Poverty Point Culture: A Definition

Poverty Point culture is an archaeological picture of how certain Lower Mississippi Valley peoples lived between around 1730 and 1350 B.C. Archaeologists have identified aspects of this way of life over a large area of the Lower Mississippi Valley from a northerly point near the present junction of the Mississippi and Arkansas rivers (above the present-day town of Greenville, Mississippi) to the Gulf coast. This area includes parts of Louisiana, Mississippi, and Arkansas. In addition, tools and ornaments resembling Poverty Point types have been found as far up the river as Tennessee and Missouri and along the Gulf coast as far east as Tampa, Florida, and the Atlantic coast of Georgia.

Archaeologists identify Poverty Point culture by its characteristic artifacts and the nonlocal rocks used to make them. Imported rocks and minerals include various cherts and flints, soapstone, hematite, magnetite, slate, galena, copper, and many others. Radiocarbon dates indicate that some raw materials were being traded to the Poverty Point site and other sections of the Poverty Point culture area by 1730 B.C. The arrival of substantial amounts of these trade materials is a convenient point to define the onset of Poverty Point culture, and their disappearance, a good point to mark its end.

Some characteristic Poverty Point-style artifacts were being made more than 5,000 years ago, but most came into existence over the next 1,500 years. They include hand-molded baked clay cooking objects, simple thick-walled pottery, and stone vessels. Other representative artifacts are chipped stone tools, like spear points, adzes, hoes, drills, perforators, edge-retouched flakes, and blades. Polished stone tools, like celts, plummets, and gorgets, as well as polished stone ornaments, like beads, pendants, and animal figures, are also characteristic. Typical artifacts and trade materials existed for about three or four centuries or until around 1350 B.C.


Poverty Point Artifacts

Artifacts Characteristic of Poverty Point Culture

Much of what we know about Poverty Point artifacts and trade materials is based on the Poverty Point site. This is partly because Poverty Point is larger and has been more extensively investigated than other sites, but it is also because the site was so important in overall trade relations in the Lower Mississippi Valley. When the Poverty Point site flourished, trade flourished; when the Poverty Point site was abandoned, trade ceased, and so did the flow of information that accompanied trade. If the Poverty Point site had not existed, there would be little reason to set off Poverty Point culture from the general culture that existed at the time.

Because Poverty Point culture is defined in terms of stone tools and trade rocks, it really represents a technological and economic pattern more than a social and political one. The technology and economy were not confined to one large body of kinfolks or to a single tribe, nation, or ethnic group. They were not confined to people who spoke the same language. Many groups of people bore Poverty Point culture, and most of them were unrelated and politically independent.

Even though Poverty Point culture does not correspond to a single social or political group, it was made up of them, many of them. One of these groups was Poverty Point society itself, the people living within 20 to 25 miles of the Poverty Point site, a community that interacted on a regular face-to-face basis. Archaeologists depend on unique tools and other details to recognize villages and camps belonging to the Poverty Point community. Although tools throughout the Poverty Point community were made in the same styles and of the same variety of rocks, not all sites had the same set of tools or materials. The closer sites were to the Poverty Point site, the more likely tools were to be made out of nonlocal trade rocks. On the fringes of the Poverty Point community, local gravels were often substituted for nonlocal materials, but trade materials that did manage to reach out into the peripheries were usually made into the same kinds of tools as at the Poverty Point site.

Beyond the 25-mile radius around the site, Poverty Point artifact styles and trade rocks were less common, except in a few places, some of them hundreds of miles away. Outside of the 25-mile core area, artifact styles differ a little or they differ a lot, and, with a few exceptions, distance from the Poverty Point site has a lot to do with how strong the differences are.

Poverty Point culture and Poverty Point society are not the same thing. Poverty Point culture is an archaeological concept used to describe a wide area of general artifact similarities within the Lower Mississippi Valley. Poverty Point society was the once-thriving community, which conducted its daily activities in and around the Poverty Point site for three or four centuries before quitting the trade business that set it apart from earlier and later societies.



Settlement

A map showing the Lower Mississippi Valley in 1500 B.C., during the zenith of Poverty Point culture, reveals some very interesting things. Population was clustered in certain areas, and these areas were separated from each other, sometimes by scores of miles. While the pattern of geographic separation is due in part to river erosion and spotty archaeological investigation, it also reflects cultural preferences for certain kinds of land. Although various locations were chosen for individual villages or camps, each cluster included high land and swampland, often separated by low bluffs.

The largest cluster was in the Yazoo Basin of western Mississippi. Another large cluster surrounded the Poverty Point site in the Upper Tensas Basin-Maçon Ridge region of northeastern Louisiana. Still others were located on the Ouachita River in southern Arkansas, in the Vermilion Basin-Coteau Ridge region of south central Louisiana and in the Lower Pearl River-Hancock Terrace region of coastal Mississippi.


Map of Surrounding Sites

How the Lower Mississippi Valley might have looked in 1500 B.C., showing courses of major rivers and locations of Poverty Point territories. Drawing by Jon Gibson

Lying between these clusters were areas of uninhabited or lightly occupied land. In possibly one or two places, there were pockets of concentrated population, which, for various reasons, did not participate regularly or intensively in Poverty Point trade.

The map shows another interesting feature. The scattered population clusters were all linked by the Mississippi River. Although the river itself did not run through every cluster, streams connecting with the Mississippi did. Some of these streams actually occupied old channels of the Mississippi and Arkansas rivers. These interconnected streams were highways that carried people, trade goods, and ideas to the various corners of the Poverty Point cultural network. We have very little evidence suggesting that overland trails were as important as they had been earlier when people lived out in the hills and made only seasonal use of river valleys.

Most Poverty Point peoples lived in small permanent villages and seasonal camps along streams and cutoff lakes in old abandoned river channels. These living areas ranged in size from less than an acre to more than 100 acres. Small settlements housed only a few families, while larger ones had dozens. Some archaeologists believe several thousand people lived at the Poverty Point site, but others think it was a campground occupied temporarily during ceremonies and trade fairs. Poverty Point people also had small, temporary campsites, where hunting and gathering parties spent the night while away from home.

Village sites differed from one another in more ways than size. One, and sometimes more, large sites in each Poverty Point cluster had artificial mounds and sometimes C-shaped embankments. There was usually only one mound, but as many as eight mounds were built in some cases. They were made of dirt and were usually dome-shaped, but two large mounds at the Poverty Point site were shaped like flying birds. Generally, the larger the site, the larger the mounds. Large sites also tended to have more mounds than small ones.

Excavations have not determined how the mounds were used. Domed mounds look like those used as tombs by later cultures, but, with one exception, no burials have been found in them. James Ford and Stuart Neitzel did find a burned fragment of a human thighbone in a bed of ashes beneath the large domed mound at the Poverty Point site, but no bones were found in the mound itself. Postmolds from a circular house were buried underneath a low domed mound at the Jaketown site in the Yazoo Basin, but whether the house had anything to do with the mound being built at the spot is unknown.




Artists reconstruction of the central ridged enclosure at the Poverty Point site as it may have appeared in 1350 B.C. Drawing by Jon Gibson

When archaeologists excavated part of the tail of the largest bird mound at Poverty Point, they found nothing that indicated the purpose of the mound. However, a mound shaped liked a bird was probably a memorial or shrine, rather than a tomb or temple base. Earth embankments were occasionally built at the bigger settlements. Sometimes, they had domestic trash, postmolds, and fire pits in or on them and seem to have served as foundations for houses or portable shelters. C-shaped layouts were the most common patterns, as illustrated by the six concentric ridges at Poverty Point. Another pattern was two half rings, like those at the Claiborne and Cedarland sites on the Mississippi Gulf coast, which resembled a figure eight cut in half, lengthwise. Besides house foundations, embankments have been claimed to be astronomical figures and military breastworks.

The Maçon Ridge-Upper Tensas Basin stands out from the rest of the localities. Not only is the Poverty Point site located here, but dozens of sites are located within a 25-mile radius of Poverty Point. These sites have larger proportions of typical Poverty Point artifacts than sites in other clusters, and they usually have more trade materials, too. These conditions resulted from being under Poverty Point's direct influence.

The importance of the Poverty Point site to its own community, as well as to distant communities scattered throughout the Lower Mississippi Valley, requires that we take a closer look at this significant place. It was first reported by archaeologist Samuel Lockett in 1873, and it was visited by many archaeologists afterwards. It was excavation conducted by James Ford and Stuart Neitzel of the American Museum of Natural History in the early 1950s that really disclosed its unusual nature. Routine inspection of an aerial photograph led Ford to a startling discovery: Poverty Point was an earthen enclosure, built on such a large scale that it defied recognition from ground level.

The geometric layout suggested that the earthworks had been built according to a master plan in a massive all-out building program. Their size, coupled with millions of artifacts scattered on and in them, gave an impression that Poverty Point was home for a large population and a magnet for visitors. Although new information has caused us to rethink some of these ideas, we are still awed by the massiveness of the engineering feat and appreciative of the collective spirit of those ancient people whose vision and toil are represented there.

A C-shaped figure dominates the center of the site. The figure is formed by six concentric artificial earth embankments, which now stand 4 to 6 feet (1 to 2 m) high and 140 to 200 feet (43 to 60 m) apart. They are separated by ditches, or swales, where dirt was removed to build the ridges. The ends of the outermost ridge are 3,950 feet (1.2 km) apart, nearly three-quarters of a mile, while the ends of the interior embankment are 1,950 feet (594 m) apart. The embankments end along a 25-foot-high bluff, which marks the wall of the Mississippi River floodplain. A small sluggish stream, Bayou Maçon, hugs the foot of the bluff beneath the earthworks.

Archaeologists first believed the six ridges formed a complete octagonal enclosure and that the Arkansas River ate away the eastern section. Recent information shows this was never the case. The bluff was cut thousands of years before the Indians built the rings. In fact, it posed a building and maintenance problem from the outset, and efforts to repair and stabilize it can be seen in the layers of red and yellow dirt used to fill old gullies underneath the northern ridges.

The ridges are divided into six sectors by five crosscutting aisles, or corridors. These aisles are from 35 to 160 feet (10 to 49 m) wide. They do not converge at a single point inside the enclosure nor do they divide embankments into equal-size sectors. The long straight aisles have been identified as astronomical sighting lines and as boundary lines between social and functional zones. Another idea is that the aisles were formed when the ridge builders used geometry and simple equipment to lay out arc segments to form the half-oval shape.

In addition to the aisles, the southwestern section of the enclosure is bisected by an extra ridge, which parallels the southwestern aisle. The bisector ridge starts at the innermost ridge encircling the plaza, runs across the outer concentric ridges, and then extends an additional 300 feet (91 m) beyond the enclosure. The extension, or Causeway as it is called, crosses a large depression, which may be a natural depression or a borrow pit for ridge soil. It ends near Ballcourt Mound.

In the center of the ridged enclosure is the plaza, a flat, open area covering about 37 acres. Along its eastern edge is a platform mound (called Bluff, or Dunbar, Mound), which appears to have had two levels: a low flat-top base topped by a smaller dome-shaped addition. The mound was built in stages, and wooden buildings were erected on some stage summits. The southeasternmost edge of the plaza was built up with dirt, and nearby, another low platform mound (Sarah's Mount) was built on the southern end of the inner embankment of the main enclosure.

On the western side of the plaza at the Poverty Point site, archaeologist William Haag excavated some unusually large and deep pits. If these held posts, they had to be the size of grown trees! Too big to have been used for ordinary residences or even ceremonial buildings, these huge posts are imagined to be calendar markers for important days like equinoxes and solstices, an American Stonehenge made of wood.

Outside the ridged enclosure are other mounds and embankments. The largest and most unusual is Mound A, located just beyond the outer ridge in the western part of the enclosure. This mound, thought to represent a flying bird, stands more than 70 feet (21 m) high and measures 640 feet (195 m) along the wing and 710 feet (216 m) from head to tail. The flattened, or tail, section of the huge structure was built in a depression some 12 or more feet (3.7 m) deep. A similar but slightly smaller mound, the Motley Mound, lies 1.5 miles (2.4 km) north of the central enclosure. Because it had only a slight bulge where the bird's tail should have been, it is believed to be unfinished.

Three more mounds are positioned along a north-south line that passes through the main bird mound. About 0.4 miles (.6 km) north of the big mound is a domed mound, Mound B, which is about 180 feet (55 m) in diameter and 20 feet (6 m) high. Some 600 feet (183 m) south of the bird mound is Ballcourt Mound, a flat-topped structure about 100 feet (30 m) square. Although it is called Ballcourt Mound, there is no indication that it ever really served as a ballcourt. For years, it was thought to be a natural knoll that had been sculpted into shape, but recent investigations have shown it to be artificial, just like the other mounds.

About 1.6 miles (2.6 km) south of Ballcourt Mound and along the same axis is a second domed mound, Lower Jackson Mound. At one time, this mound was thought to be the southernmost Poverty Point mound. Now, we think it is much older than the other mounds, perhaps dating a thousand years or more earlier. The fact that it lines up so precisely with three mounds at the earthwork center may be coincidental, but it probably is intentional and meant to tie the old mound and whatever it stood for into the grand Poverty Point plan.


Poverty Point Earthworks

The Poverty Point Earthworks. Drawing by Jon Gibson

Other nearby earthworks: a C-shaped embankment with mounds incorporated in the middle and each end and at least one other mound on the Jackson Place immediately south of the ridged enclosure, may have been part of the overall Poverty Point layout. That is difficult to prove because they have been flattened by modern cultivation.

The majority of Poverty Point's inhabitants lived on the embank-ments in the central enclosure, but some people lived and worked outside the enclosure. Important living and working areas were scattered along the bluff between the ridges and Motley Mound and between the ridges intermittently to Lower Jackson Mound, more than a mile and a half (2.4 km) to the south. In addition, people lived west of Motley Mound and a quarter mile (.4 km) southwest and from a quarter mile to two miles (.4 to 3.2 km) west of Mound A.

Very little is known about Poverty Point houses and furnishings. The outline of a house was found at the Jaketown site in Mississippi. The Jaketown house pattern was small and circular, around 13 to 15 feet (4 to 4.6 m) in diameter.

No definite house patterns have been reported at the Poverty Point site. Does the lack of evidence for substantial houses mean that Poverty Point was a temporary encampment and that flimsy or portable shelters were used? No, it does not. It is likely that modern plowing destroyed the remains of permanent houses that might have stood on top of the ridges.

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