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Sam Wilson

Note: Archaeologists frequently refer to the Caddo Mounds site as the George C. Davis site, a name that refers to a landowner from the early 20th century.

What is Caddo Mounds, and when was it occupied?

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The George C. Davis site is one of the biggest and most significant archaeological sites in Texas. It’s quite large -- more than a kilometer north-south, and about half that east-west. Between 800 and 1300 A.D., it was the center of a large number of Caddo Indians who built mounds here, built houses, buried their dead, and probably traded and farmed along the Neches River.

We’re not really sure how many people lived here. In many ways, the site’s very large, and seems to have a number of houses. But in other ways, it doesn’t have very many artifacts, considering the number of houses. And so it may be that it was used for special events, it may have been used intensively for shorter periods of time, or it could be that we’ve just not found the places that people were living intensively for long periods of time.

The site today has three large mounds. One of the largest, and the southernmost, is called Mound A. It was probably the earliest and most significant mound. There are a series of about 40 houses that were built under and around the mound. Those seem to have been occupied for the whole time the site was there. North of there was a second mound, Mound B, which was the most recent, probably dating to around 1100 to 1300, sometime around there. And that was a rectangular platform mound. It’s about a hundred meters north-south, and about 50 meters east-west, and it would have had a flat top and earthen ramps on the north, east, and south sides of it, kind of like stairways. And the north part of the site is Mound C, which doesn’t have a lot of houses around it, and was used as a burial mound for nearly the whole duration of the time people were living at the site.

It’s hard to say whether the site was occupied intensively for its whole duration. But if it was used intermittently, it probably would have been for annual rituals or for events involving burial or installation of new rulers. But it could have been used for annual rituals for all the Indians living around the Neches Valley and for 50 miles in every direction.

Who were the people who built this site, and how did they live?

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When the George C. Davis site was first occupied, the people who were here were clearly in close contact with other Mississippian mound-building groups from the Mississippi Valley and points farther east. The kinds of artifacts found in this site are comparable to those found at the large mound centers of Cahokia, Moundville in Alabama, and others. So these people were clearly in contact, and were culturally related to, other mound-building groups.

The people who lived at this site were agricultural people. They were growing corn in the summers, and growing other kinds of wild food and collecting lots of wild plant food from around here. They lived permanently in large houses, some of which were quite large -- their circular houses, as much as 60 feet in diameter, that would have held an extended family. But while they used a lot of domesticated food -- domesticated corn, especially, they also hunted and fished and used a lot of wild animals and plant foods from around here.

The Caddo people, especially in this part of Texas, were trading with and interacting with people whose economy was a hunter-gatherer economy, who didn’t domesticate plants, but did hunt and collect wild plants and animals.

What is the astronomical significance of Caddo Mounds?

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Like most agricultural people, the Caddo were really interested in charting the seasons and paying attention to the motions of the celestial bodies in the sky. You can tell from the way the platform mounds are oriented here that they were carefully aligned with stars or equinoxes. And from other Mississippian sites, we know that keeping track of summer solstices, spring and fall equinoxes, and other calendric kinds of issues was really important.

At the site of Cahokia, there’s a large structure that’s been nicknamed “Woodhenge,” that’s a large circle of very large posts, that’s used to spot the days of autumnal and spring equinoxes, and solstices. And we wouldn’t be surprised -- in fact, we’ve looked for similar kinds of features on this site. We haven’t found them yet, but the site’s so large, and the amount of effort we have for it is so small, that we may not just have found it yet.

Mound B, the large platform mound in the center of the site, was aligned due north-south. And given the movement of the Earth’s magnetic field, it may have been aligned with Polaris, with the north star. But in any case, using magnetic north now, it’s almost due north-south. So it shows that they were paying close attention to the alignment of buildings, such as Mound B. And we expect that other buildings, like the round houses with large interior posts, also seem to have a regular orientation with respect to the north-south axis.

One really interesting kind of house is round, is about 30 feet across, and has a large hearth right in the center of the house. And around the hearth are four large posts that were dug into the ground and set to sort of support the roof of the house. These houses seem to show a regular alignment, as if the four square posts were turned a little bit west of north, and it’s likely, like other Native American houses, such as the Pawnee, that this was aligned with some stars or astronomical objects.

What stars or objects might have been important here?

There’s a lot of discussion of this. Some of the stars that Mississippian people and other Native Americans were very interested in are Venus, Jupiter, when they rise and set in certain parts of the year. Also the Pleiades and other constellations. It’s clear that people living in a pre-Industrial Age, the skies were so clear, and light pollution was so low, they would have had a vast sky every night to look at.

What kind of research are you doing at the site now?

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Just recently a new technology’s emerged, that’s called a cesium magnetometer, and it measures minute variations in the Earth’s magnetic field. So it doesn’t do anything actively, but as you pull it along the ground, it just measures the Earth’s magnetic field at that particular point. When you take all of those millions of readings and put them together in the computer, you get a surprisingly detailed map of what’s going under the surface of the site. That’s how we were able to see 50 or 60 or 70 houses that we never knew existed, and all kinds of other pits and other kinds of features.

It gives us a view of the site that we’ve never been able to see before because, for so long, we worked with small test excavations dug into the soil, and that gives you a look at a tiny fraction -- a hundredth of a hundredth of a percent of the whole site. This new technology has given us a new way of looking at the site, not just as a collection of test units excavated into the ground, but as a whole, living Native American community that existed for centuries.

The magnetometer reads down between one and two meters below the surface. The George C. Davis site is the perfect candidate for this kind of technology, because this site didn’t build up a great deal as many archaeological sites might have....

What additional research will you conduct at Caddo Mounds, and do you plan to explore any related sites in this region?

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We’re probably going to continue working on one problem or another at the George C. Davis site for the next 20 years. But we’re also interested in using this new magnetometer technology at other sites -- contemporary sites, historic Caddo sites -- and try and understand the evolution of the community pattern, from the early Caddo communities into the historic period.

We’re still trying to decide what sites we may explore next because there are several hundred, or thousands, of sites in this time period, and we’re trying to find ones that will give us the kind of community pattern we’re interested in, and that will give us the kind of magnetometer results that would allow us to interpret them as we have at the Davis site.

Dr. Sam Wilson is a professor of anthropology at the University of Texas at Austin. He is one of several Texas researchers studying Caddo Mounds State Historic Site in Cherokee County, Texas.

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