Newark’s infamous Holy Stones are the subject of the latest ArchyFantasies podcast!archy fant

My colleague Jeff Gill and I are interviewed by ArchyFantasies’ hosts Sara and Ken about these fascinating scientific forgeries.

We discuss how we know they’re forgeries, the possible motives certain folks might have had for creating them and why they’re still a popular subject more than 150 years after they first appeared.

And while you’re on the ArchyFantasies page, give a listen to the other terrific episodes of their podcast!

Brad Lepper


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The theme of this year’s Central Ohio Mineral, Fossil, Gem & Jewelry Show is Ohio’s Ice Age. The festivities will include two special presentations: Dale Gnidovec, Curator of the Ohio State University’s Orton Geological Museum, will provide an overview of Ice Age Ohio and I’ll be focusing in on one particular resident of Ice Age Ohio — the Burning Tree Mastodon.

Diorama showing mastodon being butchered by Clovis hunters
Diorama showing mastodon being butchered by Clovis hunters

In the winter of 1989, I was privileged to be one of the members of the team that recovered the nearly complete skeleton of a mastodon, which had been uncovered during the expansion of a golf course south of Newark. In spite of the salvage nature of the two-day excavation, after years of careful study we managed to learn a lot about this impressive beast and his world. Come to my talk and learn why the popular science magazine Discover named the Burning Tree mastodon one of the Top 50 Science Discoveries of 1991!

The Burning Tree Mastodon and Ohio’s Ice Age by Brad Lepper
3 p.m. Saturday 11 April

Ice Age Ohio by Dale Gnidovec
2 p.m. Sunday 12 April

For the entire line up of speakers and all the other scheduled activities, see the webpage for Frozen: Ohio’s Ice Age!

Did I mention that there is unlimited free parking for the event?

Brad Lepper


The archaeologist-poet Loren Eiseley wrote, in his poem, “In the Red Sunset on Another Hill,” –

“I am bound to those
who, when the great herds ebbed away, in polychrome
sketched on cave walls shapes never to be seen,
half man, half beast.”

Gargoyle on Notre Dame Cathedral, Paris.
Gargoyle on Notre Dame Cathedral, Paris.

In my March column for the Columbus Dispatch, I ponder the meanings of the supernatural beings depicted in the art of many cultures, from the oldest examples of such art in the European Upper Paleolithic through American Indian imagery created in the last 2,000 years.

My point of departure for this discussion is a paper by Spanish archaeologists Eduardo Palacio-Pérez and Aitor Ruiz Redondo, from the latest issue of the journal Antiquity, that focuses on the perils of trying to recover authentic ancient meanings of the depictions of “unreal or fantastic beings.” The title of their paper is “Imaginary creatures in Paleolithic art: prehistoric dreams or prehistorians’ dreams?”

My favorite "imaginary creature" ever. A human-mammoth hybrid from Les Comparelles Caves in France. Traced from a sketch in Jelinek's Pictorial Encyclopedia of the Evolution of Man (1975).
My favorite “imaginary creature” ever. A human-mammoth hybrid from Les Comparelles Caves in France. Traced from a sketch in Jelinek’s Pictorial Encyclopedia of the Evolution of Man (1975).

Palacio-Pérez and Ruiz Redondo define “imaginary creatures” as “any representation, which, though figurative, does not depict any being, animal or human that existed in the Upper Paleolithic, either because it displays characteristics not found in any individual species or because it mixes characteristics of two or more species.”

Depictions of so-called imaginary creatures are not restricted to the Paleolithic era. The art of virtually all cultures includes such imagery, from angels and gargoyles to sphinxes and centaurs.

A human head with deer antlers and bird's feet. One of the many supernatural beings depicted in the Leo Petroglyphs. Traced from a photograph.
A human head with deer antlers and bird’s feet. One of the many supernatural beings depicted in the Leo Petroglyphs. Traced from a photograph.

In addition to the recently discovered Newtown griffon, Ohio’s ancient American Indian cultures frequently included representations of supernatural beings in petroglyphs, pictographs, sculptures and the occasional effigy mound. At Leo Petroglyphs, for example, there is a depiction of a human head with antlers and bird feet. How are we to interpret such imagery? Can we find clues to the meanings in American Indian oral traditions?

Palacio-Pérez and Ruiz Redondo suggest the search for the ancient meanings of imaginary creatures is futile because we can’t ever know what was in the minds of the creators of these images. Instead, archaeologists should seek “to integrate the ‘imaginary creatures’ within modern research agendas, focusing on the search for shared behavioural patterns, social dynamics and territorial relationships during the Upper Paleolithic.” As I acknowledge in my column, I think these are worthy goals to pursue. And while I appreciate the concerns raised by Palacio-Perez and Ruiz Redondo, I think there is a risk in setting our sights too low.

As an unrepentant processual archaeologist, or at least one who aspires to the best of what that school of archaeology teaches, I think we should also acknowledge that it’s too soon to say whether or not those ancient meanings are unrecoverable. As the late Lewis Binford put it, “we have no notion of what are the limitations of the archaeological record with regard to the information potentially recoverable.”

The Shaman of Newark. A 2,000-year-old stone figurine found at the Newark Earthworks. Ohio Memory image, OCLC Number 77547751
The Shaman of Newark. A 2,000-year-old stone figurine found at the Newark Earthworks. Ohio Memory image, OCLC Number 77547751

Moreover, there is another and, possibly an even more important point to keep in mind. There is enormous emotional power in this imagery. Like Eiseley, I feel a connection to the creators of these fantastic “shapes never to be seen.” I don’t pretend that feeling gives me special insights into their true, original meanings, but I think supernatural beings such as the antlered humanoid head at Leo Petroglyph, the bear-human combination that I have called the Shaman of Newark, and the Newtown griffin are more than mundane glyphs signifying merely some social relationship or territorial boundary. They are attempts to convey something more profound.

George Ironstrack, a member of the Miami Tribe who also is on the Ohio History Connection’s Board of Trustees, reviewed a draft of my column and expressed the following concerns, which I agree warrant attention and discussion. George kindly agreed to allow me to post them here:

“First, I would love to hear archaeologists temper their excitement over ‘finds’ like the gorget with explicit recognition that this was an item likely included in the burial of a human being – and accidents aside – we all need to recognize that when this person was interred they probably didn’t intend to have their burial exposed in this public manner. In my opinion, technical vocabulary like ‘associated funerary objects’ tends to mask the human side of this issue. This recognition doesn’t necessary prohibit discussion of these items or even their public display, but it humanizes this person and the actions of their family and friends at the end of their lives. For those who believe in the journey of the spirit after death, we may also consider recognizing that we have inadvertently interrupted this individual’s journey. …

Second, I would add that to the people who made the gorget it’s possible (and perhaps likely) that they didn’t see these beings as ‘imaginary’ at all. … it is quite likely that the worldviews of the people who made this gorget, those who made the bear shaman, and American society today have quite a bit of space between them. It is possible that for their makers, these beautiful objects represented forces, abilities, or individuals who were real to them and while we might see them as imaginary today we should resist the urge to extend that perception back in time.

…At the center of things we need to retain respect for our predecessors and not assume that … we definitively know what they intended when they carved a gorget, carved a pipe, or built a mound.”

Brad Lepper

Egyptian sphinx on display at the Louvre
Egyptian sphinx on display at the Louvre

Note: In my column in the Dispatch it states that the Lion Man carving was “a mammoth 40,000-year-old ivory carving.” Although by the standards of Upper Paleolithic sculptures, the nearly 12-inch-long Lion Man is large, that sentence actually should have read as follows: “a 40,000-year-old mammoth ivory carving.”

For further reading

Palacio-Pérez, Eduardo and Aitor Ruiz Redondo
2014 Imaginary creatures in Paleolithic art: prehistoric dreams or prehistorians’ dreams? Antiquity, Volume 88, pages 259-266.

Ohio Memory Madness is Back!

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In the spirit and fun of college basketball’s March Madness, the Ohio History Connection invites you to participate in Ohio Memory Madness – a bracket of sixty-four historical events from across the state all competing for the unique distinction of being named the 2015 Ohio Memory Madness Champion. Since the historical events featured in the bracket are unable to play tournament style basketball, the winner of Ohio Memory Madness will be determined by public online voting at:

The Ohio Memory Madness bracket features images of a variety of historical events pulled from Ohio Memory, the collaborative digital library project of the Ohio History Connection and the State Library of Ohio, with digital collections from 360 cultural heritage institutions representing all of Ohio’s 88 counties.

Seventeen collecting institutions from across the state have partnered with the Ohio History Connection in this statewide competition. Event images will go head to head beginning March 17, and the voting is scheduled as follows:

First round:         March 17–20

Round of 32:      March 21-25

Sweet 16:            March 26-28

Elite 8:                   March 29-31

Final 4:                  April 1-4

Championship: April 5-6

The public can vote throughout the tournament to be sure their favorite event image makes it to the championship – they can also enter to win a prize pack from the Ohio History Connection including tickets to the Ohio History Center in Columbus, Ohio, a Retro Ohio t-shirt, and an assortment of Ohio munchies to enjoy while watching that other sport.

Don’t miss your chance to vote for the Ohio Memory Madness Champion! Your vote can make one of Ohio’s historical events go all the way this March.

Happy voting!

P.S. Adena Man image is a not so subtle hint…cough, cough ‘vote for me’.


serpent mound solsticeOn June 20th, the Arc of Appalachia is hosting a very special event at Serpent Mound – an observance of the 2015 Summer Solstice Sunset.

Many ancient monuments were built with alignments to important astronomical events. Stonehenge may be the world’s most famous example. It was a way of marking the passage of time and making sacred architecture even more sacred by linking it to cosmic rhythms.

The Great Serpent Mound is aligned principally to the point on the western horizon where the Sun sets on the summer solstice. The summer solstice is an important benchmark in the yearly solar cycle, which establishes the rhythm of our lives and was even more pivotal for Ohio’s early farming cultures that depended on a solar calendar for determining the most propitious times for the ceremonies celebrating planting and harvest. But the monumental Serpent Mound was not merely a giant calendar. It was more like a shrine dedicated, perhaps, to the Great Horned Serpent who was the master of the underworld in many American Indian traditions.

Diagram showing the principal alignment of Serpent Mound to the setting Sun on the summer solstice. The other alignments are more controversial due to short sight lines and the difficulty of establishing reliable alignments for curvi-linear features.
Diagram showing the principal alignment of Serpent Mound to the setting Sun on the summer solstice. The other alignments are more controversial due to short sight lines and the difficulty of establishing reliable alignments for curvi-linear features.

The apparent descent of the Sun over the horizon and into the Great Horned Serpent’s realm on the summer solstice may have been a time of special observances and celebrations. So it’s only fitting for us to gather on this day to celebrate this wonderful achievement of Ohio’s ancient American Indian cultures.

According to Susan Power, professor emerita of art at Marshall University and author of Early Art of the Southeastern Indians: feathered serpents & winged beings, Serpent Mound is “the largest effigy mound in the world, stretching fourteen hundred feet. … The placement, size and composition are artistically strong, as well as unique… Approaching the Serpent Mound on foot, viewers are struck by the fluency of its form and placement, harmoniously integrated into the landscape.”

Imagine how much more impressive it will be to see it in perfect alignment with the setting Sun! You don’t get many opportunities to stand in an ancient monument and experience something of how it worked for its builders.

Join me on June 20th for the Arc of Applachia’s Festival of the Setting Sun! I can pretty much guarantee it will be an unforgettable experience.

Brad Lepper


gavelIn honor of Statehood Day, Burt Logan, CEO of the Ohio History Connection, presented a ceremonial gavel to the Ohio House of Representatives and, in a separate ceremony, to the Ohio Senate. Chief Douglas Lankford of the Miami Tribe of Oklahoma had intended to participate in the presentations, but was not able to attend.

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Ohio History Connection CEO Burt Logan addresses the Ohio Senate

The gavels were handmade by a member of the Miami Tribe of Oklahoma. The wood came from a North American Red Oak tree growing at Newark’s Great Circle Earthworks, until a recent storm brought it down. The Great Circle Earthworks is but one part of the Newark Earthworks, one of the Ohio History Connection’s ancient American Indian sites.

The Newark Earthworks, along with the Fort Ancient Earthworks and Hopewell Culture National Historical Park, is part of the Hopewell Ceremonial Earthworks, which currently is under consideration to become the first set of sites in Ohio to be nominated for inscription on UNESCO’s World Heritage List.

Burt Logan presents the ceremonial gavel to Speaker of the Ohio House of Representatives Cliff Rosenberger and House Minority Leader Fred Strahorn
Burt Logan presents the ceremonial gavel to Speaker of the Ohio House of Representatives Cliff Rosenberger (left) and House Minority Leader Fred Strahorn (right)

It is estimated that the tree from which the wood to make these gavels was harvested was around 225 years old when it fell. Chief Lankford, in a statement read by Burt Logan, said “it was a sapling when our collective ancestors first came into contact with one another.”

Senator Hottinger, in his remarks, recalled the efforts of Newark’s Miller Elementary School students, including Senator Hottinger’s daughter, to honor the Newark Earthworks as Ohio’s official Prehistoric Monument.

Burt Logan presents the ceremonial gavel to President of the Ohio Senate Keith Faber and Senator Jay Hottinger
Burt Logan presents the ceremonial gavel to President of the Ohio Senate Keith Faber (left) and Senator Jay Hottinger (center)

Wood from a tree that lived its life within the midst of the Newark Earthworks, crafted into gavels by an artisan of the Miami Tribe of Oklahoma, will now be used to assist in the work of governing the State of Ohio.

Brad Lepper

Fort Ancient Earthworks and Nature Preserve Lecture Series Continues

This Saturday March 7, 2015 from 10:30 AM-12:00 PM the Fort Ancient Earthworks and Nature Preserve will present the second of three lectures on Archaeology and the History of early Native inhabitants of Ohio This Saturdays lecture will be presented by Mr. Robert Genheimer, Curator of Archaeology at the Cincinnati Museum Center in Cincinnati, Ohio. Bob has been with the Cincinnati Museum Center since 1990 where he worked within the archaeological collections in various capacities until being named the George Rieveschl Curator of Archaeology in 2003. Among his areas of archaeological interest are Late Prehistoric and Hopewell-age studies, as well as investigations into lithic technology. This Saturdays lecture will be entitled:

Farmers Till the End: Four Centuries of Fort Ancient Life at the Hahn Site near Cincinnati“.

Sometime in the 13th Century AD, Fort Ancient peoples constructed a large circular village on a high terrace in the lower reaches of the Little Miami River valley.  Field investigations at the Hahn Site reveal that a ring or rings of houses surrounded an open communal plaza.  These village dwellers grew maize and beans, hunted deer, elk, turkey, and other animals, gathered wild plants, and exploited a variety of river resources including fish and mussels.  Archaeological excavations at the site have been aided by a robust remote sensing program that has delineated hundreds of probable pit features and burials.  The combination of remote sensing and excavations reveal that through time, the site expanded across the 10-12 acre terrace, and was finally abandoned sometime during the 17th Century AD

The lectures are free to the public but there will be a regular site admission for guests wanting to go through the museum or grounds. The museum and grounds will be open from 10AM to 5PM on Saturday and 12Noon to 5 PM on Sunday. General Admission (excluding the free lecture) is $6.00 for adults, $5.00 for students. For additional information go to or call 513-932-4421.








The Arc of Appalachia is bringing ancient textiles expert Kathryn Jakes to Serpent Mound to share the results of her latest research on the textiles from Seip Mound.

It’s just part of the festivities for Archaeology Day at Serpent Mound — September 12th, 2015.

For more details, check out the Arc of Appalachia’s website.