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Beyond Stone & Bone

Walmart and the Mound Builders
by Heather Pringle
July 3, 2009

hopewell_mound_city_16I once spent a truly magical week along the banks of the Scioto River in Ohio with an archaeologist who loved earthen mounds. We set out in the early morning light along dusty country roads, pulling over from time to time in a National Park Service truck to gaze into the distance at gently rolling grassy swells. These were remnants of the region’s great prehistoric earthworks —walls that dated back more than 1500 years and that once formed elaborate mazes of giant circles, squares and other geometric forms.

When the first Europeans arrived in America, they marveled at a mysterious landscape of immense mounds and earthworks that rose along many parts of the eastern woodlands. In their arrogance, they could scarcely believe that ancestors of the Native Americans had designed and constructed these huge earthen monuments. So they sat down with their bibles and scoured historical records for clues to the makers. Were the Mound Builders actually Phoenicians? Toltecs? Perhaps a lost tribe of Israel?

Scholars hotly debated the issue, and eventually the Smithsonian Institution established its own Division of Mound Exploration, hoping to crack the mystery. After years of meticulous study, Cyrus Thomas, head of the Division, announced in 1894 that “the links directly connecting the Indians and the mound-builders are so numerous and well established, that archaeologists are justified in accepting the theory that they are one and the same people.”

Since then, I am sorry to say, the intense public interest in prehistoric mounds has largely dissipated. Indeed as archaeologists learn more and more about the rich variety of mound-building cultures, from the Poverty Point people to the Hopewell, fewer and fewer people take any notice. We seem, somehow, to have misplaced our sense of awe and wonder. And perhaps this is why politicians in Oxford, Alabama, recently gave a private contractor the right to level a major prehistoric mound for fill dirt for the foundation of a new big box store—Sam’s Club, owned by Walmart.

Local archaeologists and Native Americans are up in arms about this. As Jacksonville State University archaeologist Harry Holstein pointed out in one article, “There is substantial ethnographic and archaeological evidence from similar stone mound sites throughout the eastern United States that these stone mounds, walls and effigies atop mountains, ridges and plateaus were built to commemorate deceased loved ones and important events and bury sacred offerings.”

But when the opponents voiced their deep concerns about the destruction of the mound, Oxford’s mayor and city project manager apparently shrugged them off. According to a report in a local paper, The Anniston Star, Mayor Leon Smith claimed the mound was used for little more than sending smoke signals. I find this a bizarre and belittling claim, one that flies in the face of scientific evidence on mound-building cultures and the ceremonial way in which they often raised these impressive earthen edifices.

I think that Oxford’s politicians have really sent us all the wrong signal here. What we need is far more respect for those who first walked this great continent of ours, not another Sam’s Club.

Just something to think about this 4th of July.

Comments posted here do not represent the views or policies of the Archaeological Institute of America.

18 comments for "Walmart and the Mound Builders"

  • Reply posted by Ellie (July 4, 2009, 11:48 am):

    Yeah, we have a real shortage of Wal-mart stores…desperately needed one more. A really sad story…seems nothing is sacred anymore.


  • Reply posted by Beth Walters (July 4, 2009, 12:40 pm):

    Is there no one reading this block who has the savvy to help the Oxford-area Native Americans who are trying to stop this destruction — or to bring down consequences on Mayor Smith and his cronies? Surely, somewhere, in some law book, some law applies!! He ignored archeaologists’ reports, he ignored pleas and demonstrations. Who can help?!!


  • Reply posted by Jason Jeandron (July 4, 2009, 1:15 pm):

    Congratulations on posting this time-sensitve article. I, and many other archaeologists, are stunned that this could happen. Glad to see that many others feel the same way.


  • Reply posted by Pamela Barnes (July 5, 2009, 7:58 am):

    Can”t belive this is happening! We can’t even pick up arrowheads on river banks leaglly. How can we help stop this???


  • Reply posted by Harry O. Holstein (July 6, 2009, 5:58 am):

    The Archaeological Resource Lsboratory of Jacksonville State University conducted a Phase I survey on some property that was going to be (now is) developed by the City of Oxford in 2006. Recorded 14 multicomponet sites and revisted 13 previously recorded ones along Choccolocco Creek just south of Oxford. Recommended preservation on several including, 1Ca196, a Mississippian earthen temple mound. Oh , by the way this ceremonial site may be the 16th Century De Soto Expedition Spanish contact site of Ulibahali. Leon Smith, Mayor of Oxford was not happy with our recommendations. We also at the time informed them (oxford officals) about the large (42 feet x 18 feet x 6 feet) stone mound atop the hill behind the new Sam’s club and of its prehistoric importance. The City said it would not touch the stone mound. So much for words!!! THe bad news is there are several other multicomponent sites, slave house sites, and a NRHP 1850’s Plantation house across the street from the hill and development and OXford has it’s eyes on it next for development. I have suggested this area be turned into a welcome center, museum and rest area for I-20 (which lies within sight of Indiana I Farm House). Suggestion again has fallen on deaf ears by the City of Oxford! I too wish those in power would have more insight to preserve rather than destroy the past!!!

    Harry Holstein, PH. D.


  • Reply posted by Steve M (July 6, 2009, 8:04 am):

    Interesting story, too often repeated around the world. The Sam’s Club (or any other business, for that matter) could have built elsewhwere in the area IF the authorities had stood firm to protect the site. The mayor chose quick jobs and easy increase to the local tax base over preservation of a sacred site.
    Better headline would have been “The Mayor, The Money, and The Mound Builders”. It always factors down to the easiest way to make money.


  • Reply posted by Ann Marie (July 6, 2009, 3:11 pm):

    I can’t believe this city allowed this! This is an outrage! I metal detect, and even to metal detect this mound, in my opinion would be disrespectful to my Native American brothers and sisters and even to my dau’s ancestors (Miami, Ottawa and Quapah Indians).

    I don’t shop at Sam’s club, so I can’t boycot it, but I can boycot Walmart. First, with their unions and now this…. Sam Walton must be tossing in his grave to see his company going down hill.

    You have the nerve to fine someone for finding an arrow head along the river or a metal detector … yet you allow selfish, inconsiderate, low lifes do this? Hmmmm….may have to get my “digger” out and start tearing up their front yards….



  • Reply posted by sandy liguori (July 6, 2009, 6:03 pm):

    looks like walmart and sams club are off my shopping list..there’s lots of competition and other alternatives for shopping……and i dont have to live in oxford to have those other choices….its tragic to destroy remnants of the past…how will our young know what came before them…how will they get a feel for those past civilizations…guess the right “now” generation thinks that they are the only advanced ? peoples to ever live here ……


  • Reply posted by Dan Hilborn (July 6, 2009, 7:29 pm):

    I’m glad to see the local newspaper back online, with a top story is about this debacle.
    Check out the town’s Wikipedia entry, too!
    Is that true?


  • Reply posted by Bill Coleman (July 9, 2009, 6:25 pm):

    I read about this in my local paper. The mayor’s assertion that the mound was only used for sending smoke signals is absurd. How would he know?


  • Reply posted by Dan Hilborn (July 10, 2009, 9:57 am):

    Kudos to the Anniston Star, again. That 1960s archaeologist report is fascinating.
    It says there are no artifacts, yet it points to at least three ‘looters pits’.

    And check this out, from page 53:
    “… this office recommends that a cultural resources representative be on site to monitor any proposed development related activities …”

    As far as I can tell, that didn’t happen.


  • Reply posted by Dan Hilborn (July 10, 2009, 10:05 am):

    Pardon me, there was a letter to the editor about a 1960’s archaeologist’s report.
    The online report is dated June 22 2009, and that is indeed current.


  • Reply posted by Gerald Delorme (July 12, 2009, 7:53 am):

    It is a shame that money blinds people’s thoughts. Just because these mounds don’t mean nothing to this Mayor, things such as these mounds bring out the shallowness and greed that this Mayor and others have, and always had. Wether in the USA or in Canada these mounds are of significance importance. At one time these mounds meant something to the North American Indian. These memories have been erased by the newcomers over time. Once these are destroyed history as we know it will be altered and forgotten. Much like the tribes that once inhabit Turtle Island and are now extinct. It is sad that the Cultural Genocide is still rampant on Turtle Island.


  • Reply posted by Evan Rofheart (July 19, 2009, 10:12 pm):

    America has made often the wrong choice, the Dollar and the Ego over God’s Truth and Spiritual Destiny. Every time we destroy a sacred power spot on this continent, we are destroying some of America’s power.


  • Reply posted by Laury (September 7, 2009, 3:47 pm):

    Please sign the petition to save this Sacred Mound:

    Thank you for your support!


  • Reply posted by fritz zimmerman (September 21, 2009, 6:20 am):

    It’s a shame that any of these ancient sites are destroyed. But, what about all of the burial mounds in Indiana and Ohio that are either being cultivated or destroyed by university archaeologist? Of 83 mounds and earthworks that were photographed in Indiana and featured in “A Photograhic Essay and Guide to the Adena, Hopewell Sioux and Iroquois Mounds and Earthworks” only 3 are listed by the State as historical sites. None are protected.
    Does it matter whether a mound is destroyed by Sams Club or a university? That an ancient Native American culture is being destroyed so that university archaeologists can publish a paper to further their careers is the real crime!


  • Reply posted by For the Walmart Shoppers - (September 22, 2009, 1:10 pm):

    […] […]


  • Reply posted by Chakwaina (March 4, 2010, 4:54 am):

    Sam’s Club backed out of taking fill dirt from the mounds.

    It is now slated to become a rec center.

    For more information on saving these mounds More info at March 13 Jacksonville, AL


About Our Blogger:

Heather Pringle is a freelance science journalist who has been writing about archaeology for more than 20 years. She is the author of Master Plan: Himmler's Scholars and the Holocaust and The Mummy Congress: Science, Obsession, and the Everlasting Dead. For more about Heather, see our interview or visit

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