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13 October 2011

Chucalissa, Tennessee

Sinti (snake) mosaic, based on pottery design
Digging for a swimming pool in a segregated African-American park in 1938, the Civilian Conservation Corps unearthed precolumbian artifacts from a Mississippian mound complex. The University of Tennessee investigated the site, which showed evidence of human occupation dating back to at least to 1000 BCE. The town site dates back to 1000 CE and was alternately abandoned and rebuilt. The main occupation dates from 1400 and was thought to be abandoned by the 1541 arrival of Hernando de Doto in the region (CH Nash Museum).
Curvilinear "wave" patterns are ubiquitous in this region
The name "Chucalissa" means "abandoned house" in Choctaw (Visitor's Guide 2). Today the site is west of T. O. Fuller State Park, and it's difficult to believe you're still in the city of Memphis, surrounded by towering forests on all sides, and a nearby power plant. ("What is it with mounds and power plants?" commented Linda.) The CH Nash Museum has an extensive collection of artifacts from the site on display, and their signage ties in the African-American history of the area. Signage is geared toward children, making the site and lifeways of the people who lived there directly relevant to the visitors. Recently added panels show input from Choctaw and Chickasaw tribes. Perhaps the interpretive materials here are some of the best because instead of exoticizing the precontact residents of the site, they humanize them.

A replica village of high-pitched thatched-roof huts was torn down from the site for not being sufficiently accurate to the originals, but photos reveal that they look as good as any found in other sites.
Platform mound at Chucalissa, 1350–1600 CE
Human effigy bowl, note the elaborate hat
The main platform mound dominates the site. The front is covered by concrete, which ironically, gives more of a sense of what the mound looked like in its heyday, since most mounds were sealed in red or yellow clay. Built between 1350 and 1600 CE, the 25-foot-high mound measures 150 feet long at its base. Postmold evidence reveals that two 50-square foot buildings once stood on the platform's surface (Visitor's Guide 6-7).

Across the large plaza, where demonstration stickball games are still occasionally played, sits a residential ridge mound and the smaller and older platform mound, worn down by plowing. The site also features the obligatory dugout canoe and herb garden. Plant signage features the pawpaw, an important source of food and textiles, and sassafras, important for teas and medicine. Near an employee's house is a prodigious stand of river cane, Arundinaria.

Contemporary tribes thought to have ancestral links to Chucalissa during its different occupations include the Choctaw, Chickasaw, and Quapaw.

3 comments:

Robert C said...

Thanks for your review of our site. So pleased you were able to visit!

Red Shoes said...

I remember my parents taking us (the kids) there when this site opened to the public...

I haven't been back in so long. I do remember the village being there.

America Meredith said...

It seems they removed a model village they had built because it was inaccurate but the mounds and museum are still very impressive.