The Lake George site is a late prehistoric multimound center located at the western edge of Yazoo County in the Yazoo Basin region of west-central Mississippi. An alluvial floodplain of the Mississippi River, the Yazoo Basin is one of the richest agricultural areas in North America as well as one of the richest archaeological zones, with an unusually abundant concentration of prehistoric sites. The largest of these sites is Lake George, which was built during the peak of aboriginal development in the basin.
The vicinity of the Lake George site reveals a long sequence of prehistoric occupations. Beginning at least by the second millennium BC, peoples of the Poverty Point culture had taken up residence. This widespread culture is distinguished by its fine lithic technology that often utilized exotic stones from distant sources and by a system of food preparation that utilized clay balls for cooking. Pottery was introduced just before the Common Era by the Tchefuncte culture, which also briefly occupied the site. Shortly thereafter, the Marksville variation of the famous Hopewell culture made an appearance and was followed by components of a local culture known as Baytown.
Although there may have been some movement of earth at the site before, real mound building began at Lake George around AD 800, when peoples of a strong new local development identified as the Coles Creek culture began their occupation. The earliest mound was a platform, on the summit of which a structure was placed. This was the beginning of the late prehistoric temple mound tradition. Over the last centuries of the first millennium, several additional mounds were constructed around a central plaza. The site covered only a few hectares, and the mounds were relatively small—less than six meters high. Not all of the buildings placed on top of these mounds were temples. Some may have served as charnel houses or fulfilled other public functions, while others were residences for the elite elements of society. Otherwise, few people lived at Lake George.
The Coles Creek peoples relied on the rich resources of the Mississippi Valley, supplemented by corn-based horticulture. They achieved a comfortable existence that was finely tuned to their environment. Their material culture was characterized by a plain clay pottery and few stone artifacts.
This modest development, however, changed around AD 1200. New influences suddenly appeared at the site, and a program of large-scale public works was implemented. Within a generation or two, dozens of additional mounds were built around a double plaza dominated by a huge central mound that was twenty meters high and covered a couple of hectares. The entire site grew to more than twenty hectares and was surrounded by a palisaded embankment on three sides, while the fourth fronted on a natural lake. The staggering amount of earthwork construction and emphasis on a great focal mound represented a major departure from the native Coles Creek ceremonial center but was characteristic of the Mississippian culture, a dynamic new development that influenced most of the midwestern and southeastern United States at this time.
The Mississippian culture was not unified but rather represented a series of innovations in lifestyle, including subsistence, social and political structure, economic and trade relations, and probably ceremonial activities. These innovations resulted in an intensive corn-bean-squash agriculture, the command and control to effect large public works programs, the exchange of exotic materials and finished artifacts over great distances, and new religious iconographies. Many local peoples adopted these innovations and participated in the “Mississippian coprosperity sphere” during the concluding centuries of prehistory. In the case of the Coles Creek people at Lake George, the agent of Mississippianization can be identified.
During the twelfth century the greatest Mississippian site—in fact, the largest prehistoric site in all of the United States—was Cahokia in west-central Illinois, near the confluence of the Mississippi and Missouri Rivers. This metropolis had contact with vast stretches of the continent, and its influence reached as far as the southern part of the Mississippi Valley and the Yazoo Basin. Stone and pottery artifacts distinctive of Cahokia and its environs have been found at Lake George and nearby sites, dating to about AD 1200, just at the beginning of the great program of mound construction.
Lake George flourished for another two centuries as the center of a large population descended from the local Coles Creek peoples. In keeping with the earlier tradition, however, and quite different from other contemporary Mississippian sites such as Cahokia, the Lake George site remained a “vacant ceremonial center” with only a small resident population.
By the middle of the fifteenth century, Lake George had been abandoned; in its place several smaller mound sites scattered around the Yazoo Basin assumed the functions it had fulfilled. Reasons for this change are unclear, but it did not result from population collapse, since the Yazoo remained one of North America’s most densely inhabited regions well into the sixteenth century.
- Jeffrey P. Brain, in Mississippian Settlement Patterns, ed. Bruce D. Smith (1978)
- Stephen Williams and Jeffrey P. Brain, Excavations at the Lake George Site, Yazoo County, Mississippi, 1958–1960 (1983)