Monday, May 23, 2011

Serpent Mound

 (Reporting Information Paper)
Serpent Mound, a mysterious and ancient relic of a long-lost civilization, has fascinated modern humans for over a hundred years. Who built it? For what reason? What secrets does it hide? Was this quarter-mile sculpture of a snake the site of ancient ceremonies? Does it have special meaning for us today? As F. W. Putman, savior and excavator of the mound wrote of his visit in 1883, “Reclining on one of the huge folds of this gigantic serpent, as the last rays of the sun, glancing from the distant hilltops, cast their long shadows over the valley, I mused on the probabilities of the past; and there seemed to come to me a picture as of a distant time, of people with strange customs, and with it came the demand for an interpretation of this mystery. The unknown must become known!” (871)

The Serpent, a giant snake built of clay, earth, and sod, basks on a high, crescent-shaped prominence and looks over the Brush Creek river valley. As George R. Milner, author of The Moundbuilders describes it, “This long, low embankment snakes its way down a narrow ridge. The tail forms a tight spiral, and the other end widens to join an oval embankment, commonly interpreted as the head, although some have thought the snake is swallowing an egg.” (79) It was only one of the many earthwork wonders that white settlers found when they moved into the Ohio and Missisippi river valleys, but among the many mounds, hill forts, and geometric enclosures built by earlier unknown cultures, it holds the distinction of being one of few that was preserved in its original state. At 30 feet wide at the head, 6 feet at its tallest point, and 1,348 feet long, it is the largest snake effigy found in the United States. (Glotzhopper and Lepper 3)

 In the mid-nineteenth century an interest in ancient earthworks blossomed, and the scientific community discovered the Serpent. E. G. Squier and E. H. Davis included Serpent Mound in their 1848 collection of surveys of ancient earthworks for the Smithsonian Institution. (96) Inspired by their work, Frederick Ward Putman visited Serpent Mound in 1883. He was awed by the earthwork, but also dismayed to find that it was being slowly destroyed. After a tornado raked along the precipice and cleared away the trees growing there, the farmer who owned the land had plowed the covering soil to grow corn, then let animals graze on the mound. The farmer planned to sell his farm the next year, and the new owner would likely turn the mound into a cornfield, as was happening to so many of the of the ancient earthworks. Rushing back to Boston, Putman enlisted the help of Miss Alice B. Fletcher, and together they raised the $6000 needed to buy Serpent Mound and the surrounding 54 acres. As Warren Moorhead, a prominent archeologist of the late nineteenth century, tells us “After investigating the mound, Putman told Bostonians that if it were obliterated by development that event would be more disgraceful than tearing down Bunker Hill Monument.” ( 241) The land was given to Harvard’s Peabody Museum to hold in trust, and Serpent Mound Park was created. (Putman 872) Before it opened to the public, Putman examined the mound by partially excavating the oval and a portion of the tail. He also studied the three nearby burial mounds and a village site. In 1886 William Henry Holmes published a map for the Smithsonian Institute, and in 1919 Charles Willoughby, from the Peabody Museum at Harvard Univerity published a paper with measurements and surveys.

After the Ohio Historical Society took over administration of the park in 1900, it became a popular place for people to picnic. In 1908 the thirty foot tall observation tower was built, which is still in use today — as are the picnic shelters and latrine houses constructed in the 1930’s. (Glotzhober and Lepper 12-14) Even today, Serpent Mound draws over 23,000 visitors each year. (Toncray, par 1)

So who built Serpent Mound? When Putman excavated portions of the effigy, he found no bones or artifacts to link it to its builders. However, the two nearest burial mounds contained Adena Culture graves and artifacts, and thus Putman linked the building of Serpent Mound with the Adena.(Glotzhober and Lepper 5) The Adena Culture populated Ohio from about 700 BC to 1AD. They were the first people in Ohio to build burial mounds. Grave goods, such as stone platform pipes, copper braclets and breastplates, pieces of cut mica, and marine shell beads were buried with the dead. Then dirt and rocks were hand-carried to the site, mounded up, and tramped down, forming large, hard mounds over the graves. The larger mounds contained multiple burials. (Milner 57- 61) Because the mounds were apparently maintained and even enlarged from generation to generation, many people believe that they were used for more than burials. The mound sites may have hosted clan-gatherings or larger gatherings on the Solstice and Equinoxes, and there may have been feasting, marriages, and storytelling. (Byrd, Dawn of the Adena, 12)

However, the Adena were not known for building elaborate earthworks. This did not start until the Hopewell Exchange Culture, approximately 100BC to 400AD. The Hopewell built geometrical enclosures: circles, octagons, and squares which surrounded acres of land. These enclosures which contained both burial mounds and building sites, (Milner 76) but little evidence of daily occupation or agriculture. It is assumed by most scholars that these were ceremonial centers which people came to for special occasions and trade. (O’Donnell 21-23) There were openings in the walls, apparently aligned with the solstices, the equinoxes, and the nodal points of moonrise. They may have been, therefore, giant observatories which marked the seasons as well as sites for gatherings and feasts. (Byrd, Heights of the Hopewell, 13) Fort Ancient, west of Dayton, is a good example of a Hopewell earthwork.

Serpent Mound is not a geometric shape, and it has no openings, but it does contain astronomical alignments in the loops of the snake. In 1988 Robert Fletcher and Terry Cameron demonstrated that a line drawn from a stone structure on the body of the serpent to a stone structure in the oval aligns with the setting sun on the summer solstice. By 1993 the pair had mapped out alignments with the summer solstice sunrise, the equinox sunrise, and the winter solstice sunrise. Further, a line from the tip of tail to one of the stone altars marks true north. (Glotzhober and Lepper 10)

To answer the question of who built the mound, and when, samples of charcoal were taken from the mound and dated by radiocarbon testing in 1991. The result indicated that the mound was built about 1070 AD. (Sarcaceni) This was well after the time of the Hopewell Exchange and into the time of the Fort Ancient Culture, which lasted from 900AD to 1500AD. (Glotzhober and Lepper 9) A Fort Ancient burial mound and the remains of a Fort Ancient village within a hundred yards of the mound (Putman 874) supports this.
 The Fort Ancient people built burial mounds, but they were smaller and less elaborate than those built by the Hopewell or even the Adena, and their burial goods were fewer and more utilitarian. (Milner 105-106) At the same time, villages, as exemplified by Sunwatch Village in East Dayton, became more complex and inhabited for longer times.(Milner 114) Open areas in the center of the village appear to have been used for ceremonial purposes, with alignments of the houses and posts used to track the solstices and equinoxes. (O’Donnell 25) The remains of such a village, determined to be from the Fort Ancient culture, has been found 100 yards south of the mound.(Saraceni)

Effigy mounds were common at that time in Wisconsin and parts of the neighboring states, but seem to have been built by a hunter-gatherer culture which was not part of the Fort Ancient Culture. (Milner 106-108) There are, however, two snake effigy mounds which were constructed just outside of Fort Ancient, and which work with Fort Ancient features to mark the Winter and Summer Solstices. Although Fort Ancient is a Hopewell structure, the snake effigies have been dated with Radiocarbon dating to the twelth century AD, only a hundred years after the Serpent Mound date. (White 55)

 However, Dr. William F Romain, a research associate with the Ohio State University Newark Earthworks Center, questions the validity of the radiocarbon dating. He believes that when Putman restored the mound in the late 1880’s, he could have contaminated the site by using soil taken from the village site. He is currently leading a new archaeological excavation to find an undisturbed area of the mound, and to take samples from that area for radiocarbon dating. (Weyrich)

The more researchers try to answer the question of who built Serpent Mound, the more confusing the answer becomes. It has been dated to the Fort Ancient time period, but that dating may be faulty. It is characteristic of the large scale Hopewell earthworks in size, in complexity and in marking various celestial events, but the burial mounds close to it are filled with Adena artifacts. The Serpent remains mysterious and ancient.
Today, in the 21st century, people still travel to Serpent Mound for spiritual reasons. Some believe that Serpent Mound is a “ New Age power center; the locus of an astrological harmonic convergence.” (Glotzhober and Lepper 7) Others, such as Pagans and Wiccans, come to celebrate the equinoxes and solstices, just as Native Americans may have done a thousand years ago. Friends of Serpent Mound sponsors events on these days, as well as the Archeology and Ohio Geology Day in September to celebrate the unique geology of the area, and a Perseid Meteor Shower viewing in August. (Friends) Even the Mayans are coming for a Full Moon Ceremony in October 2011. (“New Changes”)

Serpent Mound is unique, a relic of the past saved for the future, for our children and our children’s children — and yet it barely escaped destruction in the 1880’s. Many other Indian mounds and earthworks, such as the Dayton earthworks located just west of what is now just west of I-75 in West Carrollton, (Squier and Davis 82) have been destroyed.  More continue to be destroyed in the name of development and growth. In 1890 Moorhead wrote, “…it is only by careful and patient investigation into the remains of these dead and almost forgotten races that we may ever hope to arrive at any definite knowledge of their lives. All the light we can hope to shed upon them must come to us through the examination of their works and their skeletons. It is in the interest of science that we plead for the preservation of the native Americans.” (108) A hundred years later the battle was still being fought. Roger Kennedy, writing about the efforts to build a dam and flood the land about the mound for “recreational use,” said, “The rescue of Serpent Mound and the issuances of Cyrus Thomas’s report on the Mound Builders marked the highwater mark of intelligent and responsible preservation of the architecture of ancient America. As these words are being written in the winter of 1994, a developer is threatening to desecrate the lowlands which supported the life of the people who created the serpent effigy on a promontory above them.” (241)

Works Cited
     2011 FOSM Events. Friends of Serpent Mound. Arc of Appalachia, 2011. Web ( 4 April 2011.

Byrd, Alfred D. “Kentuckiana X: Moundbuilders of Kentucky I: Dawn of the Adena.”     The Reluctant Famulus 77 (2010): pp. 9-14. Print.

- - -. “Kentuckiana XI. Moundbuilders of Kentucky II. The Heights of the Hopewell.”     The Reluctant Famulus 78 (2010): pp. 13-17. Print.

    Glozhober, Robert C., Bradley T. Lepper. Serpent Mound: Ohio’s Enigmatic Effigy Mound. Columbus:Ohio Historical Society, 1994. Print.  

    Kennedy, Roger G. Hidden Cities: The Discovery and Loss of Ancient North America Civilization. New York: The Free Press, 1994. Print.

    Milner, George R. The Moundbuilders: Ancient Peoples of Eastern North America. London: Thames and Hudson, 2004. Print.

    Moorhead, Warren K. Fort Ancient: The Great Prehistoric Earthwork of Warren County, OH Compiled From a Careful Study With An Account of its Mounds and Graves. Cincinnati: Robert Clark and Co, 1890. Print.

    New Changes Coming To An Ancient Site. The People’s Defender, 24 January 2011. Web. 24 April 2011.

O’Donnell, James H. Ohio’s First Peoples. Athens: Ohio University Press, 2004. Print.

    Putman, F.W. “The Serpent Mound of Ohio: Site Excavations and Park Contruction.” Century Magazine XXXIX (new series Vol. XVII) (1889/1890): pp 871-888. Print.

     Sarceni, Jessica E. "Redating Serpent Mound." Archaeology 49.6 (1996): 16. Academic Search Complete. EBSCO. Web. 21 Apr. 2011.

    Squier, A.M. And E.H. Davis. Ancient Monuments of the Mississippi Valley. Washington: Smithsonian Institute,1848. Print.
    Toncray, Marla. Drawn to the Serpent — Serpent Mound State Memorial Continues to Fascinate. Ledger Independent, 1 April 2011. Web. 24 April 2011.

    Weyrich, Carleta. Scientists Aim To ID Age of Serpent Mound. The People’s Defender, 18 April 2011. Web. 25 April 2011.

     White, John R. "The Sun Serpents." Archaeology 40.6 (1987): 52-57. Academic Search Complete. EBSCO. Web. 21 Apr. 2011.



  1. Good stuff! A well-deserved A!

  2. It is a good paper, but frustrating: so so many question; so few answers.