Current archaeological activities, updates and discussion from the staff of the Ohio Historical Society. Your comments are welcome!
During the summer of 2012, Elsa Ricaudinitiated a study of the mounds and earthworks of eastern North America as part of a research project supported by a Richard Morris Hunt Fellowship sponsored by the American Architectural Foundation, the French Heritage Society and the group Lafarge.
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: “TheGreat 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
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.
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.
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:
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.
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?”
“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:
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.