Current archaeological activities, updates and discussion from the staff of the Ohio Historical Society. Your comments are welcome!

Archives for : Late Prehistoric archaeology

Serpent Mound and Ohio Artist Maya Lin

Reminiscent of and paying homage to the artistry of the creators of Serpent Mound; enjoy this blog about Ohioan Maya Lin.


I am used to thinking of Ohio’s Hopewellculture (circa 100 B.C. – A.D. 400) as the time when a far flung interaction sphere brought enormous quantities of exotic raw materials and artifacts into Ohio. It’s becoming increasingly clear, however, that virtually all ancient American Indian societies valued rare and beautiful things and did their best to acquire them.

In my book Ohio Archaeology: an illustrated chronicle of Ohio’s ancient American Indian cultures, I wrote that there was “little evidence for trade during the Late Prehistoric period” (circa A.D. 1000 – 1650). I argued that increasing intergroup conflict largely had eliminated the need for these kinds of social symbols and created an environment in which long distance travel and trade would have been too risky to undertake — at least on a regular basis.

I was wrong.
Ohio’s Madisonville site, a major Late Prehistoric village and cemetery now encompassed by suburban Cincinnati, was an important center of interregional trade. In my July column in the Columbus Dispatch I point out that a number of artifacts that originated in Europe found their way to Madisonville long before any Europeans had set foot here. Those artifacts certainly are the most spectacular evidence of trade during this period, but they are far from the whole story.

Also found at Madisonville are grooved stone mauls and bone rasps from the upper Mississippi valley, pipes from southern Wisconsin, a ceramic head-effigy pot from Missouri, and engraved shell gorgets from eastern Tennessee.

Clearly, trade was an important activity during the Late Prehistoric period and the rare commodities obtained through these extensive networks must have been important status symbols. The evidence for warfare during this period also is clear, however, so this interaction may have taken place in the periods between intermittent eruptions of violence — possibly in the context of neighboring groups negotiating alliances with one another.

This is very different from what was happening in the Hopewellera for which there is virtually no evidence of intergroup violence of any kind and the flow of exotic materials into Ohiowas orders of magnitude beyond anything seen either before or after. Trade almost surely was a part of what was going on, but the sheer volume of hyper-exotic material accumulating at Ohio earthwork centers and the lack of almost anything from Ohio showing up at the other ends of the interaction sphere suggest to me that the monumental Hopewellian earthworks were pilgrimage centers.

Madisonville, on the other hand, was something much more down-to-earth and familiar. It was a large village and a center of trade and commerce for many generations of Late Prehistoric folks.

In fact, I would argue that what we see at Madisonvilleis exactly what more or less ordinary trade should look like in the archaeological record. The accumulation of prodigious amounts of precious materials at Hopewellearthworks may not represent the offerings of pilgrims, but it’s something more than trade.

For more information about the Madisonville site, I recommend Penelope Ballard Drucker’s marvelous book The View From Madisonville: prehistoric western Fort Ancient interaction patterns.

If you want to read more about my ideas on Hopewellpilgrimage, the best place to start is my chapter in Recreating Hopewell, edited by Doug Charles and Jane Buikstra: “The

Great Hopewell Road


and the role of the pilgrimage in the Hopewell Interaction sphere.”

You also can check out the following related blog posts:
The Newark Earthworks: a place of pilgrimage

The Fort Ancient Earthworks — place of pilgrimage

Ancient American pilgrimage: communitas or costly signaling?

Special thanks to Bob Genheimer, George Rieveschl Curator of Archaeology at the Cincinnati Museum Center, for taking the time from a busy field season to take the picture of the Clarkdale Bell.

Brad Lepper


The Columbus Historical Society has a great new exhibit at COSI celebrating the bicentennial of the City of Columbus.

The Ohio Historical Society contributed a number of artifacts to the exhibit, including a 9,000-year-old flint spear point and a 1,000-year-old pottery vessel both found in the vicinity of Columbus.
These ancient tools remind us the history of Columbus did not begin in 1812. In fact, it began long before the city’s namesake, Christopher Columbus, is said to have discovered America. American Indians and their ancestors have been living here for more than 13,000 years and Columbus was their home long before it was ours!
We thank the Columbus Historical Society for acknowledging our ancient American Indian heritage in their new exhibit! And we are proud to have played a small part in telling this important part of the story.For more information about the Columbus Historical Society and the COSI exhibit, check out the CHS webpage:


Roger G. Kennedy, former director of the National Park Service, former director of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History and all around Renaissance Man, died at the end of September last year.

I had the great pleasure of meeting Roger in 1990 when he was working on filming the first episode of Roger Kennedy’s Rediscovering America for the Discovery Channel. The program was to cover the grand sweep of eastern North American prehistory, with a focus on the great mound-building civilizations and, what he would go on to refer to as, America’s “Hidden Cities” (see his book with that title). Although Cahokia, the great Mississippian-era city in Illinois, qualifies as a city under almost any definition, archaeologists generally do not regard the large Hopewell earthworks as “cities.” Roger, however, was expansive in his definition: “…by city we mean a place in which a large number of people gather for common purposes.” Therefore, he was perfectly justified in encompassing Ohio’s Fort Ancient, the Newark Earthworks, Mound City and Serpent Mound within his marvelous narrative.

In 1990, I was a relatively new curator at the Newark Earthworks State Memorial. Roger, with characteristic flair, referred to me in his book as “chatelaine” for the earthworks. (I still wish I could make that my official job title!)
Roger and his film crew interviewed me at the Munson Springs site, a Paleoindian camp site between Granville and Newark, as well as at the Newark Earthworks. We also enlisted a troop of local boy scouts and experimented with (mostly) aboriginal tools to see how long it would take to build the earthworks. (It turns out a motivated team of young men can move a lot of earth in a surprisingly short period of time!)

Roger became interested in the idea of the Great Hopewell Road, which I was then only beginning to formulate; and he decided we needed to rent a helicopter and fly the route. So he arranged for the helicopter and we did just that. It was August, so we didn’t see much through the morning haze except a profusion of vegetation, but Roger became convinced that a Hopewell Road did, indeed, connect Newark and Chillicothe and even extended on to Portsmouth! I have never been willing to go that far – literally or figuratively, but I agree that if there was a Great Hopewell Road connecting Newark and Chillicothe, there should be other Hopewell roads connecting other great Hopewell earthwork sites.

There is a funny story regarding the Rediscovering America video. You may notice in the picture of Roger and me together that we have a very similar build. (I only look taller in the image because I’m standing uphill.) Anyway, Roger had gone back to Washington, while the film crew continued shooting video at several of the sites. The director decided he needed footage of Roger walking around Serpent Mound to go with the close-up footage they had shot earlier in the week. Instead of waiting, they had me come to the site, put on a wig and Roger’s hat and walk around pretending to be Roger while they shot their video. So if you get a chance to see the program, the guy that appears to be Roger walking around the Serpent is actually me.

My most recent contact with Roger was nowhere near as much fun as our helicopter ride. We corresponded in March of 2010 regarding our joint involvement in another video project — the Lost Civilizations of North America video. Roger elected not to sign the statement that several of us who were involved wrote and which I posted on this blog in December of 2010, but that didn’t mean he was happy with the way his interview had been used.

I will miss Roger. And Ohio’s ancient earthworks have lost a mighty champion.

Brad Lepper


Recently, I had another opportunity to talk to the folks at Ohio’s Wilderness Center. On this occasion, science educator Joann Ballbach, general naturalist Gordon T. Maupin, and conservation biologist Gary Popotnik and I chatted about Serpent Mound as well as Ohio’s other, less renowned, effigy mound, the so-called “Alligator.”

Our conversation was recorded and has been posted as part of the January 19th “Wild Ideas” podcast.

Serpent Mound, at more than 1400 feet long, is the largest effigy mound in the world whereas “Alligator” Mound is a much smaller 200 feet long. Radiocarbon dating and other evidence situate both of these effigies in the Late Prehistoric era (circa AD 1000-1650), which not coincidentally overlaps the time period when all of the hundreds (or even thousands) of effigy mounds were being built in the Upper Midwest.

My sense is that the Serpent and the “Alligator” mounds represent the Great Serpent and Underwater Panther, masters of the Beneath World in the traditions of many Native American cultures. The folklorist George Lankford, in his book Reachable Stars, argues that the Serpent and Underwater Panther actually are manifestations of one supernatural being: “…the Native view, rooted in shape-shifting and symbolic imagery, seems to find much less distinction between the two.”

These mounds, then, may have been monumental shrines dedicated to this potent spirit.

If you’re interested in learning more, here is a link to the Wilderness Center webpage:

My interview is on Podcast #145 and starts at about the 20 minute mark, but you also may enjoy the wide-ranging discussions of various aspects Ohio’s natural environment that precede the conversation about Ohio’s effigy mounds.Here are links to a few related blog entries:

The Serpent and the “Alligator”: Ohio’s ancient effigy mounds

The Snake’s Tale: How Old Is Serpent Mound?

New Discoveries at Serpent Mound

And for even more information about Ohio’s effigy mounds, check out my articles in Timeline:

Lepper, Bradley T.
1998 Great Serpent. Timeline Vol. 15, Number 5, pages 30-45.

2001 Ohio’s “Alligator.” Timeline Vol. 18, Number 2, pages 18-25.

Brad Lepper


The inaugural issue of the Journal of Ohio Archaeology features my article, “Ohio — ‘the heart of it all’ for over 15,000 years.” It is an overview of Ohio prehistory focusing on the most current interpretations of what David Hurst Thomas has called “some of America’s most spectacular archaeology.”

“Located between the Great Lakes and the Ohio River valley with a cornucopia of natural resources, including abundant high quality flint, is it any wonder that Ohio was a Paleoindian Garden of Eden, one of the world’s few hearths of plant domestication, and a setting for one of the most spectacular cultural florescences in this (or any other) hemisphere?”

I also call for professional archaeologists to devote more energy to public education about our ancient American Indian heritage:

“In this period of deficit reduction and budget slashing, it is even more important that we convey to the public the value of the past, else they may decide it does not warrant their support . That value is not just abstract and esoteric. With Ohio’s incredible archaeological resources, heritage tourism could be an economic engine for the state.”

Published by the Ohio Archaeological Council, the Journal of Ohio Archaeology is a fully electronic, refereed journal that publishes original papers on the archaeology of Ohio and the surrounding region.

You can read the entire text of my paper at the following link:–lepper%202011%20final.pdf

Brad Lepper


The Ohio Historical Society finally is replacing the out-dated toilet facilities at Serpent Mound. (If you’ve ever been to the site and had occasion to use the existing toilets, I think you’ll be as pleased about this development as we are!)

In order to make sure the installation of the new sewer lines did not destroy any important traces of the archaeological record at this world-class site, OHS contracted with Jarrod Burks of Ohio Valley Archaeology, Inc. to conduct a remote sensing survey of the area. Jarrod identified some locations where important features (hearths or storage pits, for example) might be present, so the line was re-routed to avoid them.

Then OHS hired the archaeological contract company ASC Group, Inc. of Columbus to excavate test pits along the path of the sewer lines to make sure no artifact concentrations that might not have been picked up by the remote sensing would be lost.

Kevin Schwarz, the lead archaeologist for this project, offered the following thoughts on doing archaeology at Serpent Mound:

“It was a thrill for the three archaeologists from ASC Group, Inc. to be able to do excavations at the Serpent Mound State Memorial. Serpent Mound is one of the best known and most important effigy mounds in North America and indeed the world. However, despite this level of importance very little is known about the archaeology of the ridge top area around the serpent.”

The ASC team made some great discoveries, including the Adena spear point (called a Cresap point) and small drill shown in the picture, which will help to fill in our broader understanding of the way ancient people used the entire landscape before, during and after Serpent Mound was built.

Kevin added the following thoughts at the conclusion of fieldwork: “During the eight days that we were working at Serpent Mound State Memorial we had many positive interactions with visitors to the site who shared their enthusiasm and interest in what we were finding and in what the artifacts might tell us about the Native Americans who made Serpent Mound.”


Ohio’s other effigy mound, Alligator Mound, is located in Granville. The mound is over 200 feet long and between four and five and feet high at its highest point. It is located on the top of a bluff overlooking the Raccoon Creek valley.
In spite of its name, the mound doesn’t really look anything at all like an alligator. It is in the shape of a four-footed creature with a round head and a long tail that curls at the end. For a lot of reasons, I think it represents the Underwater Panther, a powerful and dangerous supernatural creature thought by many American Indian tribes to reside in lakes and other bodies of water.

This may be why the early Granville settlers ended up calling it “Alligator” Mound. If they had asked local Native people what the mound represented and had been told it was a large and dangerous creature with a long tail that lived in the water the settlers may have jumped to the conclusion that the Indians were talking about an alligator. If so, this would explain why the seemingly incongruous name stuck. It was an alligator because the people who would know said it was!

Some years ago, my wife Karen and our two sons Ben and Peter, much younger then, made a model of the “Alligator” out of Lego bricks for a homeschool project. I recently came across a picture of the model and thought I’d post it here to see if it inspired anyone to create models of some of Ohio’s other ancient earthworks.

The Alligator Mound is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. It is owned by the Licking County Historical Society. It may not be as impressive as the Great Serpent Mound, but it’s worth a visit.

For more information about Alligator Mound, check out my article “Ohio’s ‘Alligator’” in the March-April 2001 issue of Timeline.

Brad Lepper

The Snake’s Tale: How Old Is Serpent Mound?

Over the next year or so a diverse group of researchers led by Dr. Bill Romain will undertake a comprehensive sub-surface survey of Serpent Mound located in southern Ohio. The primary focus of the survey will be to derive a definitive date for the mound’s construction as well as locate features such as hearths or refilled pits within the mound or in its immediate vicinity. It is hoped to also gain a better overall understanding of the structure of the landform upon which Serpent Mound was built. The multidisciplinary survey will involve taking a series of soil cores from along both the “spine” of the mound and adjacent areas coupled with remote sensing surveys using both electrical resistance and ground penetrating radar. In the event any subsurface features are encountered during the coring operation the material will be carefully removed from the soil core and analyzed by an archaeo-botanist for content such as charcoal, seeds and/or other plant remains. For future reference each coring hole will be refilled with a soil of a slightly contrasting color and texture than that of the mound soils. Further investigation of subsurface features or other anomalies detected during the remote sensing surveys will require a separate research proposal.

As a matter of historical context, Serpent Mound is located in Adams County, Ohio and is the largest surviving and well documented example of a prehistoric effigy mound in the world. It is composed of a sinuous earthen embankment 411 meters long that includes a 37 meter by 18 meter oval embankment at the northwest end that has been variously described as the eye of the Serpent or an egg in the process of being swallowed. It has also been mentioned that the entire effigy may represent some long ago astronomical event. The effigy is laid out in an overall crescent-like plan on a slightly undulating and sloping narrow bluff above the confluence of East Creek and Ohio Brush Creek in northern Bratton Township. It ranges in height from 1.2 to 1.5 meters and from 6 to 7.6 meters in width at its base. Near the effigy are three previously explored burial mounds. These include a small elliptical shaped mound located approximately 250 meters southwest of the effigy and two circular based conical mounds, one about 9’ high and the other about 4’ high more immediately adjacent to the Serpent.

Serpent Mound was first formally documented in 1848 by Ephraim Squier and Edwin Davis in Ancient Monuments of the Mississippi Valley, the inaugural publication of the Smithsonian Institution. At that time the mound was virtually pristine although there was some indication of indiscriminate digging at various locations around the effigy. In 1859, a tornado passed over the site, uprooting a number of trees growing on the mound and throwing the site into a general state of disarray. Not long afterwards much of the site, including parts of the effigy, began to be plowed for crop cultivation and by the 1880’s most of the available open land, including the mound and its surroundings, was used mainly for livestock grazing.

The earliest scientific investigations at Serpent Mound were conducted in 1886 by Frederic Ward Putnam, of Harvard University’s Peabody Museum. Putnam first visited Serpent Mound in 1883 and his photographs from then indicate that in just the few decades since the time of Squier and Davis the mound had been reduced appreciably in height although its outlines were still intact and clearly discernable.

Upon his return to Serpent Mound in 1886, Putnam found that indiscriminate digging continued to be a problem with the unfilled holes often causing erosional problems. In order to protect what was left of the effigy he successfully led the way for the Peabody Museum to acquire the property in1887 in order to both preserve it and to make it available for future researchers. Over the next couple of years he conducted systematic investigations of portions of the effigy by excavating a number of shallow trenches across the effigy at several locations. He also investigated the nearby burial mounds and other parts of the surrounding landscape. In summarizing his work he attributed the creation of the effigy to the builders of the two adjacent conical burial mounds, now referred to by archaeologists as the Adena culture (ca 800 BC-AD 100) and for more than 100 years this remained the standard view for the age of Serpent Mound. Putnam also explored the elliptically-shaped burial mound as well as a substantial habitation site southeast of the effigy’s tail. The elliptical mound as well as materials recovered from the habitation area has since been determined to belong to the Fort Ancient culture (ca AD 1000-1550). After concluding his research, he carefully restored both the effigy and the burial mounds to their original dimensions. The Peabody Museum converted the property into a public park and operated it as such until 1900, when it was deeded to the Ohio Archaeological and Historical Society (now the Ohio Historical Society). In 1908, an observation tower was built and during the 1930’s a museum and other visitor facilities were added by the Civilian Conservation Corps. Serpent Mound was listed as a State Historic Site in Ohio in the 1960’s and in the 1970’s it was added to the Registry of National Historic Landmarks.

In 1991 Robert Fletcher, Terry Cameron and a small crew of professional archaeologists conducted limited excavations into what was thought to be one of Putnam’s old trenches in order to obtain charcoal samples to use for radiocarbon dating. This investigation resulted in radiocarbon dates that indicate the effigy mound was built between 990 and 850 years BP (cal AD 995 and 1265). These dates more precisely link the effigy to the later Fort Ancient component at the site rather than the earlier Adena occupation. Radiocarbon dates on other effigy mounds in eastern North America, including Ohio’s “Alligator” Mound as well as possible stone serpent effigies reinforce these findings.

Just when and by whom the Serpent Mound was constructed has been a point of controversy, or so it would seem, from the time the site was first recorded. Radiocarbon dates derived by Fletcher et al in the 1990’s are the only scientifically obtained dates so far but these are not as widely accepted as it would seem. Among Putnam’s observations was that in the places he conducted his exploratory excavations the mound structure was underlain by what seemed to be a prepared surface of ash and small cobble stones. Charcoal derived from Putnam’s ash layer could provide material for a suite of C-14 dates to help determine exactly when the mound was constructed. Unfortunately Putman failed to leave any record of exactly where he made his test excavations in the 1880’s and soil coring is the most efficient and non-invasive method of locating undisturbed mound strata.
Coring work was scheduled to begin over the weekend of April 9 and 10. It is the most labor intensive phase of the project and will account for most of the time actually in the field.

The coring device is hydraulically operated and mounted to a small tractor. The cores are extracted in 4 foot sections using 2” diameter steel tubes lined with 1.5” plastic sleeves. After the first steel tube is pushed to depth the plastic sleeve liner is removed, capped and labeled as to its location and number in the sequence and most importantly, which end is up. Another plastic liner is inserted into the primary steel tube, another length of pipe added and the entire assembly again pushed to depth. The process is repeated until the desired depth is reached. In some cases, such as testing on the flood plain of a large river or other areas of thick sedimentation, this particular machine is capable of taking a 60 foot or longer core but because the Serpent Mound is constructed almost immediately above bedrock such potential depths aren’t a factor.

What should be considered when working at a site as prominent and as important as the Serpent Mound are the aesthetic disruptions the machinery might cause at the surface. In a cornfield or on a floodplain tire tracks and surface abrasions caused by the operation of the coring machine aren’t of particular concern. On Saturday April 9 it rained about 1.5 inches leaving the surface somewhat soggy to say the least. The next day was bright and sunny but after taking the first two cores it was plainly evident that the ground was still wet and to proceed further would cause major disruptions to the surface of the mound. Because the overall appearance of the mound was of primary concern, both during and after the project is completed, the coring operation was put on hold until conditions were more conducive to the use of machinery on the surface of the mound. The two cores that were taken still provided some insight as to the nature of the mound construction and to how to proceed when the ground is more stable.

There is an old saying that when dealt lemons make lemonade. In that the ground was too wet for taking cores it was nearly idea for the electrical resistance survey. Electrical resistivity measures how resistant a particular soil structure is to the passage of an electrical current. Solid bedrock is absolutely resistant to the passage of an electrical current. The electrical resistance of other sub-soils varies depending on a number of factors including the level of soil compaction, particle size and soil moisture content. A 70 meter +/- transect line was laid out across the coils of the effigy, covering about half its length. Probes wired together in sequence were inserted into the ground at 1 meter intervals along this line and very low voltage applied. Resistance is measured between the probes and can be combined to create an overall pattern several feet deep. Once the data is collected it is dumped into a computer where it can be processed into a variety of images. The data collection period for this method is relatively long (2 hours or more) but it provides a detailed image of the subsurface along the transect line including how the bedrock and sub-soils interface on that particular strike. Preliminary results indicate that the bedrock/sub-soil interface along that transect is more undulating than expected with large pockets of weathered bedrock in several places under the mound structure and pockets of different fills within the mound itself. While these are not quite earth shattering revelations every bit of new data contributes to the bigger picture and an overall better understanding of the site.

The work is scheduled to continue when the ground conditions are more favorable. In the mean time please try to find time in your busy schedules to visit Serpent Mound. It’s 100 miles from Columbus and centuries removed from everyday life. The site is presently under consideration as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, placing it on par with sites and places as diverse as Stonehenge, Chartres Cathedral, The Great Barrier Reef, The Great Wall of China and other natural and cultural wonders of the world. It’s an honor it richly deserves.

Bill Pickard

The Serpent and the "Alligator": Ohio’s ancient effigy mounds

Serpent Mound in Adams County and the so-called “Alligator” Mound in Licking County are among the most fascinating legacies of Ohio’s ancient Native American cultures. Effigy mounds are gigantic earthen sculptures built in the shapes of animals or, sometimes, people. Some investigators call them “geoglyphs” and similar monuments are found around the world, from the hilltops of Great Britain and Iowa to the deserts of California and Peru.

Much about these ancient works of indigenous art is still mysterious, but Ohio’s effigies may finally be giving up some of their secrets. A study of their age and cultural context hints they are symbols of the most powerful creatures of the Woodland Indian Underworld – the Great Serpent and the Underwater Panther. Perhaps these sacred places were shrines where shamans invoked the terrible power of the Underworld.

I gave a talk for the Ohio State University on Wednesday 27 January 2010. The audio portion of the program, along with my PowerPoint slides, is available at this OSU website:×600)_-_20100127_05.21.59PM.html

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