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Our modern view of the Moundbuilder civilization began following the Golden Age of the Moundbuilders. With increased technology in the study of archeology, improving methodology, and the slow dispersion of prevailing attitudes about race and cultures, it was in the 20th century archaeologists began to understand America's first great civilization.

The Golden Age of Moundbuilders
See complete article: Golden Age of Moundbuilders

Although Hernando deSoto, Jacques Cartier, James Oglethorpe and William Bartram had seen either active mounds or recent remains of the Moundbuilders it would be Thomas Jefferson's European-style excavation of a mound near his home that brought the Moundbuilders to the forefront in the late 18th century. Jefferson described his effort in his 1783 book, Notes on the State of Virginia. Benjamin Franklin and Noah Webster put forward theories on the Moundbuilders and where they came from and Lewis and Clark noted a number of Indian Mounds on their journey west.

Dr. James H. McColloh began studying Moundbuilders in the early 1800's and published Researches in America in 1816. He was an early proponent of a similarity between the skull of the Moundbuilders and nearby Woodland Indian cultures. Constantine Samuel Rafinesque and John Clifford proposed that the mounds were created by Hindus. In 1820 Caleb Atwater expanded on Rafinesque's earlier work in "Description of the Antiquities Discovered in the State of Ohio and Other Western States."

In 1839 Samuel George Morton published Crania Americana; or, A Comparative View of the Skulls of Various Aboriginal Nations of North and South America: To which is Prefixed An Essay on the Varieties of the Human Species. Although Morton credited Atwater with some of his theories, his work superseded Atwater's. Morton spent years studying Moundbuilders and Native Americans and concluded there were no significant differences between the two. It was this work that began to link archeology with physical anthropology.

Montroville Wilson Dickeson began excavating Southern mounds in 1837. Others active in the South included Benjamin Wailes, James Gettys McGready Ramsey, and Freemason Rob Morris (Oxford, Mississippi). J. G. M. Ramsey gained later fame for writing a history of Tennessee. Eprham (E. G.) Squire teamed with amateur archaeologist Edwin Davies to change world beliefs on both Moundbuilders and science. Ancient Monuments of the Mississippi Valley was the book they published in 1847. Samuel Haven published Archaeology of the United States in 1856. He brought into question most of the common beliefs about the Moundbuilders. With the start of The Civil War the "Golden Age of Moundbuilders" ended.


From the 1850's until the 1890's amateur digs and often bizarre books on early Indian cultures added little to research in the realm of American antiquity. One of the earliest positive movements towards an accurate portrayal of the Moundbuilders was the October, 1866 donation of $150,000 dollars by George Peabody to establish both a professorship of American archaeology and ethnology, and the Peabody Museum at Harvard University.

Until that time little in the way of American artifacts had remained in American. Even the extensive collection of Edwin Davis and Ephraim Squire was sold to the Blackmore Museum in Salisbury, England (now the Salisbury and South Wiltshire Museum). Harvard's appointment of Frederick W. Putnam to the Harvard chair gave an incredible boost to both the Moundbuilders and American archaeology. He is still recognized as the "professionalizer" of the science because of his administration and for creating a number of North American museums. He would continue as a force in the archaeology community until his retirement in September, 1909.

Rise of "Prehistoric"

One of the events that Putnam credited for the rise of professional archaeology was the coining of the word "prehistoric" by Sir Daniel Wilson for the title of his book Prehistoric Annals of Scotland in 1851. Wilson's "Three Age System," also contributed to the professional view of archeology, although the concept of a Stone Age, Bronze Age, and an Iron Age is no longer considered to be scholarly.

Evolution of Modern Theory

John Wesley Powell
John Wesley Powell, the first man to traverse the Grand Canyon, lobbied tirelessly for a Smithsonian Bureau of Ethnology and became its first director when it was created in 1879. One of Powell's first successes was hiring Cyrus Thomas, a minister turned entomologist and archaeologist, to study the Moundbuilders at the direction of and with funding from the United States Congress in 1881.

Thomas and a large team of researchers proved beyond all doubt that the Moundbuilders were ancestral Native Americans. In 1894 the Smithsonian published Cyrus Thomas' Report on the Mound Explorations of the Bureau of Ethnology.

Ales Hrdlicka

1906 In January, Representative Lacey of Iowa introduces a new bill. Following hearings and debate, the Antiquities Act is enacted on June 8. This statute decrees Presidential authority to establish National Monuments and requires permits to be approved before archeological investigations can be undertaken on federal land.
Antiquities Act of 1906 was an Act for the Preservation of American Antiquities. This law was enacted by the legislature of the United States and provided for a fine of $500 for the unauthorized excavation, injury, destruction or appropriation of historic or pre-historic sites

Nels C. Nelson uses careful recording and analysis of stratigraphy in the Galisteo Basin, New Mexico, to demonstrate chronological relationships among pottery styles used prehistorically in the Rio Grande area.

By the 1920's scholars began associating Moundbuilders with other tribes including Catawba, Tupelo, Cherokee, Creek (Muskeegan), Huron and Iroquois.

Warren King Morehead excavates Etowah and Cahokia

Modern views

Hopewell Culture - Capt. Mordecai (sometimes noted as M. C.) Hopewell owned a farm near Chillicothe which contained a 110 acre enclosure with more than thirty mounds inside it. The richest trove of moundbuilder artifacts ever discovered were excavated by Warren K. Moorehead in 1891-92 and exhibited at the 1893 Chicago World's Fair (Colombian Exposition), where the artifacts were referred to as Hopewellian.

Adena Culture - artifacts discovered in 1901 on the estate of Thomas Worthington, former governor of Ohio by William C. Mills, were noticeably different than earlier Moundbuilder finds. To distinguish the artifacts archaeologists referred to the new style of artifacts as Adena and the other style as Hopewell.

Archaic Moundbuilders

Mississippian Culture
Preserving the Mounds

The Historic Sites Act of 1935 an Act to provide for the preservation of historic American sites, buildings, objects and antiquities of national significance was developed.

HistoricPreservation Act 1966

National Environmental Policy Act of 1969

Archaeological Resources Protection Act 1979

Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act of 1990

Georgia Moundbuilders
An advanced pre-Colombian people who inhabited most of the present-day United State

Article Links
Golden Age of Moundbuilders
Golden Age of the Moundbuilders
Peabody Museum
William Bartram

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