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Alternate Perceptions Magazine, June 2016

Archaeologists Discover Hundreds of Ancient Stone Mounds in Alabama:
Stone Mounds, Stone Walls, and Stone Snake Effigies Are Concentrated in Choccolocco Mountains

by: Dr. Greg Little

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Note: Portions of this article are adapted from the 2017 full color book, “Native American Mounds In Alabama: An Illustrated Guide to Public Sites.”

Alabama once had tens of thousands of mounds. They were constructed from the late Archaic period (circa 3000 B.C.) until the Mississippian period ended around A.D. 1600. In 1539, Alabama’s mound cultures were still very active but it is known that diseases carried by very early European expeditions into the Gulf and Atlantic coasts had already begun to take a toll on the population. By 1542, the mound cultures were nearing ruin and the population of Native American Indians was soon decimated after Hernando de Soto’s “expedition” through the southeast. When the first settlers entered Alabama in the 1700s and early 1800s, only a few mound sites were active. By then, only relatively small groups of Cherokee, Creek, Choctaw, and smaller tribes remained in scattered areas.

According to Matthew Cage, Director of the University of Alabama’s Office of Archaeological Research, in January 2017 the state had 29,415 recorded archaeological sites. The Mississippian mound complex at Moundville remains one of the most important archaeological sites in the Americas, but even today, many areas of the state remain archaeologically unexplored and a lot of mound sites described in old literature have been destroyed or “lost.” Incredibly, in just the past few years, thousands of previously unknown stone mounds, built by ancient Native Americans, have been discovered.

In the just-released full-color book, “Native American Mounds in Alabama: An Illustrated Guide to Public Sites,” there are 23 “public” mound sites listed and described along with 23 other mound complexes. Surprisingly, the heaviest concentrations of the remaining mounds in Alabama consist of vast complexes of stone mounds, long, winding stone walls, and stone-formed effigies of snakes. Archaeological research has confirmed that these unexpected stone constructions were made by Native Americans no later than during the Mississippian Period.

The Initial Discoveries

It has long been known that scattered across Alabama, there were about a hundred sites with small stone mounds known to be of Native American origin. But until the 2000s, no one knew the full extent of them. In the early 1980s in Oxford, Alabama, a hill known locally as “Signal Mountain” was investigated by Dr. Harry Holstein, Professor of Archaeology at Jacksonville State University. Holstein investigated a huge stone mound on the summit of the mountain that was formed by boulders piled into a 6-foot high oval with a base roughly 100 by 50 feet. The mound was “accidentally” destroyed in 2009 by construction crews building a shopping center at the base of the hill. There was a massive outcry at the time leading to a series of controversies and news accounts. In response, the mound was reconstructed in nearby Choccolocco Park along with a massive earthen truncated pyramid that had also been obliterated. An abbreviated story of this affair is in the “Alabama Mounds” guidebook. The stone mound is believed to have been utilized during regular ceremonies where the dead were remembered in a ritual where stones were carefully placed. It was the largest stone mound in the state.

“New” Stone Mound Complexes Investigated

In the mid-1980s Holstein and an archaeological team investigated a series of stone mounds known as the “Morgan Mountain Stone Complex.” It is located on the crest of Morgan Mountain at White Plains, to the East of Jacksonville and Anniston, AL. On the ridgetop are 5 large stone mounds running in a line. Greenstone artifacts were found in the mounds indicating that the mounds were Native American.

In 2009 Holstein and his team began investigating another stone mound complex that was first reported to officials in 2006. It is called the “Morton Hill Stone Structure Complex.” It is located in the 9,000-acre National Wildlife Refuge located on the former Fort McClellan grounds. On the steep eastern side of the summit, Holstein’s initial survey recorded “41 stone walls, six stone mounds, two boulder caches, one possible historical stacked wall feature, two wall tips, and two springhead arches,” all found in an 80-acre area. Over the next two years more limestone-made stone features were found. Most of the stone mounds are oval or oblong rock pile cairns ranging from 3 to 7 feet in height and up to 17 feet in diameter. The walls are generally 3 to 9 feet wide and 3 feet in height. Their lengths are from 26 to nearly 600 feet. The archaeologists determined that at least some of the stone features were prehistoric and similar to Native American-attributed stone mounds and structures found elsewhere. (Since not all of the mounds were investigated, the report cited that “some” of them were clearly Native American.) Holstein also found instances where looters had recovered Native American artifacts from the stone mounds.

In 2017 the author visited the Morton site and several others in the area with Dr. Holstein. Since his initial reports, Holstein’s research team has found many more stone mounds and stone wall features in the area and he asserts that there are likely thousands of more stone mounds to be found in the many unexplored mountains in the region. The present author has seen hundreds of stone walls in the New England states, which were made primarily by Colonial farmers. The stone walls in Alabama are clearly different from those in New England. There is no doubt that the stone features in Alabama are Native American.

Another recently discovered site in the Choccolocco Mountains is “The Shelton Stone Mound Complex.” It was surveyed and investigated in 2006 by Jacksonville State University with Dr. Harry Holstein serving as the lead archaeologist. The site is named for the landowner who notified the archaeologists of the site in 2003. The complex was initially described as “79 conical stone mounds, one horseshoe-shaped mound, 31 linear stone walls, and a serpent-like stone wall. One ‘Z’-shaped stone wall with a natural boulder feature, one ‘V’-shaped stone wall, and an ‘oval boulder configuration’” were also located there. The mounds were generally 1 to 8 feet in height with diameters up to 7 feet. The archaeologists’ report concluded that, “the Shelton Stone Mound Complex was likely constructed by prehistoric Woodland Indians as memorials to deceased individuals.” In 2010 the Archaeological Conservancy purchased the Shelton’s land.

During our 2017 visit we viewed the Shelton site and others in the nearby mountains with Dr. Holstein. There was clear evidence that several of the stone mounds had been looted. Holstein noted that since his 2007 report was issued many more mounds and walls were found in the immediate area. An updated map of the site supplied by Dr. Holstein in 2017 shows over 80 stone mounds at the Shelton site. (Various maps are included in the new guidebook.)

Another map supplied by Holstein shows 11 different stone mound sites, all found in the immediate region around Jacksonville, Anniston, and Oxford. Some of these have not had extensive reports done on them but they are impressive sites. For example, site 1Ca886 (not yet named) has over 120 stone mounds and numerous wall features. Information on the locations and access are included in the book.

Holstein believes that the answer to the origin and purpose of the stone features lies in Native American spiritual beliefs and practices. Some of the mounds were clearly used for burials. Alabama has had some similar stone mounds professionally excavated with Native American burial artifacts recovered. These have been carbon dated to 300 B.C. – A.D. 280. Other stone mounds were apparently made as places of “remembrance” of the dead, with participants placing a stone on a mound at regular intervals. Some walls and stone piles were placed at spots where spiritual power emerged—by springs and along water flows. In addition, there are other stone features in the immediate area placed on the highest overlooks. These include large and impressive “prayer circles” which were used in ceremonies. No one, however, expected that so many of these stone features were present in Alabama.

Stone Effigies of Snakes

Some of the most impressive Native American constructions in the region are huge effigies of snakes formed from large stone piles and boulders. During our 2017 visit to the sites we saw several of these. However the most impressive is a 196-foot long snake effigy formed into a cobblestone-like, flat walkway on the top of Skeleton Mountain adjacent to Ft. McClellan. In 2004 and 2007 it was confirmed by archaeologists to have been a Native American construction.

Next Issue—Alabama’s Standing Stones

While the existence of several thousand stone constructions in Alabama attributed to ancient Native American cultures is amazing in itself, few people know that the same region of the state has standing stones. Next issue of AP we’ll examine these amazing features.

"Reconstructed stone mound in Choccolocco Park with platform mound in distance, photo, Dr. Lora Little."

"Stone mound at the Shelton Complex, photo, Dr. Lora Little."

"Artist's depiction of the Skeleton Mountain Stone Snake Effigy by Carol Hicks."


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