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Ancient History Interpreted at Toltec Mounds

Article follows the photos:
  • Exhibits at Toltec Mounds State Park

  • Toltec Mounds State Park

  • Toltec Mounds features many interpretive programs.

  • Toltec Mounds State Park

  • Toltec Mounds State Park

October 1, 2002

Ancient History Interpreted at Toltec Mounds
By Henry Thomason, guest writer
Arkansas Department of Parks and Tourism

One of Arkansas's most significant archeological sites is preserved and interpreted at Toltec Mounds Archeological State Park, which is the 38th park acquired by the state. A National Historic Landmark and home to the state's tallest mounds, the park features a visitors center with a theater, exhibits and a research laboratory. Numerous interpretive programs are also popular among visitors to Toltec. The park is located about 10 miles southeast of Little Rock on U.S. 165. For more information, call (501) 961-9442 or visit

Human history at Toltec Mounds Archeological State Park, where one of the largest and most complex mound sites in the Lower Mississippi Valley is situated, dates back at least 1,300 years. But it was not until 1821 that Louis Bringier, a Frenchmean from New Orleans who'd traveled the Arkansas territory in 1812, made the first documented description of the mounds in a newspaper article. Bringier related the details of the "tolerably regular" alignment of the mounds and most notably the height of the two tallest mounds in contrast to the surrounding plains.

Ironically, the mounds are named for a group of Native Americans who never inhabited the site. Local settlers armed with the anthropological assumptions of the day theorized that the Toltecs, who lived in what is now Mexico, built the mounds. Professional excavations in the 1880s by Edward Palmer and published by Cyrus Thomas of the Smithsonian Institution proved the ancestors of local Native Americans constructed these and other mounds throughout the southeastern part of the United States.

It is now known that the Plum Bayou people first inhabited this site around A.D. 700. Over time, the people built several mounds, some of which were aligned to coincide with celestial occurrences such as the summer solstice and fall and spring equinoxes.

Located on the bank of Mound Pond, the complex was once surrounded on three sides by an eight to 10-foot high earthen embankment. The tallest mound at Toltec, Mound A rises like a sentinel 49 feet above the surrounding delta flatlands and serves as a reminder of the Plum Bayou's social organization and the importance of deities in their culture. Research indicates that Mound B, a 38-foot platform-like structure, may have had a priest's residence on it. Archeological studies have shown that perhaps 15 smaller flat-topped mounds, most of which were damaged by agricultural activities over the last 150 years, were used for ceremonies and celebrations.

The Plum Bayou people had a way of life that was distinctive from other contemporary groups in the Mississippi Valley. They lived in permanent villages throughout the countryside. They built sturdy houses and farmed as well as gathered wild plant foods, fished and hunted. Artifacts found at the site include simple plain-ware ceramics and stone tools. The Plum Bayou people continued to live at the site until around 1050, when it was abandoned for unknown reseaons.

In 1849 William Peay Officer and his wife, Mary Eliza, filed patents and obtained the land on which the mound site is located. The Officers lived in Little Rock and maintained a residence at the property, which they called Lake Mound Plantation. After becoming widowed, Mary Eliza married Gilbert Knapp. In the 1870s she contacted the Smithsonian Institution to inquire about the nature of the mounds and invited the institute's professional archaeologists to investigate the mounds. Thus began the research program that continues today.

The Knapps filed for a post office and platted a town by the name of Toltec in the late 1880s. The town never developed, but there was a Toltec Station along the newly built branch of the St. Louis, Arkansas and Texas Railroad that was linked to Little Rock in April of 1889.

Today the park is managed cooperatively by the Arkansas Department of Parks and Tourism and the Arkansas Archeological Survey. Since the inception of this partnership the goals of the park have been preservation and research through archaeology studies and subsequent interpretation of any findings.

During the spring and fall the park hosts thousands of schoolchildren who visit the park on annual field trips. Park interpreters provide guided tours and educational programs on three main tracks of learning: archeology, Native American culture and environmental studies. Interpreters also conduct workshops such as primitive pottery making, pine needle basket making and flintknapping throughout the year.

At the park's visitors information center, guests can view a 10-minute orientation slideshow and learn about displayed artifacts. Two trails (.8 and 1.6 miles in length) at Toltec pass through the 110-acre mound complex. A boardwalk at the park allows guests to watch wildlife amidst towering cypress trees on the edge of Mound Pond.

Henry Thomason is a former superintendent at Toltec Mounds State Park who now works as an archeologist for the Arkansas State Highway and Transportation Department.


Submitted by the Arkansas Department of Parks & Tourism
One Capitol Mall, Little Rock, AR 72201, (501) 682-7606

May be used without permission. Credit line is appreciated:
"Arkansas Department of Parks & Tourism"