Poverty Point

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Figure 6.1: Map of Poverty Point which are small geometric objects made of stone, of unknown use. Poverty Points architects built huge earthworks and artificial hills, or mounds, as did succeeding populations. In most cases the scope these mounds is not clear, as we shall see, although some of them, especially those having the form of barrows, were certainly used as tombs.

The tradition of construction of huge earthworks is found throughout the history of Native Americans: in Ohio, in the Mississippi Valley, during the Poverty Point era, and, with smooth transitions, into the Adena (800 BC to 100 AD) and Hopewell (100 to 500 AD) eras. In the Hopewell era, this monumental architecture develops even further, and a wide demographic expansion takes place, based on agriculture, in particular in the fertile plan created by the confluence of the Mississippi, Missouri, and Illinois rivers. Hopewell artists worked with many kinds of imported materials, such as shells coming from the Gulf of Mexico, mica from the Appalachians, and obsidian from the Rocky Mountains. Hopewell astronomers, as we will see, dedicated themselves to a carefully study of the solar and lunar cycles and projected the construction of great geometrical structures.

The Poverty Point site lies on the Bayon Macon River and was first studied in 1873. But it was only in 1950 that archaeologists, through the use of aerial photography, discovered that Poverty Point is a huge artificial terraced structure, shelving toward the river, and that it must have been conceived in a grand plan. This structure is in the shape of six concentric semicircles, each one composed of an artificial terrace (earthwork) a few meters high and over 60 meters wide. The terraces, separated by corridors 10 to 50 meters wide, form an amphitheater that overlooks the river. The corridors do not converge at a single point and do not divide the structure in equal sectors; the southwest section is crossed by another corridor, 91 meters long, that continues out of the complex. In the center of the semicircles is a square with a two-level platform on its far eastern side, which was probably the base of a wooden building; another square was on the western side, where large holes for posts were found. Various mounds are spread around in the surroundings, and the biggest one, Mound A, 21 meters tall, is directly linked to the terraces. The dimensions on the site are as follows: the diameter of the external terrace is over 1200 meters long; the external perimeter, all of which has been found to be complete, is 2^ kilometers long; the diameter of the internal square is of 594 meters, almost double the maximum size of the St. Peter's Square ellipse in Rome, which is 320 meters long.

The river crosses the structure, but apparently the original shape was octagonal, and initially it was thought the river may have changed its course, destroying the two missing terraces. But now many archaeologists think that the course of the river never changed, and that the structure was conceived as an amphitheater facing the river. I disagree, not because I think that such a grand building overlooking the river bank—and therefore subject to erosion—was beyond the builders' skills (it is apparent that the builders of Poverty Point knew how to build gigantic earthworks), but rather because of the structure's symmetry. Indeed the octagon, as a key geometric shape, was used during the Hopewell phase in other places in North America, as we will see later. Why, then, should the builders of Poverty Point have allowed the river to break the structure's symmetry?

We have very little information on how the builders of this amazing monument lived and thought. No houses or tombs have been found, and it is not even clear whether the site was residential or ceremonial, although the only findings—hundreds of microlites, stone pipes, pregnant female figurines, plus some deposits of intentionally broken pieces—seem to indicate that the monument was ceremonial. Many objects were imported from the Ohio and Tennessee River valleys, and perhaps also from the Olmec areas of central Mexico. In any case, it is certain that the site is a very clear example of the fact that a stable farming economy, which Poverty Point shows no sign of, is not a necessary prerequisite for the construction of monumental works.

How can we determine the intended purpose of these mounds? The monument is laid out quite accurately along a north-south axis, on the west bank of the river; therefore, the amphitheater is the ideal place to watch the sun rise. Further, it is possible to identify the four azimuths corresponding to the four corridors, although the high level of erosion of the structure makes it difficult to measure them precisely. These azimuths measure 191, 241, 299, and 344 degrees. The 241- and 299-degree azimuths approximate the sunset of the winter and summer solstices; the other two approximately point to the setting of the stars Canopus and Gamma-Draconis (the latter of which is not particularly bright) (Brecher and Haag 1980). Obviously, due to precession, these last two associations may be flawed since they depend crucially on the construction date.

Poverty Point thus might have been connected with astronomical cycles, although this idea has been strongly criticized (see, for example, Purrington 1983, Purrington and Child 1989), especially on the basis of the poor state of the monument, which is far too eroded to take accurate measurements of the alignments. But I believe that the two alignments to the solstices, at least, are quite convincing, and are the only explanation for the intriguing geometrical layout of Poverty Point, which certainly was not casual. Further investigations into the possible alignments of the mounds are essential.

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