Measure three inches up the pencil from its tip and mark it with a pen. The mark will be the tallest part of your mound.

4. Hold the marked pencil straight up and down (vertically) on top of the dot while another group member surrounds the pencil with clay to build your mound. Make sure to keep the pencil right on top of the dot. Keep adding clay until the top of the mound reaches the three-inch mark on the pencil.

5. Lean a ruler along the side of the mound to connect the North line on the paper and the pencil in the top of the mound. Draw a light line in the clay from the top of the mound to the North mark. Remove the vertical pencil from the center hole. Do not cover the hole because you will need it later.

6. Trace around the base of the mound and label this paper as ground level elevation.

7. Get two unsharpened pencils. Use a ruler to measure one half inch from the ends of the two pencils. Make marks on the pencils. Tie a six inch piece of dental floss between the two pencils at the marks. Hold the pencils straight up and down so that the floss is stretched tightly between them. Slide the tips of the pencils along the surface, slicing horizontally through the clay mound at a height of one half inch.

8. Gently pick up the top section of the mound and place it on a different piece of paper. Trace around the bottom edge of the clay and mark North on the paper next to the North line cut into the clay.

9. Stick a pencil down in the hole to make a dot at this location. Do not skip this step because you will need the pencil dot later to help you line up all of the levels on your map. All of the map levels will be lined up to match at the middle pencil dots and the North direction lines. Label this part of the topographic map as Level One (one half inch above ground level.)

10. Hold the pencils tightly apart and slice through the mound again. Remove the top section of the mound and leave the slice. Place the mound on a new piece of paper. Once again, trace the outline at the bottom of the mound slice and mark North. Stick a pencil down the vertical hole and mark a dot on the paper. Label this part of your map as Level Two (one inch above ground level.)

11. Continue measuring, slicing, and tracing your mound slices at elevations of one and inches, two, and two and inches above ground level. The pencil hole at the three inches above ground level elevation will be the highest point displayed on your map. You should have six map circles drawn on different pieces of paper.

12. Carefully remove the clay slices from the paper.

13. Cut out all of the map layers which you traced on paper. Place the map layers on top of each other in ascending order from ground level to three inches above ground level. Line up the map layers so the center pencil point marks and the marks for north are right on top of each other. Draw a line around the hole to show the elevation of your mound at three inches above ground level. Glue the pieces of the map down to form a topographic map of your group's mound.

14. Reassemble your mound, taking care to match the center holes and the North marks. Display your topographic map next to your mound. Because your clay mound can never really be put back together exactly like it was before cutting, it is like a real earthen mound after an archaeological excavation. Once the mound has been excavated, it will never be the same again. Because of this, archaeologists called mounds "nonrenewable" resources. Archaeologists are careful to record everything they do, so that the information about the mounds can be saved forever.