Indian Mound and Museum

The Indian Mound and Museum preserves the site of an ancient earthen mound built by Native Americans of the Woodland Period, approximately 2,000 years ago. The mound is located on the banks of the Tennessee River in Florence, Lauderdale County, and is the largest Indian mound in the Tennessee River Valley. In 1968, the city of Florence established the Indian Mound Museum adjacent to the site to exhibit artifacts recovered during archaeological excavations of the mound. The museum closed in March 2015 and was replaced with a much larger facility in 2017.

Florence Indian Mound The Florence mound was built by American Indians of the Woodland period between 100 BC and 400 BC. One of the characteristics of this period was an increase in agricultural production, notably the cultivation of beans, maize, and squash. Access to regular, locally produced food supplies meant that Woodland peoples stayed in locations for longer periods of time than did their Archaic ancestors, who had subsisted largely through hunting and gathering. Another characteristic of this period is the development of mound-building, likely for ritual and political purposes, in the middle Woodland period in the Ohio River Valley and other areas of the Midwest. This moundbuilding culture, part of the Copena mortuary complex, spread southwards to Tennessee and then to Alabama.

Florence’s mound is an earthen four-sided structure with a base measuring 310 by 230 feet and a summit that rises 43 feet and measures approximately 145 by 95 feet on top. The mound was once surrounded by an earthen wall, which likely reached 12 to 15 feet high. The first historical mention of the mound is found on an 1818 map created by Ferdinand Sannoner, Hunter Peel, and Gen. John Coffee when laying out the city of Florence. They recognized it as an important location on the landscape of the new city. Non-Indian settlers arriving in the area of present-day Florence in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries also mentioned two smaller mounds nearby. These smaller mounds likely did not stand more than 25 feet tall. Neither the wall nor the two smaller mounds remain today. Similar mounds have been found in other parts of Alabama, including Oakville near Moulton, Lawrence County, and in Florida, Georgia, Mississippi, and Tennessee. None are as large as the Florence mound, however, nor are they exactly alike in structure. Many similar mounds were inundated when the Tennessee Valley Authority began damming the river.

Indian Mound and Museum Archaeologists have conducted numerous excavations to determine the age and uses of the mound. In 1914, archaeologist Clarence Moore oversaw the first organized excavation of the mound. He dug 34 test pits at the summit of the mound but did not find any artifacts, which might have revealed how Woodland peoples used the mound. Excavations conducted at the base of the mound by the University of Alabama in 1996 also did not uncover much evidence of how humans used the site. The following year, the University of Alabama conducted another excavation, this time on the slope near the top of the mound. This excavation revealed some important information about the mound’s construction. Archeologists discovered two distinct soil layers that indicate the mound was constructed during two periods. They also found a layer of refuse between the soil layers that was deposited by the Woodland inhabitants. It contained a number of artifacts, including a variety of pottery shards and pieces of flaked stone tools. These artifacts allowed archaeologists to date the mound to the Middle Woodland period, from approximately AD 1 to AD 500. Prior to these excavations, many scholars believed that the mound dated to the later Mississippian period (1000 to 1550).

During the second half of the nineteenth century, the mound was owned by the Katchelman family, immigrants from Bavaria. Because the Tennessee River flooded with great regularity before the construction of the Wilson Dam, the land upon which the mound sits was extremely fertile. The Katchelmans saw it as an exceptional location for a vegetable farm and cultivated areas on the slope, around the base of the mound, and on the flood plain stretching down towards the river. They also built their first home on top of the mound before relocating to the base of the mound because of high winds at the top. Ownership of the property eventually changed hands during the first half of the twentieth century, and in February 1945, Martha Ashcraft Dabney and her daughter Ida Josephine Dabney Brabson donated to the city of Florence the mound and enough land at its base to build a narrow roadway around it running toward the city.

Archaic Period Exhibit The city built a museum at the site and on July 14, 1968, opened the mound and museum to the public, and marked the event with a day of celebration. The original building occupied by the museum was once the home of Florence’s first FM radio station and also served as a recording studio during the 1960s. The museum housed artifacts related to Native American culture in the Southeast, including pottery, jewelry, tools, Clovis and Cumberland points, animal effigy pipes, woven textiles, and carvings. The artifacts, arranged in chronological order, date from the Paleo, Transitional, Archaic, Woodland, Mississippian, and Historic periods. Display panels discussed American Indian life during the different eras and showed visitors how people used the various artifacts on display.

In 2013, the city council set aside $1.077 million to replace the 1,200-square-foot museum, which had not been updated since 1968 and was prone to flooding. The Florence Indian Mound was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2014. With an increase in funding, the city spent $1.76 million on a new 3,500-square-foot facility that includes meeting space and space for temporary exhibits. The exhibits were designed by internationally known museum designer Terry Chase and guide visitors through the five cultural periods in Florence’s past.

Further Reading

  • McDonald, William Lindsey. “A Profile of the Indians at Muscle Shoals, Alabama.” The Journal of Muscle Shoals History, I (1973): 11-15.
  • —. Lore of the River . . . The Shoals of Long Ago. Florence: Bluewater Publishing, 2007.

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