Memories of ancient architects at Toltec Mounds State Park, despite inaccurate name
MONTILLONS TOLTEC ARCHAEOLOGICAL STATE PARK — For four decades, one of Arkansas’ most significant and intriguing prehistoric sites has welcomed visitors to a totally inaccurately named state park. Now, officials are considering whether to change this misnomer.
Toltec Mounds State Archaeological Park, about 20 miles southeast of Little Rock, is named after a civilization that existed from the 10th to 12th centuries in present-day central Mexico. The Toltecs lived over a thousand miles south of their namesake location in Arkansas.
As a sign in the park’s visitor center explains, “A common belief in the 1800s was that the local Indians were not civilized enough to build mounds. The mound builders were mistakenly thought to be people from Mexico, like the Toltecs, and this site was given the name Toltec.
“Further investigation revealed that the mounds were not built by the Toltecs but by the highly organized ancestors of the local Indians. Archaeologists named these ancestors the Plum Bayou people.”
Exhibits provide details about the Plum Bayou culture, which occupied central Arkansas from the 7th to 11th centuries. Other exhibits describe 19th-century exploration of the site, confusion over the provenance of the mounds, negligent damage to some of the earthen structures, and development of the state park.
A brochure available at the Visitor Center maps the park’s two main trails, with numbered markers along the way describing remaining mounds and other features. Walking the Knapp Trail, the shortest route at three-quarters of a mile, gives a glimpse of the layout.
According to the pamphlet, “Archaeologists believe that only about 50 people lived within the boundaries of this site. These people are thought to have been the religious and civic leaders of the Plum Bayou people. The general population is thought to have lived in scattered villages and surrounding farms.”
In a way, the upper crust of Plum Bayou created an early semblance of a gated community. The leaders dwelt in complete privacy behind a 10-foot-high earthen wall. It is likely, according to the pamphlet, that only several times a year ordinary citizens would have been admitted “for special ceremonies and to renew social and family ties”.
Of the 18 prehistoric mounds that have been detected here, only three are still standing, while most of the others have been leveled by agriculture in modern times. The tallest, labeled Mound A and rising 49 feet, is flat on top and would have served as a platform for a temple or house. Mound B, 39 feet high, probably had a similar function.
The third, Mound C, is much lower and rounded on top. Archaeologists determined decades ago that it was a burial site, making it off-limits to excavation under a 1991 state law that prohibits disturbing the graves of Native American Indians. ‘America.
The idea of changing the name of the state park was raised during last year’s regular session of the Arkansas Legislature. State Representative Justin Gonzales, R-Okolona, introduced a bill to rename it Chief Heckaton Archeological State Park, in honor of a tribal chief during the period of the 19th century when the Quapaw lands were taken by white settlers. The bill died in a House committee.
Although “Chief Heckaton” is less of a misnomer than “Toltec”, it would also have nothing to do with the Plum Bayou people who lived in the area nearly a millennium earlier. In fact, it could be argued that an appropriate name would be Plum Bayou State Archaeological Park.
Regardless, it’s fair to say that a name change would more accurately describe where the site came from. And while it’s true (as Juliet says to Romeo) that “a rose by any other name would smell just as good”, it’s also true that the Toltec mounds by any other name would always pay a visit. enlightening.
Toltec Mounds Archaeological State Park
- Or: Arkansas 386 on US 165 between Scott and Keo
- Hours: 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Wednesday to Saturday and 12 p.m. to 5 p.m. on Sunday.
- Admission: Free for the Visitor Center or self-guided walking tours. Guided walks can be arranged in advance for a small fee.
- Information: To visit arkansasstateparks.com or call (501) 961-9442 for park details.