The Archaeoastronomy of Alligator Mound

Thoughts on the Archaeoastronomy of Alligator Mound

2_Alligator Mound aerial 2

Alligator Mound crouched atop this bluff overlooking the Raccoon Creek Valley in Granville, Ohio.

by Guest Blogger Jeff Gill
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On a hilltop overlooking the valley within which sit the Newark Earthworks, there perches an earthwork over 200 feet long, an effigy of sorts with a name that is a mystery in its own right, and a one-time stone mound with stories all its own now missing, but hidden in plain sight nearby.

Alligator Mound, if it were the only ancient monument in Licking County, Ohio, would probably get more attention. The work of curator of archaeology Brad Lepper  has shown the likelihood that the name connects back to a creature from Eastern Woodland American Indian traditions, the “Underwater Panther” known as Mishepishu to the Ojibwe: a creature whose jaws are strong and don’t let go, living in the pools and slackwater eddies of the rivers and creeks where American Indians fished and gathered, but with connections to whirlpools stirred up by the long curling tail it brandished, and to the “lower world” beneath the surfaces of our everyday lands.

This creature, this “Underwater Panther,” described to early European settlers, would have evoked a creature never seen in these northern waters, and not really well outlined in our mound’s shape, but the common mythic description might have sounded like an alligator to pioneer people, and the native interlocutors would have likely shrugged and said “sure, an alligator” if asked if that was what they had described.

The Squier and Davis (1848) map of Alligator Mound compared to the constellation Scorpio, which has been linked to the Underwater Panther in some American Indian traditions.

The Squier and Davis (1848) map of Alligator Mound compared to the constellation Scorpio, which has been linked to the Underwater Panther in some American Indian traditions.

Mishepishu, the “Underwater Panther,” was also associated with the summer constellation we call Scorpio: claws to the west, a curl of long tail behind dangling easterly. Summer is when this assemblage of stars, with Antares the glowing red heart, peers above the southern horizon, and summer is when American Indians would have been out wading and fishing and collecting in the watercourses, warning the young of caught feet and undertow in swirling currents.

The shape of Scorpio is dramatically echoed in this bluff-top mound, another connection. The head of this creature, whatever the name, points to the southern end of what today is Mount Parnassus in Granville, to the southwest. The axial alignment of head, shoulders, spine, and most of the tail points to a spot on the southwest horizon which is astronomically not terribly significant, a point that is sunset about a month before, and a month after the winter solstice, a universally significant marker for ancient peoples anywhere in the world.

axial alignment

The solstice and equinox sunrises and sunsets align with the spiral at the tail’s east end and the four footpad platforms. In this image the setting sun casts a shadow across the Alligator at axial alignment minus two or three days. Photograph by Jeff Gill

The main axis of the Alligator does not appear to be aligned to anything in particular, but it’s at least interesting to note that when the sun begins to rise to the south of the head’s orientation, you are in the darkest, shortest days of the year; whereas when it starts to rise back to the north, or to the right of the centerline, you have no doubt at all that daylight is longer even though there are cold nights and snowy ice-laden days ahead. Is the meaning tied to that visceral reality?

And then there is the eastern end of that long tail. The tail is long, and like Scorpio, it curves around. Some suggest that a possum is one analogue to this mound, because they also have prehensile tails and a pouch within which their young are hidden… and branching out from the midsection of the “Alligator” is a ten foot wide ridge leading to the remnants of a stone platform. The story goes that most of the stones from this altar were sledged down past today’s St. Edward’s Catholic Church to become the foundations of Tannery Hill, a private home near Clear Run that may be the oldest standing structure in central Ohio, let alone Licking County, going back to 1806 or so.

Possums aside, that spiral draws the eye, and evokes comparisons. Ohio’s other effigy mound, the better known Serpent Mound in Adams County, ends in a spiral, and to the east as well. And if you stand at the end of the spiral, whether your own shadow or a staff in hand, you cast a line on the Vernal Equinox that at sunrise arcs across the body of the Alligator, south of the former stone altar, and cuts right across the northwest, right front forepaw of the effigy.

In fact, the same exercise at sunrise will show a very rough alignment from the spiral center to the right rear paw “platform” at the winter solstice sunrise, or to the left rear paw “platform” at the summer solstice sunrise. And you get equally intriguing results at sunsets, as is astronomically always the case, echoing back in the opposite directions.

Appropriately enough, the “lost” paw at the southwest corner, which collapsed after it was undermined by a stone quarry dug below it in the mid 1800s, does not seem to have any alignment of clear astronomical significance… but then again, neither does the central axis of the figure, unless you presume a meaningfulness to this ancient work in the first place.

In those classic words of scholarly archaeology, “further research is needed”!sign

Jeff Gill is a program assistant at the Newark Earthworks Center and interpreter for sites around the Licking County region.

31 thoughts on “The Archaeoastronomy of Alligator Mound

  1. What evidence is there that the Great Lakes Algonquians, or any other woodland Indian group, recognized Scorpio as a constellation or cared about it? Why would woodland American Indians build a mound in the shape of a Greek constellation? This sounds a lot like the claim that Serpent Mound represents Draco, which no culture in the world except the Greeks saw as a distinct constellation.

    More generally, why do you think they were “aligning” things?

    • Geoffrey, Check out the book by folklorist George Lankford “Reachable Stars: patterns in the ethnoastronomy of Eastern North America.” University of Alabama Press. As for “alignments,” many structures in ancient North America demonstrably are aligned to true north and various other astronomical phenomena. The late Vine Deloria wrote ““Wherever possible the larger cosmos was represented and reproduced to provide a context in which ceremonies could occur. Thus, people did not feel alone; they participated in cosmic rhythms.”

      • That some things are aligned to certain things like the north celestial pole and the rise and set points of the sun and moon is beyond question. Those points, by the way, move only very slowly over time, so there is a reason to align to them, which has nothing to do with cosmic rhythms or timing at all. It’s to follow the path of afterlife journey, which was an Algonquian obsession. That is, those alignments fix a path in space not time. “Cosmic rhythm” is more a New Agey thing. ;-)

        Aligning to stars is quite a different matter because they rotate nightly around the pole — they define no fixed path unless certain specific relationships adhere. No alignments to stars or planets have been demonstrated in the Ohio Valley, or I think in the Americas as a whole, and it’s not clear what alignment to a rapidly moving point even means.

        The Egyptians did it, and the Greeks, for their own particular reasons, which don’t seem to apply in the Americas. Which again raises the question of why Greco-Egyptian systems are being applied to works in Ohio, and why anyone would think that the same constellations were recognized, which they were not.

        And by the way, Vine Deloria also espoused separate creation of Native Americans in this hemisphere, denied any Bering crossing, and said that Indians did not hunt the mastodon to extinction, so he should be quoted with care. ;-)

        • Gill is not suggesting any alignments to stars or planets. Nor is he applying Greco-Egyptian systems to works in Ohio. The use of the name “Scorpio” is only to reference a particular cluster of stars that, according to Lankford, the Pawnee, Chickasaw, and others linked to the Great Serpent/Underwater Panther.

          And, by the way, I was quoting Deloria with care.

          • Forgive me but nowhere in the post does it mention any association by any Indian group between those stars and the Underwater Panther, which is a very different creature from any “Great Serpent” so I question your meaning.

            Also the Underwater Panther was never depicted like a an ordinary panther. I agree with your hypothesis that historic Indians may have mentioned an underwater panther (which is the meaning of “Erie” and other area names) to pioneers, which led to the silly Alligator Mound name. but that is very far from saying that the mound was intended by the builders to be an Underwater Panther, which it pretty clearly was not for a whole lot of reasons. Algonquians used the word “panther” in a generic sense to denote natural energy, much as we use the word “energy.” They would not depict it as a plain panther unless they meant a plain panther.

          • “‘The Great Serpent’ is a name used here as a generic specification for the master of the Beneath World, a figure who can take many guises. The artistic appearances or verbal descriptions of the master range through the ordinary water creatures (fish, turtles, snakes) to underwater panthers and horned serpents and on to monstrous combinations of traits of all those figures. …
            In regard to the ambiguity of form of the Beneath World powers, one ethnographer of the Ojibwe was careful to point out that ‘[m]y consultants extended the name [Mishebeshu, 'Great Panther'] even further to include not only these great water dwelling lynxes, but water serpents and monster ground snakes…” (Lankford 2007:243-4).

          • Yes that captures well the confusion of whites in being unable to figure out what the Indians were talking about. The Great Serpent was not the Underwater Panther. Way different as the terms and iconography make clear..

        • The reasons that the Egyptians and Greeks sometimes aligned to stars is that both were agricultural and maritime cultures, so the timing of a star’s appearance or heliacal ascent were important for scheduling certain activities. Neither consideration applied to the Algonquian cultures of woodland Ohio. At least there’s no evidence of it. Certainly they were not plotting sea voyages.

  2. Stefan Radivoyevitch

    That diagram is misleading. You make it look like the two are aligned with each other. The Granville effigy is upside down.

  3. Big problem for the hypothesis: According to a number of astronomical websites, Scorpio is not visible north of 40 degrees latitude. The Granville site is at 40.07 degrees north latitude, meaning that only a part of the constellation might just barely peek above the horizon due south, if at all. If the idea were to place it right at the edge of visibility, then it ought to point due south, if it has a connection to those stars. But it points in a direction where those stars never appear.

    Note that the tribes who reportedly make associations for Scorpio — the Pawnee, Chickasaw, etc. — are all significantly southward, where the constellation is clearly visible above the horizon.

  4. Scorpius is a pretty distinctive cluster of stars, low on the summer southern horizon, and this south facing bluff has an effigy with an interesting possible analogy (two curving forepaws/claws, a curling long tail to the east). Is that pure speculation? Guilty as charged! Geoffrey, I think the burden of proof is on speculators like me, no doubt about that. When you stand there at the equinox on sunrise or sunset, though, the sharp line of a person’s shadow is striking. Seeing that years ago on a March morning made me start thinking along these line. But rank speculation? Ab-so-bloomin’-lutely!

  5. Drat. My apologies – for whatever quirk of the intertubes, I only saw Geoffrey’s first post when I wrote my answer. So this response is ignorant of all the following commentary.

    I do recall a number of references to what we call Scorpius today being related to the Piasa/Piasaw/Mishepishu in Algonquian mythologies, and that makes a visceral sense to me (summer only constellation, curling tail), but I’ve not done scholarly work on it. It’s a guess, and deserves to be treated as such!

  6. I have seen Scorpius, from the claws thru Antares’ bright red heart down to the curling tail, while standing atop Alligator Mound. Can’t speak to the websites, but it looks lovely in the summer from up there. We did a mob scene watching for the transit of Venus last year of an evening — it’s quite the viewing platform. I’ve watched eclipses, lunar and solar, and a variety of other celestial events up there, just because you have an awesome horizon everywhere but northwest from that spot.

    • But is it where the effigy points? It cannot be as you surely had to look due south. I think you just had a flight of imagination. What is the azimuth at which the effigy points?

  7. Stefan Radivoyevitch

    The curling tail is more likely an expression of a a funnel cloud or tornado that frequent the area. Giant life threatening whirlpools are extremely rare. There is one in the Niagara gorge. On the other hand, the vortex depicted at serpent mound tail is aligned to true north. It, more than likely, refers to the counterclockwise rotation of the night sky around Polaris. Part of the great beauty of SM is that it functions much like a giant axis mundi. In sum, the whirlpool scenario would be my third and last choice.

  8. Stefan Radivoyevitch

    Just would like to add that long slender funnel clouds can be very tail-like, even serpentine in its curvaceous form. Certainly the NA must have marveled upon it as we do today – even more so. On rare occasions water spouts have been seen off the shores of Lake Erie. There is some overlap. What is a funnel cloud but a “whirlpool” as seen from below.

  9. Stefan Radivoyevitch

    We go it all wrong! How could we be all so dumb.The so called “underwater panther” as depicted in Granville is none other than an anatomically correct plesiosaur in disguise. I’m sorry, but that ain’t no tail! Who would have thunk it … our very own “Nessie”. Right here in central Ohio of all places. Look out if the History Channel ever got wind of this. Or perhaps they already did ;)

  10. Stefan Radivoyevitch

    Bravo Mr. Jeff Gill! I used Suncalc.net to help visualize your points in regard to the sun. Fascinating solar alignments that you’ve come across! I think you’ve made an important breakthrough in our understanding of the Granville effigy. It appears to be a highly sophisticated sundial of sorts. I don’t buy the Scorpius constellation association just yet. It would have to be aligned to it in some way for me to be a believer. Shape is not enough. I think the curvature of the tail is designed to “mimic” the arc of the sun as it travels the southern sky during the winter solstice. Your shadow, when standing at the tip of the coil, points to the lower right appendage of the effigy as you say. What is interesting is that the shadow intersects the tail throughout the entire day. It focuses on that part of the anatomy and nothing else during the shortest day. Also, during the equinox your shadow points to the right front paw as you say. The sun also sets there. Like a baseball on fire the effigy seems to “catch” the sun with its right mitt as it sets beneath the horizon. (My instincts tell me that the left front paw is used to catch the setting moon. At least that is how I would do it if I were the artist behind the mound.) If true then the effigy may perhaps be a domesticated cat who happens to be very good at catching birds (in this case the elusive sun and moon). I’m getting way ahead of myself so I’ll stop.

    • Well look, all you guys are giving new meaning to the concept of “reaching.” You’re coming up with symbolic associations in your own heads and then trying to make those associations fit the facts on the ground. That’s a formula for projection and is not what produces fruitful archaeoastronomy.

      Fruitful archaeoastronomy BEGINS with the ethnological data from the culture that authored the work, based on ascertainment of purpose, meaning what the authors were trying to accomplish and why they undertook the labors. If you don’t have that, you don’t have an actual theory — you’re just free-associating.

      The authors of this work were almost certainly Algonquian Indian or those under the sway of Algonquian cosmology (such as the Huron). Therefore, correct interpretation of this work begins with Algonquian cosmology. And the Indians were not trying to conceal their purpose — far from it.

      Jeff, what is the azimuth of the direction in which the effigy points?

  11. Stefan Radivoyevitch

    The Granville effigy is like a composite creature of “eagle” mound (I prefer the name spirit mound myself) with head and front arms, the Tarlton cross with perpendicular hind legs and lower torso, and finally the tail of serpent mound. It would be interesting to see whether or not the spine of the mound is aligned with the moon min set. We already know from Romain that “spirit “mound, with the charnel house buried within it, is aligned with moon min rise and the northeast opening of the great circle. This would have profound implications if proven correct in my humble opinion. Definitely worth investigating, much more so than the Scorpius association.

  12. The axis along the centerline of head, “spine”, and shaft of the tail (which ends in a spiral curl to the south after a long straight stretch I’m calling “the shaft”) is directly at the sunset point on the local horizon today and tomorrow. When you stand on the head, you cast a long dark shaft of shadow right down the centerline, or axis of the figure if you turn and face northeast. This is true for both the mid-point or “cross quarter” day between winter solstice and vernal equinox as it is today/tomorrow, and again between the autumnal equinox and winter solstice at sunset for Oct. 31/Nov. 1. Geoffrey, I will look into getting the azimuth of the figure for you; my eyes have been more focused on the “actual horizon” phenomena at sunrise and sunset as they appear, because at the Great Circle & Octagon as well, there are variations between an ephemeris piece of data and the local horizon, given that Licking County fails delightfully at being perfectly flat!

    • Just coming back to this, I see that Jeff has focused on the “sunset point” on the actual horizon. There are two big problems with this approach. One, since the sunset sweeps out a very large arc over the course of a year — significantly more than 60 degrees at latitude 40, almost anything pointed vaguely west will point at the sunset on one day of the year. Thus to seek that day is only to confirm your own assumption that it was oriented to a sunset point.

      Second, and more problematic, the sunset point on any given calendar day changes significantly over time. Noting the date in 2014 tells you little about the date of alignment in 900 CE or 500 BCE, which can vary by as much as two months depending on date. Since we don’t know the date of construction (and we don’t — Brad Lepper has forwarded one hypothesis), we don’t know how to correlate the azimuth with a sunset date, and shouldn’t attempt to as that is working backwards.

      The proper approach is to start with the actual azimuth. That may tell us whether the mound was likely aligned to something celestial, something geographic, something geometric, or nothing at all.

      Still waiting on that azimuth number.

  13. Jeff,
    To add to your comment about the Alligator pointing to Mt. Parnassus, in nearby Granville,
    I was wondering if you or anybody else have run across any further information about a
    burial mound that was supposedly located on top of Mt. Parnassus at one time ? I have run
    into folks that recalled that “artifacts” of various sorts, had fallen down into the soil on the
    backside of the hill ( near Maplewood Cemetery), years ago when the Mt. Parnassus Mound
    had been dug into by locals. This mound was supposedly located in an orchard that once
    existed up there. Does this mound show up on any surveys or old maps of the area? Maybe if
    you could pinpoint more exactly where this mound had been located, you could formulate
    more of a theory or possible tie-in with the Alligator “pointing” to a mound ( possibly a burial
    mound) on top of Mt. Parnassus? I think a local Granville writer ( a Charles White) once lived
    on top of the hill, there, but I don’t know if he ever wrote about the mound itself. It’s worth a shot,
    I think. I do think that the Alligator is oriented in a particular direction, for a specific reason ( or
    reasons). How the Alligator mound fits into the entire landscape of the “Raccoon Valley” , with it’s
    various mounds and enclosures , (that once existed) is an interesting situation .

    Gail Zion

    • Gail, Professor White built his house supposedly where the mound stood, and that can still be seen (the house), but the mound was “taken down” before he got there. Like the mound that marked the center of the intersection of Broadway and Main, once the village got going, they were very quick to pull apart mounds for construction fill, and precious little info was recorded before the 1820s. There were mounds mentioned atop College Hill where Denison stands, too, but no indication of where or even how high they were. Between 1808 and 1831, they planed them all down to nothing in Granville proper.

      • Jeff,
        Is that the stone house that is still there? If that was where the mound was,
        maybe there is a way to locate where this mound was more exactly, as I had
        suggested, in relationship to the Alligator? Also, perhaps there might have been
        an additional feature up there, such as some sort of enclosure around the mound
        proper, ( just speculating on that one), but I was wondering if anybody has undertaken
        any geophysics at all , on top of Mt. Parnassus, given what might show up and what
        was ( evidently) once there. Also, if you want to go any further into local “lore”,
        this same Charles White that once lived on top of the hill, kept a skull ( human ) that
        had supposedly been obtained from the mound that had been nearby, on his desk,
        in his library, in the house that is still there on Mt. Parnassus. ( Creepy, but whatever).
        I got that story a few years back, from a neighbor, that lives on top of the hill.

        I don’t know if this will shed any more light on the Alligator, or not, but there was also,
        some sort of “excavation” on the Mt. Parnassus mound done years ago, by ” the men
        from the Smithsonian”, but I haven’t tracked down the full records on that one yet. ( Don’t
        know where to start with that one, to tell ya the truth). But, anyway, I don’t think the entire
        story on that Mt. Parnassus mound has been told… I wonder if the Smithsonian, then,
        has any cultural material at all, from the local Granville mounds ??

        Gail Zion

  14. Here’s another interesting historical footnote about the Alligator Mound:

    In an article titled “We loved the Alligator”,” The Granville Sentinel”, Dec. 5,1991,
    by Minnie Hite Moody, this local historian writes about an episode in the early
    20th century ( she states that she is currently 91 years old as of the year 1991),
    when the Alligator Mound was excavated) :

    “I have told before in this column of the memorial day when Professor
    Carney of Denison University , along with a group of geology students as diggers,
    plus bystanders consisting of, at that time, owner J.S. Jones,and Professor Charles B.
    White of Mt. Parnassus, went with others determined to explore the secrets of
    the mound from head to tail. The students dug furiously, but the secrets were not
    forthcoming. I, a brave child, was encouraged to enter the trench and walk the length
    of the “Alligator” as excavated, but found no trinkets or items in any way reminiscent
    of the moundbuilders… But over the several years of childhood, perhaps six to ten,
    The Alligator was Tom’s ( her brother) and my dearest playmate…”

    “All of this ended when Bryn Du became a dairy farm and a herd of cattle
    took over the length of the Alligator itself, distorting it’s image, and in places tramping
    it down to hilltop level.”

    I was wondering if anybody knows about this excavation of the Alligator Mound, done,
    evidently in the early 20 century, and/or has tried to track down any records that still
    might exist in the archives of Denison University, from this Professor Carney or Prof.
    Charles White? Does the Geology Dept. have records going back that far, of it’s field
    projects? If the Alligator was ” trenched” from head to toe, one would think that field notes
    of some kind would have been taken.

    Also, with an excavation this destructive ( or so it seems, from the description of it), one
    is left to wonder just how much of the Alligator we now see, was substantially restored
    soon after the Denison excavation?

  15. After finding that no one has calculated the azimuth of the mound, or at least not published the result, I’ve gone ahead and done the calculation based on maps and photographs, using Google Earth. While this is less accurate than a ground survey, I’m confident that the result is accurate to within two degrees plus or minus. The result is an azimuth of 246.8 degrees, or 23.2 degrees south of west.

    This result has a number of implications. It is virtually identical to the opposite (180 degrees difference) of the azimuth of Eagle Mound at the center of the Newark Great Circle, which was determined and published by Bill Romain as 66.5 degrees, the .3 degree difference well within my margin of error. In other words, the tail of the so-called Alligator points in the same direction as the arrow-shape of Eagle Mound. Marcia Wallgren has pointed out that the head and forelimbs section of the “Alligator” very much resembles Eagle Mound three-dimensionally, and now we know those two arrows point in the same direction as well.

    The 66.5 or 246.5 degree azimuths are based on an integer right triangle with base of 23, height of 10, and hypotenuse close to 25. Such a triangle was probably used to construct both mounds, along a trajectory that corresponded to the major flyway of migratory birds through that area, headed to Niagara Falls and safe passage around Lake Erie northward.

    Sorry guys, but archaeoastronomy appears to have had nothing to do with it. The Indians appear to have been providing directional assistance to migratory birds believed to be carrying the spirits of departed humans.

    The finding also strongly suggests that the “Alligator” was originally a Middle Woodland construction, as was long suspected, built around the same time as Eagle Mound.

    A write-up of my methodology in determining the azimuth along with more about implications can be found at the Adena Core group on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/groups/AdenaCore/permalink/728622943865194/

    • By the way, the reason that we can pretty much rule out celestial alignments is that the “Alligator” (which isn’t an alligator or a Water Panther) and Eagle Mound (which isn’t an eagle) point in opposite directions. The former in the west points southwest and the latter in the east points northeast, but each “arrow” can be followed in the reverse direction. That’s part of why this system appears to be aimed at migratory birds, catching them both on their northward migration and on their return trip.

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