Mississippian Period

The Mississippian (or Mississippi) period, named for the Mississippi River, is an archaeological unit that at its simplest is defined by the presence of pottery tempered with crushed mussel shell. Other artifact types, including flat-topped rectangular earthen mounds, small triangular stone projectile points, and buildings constructed with wall trenches into which posts were set, also may identify sites used in this period. The definition has been extended to encompass a dependence on maize agriculture and the existence of chiefdom-type political organization. Because all of these traits appeared and disappeared at different times and places, they cannot necessarily be used to define a coherent unit. Of them, political organization is the most difficult to identify, as it is based on many inferences from the archaeological record. The practice of adding shell to pottery was adopted rapidly over much of eastern North America around AD 1000–1100 and lasted until sustained European contact, around AD 1700, so it provides a useful temporal marker.

The pottery made in the Mississippian period prominently included cooking and storage jars. Bowls often were highly decorated, with polished surfaces that might display engraved or incised designs. Red-slipped and red-and-white painted bottles and bowls also were made. Vessels might have animal head and tail effigies on the rims, with frogs, birds, bears, and other mammals and human heads commonly used. Large assemblages of whole pottery vessels were recovered through unsystematic and destructive digging from graves at the Walls site in DeSoto County and the Humber-McWilliams site in Coahoma County. Many examples from the latter collection are displayed at Greenwood’s Museum of the Mississippi Delta.

Some of the largest earthen mound groups in North America date to the Mississippian period. Several of these sites are located in Mississippi’s Yazoo Basin. The most well studied of these are Winterville Mounds near Greenville in Washington County and the Lake George Site in Yazoo County. By the time mound construction ended at these sites, each had more than two dozen mounds, including in each case one mound taller than sixty-five feet. The mounds surrounded a main and one or more subsidiary plazas, open areas that presumably did not contain houses. Atop and under some of the mounds were wall trenches, postholes, and other evidence of buildings. Lake George is surrounded by a nearly 1.5-mile-long earthen embankment with an exterior ditch. Mound construction and use at both sites began in the Coles Creek period (AD 700–1150) and continued through Plaquemine (AD 1150–1325) before a major increase in earthwork construction occurred during the Mississippian period, as marked by shell-tempered pottery. Winterville was partly excavated by Jeffrey P. Brain of Harvard University in 1967–68 and by H. Edwin Jackson of the University of Southern Mississippi beginning in 2003. Part of the Lake George Site was dug by Brain and Stephen Williams of Harvard University in 1958–60.

Mississippian mound sites in other parts of the state are smaller. Owl Creek Mounds, the largest such group in Chickasaw County, has five mounds, the tallest of which is sixteen feet high, arranged around a plaza. Evidence of structures was found on four of the mounds during Mississippi State University excavations in 1991–92. The Mississippian occupation there apparently did not include a significant resident population, as relatively few artifacts were recovered anywhere within it. In contrast, slightly later mound sites in the region, such as Lyon’s Bluff, were the location of small villages.

The other component of the Mississippian settlement pattern was farmsteads, many of which have been found by archaeologists. Most of the population lived at these one- or two-house sites, and primary agricultural production of maize, beans, and other crops occurred there.

Archaeologists often state that Mississippian societies were made up of people placed into ranks that varied in access to power. In support of this theory, archaeologists have argued that buildings on top of mounds were chiefly residences, but evidence sometimes indicates other uses—as temples, structures for feasting, or storage buildings. Differences in burial location (under houses or in mounds) and in amount and kinds of grave goods included with burials (none or only utilitarian items versus quantities of fancy artifacts or objects made of exotic materials such as copper) also have been used as evidence of ranking. At the Lake George Site, for example, seventy-seven Coles Creek burials were excavated from what archaeologists identify as Mound C. The only artifacts found, each in a different grave, were an awl made of bone, bark lining in one of the grave pits, a pottery vessel, and some green pigment. An interesting contrast is offered by Burial 11 at Lyon’s Bluff, excavated by Moreau B. C. Chambers in 1935. Near the burial was a carefully arranged deposit of two dozen or more turtle shells on which was placed an alligator skull. This unusual burial mode might be interpreted as indicating a high-status person, unlike the many burials found at Lyon’s Bluff that had no associated artifacts.

Archaeologists seek to document variability in prehistoric artifacts through both time and space. The Mississippian period previously was considered culturally homogeneous, but additional archaeological work has revealed that it encompassed much variation.

Further Reading

  • David H. Dye and Cheryl Ann Cox, eds., Towns and Temples along the Mississippi (1990)
  • Patricia K. Galloway, Mississippi Archaeology 1 (2000)
  • Evan Peacock and S. Homes Hogue, Southeastern Archaeology 1 (2005)
  • Janet Rafferty, Owl Creek Mounds: Test Excavations at a Vacant Mississippian Mound Center (1995)
  • Bruce D. Smith, ed., Mississippian Settlement Patterns (1978)
  • Stephen Williams and Jeffrey P. Brain, Excavations at the Lake George Site, Yazoo County, Mississippi, 1958–1960 (1983)

Citation Information

The following information is provided for citations.

  • Article Title Mississippian Period
  • Author
  • Website Name Mississippi Encyclopedia
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  • Access Date June 4, 2020
  • Publisher Center for Study of Southern Culture
  • Original Published Date
  • Date of Last Update April 14, 2018