Mound Building: Myth and Reality

By: Michael Russo

While most commonly known as burial grounds, mounds served a multitude of purposes for Florida's Native Americans.

Mounds built by Florida’s Native American groups were used for many purposes, the best known being for human burial. But most mounds, particularly those made of shells, were used for more mundane purposes – to get rid of garbage.

The garbage from individual households was often dumped behind the house or underfoot, which over time could create a large pile called a midden. These midden mounds vary in size from a few inches to over 30 feet in height. But not all shell mounds were simply garbage dumps.

In many cases shell and earth were piled high or in specific shapes to serve as markers of territory, as places where chiefs and other important people lived (temple or house mounds), as memorials to events or kin (monuments), or as architectural features linked to mounds (ramps and causeways). Shell and earth were also mounded along canals, around retaining ponds that held fish and turtles, and into marsh and mangrove swamps to build elevated lands where only water existed before.

These public works demonstrate that mound building not only had a ceremonial purpose as in burial mounds, but also had everyday, practical applications. Some groups built circles of shell and earth, called shell rings or ring middens, to mark boundaries of plazas that served as public space where meals were cooked and eaten. The elevated circles also served as ceremonial places where spirits were honored and feasts and marriages took place. Today mounds continue to serve as monuments to those who built them.

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