Bottle Creek mounds still hold mysteries

Delta site was occupied almost 800 years ago

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STOCKTON – The Native American mounds at Bottle Creek had their most extensive excavation and study a quarter of a century ago, but many questions remain about Alabama’s second largest mound site.

Archeologists do not know the purpose of some of the 19 mounds discovered so far. They are not sure if the region doesn’t contain more mounds. It probably does, Ian Brown, professor and curator of Gulf Coast Archeology at the University of Alabama, said.

On Saturday, Brown returned to the mound site where he led excavations between 1991 and 1994. He told a group of 45 visitors on a tour sponsored by Historic Blakeley State Park, that for centuries the tallest mounds were the largest man-made structures on the Gulf Coast.

Visitors walked trails over ground that may have been the most populated place on the Gulf Coast more than 700 years ago. They climbed over wet leaves and mud to scale the steep sides of Mound A, the tallest structure, which at 45 feet high, is taller than a four-story building.

“That was pretty impressive when you’re dealing with people who don’t have iron shovels, but were just moving basket loads of dirt,” he said.

The mound site was occupied at least as far back as the 1200s. People lived on the island building the mounds until about 1550, Brown said.

The builders were part of what has been designated the Pensacola culture that was part of the larger Mississippian culture that built mounds at Moundville and throughout much of the Mississippi River valley. Brown said pottery found at Bottle Creek indicates that the Moundville builders had an early influence on the Baldwin County site, but that the society and its buildings later developed on their own.

Brown said that while the site is now considered isolated, that wasn’t the case centuries ago. Tour participants reached the island by a one-hour boat trip from Stockton. At a time when boats were the main form of transportation, the island near the conjunction of the five rivers that drain Alabama would have been a central location on a major intersection.

After the 1500s, people continued to live in the area. Some native tribes lived and farmed on Mound Island and the surrounding area.

The site held a cultural significance to local native tribes into the 1700s, when on person guided the French explorer Bienville to the island, Mike Bunn, director of Blakeley State Park, said. Bienville recorded that he found five small clay figures at one of the mounds, but that his guide would not look at the structures and stood with his back to the earthworks.

Brown said the mounds are different sizes and probably had different functions. Mound A has traditionally been considered the site for the home of the ruler of the island, while the commoners lived around the base, but Brown said that may not be the case.

“The idea was the elite were here and here and maybe something going on here. This may have been where the chief’s house was,” Brown said and then laughed. “You know, the number of storms that we have there, if I was a chief, I don’t know that I’d want to be on the top of Mound A, because there’s a lot of lightning going on out there.”

Another mystery is a smaller mound located away from the main structures. Designated Mound L, archeologists thought at first it would be a simple structure to study.

Digging around parts of the edge, however, they found that the area seemed to be built up over time for different purposes. They also found a wide variety of pottery from other areas indicating that some people who stayed there may have been visitors.

“We joked about this being a hotel because not only was it just full of different kind of structures, but also weird pottery,” Brown said. “It wasn’t the kind of material we’re used to seeing in this area associated with classic Pensacola culture. We still haven’t figure out what all that is, but there was a lot of connections going on with peoples farther to the west in the Mississippi Valley. It needs further investigation.”

When Brown first came to the island in the 1980s, even Mound L’s location was hard to determine. They set out from the central mound site for a short hike to look at Mound L. Four or five hours later, they realized they were lost in the swamp.

“We missed these mounds and we headed over the wetlands. I felt like DeSoto, going through the swamps,” he said. “It was fun for a while until it got to be about 3:30, 4 o’clock and the sun was starting to go down a little bit and you start to think about how there’s cottonmouths and gators and all these things. They can see you, but you can’t quite see them.”

They finally found a river, but were so disoriented, they did not know which body of water they had reached and had to ask passing boaters where they were. “That was my first experience with the Bottle Creek site, and you wonder why I would ever come back, but I did, many years later,” Brown said.

Brown said that while the archaeologists also faced deer flies, mosquitoes, poison ivy, stinging nettles and other hazards, the area is a wonder even without the archaeological sites.

“The most delightful thing about the Bottle Creek is the environment. For those who haven’t been out there we really do recommend it in any season,” he said. “There’re some hazards associated with it, but just to go out there it’s one of the most peaceful places on earth.”

The studies in the ‘90s found a great deal of information about the site, but much remains to be learned. While maps of the site dating to the 1880s showed 18 mounds, a survey using LISAR technology, employing lasers to chart land contours, found another mound. Brown said the island still holds much to be learned.

“This whole area is still kind of a mystery,” Brown said. “There’s a whole lot that still needs to be investigated.”