Story & Photos by Sarah J. Schmidt
Long before Crimson Tide fans tailgated in Tuscaloosa, another band of fervent fans gathered nearby for sporting games of their own. They came to what archaeologists consider one of the largest prehistoric settlements in North America, located just minutes outside Tuscaloosa’s city limits.
The settlement included living quarters, work sites, ceremonial buildings, agricultural grounds and at least one large field that archaeologists believe was used for competitive games. Today, this settlement, known as Moundville, as well as the park created to commemorate and help people explore the site, continues to attract extensive historical and archeological interest, but within Alabama, it remains a well-kept secret.
The Moundville Archeological Park’s recent selection as a top destination by the Alabama Department of Tourism is helping to change that, says Dr. Alexander Benitez, Director Moundville Archeological Park. “This is a rare, beautiful archeological site — a city really — that was around when nothing else was here. 800 years ago, this thriving city was unlike any other place north of Mexico, and that’s saying a lot when you think of the Aztecs and Mayans who had their own advanced civilizations,” Dr. Benitez said.
Visitors to the site follow Moundville Pkwy off AL Hwy 69 to enter at a small admissions center. The building itself is rather austere, but don’t miss the informative video, shown every 15 minutes; it provides a perfect intro for a meaningful visit. A one-mile perimeter loop circles the site, with additional trails through the forest, creating an easy walk or drive from point to point. Most stops also provide ample parking, giving visitors plenty of options for touring at their own pace.
From the entrance, visitors get a stunning view of just how this settlement was laid out as 26 earthen mounds rise more than 50 feet high around large expanses of flat land used for farming, recreation, commerce and the day-to-day workings of a prehistoric city. Archeologists think the chiefdom leaders maintained living quarters atop most of the mounds. Research now shows that few, if any, of the mounds were used as burial sites, even though that was the prevailing notion when the site was first excavated in the early 1900s.
The Dial & Discover free cell phone audio tour of Moundville offers interesting commentary and historical tidbits throughout your visit. Look for signs at every stop or dial 205-409-2447 prior to arrival and learn enough to impress the kids before you go.
Situated prominently near the back of the site, Mound B holds a small hut on top that was built to mark the spot where the city’s highest ruler lived. The hut has become a symbol of Moundville, even appearing on Starbuck’s State of Alabama coffee mug. Due to deterioration and vandalism, the hut is scheduled to be replaced soon with a similar but historically accurate structure.
From Mound B, it’s an easy stroll to the Jones Archaeological Museum, where Moundville really comes to life through interactive displays and exhibits of items excavated from the site. What the park’s admission center lacks in splendor, this museum more than makes up for it in richly detailed, well-curated, artfully designed exhibits. The museum opens onto a gorgeous terrace overlooking one of the prehistoric ponds created by the dirt removal used in building the mounds. This is a perfect spot for a picnic lunch or to relax with a snack from the museum café.
A walking path through the woods from the museum leads to the conference center and Indian village perched on a bluff overlooking the Black Warrior River. Stunning views and photo ops abound. Nearby campsites are also available.
Summer visitors to Moundville can take advantage of a wide variety of seasonal programming scheduled weekly. The first weekend every October, Moundville hosts its annual Native American Festival, and in November this year, the park launches a new series of events to commemorate Native American Heritage Month. With so much going on, Moundville’s well-kept secret as a special destination in Alabama won’t last long. Go now, before it gets crowded!