New documents shed light on the origins of Cheatham County’s Mound Bottom archaeological site, suggesting Native Americans migrating from the present-day St. Louis area founded the once-thriving community along the Harpeth River about 1,000 years ago.
Recent research at Mound Bottom suggests a connection to Cahokia, which was the largest city in America before Europeans arrived, the documents say. Cahokia is located in what is now southern Illinois across the Mississippi River from St. Louis.
Cahokia is known for its earthen mounds, the type of feature for which the Cheatham site is named. Further, the migration theory is supported “by the presence of distinctive artifact types not local to central Tennessee,” the documents say.
The documents constitute a draft registration form for a listing on the National Register of Historic Places. Mound Bottom has been listed on the National Register since 1971, but the original form was just a few pages containing little information, said Aaron Deter-Wolf, the state archaeologist who wrote the new, 44-page filing.
The draft form was due to go before a state review board in Nashville on Jan. 29. The board was to vote on sending it along to the U.S. Department of the Interior, which oversees the National Register.
People inhabited present-day Middle Tennessee at least as far back as 12,000 B.C., and in the late 900s or early 1000s A.D. a complex society arose on what is now the Mound Bottom site, according to Deter-Wolf’s filing.
Before the community was established, there appears to have been nothing like it in Middle Tennessee, according to Deter-Wolf. In the region, he wrote, “there is no archaeological evidence indicating the existence of complex chiefdoms, multi-mound sites, community planning, or ceramic production on a level even approaching (Mound Bottom).”
Mound Bottom was a cultural and civic hub during what is known as the Mississippian period of Native American history. Archaeologists differ slightly in defining this period, offering starting dates that include 800 A.D. and 900 A.D., and ending dates such as 1400 A.D. and 1600 A.D.
The mounds on the Cheatham site were used in spiritual practices. Mound Bottom contains burial sites, evidence of structures, cooking artifacts and more. Intensive use of the site lasted until about 1350 A.D., according to Deter-Wolf.
Research was conducted at Mound Bottom long before its listing on the National Register, and it has continued in the five decades since then. Remote-sensing technology was used there as recently as 2018.
Deter-Wolf’s registration form presents a great deal of detail about Mound Bottom, in addition to the probable origins of the site. Still, he said the new knowledge raises more questions.
“For me one of the most important takeaways from updating the Mound Bottom National Register nomination has been realizing how much more we still have to learn,” he said in an email exchange.
He added that there are “still many unanswered questions about the lives and histories of Native Americans who built Mound Bottom and called Middle Tennessee home before the arrival of European settlers.”
Mound Bottom isn’t open to the general public, though tours can be arranged through the state Division of Archaeology.