64 Parishes

LSU Campus Mounds

The LSU Campus Mounds are two Native American earthworks from the Middle Archaic Period located on the grounds of Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge.

LSU Campus Mounds

Courtesy of LSU Office of Communications & University Relations

The LSU Campus Mounds pictured here are the oldest known man-made structures in the Americas.

Located on the grounds of Louisiana State University (LSU) in Baton Rouge, the LSU Campus Mounds (16EBR6) are two Native American earthworks from the Middle Archaic period (4000-2000 BCE). They have long been recognized as unusual campus landmarks, and recent studies suggest that when the twin mounds were constructed, the channel of the Mississippi River was located farther to the east than its current position—meaning that the mounds would likely have been visible to anyone traveling on the river. The site consists of two conical mounds, designated as Mound A and Mound B. They range in height from 17.5 feet (5.3 meters) to 17.2 feet (5.2 meters) and in basal diameter from 130.7 feet (39.6 meters) and 120.5 feet (36.5 meters), with the northernmost, Mound A, being the slightly larger of the two. When they were originally constructed, the mounds were taller in height and smaller in diameter. Their present dimensions reflect the effects of erosion and subsidence that have taken place over the centuries.

The first reference to the LSU Campus Mounds comes from an anonymous 1851 article in Debow’s Review, which briefly noted the presence of Indian mounds on the McHatton Plantation south of Baton Rouge. This property became part of the LSU campus when the university moved to its present location in the 1920s. Campus lore later held that the mounds were the remains of dirt excavated from the construction of a pool by Governor Huey P. Long.

Pioneering Louisiana archaeologist George E. Beyer, a professor at Tulane University, likely undertook the first professional archaeological investigation of the LSU Campus Mounds. Beyer conducted excavations at mounds in the Baton Rouge area and perhaps included the LSU Campus Mounds in his study. It was not until 1982 that professional archaeologists again returned to the LSU Campus Mounds. Several soil cores were extracted from both mounds in an effort to determine when and how they were built. In addition, samples of carbon-rich sediments from Mound A were subjected to radiocarbon analysis. In 1985, after an LSU student was killed in a car accident on Mound A, limited archaeological testing was undertaken in the rutted area. Test excavations in the form of test units, shovel test pits, and auger holes were undertaken in areas that were to be disturbed by the construction of retaining walls and other modifications designed to prevent future accidents at the mounds. In 1999 the LSU Campus Mounds were placed on the National Register of Historic Places. In 2009 LSU archaeologists and geoarchaeologists conducted remote sensing surveys on the mounds and extracted additional cores to further study the age and internal structure of the mounds.

Radiocarbon analysis performed on carbon samples in cores extracted from Mound A in 1982 and 2009 strongly suggests that the mounds date to the Middle Archaic period (4,000–2,000 BCE). The 1982 radiocarbon tests were run on samples taken from the lower portion of Mound A and the original ground surface buried beneath the mound; the 2009 radiocarbon sample was obtained from a carbon-rich zone of sediment buried within Mound A.

The Archaic period (7,000–1,000 BCE) in Louisiana is generally characterized as a time when the climate and environment became increasingly warmer and drier. The native peoples of the Archaic period likely lived in highly mobile hunting/gathering bands. Evidence for large base camps indicate that Archaic groups were perhaps more sedentary than those of earlier times. Traditionally, such non-hierarchical bands were thought not to have attained a level of social organization capable of constructing such monumental architecture as earthen mounds, which are commonly found in Louisiana’s northeastern deltaic parishes and which require massive amounts of human labor. These models of human society generally assume that such projects require full-time leaders capable of mobilizing, controlling, and directing that labor. Today most archaeologists agree that Archaic peoples were indeed capable of building monumental community structures, such as the LSU Campus Mounds. Organization and direction of such projects could be undertaken by communally appointed temporary leaders or ad hoc groups consisting of one or more related families. Coercive tactics were likely unnecessary because the mounds held social significance for all members of society, not just a select few. In fact, like most Archaic mounds, the LSU Campus Mounds seem to have been expressions of group identity.

There is no evidence to suggest that burials exist in either of the LSU Campus Mounds (in later times, mound burial was often reserved for the elites of a society). Likewise, there is no evidence that the mounds served as platforms for elite structures, such as temples or houses. A general lack of artifacts in and around the mounds further indicates that the site was not a village where people lived. According to LSU archaeologist Dr. Rebecca Saunders, current thinking holds that the LSU Campus Mounds served as “ceremonial sites and axis mundi (literally “world axis,” or the center of the world for the society that built the mounds). In this scenario, different bands, comprised of twenty to fifty people, who generally occupied isolated base camps throughout most of the year, might come together at the mounds (perhaps on a seasonal basis) for rituals, to exchange information, to dance and feast, and to find mates.”

Today the LSU Campus Mounds continue to serve as a gathering place of sorts. During the school year small groups of students can be seen studying and relaxing on the mounds. They are also a local attraction for young children, who like to play on them. While these activities are not likely causing any immediate damage, there is concern over the long-term preservation of the mounds. On September 30, 2010, LSU announced the “Save the Mounds” campaign. Officials from the school stated that the mounds had suffered internal structural damage that would lead to their eventual collapse. The mounds had been used for tailgate parties for many years, but in 2010 they were fenced off during LSU’s home football games to prevent any further damage.