Element of the late Neolithic cultures


The first evidence of mound building dates back to 1000 BC, the late Neolithic age.  Evidence of these mound builders can be seen throughout the world.  Little is known about their origins; however, the mound builders in the southeastern United States are believed to have evolved from those who built rings made of shell and others which had moved in from the west.


The purpose of these shell rings is somewhat of a mystery to archeologists.  It is evident that these piles contained the refuse of freshwater shellfish that American Indians often harvested for food.  Piles of shell found on the St. John’s River have been up to 30 feet high.  Some of these mounds are believed to have served as protection from seasonal floodwaters, while others are believed to represent sacred burial grounds.  Other shell rings found nearby the shores of the Atlantic Ocean are deposits of oyster and clam refuse.  They follow a distinct pattern arranged in ring and concentric shapes up to a quarter mile in diameter and twelve feet high.  The rings served a double purpose; they were used for food preparation, food storage, and waste disposal, and also probably as cultural centers for community activities and ceremonies.  However, by 1000 BC the ring building ceased, and at around the same time and in the same area a new tradition of mound building was begun.


Examples in the World


Evidence of mound builders can be found in countries throughout the world.  There are many notable examples of this type of culture in Japan, Scotland, Sweden, Sussex, and the United States.



The mounds found in Japan are often divided into three groups: Saki-Tatanami Kofun, Mozu Tumuli, and Sakurdani.

Saki-Tatanami Kofun

This group is located in the north part of Nara Basin.  The mounds in this group are believed to have been built in the 4th century.  Kofuns were tombs of powerful people in ancient times, usually emperors or empresses.  These tombs can be found in several different types or shapes:  empun or circular, houfun or square shaped, and zempo-koen-fun or keyhole shaped.  Japanese history contains many accounts and legends of the ancient royal family. One legend describes a custom in ancient times, when a member of the royal family died the servants of this person were buried alive around the burial mounds.  According to the legend when Hibasu-Hime, the wife of Emperor Suinin, died a man named Nomi-no-Sukune devised a plan to bury pottery figures, called haniwas, representing the servants instead of the people themselves. The legend goes on to say this practice of burying haniwas replaced the old custom. The kofun of Hibasu-Hime is believed to be part of the Saki-Tatanami Kofun Group.  This area is very densely populated with the keyhole shaped kofuns and includes several mounds with moats whose size exceeds 200 meters.

Mozu Tumuli Group

The Mozu Tumuli group contains a total of 46 mounds, though some are partially damaged.  Of the remaining mounds, 5 are square, 21 circular, and 20 keyhole shaped.  Many of the original 100 mounds have been destroyed over the years due to land development and other causes.  This group also includes the Emperor Nintoku Burial Mound, which is the largest keyhole shaped mound in Japan.  The mound has an overall length of approximately 486 meters with the bottom edge facing south; the round back portion its about 249 meters wide and 35 meters high.  The mound is surrounded by more than 10 smaller mounds and a moat.


The Sakuradani mounds are located to the north of Mt. Futagami.  These burial mounds date back to the 4th and 5th centuries.  The two main burial mounds in this group are keyhole shaped.  Artifacts such as beads have been found and taken from these mounds.



Scottish burial mounds are known as cairns.  They appear in many places throughout Scotland; these are a few of the notable sites:  Cairnpapple Hill, Cuween Hill, Camster, and Carn Liath.

Cairnpapple Hill

The appearance of these mounds differs greatly from those in Japan.  The Cairnpapple Hill site is located in West Lothian, Lithonia.  This site remained in use, as a ritualistic as well a burial site, from 2800 BC till 1500 BC.  It is believed that cremated remains of humans were placed in holes dug on top of the hill.  The mound that can be seen at this site in present day is a reconstruction of the original Bronze Age cairn.  The origin of the name of the site comes from the Gailie curn, meaning cairn and the Old English popel, meaning a heap of loose stones.        

Cuween Hill

Cuween Hill is located in Mainland, Orkney.  It dates back to around 3000 BC, and was used as a communal tomb.  The Neolithic chamber tomb contains four cells covered by a low mound.  The remains of eight people were found inside along with some animal bones.  The chambered tomb is known locally as “Fairy Knowe.”


Camster is located in Caithness, Highland.  There are two cairns at Camster, one round and one long.  They are restored Neolithic chambered cairns.  Excavations performed on the site in 1865 uncovered charcoal, ashes, burned and unburned bones, and broken pots.

Carn Liath

Carn Liath is located in Sutherland, Highland.  This site was inhibited over many centuries and therefore, is not a true cairn, but is instead called a borch.  The Duke of Sutherland first excavated it in the 19th century.  In places, its walls still stand 3.6 meters high.  Artifacts such as pottery, chips, flint, stone hammers, mortars and pestles, querns, whorls, shell rings, long-handled bone combs, and more were recovered from the Carn Liath.



In the 11th century, the Vikings built Sweden’s largest burial mound, Anundshög, in honor of Anund.  Many smaller mounds exist in the surrounding area.  Archeologists believe people have lived in this area since the Iron Age, approximately 500 BC onward.



A barrow is a burial mound.  Barrows can be categorized into two types, long barrows and round barrows.  Long barrows are generally Neolithic and may contain many burial chambers.  They appear to have been in constant use, having burials added over a period of centuries.  The old bones were moved around to accommodate new ones, and sometimes removed for ritual use, usually skulls and leg bones.  Round barrows are much more common and usually contain very few burials.  A cairn is a type of round barrow.  Three well-known examples of long barrows in England are Belas Knap, Wayland’s Smithy, and West Kennet.

Belas Knap

Belas Knap is located in Gloucestershir, England.  This hump-shaped barrow is of Neolithic origin and is approximately 55 meters long.

Wayland’s Smithy

Wayland’s Smithy, located in Oxfordshire, England, is one of the older sites, dating back some 5500 years.  It also has very rich folklore attached to it.

The name of the site derives from Scandinavian mythology.  Wayland was a smith with supernatural powers.  Legend has it that if a horse lost its shoe and was left at the barrow along with a coin placed on the stones then the horse would be re-shod and the coin taken in payment.

West Kennet

Due to its location, West Kennet is probably the best known long barrow in the country.  It is around 100 meters long, and during excavations 46 burials were discovered.  West Kennet is among several historically interesting sites in Wiltshire, England.  One very notable site is Silbury Hill.  Though it is not considered a burial mound, its local legend suggests otherwise.  Silbury Hill is the largest man made mound in Europe.  It stands 130 feet high, its base spans 5 acres and the flattened top is 100 feet across.  Even though there have been several excavations, which have not found any trace of burial, local legend claims it is in fact the burial site of King Sil, who is said to be buried under the mound sitting on top of his horse.



The Melita Prehistoric Linear Mounds were preserved in 1973 as a national historical site.  These mounds are located in Manitoba, Canada.




Examples in the United States


Examples of Mound Builders can be found in various places throughout the United States.  Remains of two prominent cultures the Woodland and Mississippian can be found in places such as Iowa, Illinois, West Virginia, Arkansas, Tennessee, and Georgia.

Woodland culture

The Woodland culture developed throughout Eastern North America around 1000 BC.  The time and patience they invested in the honored burial of their dead suggests a highly developed cultural and religious system.  As the culture progressed over a period of 1400 years, it split into two distinct subgroups, the Adena and the Hopewell.  Together the subgroups created hundreds of burial mounds.  After 500 AD, the later Woodland culture began constructing animal effigy mounds in various shapes such as snakes and birds.

Adena subgroup

The Adena culture lasted from about 1000 BC till 1 AD.  They built mounds characteristically ranging from 20 to 300 feet in diameter.  This culture lived in parts of what are now Ohio, Indiana, West Virginia, Kentucky, Pennsylvania, and New York.  The best example of the Adena culture can be found in Moundsville, West Virginia at the Grave Creek Mound.  The largest Adena mound, it stands 69 feet high and spans 295 feet across.  The building of the mound progressed over a period of 100 years.

Hopewell subgroup

The Hopewellian culture dated from about 1AD to 700AD.  They were known for their extensive trading network.  The remains of their burial mounds can be found throughout the Ohio River Valley.  This culture reached their point of decline around 400 AD.  The Toolesboro Indian Mounds in Iowa serve as well preserved examples of the Hopewellian culture.  This 5 acre site was occupied from around 200 AD to 400 AD.


Mississippian culture

The Mississippian Indians lived in permanent villages, which all followed a similar pattern.  Ceremonial buildings on large four-sided flat-topped mounds faced a plaza. This plaza served as a meeting place for ceremonies,  important events, and village games. Archeologists believe the mounds on which these plazas stood were constructed over a number of years.  Evidence of fire suggests the original buildings were burnt and mounds of dirt were piled over them and a new building was constructed, and so the process began.  Some mounds held ceremonial graves, while others contained mass burials.  The Mississippians traveled vast distances following trade routes previously established by the Woodlands.  Their permanent settlements allowed a widespread network of trading that spanned from the upper Great Lakes to the Gulf of Mexico.  The success of this advanced civilization lasted for 5 centuries.  Several sites at which examples of the Mississippian culture mound builders can be seen are:  the Cahokia Mounds in Illinois, the Toltec Mounds in Arkansas, the Chucalissa Mounds and the Pinson Mounds in Tennessee, and the Etowah Mounds in Georgia


Content Review Questions:

1) About when did mound-building proceed on the North American continent?

2) What is one theory regarding the burial of haniwas (pottery figurines) in Japanese burial mounds?

3) What is the chief difference, according to this presentation, between the function of Japanese mounds and Scottish mounds?

Content Review Answers:
1) Around 1000 BCE the practices of building ring mounds from shells was replaced with building earthen mounds.
2) To replace the burial of live people! (This is not the only theory that should be considered!)
3) The Japanese mounds were used for burial and commemorative purposes, whereas the Scottish mounds are said to have been used for ritualistic purposes as well (there is no mention of the theory behind this assertion, however).

Global Connections Questions:

1) There was a 5000 year range in the dates when mounds were constructed worldwide. What then could they have in common in human history.

Global Connections Answers:
1) The Neolithic, or Agricultural, Revolution has been occurring since around 8000 BCE to the present day. During this period, surplus agriculture has allowed humans to spend more time building structures that would otherwise have served no purpose in earlier periods (remember human history spans over 100,000 years.) Although the 5000 year range appears to make the mounds significance questionable, using this larger perspective of human history shows that they do fit in a pattern since the Neolithic Revolution.

Questions and Research Activities:

1) Go back to each of the links cited as sources at the end of each of the paragraphs and find out the sources that the authors of the web-sites have used. What other theories can you find for some of the sites explored in this presentation? This presentation did not offer a conclusion or a thesis regarding this information. Could you?!