The Mounds of Mounds State Park

Confession time. I’d never respected Mounds State Park.

I’d heard of it, of course. I have friends and family in the Anderson, Indiana area, and of course the name conjures images of Cahokia (near St. Louis), Angel Mounds (near Evansville), and various effigy mounds in Ohio.

But Mounds State Park is situated between Mounds Mall, former GM plants, and Anderson Municipal Airport. The people of Madison County tend to use it as a local/city park, and I’d heard about the terrible pollution problems in the White River. All in all, what I’d heard made me want to go somewhere else.

I didn’t know what I was missing.

Inside the Great Mound showing earthwork and ditch.
Inside the Great Mound showing earthwork and ditch.

The Great Mound is a circular earthwork over 2000 years old (160 BC). It is about 1/4 mile in circumference and nearly 400 feet across.  The earthwork itself is about 9 feet high, and contains an interior ditch about 10 feet deep. The park’s Interpretive Master Plan, 2011pdf states that the ditch was originally 6 feet deeper. The center of the earthwork is a broad flat platform at ground level.

The Great Mound is an impressive structure from the outside, but walking into the center is a mystical experience. There are only a few times in my life that I’ve walked into a man-made structure and come away awed. Basilica of San Miniato al Monte in Florence, Ando Gallery in Chicago, Auschwitz Crematory 1 (all for clearly different reasons).

For me, the Great Mound joins these spaces as one where you can feel the weight of the space, in this case the weight of our American prehistory.

The Great Mound is surrounded by at least four other earthworks, the unusually shaped Fiddleback mound being the most visible. It is thought that those smaller mounds represented astronomical observations: solstices, equinoxes, and the rising of various stars.

Fiddleback Mound
Fiddleback Mound

While Angel Mounds and Cahokia are visually impressive, more impressive is the thought that these mounds at Anderson were built nearly 700-1000 years before these better known sites. They are, perhaps, the oldest surviving man-made structures in Indiana.


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