Prehistory of Jackson & Madison County

By: Timothy Poole

The prehistoric indigenous peoples of Madison County left significant evidence of its importance to their lives. The county is home to a number of prehistoric earthworks, most focused along the Forked Deer River and built during the Middle Woodland period. Of these earthworks, the Pinson Mounds complex identifies both the First People’s dedication to this area and the role of this area in their cross-continental trade. Preserved as Pinson Mounds State Archeological Park through the initiative of several local residents in the 1960s, this site is listed both as a National Historic Landmark and listed on the National Register of Historic Places. 

The Pinson Mounds complex includes Sauls Mound, a 72-foot platform mound, built approximately 2000 years ago. Theorized to be the central mound of a solar/lunar calendar marked by strategically placed earthworks, Sauls Mound was the tallest man-made structure in the United States region for more than 1000 years. Preserved within this complex are other earthworks, including Ozier Mound, the only Woodland period platform mound with an intact ramp; the Eastern Citadel, a geometric enclosure that circles several acres; and the Duck’s Nest, a feature that held a large fire nestled along the Forked Deer, potentially marking the site to river travelers.

Madison County’s role as a hub for commerce was even apparent in prehistory. Archeological field studies at the Pinson Mounds complex have identified artifacts that show a strong trade network existed across the continent during the Middle Woodland period. Obsidian, copper, seashells, and other materials with far-ranging origins were included among the trade goods discovered by archeologists. 

Residents of and visitors to Madison County can tour the museum at Pinson Mounds State Archeological Park to learn more about the area’s prehistoric past and can travel the park’s trails to see the earthen structures that showcase the importance of this area to prehistoric peoples.