Moundbuilders: A Physical Reflection of Cultural Significance

January 17, 2018

Museum Exhibition Review by Katherine C. Ku

At first glance, the “Moundbuilders” exhibit can seem unassuming. It is not particularly large or flashy, but is rather gracefully reticent. Though it doesn’t demand one’s attention like the other parts of the Penn Museum (like, say, the Sphinx or Queen Puabi’s headdress), it contains multitudes, offering meditations on human impact on the Earth, the inevitable link between the past and the present, and other ideas important not only to anthropologists, but to humanity as a whole.

“Moundbuilders: Ancient Architects of North America,” in the lower gallery, Penn Museum. Photo by Sheridan Small.

Walking into the exhibition, one is met with a timeline and map, setting the stage for what is to come next. The walls are painted a comforting soft green and lined with panels and black-and-white photographs framed in minimalist, thin black frames. Glass cases interspersed along either side of the exhibit contain artifacts from shells and lithics (stone tools) to ceramic vessels and figurines; several long cases extend down the center of the exhibit. We entered the gallery under the guidance of Meg Kassabaum, the exhibition’s curator, making the experience all the more valuable and eye-opening.

Meg Kassabaum and Lise Puyo discussing a text panel and watercolor in the exhibition. Photo by Margaret Bruchac.

The exhibition—“Moundbuilders: Ancient Architects of North America”—utilizes physical artifacts, photographs, and video to give audiences a comprehensive image of Native American mounds and earthworks. These sites were constructed in the southeast during the Woodland and Mississippian periods, from roughly 100 BCE (Before Common Era) to 1700 CE (Common Era).[1] The exhibit shows sites in several locations and displays artifacts in a way that contradicts stereotypes, helping viewers to experience archaeology in a straightforward manner. The exhibition is honest, telling the stories of Native peoples and archaeologists in the region alike, without the bells and whistles so many other modern exhibitions seem to employ.

While the exhibition’s organization is simple—with longer panels indicating major archaeological periods and smaller ones representing specific case studies accompanied by a series of photographs and artifacts—it aims to cover several essential themes. Dr. Kassabaum had three major goals in curating the exhibition: to feature Native Americans, who are often under-represented, in the foreground; to focus on sites instead of just objects; and to highlight the archaeological process which is, more often than not, left out. With these goals in mind, “Moundbuilders” concretely connects the past and the present, effectively establishing the relevance of ancient events and artifacts to a modern audience.

Black and white photographs of mounds and objects featured in the Moundbuilders exhibition. Photo by Sheridan Small.

To accomplish this, the exhibition displays 38 black and white photos by Jenny Ellerbe and Tom Patton, featuring depictions of the mounds in their present form.[2] Such photos, as explained by Kassabaum, help people to understand that these sites are living—part of our current world, not artifacts of the past. Every tree and every blade of grass growing on the mounds today is alive, and so are the descendants of the peoples that built these mounds thousands of years ago. Capturing these sites in photos establishes them as places that one can visit even today. Simultaneously, the exhibition brings the past back to life by displaying watercolors that reconstruct what the sites would have looked like in the past, aiding the audience in visualizing cultures and peopling these landscapes.

While representing people, the exhibition also takes care to demonstrate how to respect Native culture in practice. Kassabaum consults with both federally recognized and state-recognized tribal nations—for example, the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, who maintain the Kituwah mound—in the sites where she conducts archaeology. As an archaeologist, she does not excavate burial mounds; when these are discovered, the remains are left where they are buried.[3] As a curator, she attempts to combat stereotypes that are often associated with Native cultures. Instead of focusing on eye-catching and stereotypical artifacts like arrowheads and headdresses, this exhibition features objects like boatstones, effigy vessels, and shells.[4] Projectile points are included in the exhibition, but they are located in the back, instead of front and center.

Margaret Bruchac and Meg Kassabaum discuss artifact selection in the “Moundbuilders” exhibition. Photo by Lise Puyo.

Kassbaum’s research focuses on the process of building these mounds, as much as on the use of mound summits, emphasizing the importance of communal building and feasting.[5] This exhibition aims to educate audiences about these mounds, stressing that they were more than (as is assumed) burial sites.

“Some were built in the shapes of animals, serpents, and bears, their outlines most visible from the sky. Others were designed to align with the sun during summer and winter solstices, key markers of the changing seasons for people who depended on stars and landmarks for navigation. It’s plain from alignments and artifacts that mound-builders possessed deep knowledge of the sun, moon, and stars. These people understood the world better than us in some ways,” Kassabaum said.[6]

“Moundbuilders” incorporates the archaeological process into its displays, by showcasing an archaeologist’s tools—such as Kassabaum’s personal trowel and rulers—and educating audiences about archaeological skills, such as evaluating stratigraphic levels in the soil. The exhibition also encourages audience engagement by including an interactive activity, allowing visitors to try their hand at matching soil layers with sample soil colors.

This case features pottery sherds, archaeological tools, and text discussing soil layers and colors. Photo by Sheridan Small.

More often than not, this aspect of recovering artifacts is ignored and forgotten when artifacts are presented behind a glass case sitting on an acrylic stand, decontextualized in a sterile, disconnected space. In reality, artifacts are far from sterile and dead; they are living and connected to the soil around them and the people who created and used them. “Moundbuilders” captures this with a case full of numerous, plain pottery sherds that more accurately portray the reality of archaeology. Typically, only the most “special” pieces make it to museum exhibitions to be admired by the eyes of viewers, while the plain sherds are only ever observed by researchers. Highlighting these pieces and their connection to earth is also strengthened by the exhibition’s title. The word “architects” suggests that human builders make a fundamental and lasting impact on the Earth, establishing a tangible connection between the past and present.

“Moundbuilders” attempts to blend the physicality of the Native landscape with the lived experience of Native culture. It uses photography and artwork to contextualize archaeological artifacts, and it combines product and results by incorporating the archaeological process. Quietly observing the exhibition during the Museum’s after hours with the curator was an invaluable experience, and a fitting way to begin the semester. By starting so close to home at the Penn Museum, we were exposed to many of the concepts that we would discuss later in the semester, through an unassuming exhibition that turned out to speak volumes about museum representation.

The simplicity of “Moundbuilders” makes it powerful. When asked why she chose to use black and white photographs in the exhibition, Kassabaum offered two explanations. One was practical: the grayscale scheme would increase contrast, making the photographs easier to see. The other was cultural and intentional: an artistic decision to combat the widely held stereotype that all mounds were green. In reality, the mounds were, and are, much more varied. This exhibition offers audiences a chance to go behind the scenes while exploring the past and the present, creating a more comprehensive view of humanity and the world around us.

This museum review was conducted for the Fall 2017 University of Pennsylvania course “Anthropology of Museums.” Students visited exhibitions and collections at a selection of Philadelphia museums. To compose these reviews, they analyzed content, themes, audience, message, design, interpretive strategies, and cultural representations vis-à-vis specific individuals and objects. Each student selected material on display that reveals unique insights into particular collectors, curators, and communities, and discussed the use of specific strategies for making these people and objects visible in public museums.

Sources Cited:

[1] “The Mound Builders,” Indian Mounds of Mississippi, National Park Service website.
[2] “Moundbuilders Focus of New Exhibit Opening June 24,” Penn Museum website.
[3] Jeff Gammage, “The Mystery of the Mound – Penn Digging into Ancient Curiosities,” The Inquirer: Philly.com (June 21, 2017).
[4] “The Penn Museum,” Penn Museum website.
[5] Megan C. Kassabaum, Edward R. Henry, Vincas P. Steponaitis, and John W. O’hear, “Between Surface and Summit: the Process of Mound Construction at Feltus,” Archaeological Prospection 21: 1 (January 2014), 27-37.
[6] Gammage, “The Mystery of the Mound.”

For an overview of museums visited by the 2017 Anthropology of Museums class, see:
• Margaret Bruchac, “Visualizing Native People in Philadelphia’s Museums: Public Views and Student Reviews,” in Beyond the Gallery Walls, Penn Museum Blog, December 2017.