When I’d left on my big road trip a month earlier, I’d had no idea which direction I might head or how long I would be out there. I’d rented the car for six weeks, which meant I had two more left. So far, I’d been all over the place, up the West coast, across the North, right down through the Middle, over to the East. Why not all the way South? Why not? I decided to head for the Mississippi Delta.
It was three in the morning when I left the Smokemont Campground. The sun wouldn’t be rising for at least three more hours. When you have that much adrenaline running through your veins you are either extremely excited or extremely manic. I was a little of both. I took the 74 to Chattanooga, and then flew down the 59 freeway to Birmingham. From there, I got on the 20 west and had just passed Tuscaloosa, when I saw a sign that said Moundville. Moundville? I had never heard of it before. I missed the exit and had to backtrack to get to it. It was about ten miles south on the 69.
Moundville Archaeological Site was a ceremonial site of the ancient Mississippi culture and is located on the Black Warrior River. The region of the Mound Building societies was largely in the south and middle of what is now the states. Many people are probably not even aware the mounds exist. For some reason they don’t get a lot of publicity. When I entered the park, a sign pointed me toward the Chieftains Mound. There were three or four large mounds rising from the green grass in front of me.
I drove over to the Chieftains Mound, which stands sixty feet tall, and has a flat surface at the top. Steps lead to a viewing platform and a sign explains that the chief might’ve claimed to have had relationships with supernatural beings, from which he derived his power and authority. It reminded me of ruins I’ve visited in Mexico and Central America, but without any of the temples or structures. Only the foundations, or the mounds, remain to testify to the ghost civilizations of the past.
There was a museum, the Jones Archaeological Museum, I went into next, not expecting much. Four carved birds sat on pillars leading to the entrance. Inside was an exhibit called Lost Realm of the Black Warrior, which featured ancient artifacts and recreated scenes, with very life-like figures, that were almost futuristic. They were a mix of Native American and Egyptian, with a little bit of Mad Max thrown in.
The first was four warriors, wearing loincloths, bare-chested, only necklaces, top-knots, painted faces, carrying a queen on a palanquin. She had shells around her neck and head, and a tray of sunflowers in her hand. A medicine man, with plumes in his hair, follows the procession, blowing on a flute. Another, crouches to the side, feathers under his arms, black crow wings painted on his eyes, holding a rattle and a stone axe.
Another scene showed four figures, three men and a woman, with painted faces, piled high with animal skins. They seem to be trading or carrying out a business transaction. With their antenna headdresses and elaborate jewelry, they belong as much to the future as they do the past.
Driving down to the river afterwards, I came upon four huts that housed more primitive exhibits. Here were figures with less adornment, acting out a day in the life of a villager back in that time. In one hut two women were weaving while a man was carving a bow. In the next they were grinding corn and wheat and making fish-traps our of sticks. In the third they were creating art, stretching, and painting skins, and making pottery. In the last hut they were burying the dead, sitting around a shallow grave, the corpse surrounded by food and gourds full of provisions for the afterlife.
After leaving Moundville, it was another hour and a half to get to Meridian, Mississippi. It is the home of Jimmie Rodgers, the singing brakeman, and I’d visited his grave before. Now I wanted to find it again, but ended up at a museum that was closed. The sign of the door said it was open, but it wasn’t.
There were pictures of Rodgers out front, wearing an engineer’s cap and giving two thumbs up, another in a cowboy suit, playing his guitar. He was famous for his blue yodel and the first musician inducted into the Country Hall of Fame. One of his greatest hits is called Waiting for a Train. I could’ve looked harder for his grave but wasn’t waiting for anything. It was two more hours to Vicksburg and then on to Highway 61.