The Regional Review

Volume II - No. 5

May, 1939


Alabama, CCC and Service Share in Erecting Structure at Ancient Mounds

By Herbert Evison,
Assistant Regional Director.

To the accompaniment of several brief oratorical flights, delivered under a benign Alabama sun, the Moundville museum, in Mound State Monument, constructed by the Civilian Conservation Corps with materials provided chiefly by the CCC, was dedicated and thrown open to the public on the afternoon of May 16. The opening of its heavy bronze doors to a gathering which had just listened to the dedicatory speeches marked the culminating point in an effort which has extended over many years -- an undertaking whose success is attributable to many, but which centers chiefly in the person in Dr. Walter B. Jones, Director of the Alabama State Museum of Natural History, State Geologist and at present Commissioner of Conservation.

Of monolithic reinforced concrete construction, the new museum, designed to aid in the interpretation of one of the most remarkable archeological sites in America, backs upon and looks out from a group of a score of ancient mounds, the highest of which rise 65 feet above the plain, and across the valley of the Black Warrior River which forms the northern boundary of the Monument.


attendees at presentation

The upper photograph shows the facade of the monolithic concrete structure and below are some of the 2,000 persons present at the dedication.

As previously reported in The Review [Vol. I, No. 5, pp. 7-8], the principal of the museum's unique features is that its two wings shelter groups of exposed burials which, from the standpoint of museum design and display, are happily placed. In the two groups lie what remains of no less than 37 skeletons with the pottery and other artifacts that were buried with them, all in exactly the position in which the excavators discovered them, on pedestals of the earth on which they lay, and with the surrounding soil excavated down to undisturbed "hardpan."

These burials in situ form the principal raison d'être for the museum structure. A good cemetery having been located, the entire area was excavated and all material except that lying within two 20' by 20' squares was removed. The material remaining was covered with temporary structures and the permanent museum constructed over and around the wooden shelters. Upon completion of the building these were removed. Surrounded on three sides by a parapet and walkway, and on the fourth by the wall separating the wings from the central section, each pit is lighted on all four sides by tubular lamps concealed beneath the cap of the parapet. The two groups of burials chosen are excellent for several reasons. They show the bodies lying in almost all the typical positions characteristic of the Moundville area; some were surrounded by a great variety of artifacts, others by none at all; in one place, four bodies were laid one on top of another.

The large center section of the building is devoted to the story of the Moundville dwellers as it has been revealed by the extensive excavations that have been carried on in the area. As was to be expected by anyone familiar with the archeological displays in the Alabama State Museum of Natural History at Tuscaloosa, 17 miles away, the displays in this central unit of the new museum set a high standard of effectiveness One is particularly impressed with the studious avoidance of "overload."

no photo
Due to the sensitive nature of this photo, this image of burial remains has been eliminated from the on-line edition of this document.

Fechner and Jones hunting and fishing display

At the top is a view of the exposed south burial pit as it appeared in August, 1936. At the left center Mr. Fechner is giving to Dr. Jones the key to the museum doors. Above is seen an aboriginal Moundville hunting and fishing display, and at the left is shown the ingenious mould described in the accompanying article.

James T. DeJarnette who, as Superintendent of the CCC camp which brought the museum to completion, has so valuably complemented the services of his archeologist brother David, representing the State Museum in the work, says of the new displays:

They are arranged in a logical sequence so designed as to give (1) the casual visitor something to remember, (2) the careful visitor a rather intimate knowledge of the Monument, and (3) the expert a few salient facts about the primitive Moundvillians which would require him some time to determine otherwise. Conservatism has been stressed in the wording of all descriptive label material. Color has been freely used in the make-up of labels to reduce the monotony of an apparently endless series of black and white descriptive matter.

The six wall cases on the front of the building are divided by the entrance into two groups of three cases each. One of these groups is devoted to physical features of the Monument. The other three cases depict a brief story of prehistoric mankind, his origins, migrations and physical characteristics.

The eight wall cases along the rear wall are arranged serially to illustrate the cultural traits of the early Moundvillians, treating the following cultural manifestations: Architecture and House Life, Ceremonial Complex, Costume and Dress, Agriculture, Fishing and Hunting, Tobacco and Smoking, and Economic and Artistic Complex.

Five table cases and a relief model of the Monument complete the displayed materials. The table cases are devoted to the everyday activities of the people. The relief model shows the mound group with various excavated areas indicated thereon. Space has been reserved at each end of the center room for two dioramas showing a reconstructed family group and a model village site. . .

The finished appearance of the exhibits viewed by visitors on the dedication day resulted from work days of 18 to 20 hours, during the three days preceding the ceremony, by a staff of State Museum personnel headed by David DeJarnette, and by James DeJarnette and members of his supervisory personnel. Every exhibit was in order, explained by neatly hand-lettered labels.

Features of the exterior of the building, both visible in the accompanying photographs, are the frieze extending around the entire periphery of the central section, and the decorative design above the door. (I was about to say "the main entrance," but there is only a single entrance to the museum. The basement, in which the heating and ventilating apparatus is installed, is reached only by a separate outside entrance. The building has no windows.) Of this interesting type of CCC undertaking, Superintendent DeJarnette points out:

Ornamentation of the doorway and frieze was obtained with the use of plaster waste moulds constructed on the job. The ornamentation was enlarged exactly from designs found on artifacts by making a rubbing of the original design and projecting the image on a screen of detail paper to full scale.

The full size detail was then modeled in clay from which the plaster waste mould was struck. The frieze design consisted of a motif repeated 58 times around the periphery of the structure. One model was constructed, a waste mould struck and a reverse master mould was obtained from the waste mould. From the master mould enough waste moulds were constructed to form half the frieze. Careful stripping of the moulds from the concrete and the absence of undercuts in the design enabled us to re-use the entire set of 29 moulds. Private construction experts predicted this could not be done. . .

Mounds O, P, and R

museum exhibit Jones

Mounds O, P and R and the temporary shelters protecting the two excavated burial pits are seen in the upper photograph. At the left center is one of the exhibits in the museum. The speaker at the right is Dr. Jones. In the lower corner are some of the CCC enrollees who built the novel museum structure.

CCC enrollees

The manner in which the waste moulds were used in conjunction with masonite forming is shown in one of the photographs on page 4. Mr. DeJarnette says further:

All exterior walls of the museum are 9 inches thick with a 2-inch air space between the concrete and a 4-inch clay tile. Interior walls are 5/8-inch gypsum plaster, sand float finished. The floor is a concrete slab laid over a well tamped fill and supported by wall footings and concrete floor beams. The roof of the center room is 4-1/2-inch concrete slab; other rooms are of concrete joist and slab construction, formed with ribbed metal pan tile.

All exterior concrete was placed against oiled masonite-lined forms. Concrete in exposed roof slabs and interior beams and columns was placed against masonite-lined forms treated with two coats of shellac before oiling.

The building is heated with a forced air type furnace. Due to the lack of openings a mechanical ventilating system was indicated. This consists of an 18,000 C. F. M. blower fan discharging air from a basement opening into the main floor through six grilled vents connected to a 2-foot 6-inch by 7-foot 8-inch concrete duct running longitudinally under the building.

All lighting is artificial with inconspicuous rectangular opal glass ceiling fixtures for general illumination. . .

While he who moves slowly may read and get the story the museum is trying to tell, the plan of operation contemplates that virtually all visitation shall be guided. A small fee is to be charged to all who enter the Monument, and this will entitle them to view the mounds, the reconstructed prehistoric lakes and one or two small exposed burial groups located away from the museum. A slightly larger charge will be imposed on those who wish to enter and be guided through the museum.

The dedication ceremonies were brief, perhaps an hour long, with the principal address by Dr. George H. Denny, Chancellor of the University of Alabama, and short talks by Conrad L. Wirth, Supervisor of Recreation and Land Planning for the National Park Service, Dr. Halsey, Fourth Corps Area Educational Adviser, and the writer. Robert Fechner, Director of the Civilian Conservation Corps, made a short speech extolling the work of the enrollees, and presented the key to the bronze doors of the museum to Dr. Jones, who accepted them in characteristically jocular fashion. Some 2,000 persons were in attendance.

Much work remains to be done around the exterior of the structure and elsewhere in the 260-acre monument area. There are work and service roads to be eliminated, other roads to be built, with archeological investigation on the line of the road to precede its construction; completion of excavation, and filling from artesian wells of the prehistoric lakes; construction of a contact station, service residences and other service buildings; further erosion control work, and a variety of other jobs. But Dr. Jones is breathing more easily. He has the principal thing he was aiming at, and archeologists exploring the site 2,000 years from now are quite likely to find most of it still there. It was built to last.

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Date: 04-Jul-2002