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Sacred Sites: Angel Mounds

by Selena Fox

A visit to Angel Mounds State Historic Site is a journey through time and across cultures. It is located along the Ohio River in southwestern Indiana near Evansville. Named for the farming family that owned the land for more than a hundred years, Angel Mounds is one of the best preserved prehistoric Native American village sites in the United States.

Within the 103-acre Angel Mounds village are eleven earthen mounds, including those used for ceremonies, burials, and homes for leaders. The prominent Temple Mound, which was excavated and then rebuilt, was an important ritual site and a place of storage of sacred images, ceremonial objects, and the bones of chiefs. It is thought that a sacred fire once was kept burning on the Temple Mound in honor of the Sun God. Another important ceremonial area at Angel Mounds was a large plaza, which also was used for games and other social activities. Evidence of two circular buildings have been found at the site and are thought to be sweatlodges or council houses. The Angel Mounds site includes mound alignments with the Summer Solstice sunrise.

Between one and three thousand Native Americans lived in the Angel Mound village from 1100 to 1450 CE. At its zenith, around 1300 CE, this was the largest community in what is now known as Indiana. The people who built and lived at Angel Mounds were part of a culture known today as Mississippian. The Mississippians were a platform mound building people. Their culture emerged in the Mississippi River Valley around 800 CE and extended into eastern and southeastern parts of the United States. The Mississippian culture existed for nearly a thousand years. In some places, it lasted into the 1700's. Other Mississippian sites that have been preserved include Cahokia (Illinois), Aztalan (Wisconsin), Wickliffe Mounds (Kentucky), and Chucalissa (Tennessee).

The Mississippians of Angel Mounds had their village there for more than three hundred years. The people are thought to have gathered wild foods, hunted, fished, and cultivated corn, beans, squash, sunflowers, gourds, bamboo cane, and tobacco. It is not known why the Angel Mound Mississippians began leaving in the early 1400's. By 1450, they had abandoned their village and are thought to have moved downstream to the mouth of the Wabash River. Their culture had changed. Although they built several large villages, they no longer built or used mounds.

In the 1600's, the Native American peoples who had been living in what is today southern Indiana left, and other Native American tribes arrived. The Miami, Wea, and Piankashaw claimed the region as part of their hunting grounds. Later Shawnee and Delaware peoples moved into this area for a time. In the early 1800's, European and European-American settlers arrived. The Angel Mounds site became the home of Mathias Angel and his family in the 1830's. It was owned and farmed by succeeding generations of the Angel family until 1938. Some excavation of the mounds began in the late 1800's. More excavations took place in the 1930's. Indiana University has been doing archaeological research there since 1945, and in 1965 was granted sole excavation rights.

In 1938, the Indiana Historical Society bought the 480 acre Angel family property with funds donated by Eli Lilly, and in 1947, ownership was transferred to the State of Indiana. Later, Elda Clayton Herts donated another 20 acres that included an early Woodland Indian mound. Today, the Angel Mounds site is managed and interpreted by the Division of State Museums and Historic Sites of the Indiana Department of Natural Resources. More than 100,000 people visit the site yearly.

Angel Mounds includes the village area, a Nature preserve, an interpretive center museum, and a gift shop. Some of the buildings that existed in the village have been reconstructed as they are thought to have appeared in 1300 CE. The mounds that were damaged when the site was farmed have been restored. The museum displays artifacts found during excavations at the site, including a statue of a kneeling man carved from a single piece of yellow fluorite, which was found buried and facing east atop the Temple Mound.

Angel Mounds State Historic Site is open to the public, from mid-March through mid-December. Hours of operation are 9 am ­ 5 pm Tuesday through Saturday and 1 ­ 5 pm on Sundays. It is closed on Mondays. Admission is free. Donations to support this site are welcome and are tax deductible. Self-guided walking tour maps and brochures are available in the museum.

A variety of events are held at Angel Mounds throughout the year, including the popular Native American Days festival and pow wow in late September. Contact the site for more information about this and other events.

For more information, contact: Angel Mounds State Historic Site, 8215 Pollack Avenue, Evansville, Indiana 47715 USA; telephone: (812) 853-3956; fax: (812) 479-5783; email: curator@angelmounds.org; website: www.anglemounds.org.

Angel Mounds State Historic Site brochures, including: "Interpretive Tour," "Friends of Angel Mounds," and "Volunteer Program."

Black, Dr. Glenn A. "Angel Mounds, a Report." www.floridahistory.com/indiana2.html.

Jones, Marjorie Melvin & Labudde, Besse Freeman (2000). "The Inquiring Visitor's Guide to Angel Mounds State Historic Site." Third edition. Evansville, Indiana: Mission Press. Available at the Angel Mounds gift shop.

Selena Fox has been visiting, photographing, studying, and teaching about sacred mounds for more than thirty years. She is part Cherokee, a Native American tribe which claims descent from the ancient mound builders of North America.