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Recreating a Native American Mound

This is a nanofigure-sized model of one of the largest Native American earth mounds to have ever been built in the continental USA. The mound in this model is called Mound 5, or the Great Mound. It's the largest mound in an archaeological site called Troyeville, located in central Louisiana. Troyeville has nearly a dozen mounds of varying sizes and shapes. The site lies at the confluence of the Black, Little, Ouachita, and Tensas Rivers.

I built this model, because for a long time, I wanted to build a Mississippian-styled Native American mound (even though the Troyeville culture predates the Mississippian). This mound, with its reported top cone, stood out to me the most among all the other mounds which we know about.

My usual inspiration for building historical structures starts when I come across a particular LEGO piece that I think models a part of the real building very well. In this case, I was very excited to use the 10 x 5 x 6 half cones to model the monumental cone that once stood on top of Troyeville’s Great Mound. These cone pieces were also the perfect size to make a nanofigure sized model of the Great Mound.

For a large part of the 1st millennium AD until European contact, many different Native American groups constructed monumental mounds made of piled earth and clay. Vast, dense urban communities supported by widespread agriculture, fishing, and hunting-gathering sprawled all around these mounds. Many mounds were so large that artificial lakes were formed in the places where their earth was extracted. These mounds dotted the land from the Great Lakes to the Gulf of Mexico, and from the Great Plains to the Atlantic coast. The largest of them was Monk’s Mound at the site of Cahokia, close to modern St. Louis.

The construction of Troyeville’s Mound 5 probably began around 600-700 AD in the Late Woodland Period. In 1804, President Thomas Jefferson sponsored an expedition to explore the recently acquired Louisiana Territory. William Dunbar, an explorer on the expedition, reported back to Jefferson about this mound and the site. Later in 1812, Major Amos Stoddard described the mound as having 3 stories. The lowest was about the size of an acre. It carried a smaller base on top. The entire structure was crowned by a huge, flat cone. Altogether, the mound rose to a height of 80 feet.

I learned that the top cone was designed with a framework made of cane and palm mats, and piled with different blue and red clays, layered like an onion. This description immediately reminded me of the way we celebrate the genius designs of the domes on the Pantheon, Florence’s Duomo, the Hagia Sophia, St. Peter’s and St. Paul’s. All of these structures are taught in school as having demanded the genius of ultra-creative architects and new kinds of innovations to stand the test of time.

I sincerely believe Native American historical architecture deserves a similar recognition. In my personal opinion, Troyeville’s Great Mound should be more widely known as one of many great Native American monuments in the continental US. I wanted to recreate the Great Mound’s layered cone construction with different pieces available in LEGO, in order to bring a similar attention to its structural design that we give to the Hagia Sophia’s pendentives, or Brunelleschi’s double dome. You can see the mound’s clay layers in one of the rendered images.

Some might be tempted to say that Native American structures aren’t as advanced as the concrete or brick domes of the Old World. However, the Great Mound survived far into the 19th and 20th centuries. It was used as a necessary point of refuge for Native Americans, white settlers, and travelers like Mark Twain in 1882 to escape the area’s regular floods.

In 1894, Cyrus Thomas described the mound as having suffered extensive damage from when it was used as a Confederate Civil War rifle pit. Erosion and conversion into a cemetery further reduced its structural stability. The mound was also used by nearby townspeople at Jonesville to fill in the lake pits that the ancient Native Americans had dug to extract the earth for the Great Mound.

Mound 5’s definitive demolition didn’t occur until the US Great Depression. Governor Huey P. Long announced an ambitious construction project to build a bridge across the Black River to improve Jonesville’s impoverished economy. However, Mound 5 was in the way, and was a convenient source of earth for stabilizing the bridge. The mound was nearly obliterated by the time archaeologist Winslow Walker of the Smithsonian Institute rushed to the site in 1931 to document what was left.

Walker was able to learn a lot about the site. He reported how the Native Americans used multicolored, layered clays and cane mats to construct the mound. He detailed a possible stepped ramp, post-supported houses, potsherds, and various animal bones and plant remains. While I didn’t learn about any human burials within Mound 5 itself, many burials were found and discarded within the other mounds of Troyeville.

Modern archaeology seeks to use minimally invasive soil coring and mapping to learn more about ancient Troyeville. Previously overlooked ruins have been discovered. Additional protection has been installed to preserve what remains. Looking back, I am happy that I learned about this historic indigenous giant, and designed what I think is a good model to help glorify it.

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