CERHAS rendering of Serpent Mound

Sometimes it seems like everything about Serpent Mound is shrouded in mystery — or at least controversy.

Just about everyone agrees that the mound does, indeed, represent a gigantic serpent, but beyond that the answers to even basic questions, such as who built it, still are being debated.

At the Midwest Archaeological Conference held last month in Columbus, Bill Romain presented a paper entitled “Serpent Mound Project Results 2013.” His co-authors included William Monaghan (Indiana University), Jarrod Burks (Ohio Valley Archaeology, Inc.), Michael Zaleha (Wittenburg University), Karen Leone (Gray and Pape, Inc.), Tim Schilling (Midwest Archaeological Center), Al Tonetti (ASC Group), Matthew Purtill (Gray and Pape, Inc.) and Edward Herrmann (Indiana University).

The results presented by Bill were not limited to a discussion of the Serpent’s age, but since that’s the only aspect of his team’s work that I disagree with that’s the focus of my November column in the Columbus Dispatch and this blog post.

Bill has been arguing for years that the Serpent was built by the Hopewell culture. I have argued that it makes much more sense as a Fort Ancient culture effigy mound.

View of the initial 1991 excavation into a previously disturbed portion of Serpent Mound interpreted as one of Putnam’s trenches. From left to right, DeeAnne Wymer, Terry Cameron, Brad Lepper, Robert Fletcher.

In 1991, I worked with a team of amateur and professional archaeologists that recovered bits of charcoal from the Serpent. The charcoal produced two radiocarbon dates both around A.D. 1120. This roughly corresponds to the age of the vast majority of other effigy mounds in eastern North America, including Ohio’s other effigy mound — Licking County’s so-called Alligator. Also, the art of this period throughout eastern North America is rich in serpent symbolism. So, even without the radiocarbon dates, Serpent Mound fits rather comfortably into the context of what was happening throughout eastern North America at about this same time.

I think it’s fair to say that, over the last two decades, this interpretation has become accepted by most North American archaeologists — but all scientific knowledge is provisional and subject to rejection or revision in the light of new data or better arguments.

In his presentation, Bill stated five principal reasons for thinking the Serpent was built by the Adena culture, circa 600 B.C. to A.D. 100:

1. As part of his team’s 2011 investigation, they recovered several bits of charcoal from soil cores, which produced radiocarbon ages that average around 300 B.C.

2. Serpent iconography is present in Adena and Hopewell art.

3. His team recovered no Fort Ancient artifacts in their soil cores.

4. He expressed the opinion that the radiocarbon dates obtained for the Serpent in 1991 do not relate to the original construction of the mound, because they came from near the surface and were either in a disturbed context or relate to a re-furbishing of the mound in Fort Ancient times.

5. The design of the mound appears to incorporate “Adena and Hopewell metrics.”

I’m not convinced by Bill’s arguments and here’s why:

1. The charcoal was not found in a secure context. The fragments Romain’s team recovered from soil cores may be from the Adena occupation that Putnam discovered at the site. The Fort Ancient builders of Serpent Mound may have dug into the buried remains of Adena cooking fires while excavating for the earth used to build the mound and then accidentally incorporated some of that charcoal into the mound.

2. Serpent imagery is virtually absent in Adena art. The only example Romain mentioned in his presentation was the vaguely serpentine pattern on the loin cloth of the man on the Adena Pipe. There are serpents in Hopewell art, but just about every other animal that lived in Ohio also is represented. Serpents appear to have been regarded by the Hopewell as, at best, just one among many potential spirit guardians.

Sandstone palette engraved with two intertwined serpent monsters from a Mississippian mound in the state of Mississippi. Ohio Historical Society collections.

In contrast, serpents are a hugely important component of Mississippian symbolism. Especially important examples include rattlesnake palettes, rattlesnake engravings on shell gorgets, and the amazing Birger figurine.

Of course the Fort Ancient is not, strictly speaking, a Mississippian culture, but these people did live in a Mississippian world and to a greater or lesser extent they were active participants in that world and would have shared much of its cosmology.

3. It is unusual to recover artifacts in soil cores generally and anyway, Putnam didn’t report finding any artifacts at all in his excavation of the Serpent. Romain did not say whether his team recovered any Adena or Hopewell artifacts in their cores, but if he had I think he would have mentioned it.

4. The soil samples we recovered in 1991 and from which we obtained the charcoal that gave us the Fort Ancient dates were by no means from near the surface. Moreover, in our excavation profile we observed no evidence of any re-furbishing of the mound other than Putnam’s restorations in the 1880s. There was a distinct boundary between the intact mound deposits and the material added by Putnam, so we’re reasonably sure our samples came from deep within the original mound.

Photograph of the 1991 excavation into Serpent Mound compared to our stratigraphic profile. The darker layer at the top (including both strata I & II) is earth added by Putnam when he restored the mound. The light colored layer (including both strata III & IV) is the remnant of the original mound. The profile shows the locations of the two soil samples, 4A and 5A, from which we recovered charcoal. Both samples produced dates of around AD 1120. Modified from Figures 9 and 10 in Fletcher et al. 1996.
Photograph of the 1991 excavation into Serpent Mound compared to our stratigraphic profile. The darker layer at the top (including both strata I & II) is earth added by Putnam when he restored the mound. The light colored layer (including both strata III & IV) is the remnant of the original mound. The profile shows the locations of the two soil samples, 4A and 5A, from which we recovered charcoal. Both samples produced dates of around AD 1120. Modified from Figures 9 and 10 in Fletcher et al. 1996.

5. The alleged use of “Adena and Hopewell metrics” by the builders of Serpent Mound is an interesting, but controversial claim. Even if true, it would only demonstrate that the mound was built during or after the Adena and Hopewell eras. The modern foot appears to have been adopted in Europe in the early 12th century A.D. and structures incorporating this “Norman metric” are still being designed and built today.

So, who built Serpent Mound? We still don’t know for sure. Given our inability so far to recover and date charcoal clearly related to the construction of the mound, future investigations may attempt to resolve the controversy by using new dating techniques, such as Optically Stimulated Luminescence, to provide a definitive answer. Until that happens, I think the existing data point to the Fort Ancient culture as the most likely builders of the Great Serpent. If it’s an Adena mound it’s a wildly precocious anomaly, whereas if it’s a Fort Ancient mound, it is still an anomaly, but it’s not unprecedented — it fits within a broad, regional tradition of effigy mound building that includes Alligator Mound and the Kern stone serpent effigies located in the Little Miami Valley.

Timeline showing the overlap of radiocarbon dates for Serpent Mound, Alligator Mound and the hundreds of effigy mounds in the upper Midwest. The specific cultural connections between the Ohio mounds and those of Wisconsin and Iowa are not strong, but the people in Ohio could not have been entirely unaware of the revolution in mound-building taking place in the upper Mississippi valley. Graphic from Lepper 2001.
Timeline showing the overlap of radiocarbon dates for Serpent Mound, Alligator Mound and the hundreds of effigy mounds in the upper Midwest. The specific cultural connections between the Ohio mounds and those of Wisconsin and Iowa are not strong, but the people in Ohio could not have been entirely unaware of the revolution in mound-building taking place in the upper Mississippi valley. Graphic from Lepper 2001.

I look forward to reading the final report of the investigations by Romain’s team, which undoubtedly will include more data and a fuller presentation of their interpretations. Even if I end up still disagreeing with their assessment of the age of the Serpent, I am sure I will learn a lot that I didn’t know before about this amazing mound.

For further reading

Burks, Jarrod
2012 Ohio’s Great Serpent Mound surveyed. ISAP News 32, pp. 6-7.

Fletcher, Robert, Terry Cameron, Bradley T. Lepper, Dee Anne Wymer, and William Pickard
1996 Serpent Mound: a Fort Ancient icon? Midcontinental Journal of Archaeology 21:105-143.

Lepper, Bradley T.
1998 Great Serpent. Timeline 15(5):30-45.

2001 Ohio’s Alligator. Timeline 18(2):18-25.

Lepper, Bradley T. and Tod A. Frolking
2003 Alligator Mound: geoarchaeological and iconographical interpretations of a Late Prehistoric effigy mound in central Ohio, USA. Cambridge Archaeological Journal 13(2):147-167.

Romain, William F.
2000 The Serpent Mound. In Mysteries of the Hopewell: astronomers, geometers, and magicians of the eastern Woodlands, pp. 233-253. University of Akron Press.

Weintraub, Daniel and Kevin R. Schwarz
2013 Long shadows over the valley: findings from ASC Group’s excavations at Serpent Mound State Memorial. Current Research in Ohio Archaeology 2013.

Brad Lepper

63 thoughts on “WHO BUILT SERPENT MOUND?

  1. The mound that you see before you was made by the Putnam people of 1890. Originally it was probably a poduct of Southeastern Ceremonial Complex. Stylistically it doesn’t fit within the context of the rigid geometries of the Adena Hopewell. Like confusing Picasso (cubism) with van Gogh. Two entirely different birds.
    (- from the perspective of a layman)

    1. The oval and back-wing projections, when taken together, reminds me a lot of the v-shaped Forked Eye motif of the S.C.C..It is the only theory that can account for both features.

      The mound is its own “artifact” that needs to be returned to the NA.

      (-my two cents worth anyhow)

  2. Hello There,

    Wonderful debate you’ve got going on here Lepper. I hope all the best for your research.

    Entire books have been written on the contingent nature of the serpent mound; many have studied into its deepest roots and have ran along the controversial timelines, searching for significant relations and a sign to point our understanding of this massive snake effigy in a direction that tells its true story. What if we can find that true story subsequently after another archaeological investigation like the one done in 1991? I know extreme care is taken to leave things just as they were left, and when getting in and abrasively disturbing its original state, it ruins the soul purpose for preserving a site, but isn’t a story – the true story – really what we’re aiming to find when we study our past? And would it not be worth it if an excavation conjures up new premises of understanding, implicating mysteries, answering questions and ultimately putting a real story on the face of the mound to tell the tale of its creators for generations to come?

    Lepper, thank you for posting this. I would love to hear about any further understandings you may acquire on the serpent mound.

    Richard Thomson

  3. Brad, I find you arguments here extremely unpersuasive.

    You label Serpent Mound as “an effigy mound” which has some rigorous definition only in your own mind. Algonquian language employs geometric field terms, one of which is for serpentine form, so Serpent Mound could well be considered a geometric earthwork, and your chosen label for it is not especially relevant. You say there were only two effigy mounds in all of Ohio (which is false by any definition), and since the other one, some 80 miles away in Licking County, dates to around 1100 CE (by general agreement) you think Serpent Mound should be of that date, too. Why?

    You fail to note that the Portsmouth Works, only thirty miles from Serpent Mound, were built to represent a rattlesnake, as identified by Stansbury Hagar in 1933, in part on the basis of how the Shawnee of the area saw it. Portsmouth likely dates to the early Woodland Period — when Serpent Mound was also built. Circle-square earthworks of the Scioto Valley, which likely also begin in the early Woodland (Portsmouth being a prototype) likely represent the body patterning of the Timber Rattlesnake, and oral tradition of the area’s Algonquians referred to the builders of these works as “the Snake People.”

    Your contention that the “Adena” and “Hopewell” were such distinctive cultures that one may have venerated serpents while the other didn’t is untenable. There is no justification to even distinguish between so-called Adena and Hopewell as the civilization was continuous genetically, architecturally, and linguistically, a position strengthened by the new findings. We should dispense with the weirdly-derived “Hopewell,” and simply call it the Adena Civilization.

    Your point that there is little early serpent imagery neglects that we have little effigy art of any kind from the period that you narrowly defines as Adena, but you clearly ignore two kinds of art that we do have from that period — the Adena tablets which are consumed with complex serpent/bird images, and, again, the Portsmouth Works, which were a 10 mile-long rattlesnake.

    Serpent images from the late Woodland period are best understood as inheritances from the early and middle Woodland Period, obviously.

    You fudge the issue of where your 1991 samples came from by saying they came from “deep” in the mound, when you have often acknowledged that they came from the middle of the mound and not the base layers. That’s important because everyone acknowledges the mound may have been restored or supplemented around 1100 CE, when “intrusion” into prior mounds was common.

    You dismiss the apparent use of Adena standard metrics by an analogy to long use of the English foot without any evidence whatsoever that the “Fort Ancient Culture” — whatever that is supposed to be — actually did employ Adena metrics. Ohio Valley archaeologists now realize the concept of a “Fort Ancient Culture” is a false one (see Woodland Period Systematics in the Middle Ohio Valley) that now collapses without Serpent Mound as its central defining site. What happened during that period involved different groups, some native and some transient, with no real evidence of major earthwork construction near Adams County.

    Your conjecture that the newly analyzed charcoal may derive from old Adena “cooking fires” that mysteriously lasted hundreds of years on the surface is likewise entirely speculative.

    You’re on extremely weak ground here, especially since you so heavily invested in a late Woodland date before the new findings were in, even to the point of giving a public talk at Serpent Mound at which you dismissed the idea of a different date as practical nonsense.

    On the other hand, some of us were quite a bit more insightful. Before the new findings were announced, I estimated the date would be determined as 250 BCE, which was pretty close to the mark, and I had good reasons.

    You should be big enough to admit that you were mistaken. YOU may wish to continue to deny the identity of the builders of Serpent Mound, but WE know who built it, and that “we” is an awful lot of folks.

    –Geoffrey Sea

    1. Geoffrey,

      Thanks for sharing your insightfulness with readers of this blog.

      There is no point in my commenting upon your speculative interpretation of the Portsmouth Earthworks. You and Mr. Hagar certainly are entitled to your opinions.

      I do wish to address your serious accusation that I have somehow “fudged” the issue of where in the mound my team recovered the 1991 charcoal. In our published article (and in the images posted on this blog) you can see exactly from where we took the samples and it is quite clearly well below the sediment added by Putnam. And, in so far as there is any stratigraphy evident in the lower portion of the profile, the charcoal is from the “basal layer.”

      When I provide photographs and diagrams showing where we took the samples, I don’t see how you can accuse me of “fudging” anything.

      Finally, I have no emotional investment in the age of the Serpent. It may well prove to be an early Woodland effigy mound. If reliable radiometric dates are ever forthcoming to demonstrate such an antiquity, I will cheerfully present the results in another post here on this blog.


      1. Brad,

        Well all interpretations of “effigies” are speculative aren’t they? Especially such labeling of “Alligator Mound” which isn’t an alligator (there’s nothing close to agreement on what it may be) and Serpent Mound which is no identifiable species of snake and could be a river emerging from a spring or a flock of birds.. And both of them are portrayed geometrically which could categorize them as geometric earthworks.

        On the contrary, as Hagar detailed in his well-referenced article that was a founding work in archaeoastronomy, the Portsmouth Works clearly represent a rattlesnake, with a four-ringed rattle identical to the way rattles were often portrayed in Native American art, and exactly analogous to the Pyramid of the Sun at Chichen Itza, which overtly represents the rattle of a rattlesnake, with snakes that travel up and down the pyramid corners at equinox. (Actually, Hagar was confused about which end was the rattle, but can be forgiven for that since both ends incorporate the number 4, a number associated anatomically with rattlesnakes.)

        Moreover, Hagar showed very convincingly that the Portsmouth Works formed a shadow-image of the arc of the sun, the sun’s path being represented throughout Woodland Indian (and Mayan) iconography as a serpent in the sky. So perhaps there is really only one effigy mound in Ohio — Portsmouth.

        As to the source of the 1991 samples, you have publicly acknowledged that the Serpent Mound results were not as robust as your results for “Alligator Mound,” because in the latter case you were able to find charcoal at the very base of the earthwork, unlike in the former case. My understanding was that this deficiency was the justification for the recent investigations headed by Romain. If the 1991 results had been robust, the recent investigation may not have been justified.

        That you now change your story is curious. I certainly hope that you will not stand in the way of changing the signs, displays, and other public information about Serpent Mound to reflect the new scientific consensus.

        1. Geoffrey,

          I am not claiming that the 1991 radiocarbon dates proved anything — and I have not changed my story. Clearly, dating particulate charcoal that wasn’t recovered from a discrete feature won’t give you a definitive result. When we began our excavations in 1991 we expected to find the ash layer referred to by Putnam at the bottom of the mound. If we could obtain charcoal from such a layer, it would provide a reasonably definitive date for the construction of the mound. In the absence of such a layer, we did the next best thing. We took soil samples from the most intact portion of the mound to look for charcoal that could be dated. We realized at the time that whatever dates we got would have to be regarded as tentative, but we figured it was better than having nothing to show for our efforts.

          As I understand it, based on Romain’s presentation, the charcoal obtained by his team also did not come from a discrete feature. The samples consist of particulate charcoal from mound fill and from what Bill called disturbed A horizon. My point is that these dates are no better than the dates my team obtained in 1991. Neither set of dates is conclusive.

          Before rushing to re-write the textbooks and change the signage at the site based on these new but unimproved results, we should try other means of dating the mound more reliably, such as the OSL dating technique that I mentioned in my blog post.


          1. I doubt any “textbooks” worth the name corroborate the 11th century date, which never represented any scientific consensus. It was the posting of the signs that do state that date as definitive that was the error.

            Why does Romain’s dating require “proof” (a nonexitent thing in science) but your 1991 dating seems to only have required that it was proffered by certain persons who had the authority to post signs?

            It is an elementary consideration that when charcoal from a given site that has admittedly undergone disruption shows two different periods of dates, the earlier date wins in terms of determining original construction. Indians of the Late Woodland Period were known to engage in “intrusive mound-building” at earlier sites, and this is the most likely explanation of the charcoal found in 1991.

            The attempt to date Serpent Mound by other means has already been accomplished. Serpent Mound is a geometric earthwork, with architectural and ethnographic features that identify it with the Adena Civilzation. This analysis informed Romain’s work — he said it was a Middle Woodland site before radiocarbon confirmed an earlier date. I said (before the latest results) that it appears to be an Early Woodland site, based on a number of considerations.

            The new radiocarbon supports this analysis, while the 11th century date lacks any support.

          2. Geoffrey, You’re entirely wrong about the interpretation of radiocarbon dates on particulate charcoal. Neither date “wins.” They’re both suspect. And actually it’s easier to account for older charcoal in a mound — especially when the earth used to build the mound can be expected to have come from deposits in which that older charcoal could have originated. It’s harder to account for “younger” charcoal in an old mound. The essential problem is that neither set of dates come from charcoal that can be reliably linked to the construction of the mound.

            No one ever said Romain’s dating required “proof.” The 1991 study was published in a peer-review journal, which doesn’t necessarily make it “true,” but it does mean it was reviewed and approved by other professionals. And no one ever said the 11th century date was “definitive.” All scientific knowledge is provisional and if better dating confirms the Adena date I’ll be happy to acknowledge it. If you actually read the 1991 report you will find that the conclusion that Serpent Mound is best understood as a Late Prehistoric earthwork is supported by much more than the radiocarbon dates.

            Finally, with regard to “textbooks” that accept the 11th century date, I am appending a few such titles that I have close at hand. You, of course, are free to conclude that they aren’t “worth the name.”

            Fagan, Brian
            2000 Ancient North America: the archaeology of a continent. Thames & Hudson, New York.

            King, J.C.H.
            1999 First peoples, first contacts: native peoples of North America. British Museum Press, London.

            Penney, David W.
            2004 North American Indian Art. Thames & Hudson, New York.

            Thomas, David Hurst
            2000 Exploring Native North America. Oxford University Press, New York.

          3. But why do you assume I have not read your 1991 paper? Of course I have, and you and I have discussed the salient issues. That is how I know that your personal opinions about Serpent Mound being “Fort Ancient Culture” as you insist on calling that non-entity, are lacking support.

            It should be noted that those sources who mistakenly took your word for the Serpent Mound date are all more than a decade old as you list them, from the period before it was commonly understood that large-scale corn agricultural did not come to the Ohio Valley until sometime late in the Late Woodland period, that the designation “Fort Ancient Culture” is an unhelpful fiction (see Mainfort and Applegate’s volume at http://www.amazon.com/Woodland-Period-Systematics-Middle-Valley/dp/0817352376 ), and that the principal earthworks of the Valley were funereal not “ceremonial” despite the ceremonial promotional campaign.

            Since the Mainfort-Applegate volume in 2006 and a number of genetic studies, there is a clearer understanding that Adena-Hopewell describe a unitary contiunuos civilzation (best called Adena), and that the Late Woodland Period in the region was one of multi-cultural interaction in the valley, not anything that can be described by any one “culture” name, nor involving large new earthwork ventures like Serpent Mound.

            The smoke has also cleared as to the staged progression of earthwork construction, with Serpent Mound functionally akin to other EARLY Woodland sites like Portsmouth and the Junction Group. An article of mine describing the archaeoastronomical significance of the Junction Group has just been published at http://indiancountrytodaymedianetwork.com/2014/04/08/key-adena-earthworks-and-preserve-saved-ohio-154310?page=0%2C0. Serpent Mound has a very similar functionality marking it as roughly contemporaneous, as will be made clear in forthcoming work.

            As to the two radiocarbon dates the actual logical conclusion is to accept the earlier date because the later one can be attributed to intrusive mound-building, which you seem to not want to acknowledge. Your proposal that older charcoal from “campfires” could have survived on the surface to be scooped up for the mound is weird — It might happen in the desert southwest, but you’d have an extremely hard time demonstrating that old charcoal survives more than a few seasons on the surface in water-logged Ohio.

            It is unfortunate, Brad, that you seem unable to detach your personal stake in the 1991 work from the need to objectively appraise new information. Given your strong avowed devotion to your own hypotheses, I trust you will be wise enough to recuse yourself from all decision-making on questions such as whether the signs or museum displays at Serpent Mound should be changed. That is a matter for parties without that kind of proprietary interest and for the tribes that represent descendants of the builders. By the way, the original “Adena” sign remains at the site, more accurate than ever.

        2. I think to a naturalist or herpetologist, the species is readily identifiable. There is only one native species in our area with a normal posture that matches that depicted by the mound, the eastern hognose snake. Although, non-toxic (to humans) the snake’s response to threat is quite fascinating, and maybe revealing as to the reason it could have inspired a giant artwork. When alarmed the snake raises its head, hisses loudly, and flares its neck like a cobra. If this is ineffective and the harassment continues, the hognose, begins writhing as if in the throes of death, then rolls over, with its mouth open and askew, and “plays dead”. This act is quite convincing, as it looks very lifeless, and usually vomits a little of its last meal, so it even smells dead. Of course it later “rises from the dead” and goes back to its usual business of eating toads.
          Thanks guys for the spirited debate. Best of luck to everyone working to sort out the evidence and establish a construction date for the mound.

          1. Kevin, thank you for solving a mystery. Nancy Stranahan has written that it represents a hognose but she attributed that opinion to me and I have said no such thing. Apparently she got us confused. Please tell Nancy that you are the hognose source 😉

            By citing the opinion of modern “naturalists,” you assume that the ancient Algonquians had studied Euro-American herpetology, that they intended this huge earthwork as a naturalist field guide (for whom?), that the spiral does not represent something other than a snake’s tail, and that they had no artistic conventions of their own.

            Of course, they did have such conventions, and we know from their many other works that they did not represent animals realistically or with correct proportions. However, they did often include species identification marks, for example the distinctive neck swatch on the copper peregrine falcons that otherwise are not identifiable as falcons.

            Since my comments above, I have learned that species ID marks are also included in the so-called “Alligator Mound” showing it is a fisher (Martes pennant), an animal important in Algonquian cosmology, hence not a Water Panther, possum, or anything else. The Miami name for the fisher is atchiika, which very possibly accounts for how it came to be known as Alligator Mound, since atchiika sounds similar to alligator.

            At Serpent Mound there are no less than four species ID marks showing that it represents a timber rattlesnake (Crotalus horridus). One of them is unambiguous as a rattlesnake marker and was employed identically in Mayan art. I won’t elaborate them here.

            Spirals or concentric circles were often used as a motif to represent rattlesnake rattles, including the concentric circular mounds that are the rattle of the Portsmouth rattlesnake. In the Ohio Valley, spirals had the larger meaning of representing the portal to the sky world, and so in artwork spiral tails were sometimes added to bears, fishers, and other animals of celestial significance. So no hognose.

    1. Um, are you trying to get everything wrong? The newest radiocarbon dating for SM show that it was built between 400 BCE and 1 CE, during the Early Woodland Period. Neither this period nor the period of the 11th century are “Hopewell.” and “Hopewell” is an out-dated term. There were no “Hopewell” Indians.

  4. I’ve now had a chance to read the technical report entitled “a new multistage construction chronology for the Great Serpent Mound, USA” by Edward W. Herrmann, G. William Monaghan, William F. Romain, Timothy M. Schilling, Jarrod Burks, Karen L. Leone, Matthew P. Purtill and Alan C. Tonetti (Journal of Archaeological Science 50 [2014], pp. 117-125.

    With regard to the age of the Serpent, the authors report seven dates ranging from 334 to 639 B.C. (calibrated median ages). That broad range suggests they are sampling several Early Woodland occupations. The dates do not suggest a single event, such as the construction of the mound. The authors suggest that the samples yielding the two oldest dates in the series may “represent charcoal from deeper, older horizons that were borrowed from their original context” (p. 121). Well, why couldn’t this be true of all the dates? The authors acknowledge that their data only show that Serpent Mound “could have been constructed any time after 300 BC” (p. 121).

    It’s also significant that all of the new dates are “bulk sediment-type dates” (120) and not dates on charcoal. None of the charcoal bits observed in the cores was large enough or well-preserved enough to identify the species of plants represented. And none of the samples are from discrete features. All of these factors diminish the quality of these dates.

    In contrast, the Late Prehistoric dates my team got for the two samples we recovered in 1991 were run on discrete bits of charcoal identified as white oak and the dates on the two samples were statistically identical. The samples did not come from a discrete feature, but they did come from intact mound fill within about 10 cms of the base of the mound.

    The fact that Romain’s team recovered no Late Prehistoric charcoal from any of the five cores that produced datable material is notable, but it simply may be due to chance (12 other cores they extracted yielded no dateable material at all), or perhaps the Late Prehistoric occupation did not extend onto, or at least produce much charcoal on, the surface upon which the effigy was constructed.

    Given the uncertainty in the interpretation of the new radiocarbon dates and the other arguments for a Late Prehistoric age for Serpent Mound, including the Late Woodland-Late Prehistoric age of every other dated effigy mound in eastern North America and the relative importance of serpent iconography during the Late Prehistoric and not during the Early Woodland, a Late Prehistoric (Fort Ancient) age for Serpent Mound is still reasonable and is better supported than an Early Woodland age.

    1. Brad,

      A few questions regarding your response, some of which I have asked previously:

      1. Romain et al. explain the two 1991 radiocarbon dates obtained by your group as the result of a repair effort circa 1070 CE, given that your samples came from near the lowest point in the earthwork, where water collects and natural degradation is most pronounced I’ve checked this at the site and it’s extremely plausible. What is your response and how do you explain the coincidence of your charcoal samples coming from near the lowest point in the mound?

      2. Relatedly, how do you know that Atchiika Mound (that is, Fisher Mound, aka “Alligator Mound”) was not also subject to a Late Woodland repair effort since that work has an unusual azimuth exactly 180 degrees from the azimuth of nearby “Eagle Mound,” a Middle Woodland work?

      3. How have you tested your hypothesis that exposed surface charcoal from the Early Woodland Period incorporated into a later mound could result in radiocarbon dates such as those obtained by Romain et al.? Why would that charcoal not have degraded at the surface? Aside from your speculation that all of the Romain et al. dates may have come from pre-construction charcoal, it also is possible that none of them did and that actual construction began as early as the 7th century BCE.

      4. You have expanded your set of comparable effigy mounds from “only two in Ohio” to now include “every other dated effigy mound in eastern North America.” This is sleight of hand aimed at including the Wisconsin/Iowa effigy mounds, but excluding many other effigy mounds that are older but with more uncertain dates, largely a consequence of being older or of being stone works. Why do you exclude the following from consideration when they are all closer, more similar in style to Serpent Mound, and possibly associated with Serpent Mound in other ways?

      a. Portsmouth, Ohio, Rattlesnake, Early-Middle Woodland, strengthened association with Serpent Mound due to the positive ID of Serpent Mound as a timber rattlesnake from its triangular rostral scale.
      b. Serpent Mound in Peterborough, Ontario, on Rice Lake, associated with the Point Peninsula Complex and New York Hopewell, 300 BCE-700 CE, Early-Middle Woodland, possibly inspired by Ohio’s Serpent Mound since it has an oval within open jaws.
      c. Rock Eagle Mound and Rock Hawk Mound, Putnam County Georgia, nearly due south of Ohio’s Serpent Mound, likely Early-Middle Woodland, white quartz construction associated with Ohio Valley Indians, almost due south of Ohio’s Serpent Mound.
      d. Paw Effigy, southern Ross County, Ohio, made of similar white quartz stones as the two bird effigies of Georgia, undated but closely associated with Spruce Hill and Junction Group which are Early-Middle Woodland. Traditionally considered a bear paw but probably intended as a fisher paw.

      Note that all of these works, as well as Serpent Mound, display Algonquian culture traits and/or are associated with Algonquian builders, whereas the Wisconsin/Iowa effigy mounds are thought to be Siouan in origin.

      5. You continue to say that the Early-Middle Woodland period shows no “importance of serpent iconography,” or some such thing, when numerous well-known artworks from the Early-Middle period, now recognized as continuous, include serpent motifs or are based on rattlesnake anatomy. These include the famous iconic copper serpent-head and mica snake effigy, rattlesnake motifs carved on human bone, the iconic “cross-hatch” pattern that simulates rattlesnake skin three-dimensionally on pottery, and many others. Your own “Great Hopewell Road” hypothesis, though not successful, borrowed from ethnology which shows that Algonquians saw the Milky Way as a celestial rattlesnake, the path of the dead, and the distribution of this motif shows it to be at least as old as the Archaic Period. Are you now retracting the GHR hypothesis to say that early Algonquians did not use snake motifs?

      6. How will you deal with the conflict of interest created by your advocacy of your own research conclusions from 1991 and your now apparent establishment of yourself as the one who judges which date is “more supported”? Will the matter be put to an independent scientific adjudication process for determining what should be displayed at the site and for UNESCO?

      1. Mr. Sea,

        There is no convincing evidence that either Serpent Mound or Alligator Mound have ever been subjected to multiple episodes of construction. The suggestion by Herrmann, Romain and their co-authors that such a rebuilding episode might have taken place is simply an ad hoc attempt to explain the inconvenient presence of Late Prehistoric charcoal in a supposedly Early Woodland mound. The alignment of the Alligator says nothing about its age.

        My “hypothesis” that older charcoal may have been introduced into the matrix of Serpent Mound has been accepted as a possibility by Herrmann, Romain and their co-authors in their paper. You are correct that it’s also possible that all of the dates they report may relate to the construction of the mound. We simply do not yet know which of these alternatives is the case.

        By no means do I exclude “stone works” from my list of effigy mounds. The two stone Kern effigies, in the valley below Fort Ancient, and similar stone serpent effigies from Kentucky are known to be Late Prehistoric in age. The so-called “Portsmouth Rattlesnake” is not an effigy mound. Nor, in my opinion, is the Ontario “serpent,” which looks more like a tadpole. The Ontario Serpent Mound, like the Tremper “Elephant” mound and Newark’s “Eagle” Mound bear only superficial resemblances to the creatures they supposedly represent. They are examples of pareidolia. The ages of Rock Eagle Mound and Rock Hawk Mound have not been determined. Nor do we know with any degree of confidence the age of the Ross County Paw Effigy.

        I stand by my assertion that both the quality and quantity of serpent symbolism is vastly greater for the Late Prehistoric/Mississippian era than for any other period of prehistory — especially the Early Woodland period, which is the age proposed by Herrmann, Romain and their co-authors.

        I do not see any connection between the Great Hopewell Road (however long it ultimately proves to be) and serpent iconography. Nor do I see any compelling evidence that would allow anyone to conclude definitively that either the Hopewell or Late Prehistoric earthworks of Ohio were produced by any particular group of modern American Indian tribes. Certainly, the ancestors of American Indians built these amazing structures and someday DNA or similar evidence may point towards a biological affiliation with one or more modern tribes. But given the antiquity of the earthworks, I think it’s likely that many modern groups share in this wonderful legacy.

        Finally, I am not attempting to establish myself as an arbiter of the final truth of any claims for the age of Serpent Mound. I am offering my opinions based both on my firsthand experience in conducting excavations at the Serpent (and the Alligator) as well as my knowledge of the literature. This is part of the scientific adjudication process to which you allude. Other archaeologists and historians will join the discussion and hopefully seek to apply new and better methods of dating to the mounds. I am confident this process eventually will lead us to the answer of the question of who built Serpent Mound.

    1. Scott, If you’re referring to the alleged serpent effigy at the Stubbs Earthworks, which was destroyed by quarrying, there is no evidence that it was an effigy mound. Whittlesey’s map of the earthworks shows it to be a W-shaped set of enclosure walls that followed the edge of the terrace.

    2. By the way, I am not the first to point out that the ellipse is neither an eye nor an egg. Charles Willoughby, the art expert who served as assistant to Frederic Ward Putnam. noted in 1919 that the egg and eye interpretations were based on mistakes that Putnam had made in the reconstruction. Willoughby wrote that the forward portions of Serpent Mound “undoubtedly represent the conventionalized head of the serpent” — that is, the top of its cranium. Why the egg and eye interpretations are still proffered as tenable I cannot fathom.

      1. Geoffrey, Neither Willoughby nor you are the final arbiter of the original meaning of the oval enclosure at the head of the Serpent. I suspect those various interpretations will be debated for as long as people are fascinated by Ohio’s ancient earthworks.

        1. Brad, I take your comment to be self-reflective that YOU are not the final arbiter of interpretations. Willoughby and I base our assessments on the empirical fact that the egg and eye interpretations were based on mistaken or incomplete renderings of the earthwork as confirmed by photographs taken before Putnam’s reconstruction. The head of the serpent was demonstrably complete around the ellipse, showing that the so-called jaws were not in fact jaws.

          The egg and eye interpretations were also based explicitly on Hindu and Masonic iconography with no reference to anything Algonquian or Native American.

          The “eye” interpretation was further reinforced by your repetition of an error, interpreting Mississippian depictions of rattlesnake motifs as showing eyes, when in fact they depict rattles and heads.

          I trust the interpretive material at the site will be corrected to reflect correct history and science and give proper credit.

          1. Geoffrey, Of course I am not the final arbiter of interpretations. I agree with you that the egg interpretation is likely to be incorrect and for the reasons you cite. However, you are wrong about the eye interpretation having anything to do Masonic iconography. I also disagree with your claim that the Mississippian shell engravings of rattlesnakes do not depict exaggeratedly large eyes and I regard the interpretation of the oval as the serpent’s eye to be perfectly consistent with American Indian iconography of the period.

          2. Brad, you apparently don’t realize it, but the source of your “eye” interpretation of those Mississippian motifs were based on Masonic symbols — the “all-seeing eye” depicted at the top of the pyramid on a dollar bill, believed in 19th century Freemasonry to be a “universal symbol” and specifically believed to be the symbol of all ancient masons, i.e. mound-builders. That is, you fell into the repetition of mythology.

            Recent ethnology has produced quite a bit of work on North and Meso-American rattlesnake iconography which clearly indicates that those Mississippian designs depicted rattles (or in some cases heads), the rattle of a rattlesnake seen as a second or false head. The circle with a dot, or concentric circles, were a conventional way of depicting the rattle seen end-on or from the sky. You can tell that is the correct interpretation because the motifs with that symbol lack rattles seen from the side. In Mayan iconography, the circle with a dot, concentric circles, or a spiral, are all ways to depict a rattle pointing skyward — a motif known to have been shared with the Mississippians in what has been called “the Rattlesnake Cult.”

            Using an ellipse rather than a circle is a reference to the clearly elliptical bulge Serpent Mound is an iconic two-headed serpent, i.e. a rattlesnake. The rattle was a central element in such designs because it had specific celestial meaning.

          3. Geoffrey, I have yet to see the “recent ethnology” to which you refer. Perhaps you could provide references. All of the research I have done indicates the eyes of serpents tend to be highly exaggerated in Mississippian iconography (see appended links). Your mention of Masonic interpretations and your suggestion that I have have fallen into “the repetition of mythology” reflects a profound lack of understanding of my arguments and the data. And your repeated use of the argument by assertion suggests you have no real data to back up your provocative claims. By the way, have you considered that the snakes depicted without rattles might not be rattlesnakes?

            Links to Mississippian iconography showing the exaggerated eyes of serpents:

          4. Brad, those are not eyes (in the first two), those are rattles and/or heads, rattlesnakes being double-headed. They were misinterpreted as eyes by Holmes and others writing in the 19th century under the influence of Masonic “universal symbolism.” This can be seen a number of ways; note that your third photo, where the circle is clearly an eye, also shows a conventional rattle — the nested heart-shapes figure. But the top two where the concentric circles are multiple do not show a conventional side-view rattle. Why would an eye have multiple concentric circles?

            The late Jose Diaz Bolio of the Yucatan, whom I knew and studied with, wrote numerous books on what he termed “The Rattlesnake Cult,” which extended from Ohio to the Yucatan, including the Mississippi Valley, if not further. (Mi Discubrimiento del Culto Crotalico was the first.) The connection of iconography throughout this range is exemplified by the same stem, kan, which means serpent in Algonquian, Siouan and Yucatec languages (originally Algonquian) and the common motifs for depicting rattlesnake parts like rattles. Diaz Bolio showed that concentric circles, as in your graphics, and alternately spirals, were the motif for depicting rattles viewed end-on aerially, the view with celestial significance. Circular and square step pyramids in Mesoamerica explicitly represented a rattle pointing skyward toward zenith, a well-known example being the pyramid at Chichen Itza called in Mayan Tzab which means rattle.

            I’d be happy to send you Diaz Bolio’s graphics for rattle motifs as I don’t think I can post graphics here. And that concentric circles were the motif for representing rattles pointed skyward, that confirms Hagar’s interpretation of the Portsmouth Works as representing a rattlesnake, with the Hardin concentric circles being the rattle. That Hagar got this interpretation without knowing about the rattle motif is to his credit. (Note that I have posted extensively on this in the Adena Core Facebook group.)

          5. Geoffrey, With respect to Diaz Bolio, he was clearly a Mayanist and the Mississippian cultures, though certainly influenced by Mesoamerica to some extent, have their own iconographies. I very much doubt that there was any such thing as a “Rattlesnake Cult” with the geographic extent you suggest. I would be pleased to see the images to which you refer, but your assertions that the concentric circles in those Mississippian engravings are rattles as seen from above and that the Portsmouth Earthworks (not Mississippian, by the way, and so presumably not part of any Late Prehistoric Rattlesnake Cult) include any sort of serpent effigy are both highly speculative and I don’t see how they could be evaluated with archaeological evidence.

          6. On the contrary, the iconography of the “Rattlesnake Cult” was uniform throughout its range, as Diaz Bolio showed, and which Serpent Mound exemplifies. You can see that in the last of the graphics you provided, where the conventional side-view rattle motif is a nested set of heart-shapes, identical to the conventional Yucatec way of drawing a rattle from the side, and also evident in Middle Woodland Ohio Valley art. Rattles are complex structures with many ways to draw them, so the identical conventions on the Yucatan and in the Mississippi Valley are significant.

            If the convention for drawing rattles from the side, as well as rattlesnake skin, and other identifiers like the rostral scale were the same, then the convention for drawing the dorsal side of heads and the end-view of rattles was likely the same, too, and indeed that is apparent.

            You seem to not grasp that only the Yucatec Maya are involved at the northernmost part of the Mayan range, along the north coast of the Yucatan, which was accessible by canoe from the mouth of the Mississippi and from Florida. These motifs, and the Algonquian stem “kan,” did not extend to the other parts of the Mayan range. The Rattlesnake Cult was limited among the Mayans to the northern centers of Uxmal, Mayapan, and Chichen Itza, and it shows an influence from the north that dates to after 500 CE. These motifs came from the north. i.e. from the Mississippi/Ohio valley.

            The core motif of this cult was the double double-headed serpent of the sky, one rattlesnake representing the Milky Way and the other representing the ecliptic path of the sun, paths which crossed at the Pleiades, represented in both Yucatec and Shawnee lore as a rattle. While this motif is most transparent in Mayan works because of the written language, it is no less apparent in Mississippian artwork and in Serpent Mound and in the Portsmouth Works, all of which depict two-headed serpents, i.e. rattlesnakes, with each “head” or rattle depicted as a spiral or set of concentric circles. The frequent twin-snake theme in Mississippian art could not make this more clear, and the concentric-circle tail and Old Fort head of the Portsmouth snake, reflecting the arc of the sun as Hagar said, are just other examples.

            That this was elucidated by a Mayanist should come as no surprise since they had the written language.

    1. What “forked eye” motif? There is no “forked eye” at Serpent Mound, nor is there an egg. Both interpretations started as Masonic legends based on the symbolism of Freemasonry without regard to Algonquian iconography. (See the eye at the top of the Masonic pyramid and Longfellow’s reference to “The Egg and the Serpent”). The ellipse at Serpent Mound is the cranial ellipse on the head of a timber rattlesnake.

  5. Oops I see some text was deleted. In the third paragraph it should read “…elliptical bulge on the head of a timber rattlesnake.”

  6. It also seems you misunderstood to think that the influence on Mississippian art came from Mesoamerica. Not at all. Even Ephraim Squier realized that the influence went the other way. The Rattlesnake Cult emerged full-blown in Ohio — in or at least by the Early Woodland Period. It then traveled down the Ohio and Mississippi valleys, exploding both in the classical Mayan period centered in northern Yucatan, and at Cahokia and its sphere. This chronology makes perfect sense and was just confirmed big time by archaeological evidence — the Early Woodland date of Serpent Mound, according with the probable date of the Portsmouth Works.

    1. Geoffrey, I see now why you are so wiling to accept the new Early Woodland radiocarbon dates for Serpent Mound in spite of their many problems. It’s because they appear to corroborate your preconceptions about the origins of the so-called Rattlesnake Cult, which otherwise have no basis in the facts of the archaeological record.

      1. Brad, whole books about the Rattlesnake Cult have been published of which you acknowledge you were unaware. Since you were unaware of the scholarship done on the Rattlesnake Cult, it’s a fair assumption that you have read none of it. The lack of evidence pertains to the convolutions in Brad Lepper’s brain, not to the actual scientific record. In the record, evidence of the Rattlesnake Cult is substantial.

        On the basis of that evidence, I dated Serpent Mound to the Early Woodland Period long ago, as you know because we jousted on the matter at your talk at Serpent Mound years ago. Before the radiocarbon results of the Romain team were in, I predicted — on the basis of a theoretical interpretation of the evidence — that the date would come in as around 250 BCE. (I would have said between 100 and 400 BCE if I had given a range.) That was much closer to the mark than anyone else who made a scientific prediction.

        If you were open-minded and unbiased, you would be interested to know how I made such an accurate prediction, and then I would tell you.

        The results of that radiocarbon analysis, which is the most robust evidence on the actual date of the effigy, support my theoretical prediction. That’s how science works. Your meandering misinterpretations based in part on mistaking rattle symbols for eyes, etc., are not supported. In fact you attribute the mound to a “culture” that wasn’t even a culture (or any other archaeological category), except by the erroneous classifications of your predecessor at OSAHS-OHS-OHC, the looter Warren K. Moorehead. It’s unfortunate that you feel compelled to follow in his non-scientific tradition.

  7. Geoffrey,

    I had trouble finding anything that I could look at to understand your descriptions about a Rattlesnake Cult. The works of Diaz Bolio seem pretty obscure and hard to find. For instance, “Mi Descubrimiento del Culto Crotalico” is not available through either Amazon or Abe Books, and when I look at Worldcat, the nearest library copy to me is in New York City. Is there some source, or some summarization and justification of the main points, that is more easily accessible?

    I also have some questions about how much the stem “kan” as a snake is contained in Algonquian and Siouan languages along the Mississippi Valley. When I look at Siouan languages, a “kan” stem is not particularly evident in their words for “snake”. I see something like zuzeca (Lakota/Yankton), iaxassaa (Crow), snohena (Assiniboine), and waka/wetsa/wagen (Hochunk, Osage, Quapaw Tutelo). Where is the “kan” stem? If almost all of it has been elided away, what do the historical linguists say in their reconstructions?

    As for Algonquian, the word for snake in the northeast seems to have a “guk” in it: xkuk (Lenape), askook (Natick), Echschgook (Nanticok). Others use something like “maneto”: maneto (Shawnee), mnito (Potawatomi), manetoa (Potawatomi), manetowa (Fox). I’m not seeing a “kan” there. There are some languages that do have the “k” and “n” (or “g” and “n”): ginebig (Ojibwe), knepik (Chippewa), kinepik (Cree), kineepikwa (Miami, Illini).

    Does the historical linguistics show these to be the right element to be related to “kan”? Also, do the theories of Diaz Bolio explain why these Nations in particular would have adopted such a foreign stem and not other Nations? I also wonder why the Cree would have adopted such a word as part of a rattlesnake cult, since their territory does not contain rattlesnakes.

    In addition, Algonquian had its own word for rattlesnake that does not
    appear to contain a kan-like stem at all: shixikwe (Lenape), zhiishiigwe (Ojibwe), shanwenge (Potawatomi). Wouldn’t a rattlesnake cult stem actually appear in their word for rattlesnake?

    Of course, the Mississippi Valley contains other language groups, like Caddo, and Muskogean. If this rattlesnake cult was so wide-spread, why did these peoples not adopt the same “kan” stem? For instance, in some Muskogean languages, which really cover a lot of Missippian rattlesnake area, the word for snake is something like sinti/siti/cetto.

    One final question: The similarity for the word “god” in Nahuatl (Aztec) “teotl” and Greek “theos” is rather remarkable. Does this indicate a Greek influence in Meso-America?

    1. Bob, I will try to hit most of your points.

      Agreed, the works of Diaz Bolio are extremely hard to find and more inaccessible if one does not read Spanish. I was lucky to visit him at his home and receive copies of most of his books. Some websites summarize his major theories but they tend to be New Agey and I don’t endorse them. I have summarized some of Diaz Bolio’s work in posts on the Adena Core Facebook group and we will soon launch our website.

      Most important for present purposes are his graphic displays of standard Mayan conventions for depicting the rattles, heads, and rostral scales of rattlesnakes, which are conveyed in just a few images. In the most simple terms, the circular spiral and concentric circles were a Mayan convention for depicting the rattle, while a circle with a dot at center was a convention for depicting a star or rattlesnake head (NOT an eye), a square was sometimes used for the head, and the triangular rostral scale was an important convention for denoting the connection between the rattlesnake and the sun (specifically pointing to the sun). We find all of these conventions employed at Serpent Mound and at the Portsmouth Works, which demonstrates the continuity of imagery employed by the Rattlesnake Cult, and gives a strong clue as to chronology (i.e. Ohio was first).

      The language connection is not as simple as translating “snake” since, obviously, there are many ways to say snake even in English, and since Native American languages often employ pseudonyms for animals considered sacred (the sacred name for bear was considered taboo throughout North America and Eurasia — a subject of much study). In addition many of the names for rattlesnake are onomatopoetic including some you give (“zuzeca”) and the Algonquian Mississauga and other such SSISS names. A more general problem is that Native American languages are not so noun-centered as ours.

      In Algonquian, the stem “kan” is not a noun and technically does not mean snake, though it is often translated that way. It is more important as a part of speech sometimes called a geometric field term that typically introduces a sentence (such as the Te’ in Te’kamtha or Tecumseh). These terms denote the shape of the situation at issue, and “kan” denotes serpentine or sinewy shape. So it applies to anything of serpentine shape, not only snakes, but also hair, grass, rivers or many other things. As such, “kan” often appears in the names of rivers denoting that they are a snake or river (in Algonquian the same) such as Kennebec, Kanawha or the probable Algonquian name of the Scioto, Nepikan (literally water-snake), and the name of the “Great Serpent” — Mishi-kan or Michigan though they deny it for Christian sensibilities.

      The very same stem with the same meaning appears in the name Kukulkan, the Yucatec foreign progenitor of the “feathered serpent” cult, which is the meaning of his name (literally bird-snake). Since Mayan language lacks geometric field terms, it was borrowed as a noun. In Yucatec, “kan” has four meanings — snake, sky, four, and one of the day names — all related to the rattlesnake whose anatomy reiterates the number four.

      In Siouan, the “kan” stem is less present but it is there. In researching the name of Kansas from the Kansa Tribe, one of those that migrated through the Ohio Valley in the Late Woodland Period, I found that the “kan” stem means snake in that name, probably a direct borrowing from Algonquian. I don’t contend that “kan” is a stem in either Siouan or Mayan language families. Rather it is a borrowing from Algonquian into certain Mayan and Siouan dialects, which again suggests that the chronology starts in the Ohio Valley.

      On Native American gods, you have made the classic error. “Teotl” does NOT mean god in Uto-Aztecan language. Rather it is the suffix denoting an inanimate spirit such as a stone or metal. Some creative interpreter in the 16th century told the Spanish that the Nahuatl were calling them gods when they called the Spanish “teotli.” In reality they were calling the Spanish metal-chested or stone-hearted. Ever since the Spanish and their heirs have been using “teotl” as cognate of Greek “theo” and Latin “dei”, but no matter how many times the error is repeated, it will not become true. There is no word for god in any Native American language, because the concept did not exist in the pre-conquest Americas, and many scholars have noted that including Francis Parkman.

      Back to the thread topic, that means that Serpent Mound, and other effigies, cannot have been built to “worship a deity,” as Brad Lepper has suggested. There were no Native American deities, and certainly no evidence of such kind of “worship.” Rather, Serpent Mound is an exemplary artistic expression of the Algonquian stem “kan,” depicting serpentine form in a graphic and beautiful way.

      1. Geoffrey, In a previous comment you asked how I could assume that you had not read my work, which you were criticizing. Well, it’s because then as now when I read what you think I said, it bears little or no relation to what I actually wrote. Now you claim that I think Serpent Mound was built to “worship a deity.” You even put it in quotation marks, as if I actually wrote this somewhere.

        I think Serpent Mound is best understood to have been a shrine where the power of the great Serpent spirit could be invoked, not a place to “worship a deity.” And contrary to your assertions, there are well-documented examples of this kind of thing in the ethnohistoric and ethnographic literature.

        The following passages from a paper I co-authored with Tod Frolking include several such examples. The paper is focused on Alligator Mound, but the interpretations apply equally to Serpent Mound. See the original article for the references.

        “’…the image of a manito, like the image of an animal or human, was an extension of the person … the Indians could influence the manitos by recreating their form’ (Vecsey 1983, 109-10).

        …McKenney (1972, 330) reported the existence of a shrine to the Underwater Panther on North Point in Thunder Bay in Lake Huron. This shrine consisted of a cluster of ‘about twenty stones, four of which are larger than the rest’. McKenney’s Native American informants identified these four boulders as ‘the manito’ and indicated the other stones had been added at various times. McKenney (1972, 330) reported that the Indians left offerings at the shrine ‘to secure the pleasure of this god, and to obtain from him the favor of a fair wind, and protection in making the traverse of Thunder bay’. The offerings consisted of ‘tobacco, pieces of old kettles, pipes, and various other things’.

        Morisseau, whose maternal grandfather was a Mide shaman, reported that the ‘Ojibway Indians of Lake Nipigon had an offering rock erected’ to Misshipeshu [the Underwater Panther]. ‘Offerings of copper pails were thrown into the water and black dogs as well as white dogs, decorated in the very best, were offered alive to the water god for it to eat’ (Morriseau 1965, 27).

        Clarke reported that a group of Wyandots at a ‘boggy spot’ near the mouth of the Huron River in Michigan had an ‘altar’ to a ‘mysterious spirit’ that manifested itself as a ‘white panther’ emerging from a ‘sulphureus spring’ (1870, 153-8). At this altar, the Wyandots made ‘burnt offerings and signified their sincere devotion, by casting valuable articles into the spring, which consisted of various kinds of ornamented silver works… wampum beads, and other articles… as sacrifice offering to the strange god’ (1870, 154).

        None of these ethnohistoric accounts refer specifically to the construction and use of an effigy mound as a shrine for the presentation of offerings to secure spiritual power… Nevertheless, the iconographic similarities between Alligator Mound and images of the Underwater Panther…and the cultural similarities between the stone altars associated with the Alligator and Serpent mounds and the offering rocks or altars described in various ethnohistoric accounts, permit the inference that Alligator Mound [and Serpent Mound] was a shrine dedicated to the Underwater Panther [or the Great Horned Serpent]. By creating this massive sculptural image of the manitou, the people would have been creating a powerful linkage with the Underworld and its potent energies.”

        After reading this, can you still claim I think Serpent Mound was built to “worship a deity” and that there is “certainly no evidence of such kind of ‘worship’”?

        Here is the paper from in which the above quoted passages originally appeared:
        Lepper, Bradley T. and Tod A. Frolking
        2003 Alligator Mound: geoarchaeological and iconographical interpretations of a Late Prehistoric effigy mound in central Ohio, USA. Cambridge Archaeological Journal 13(2):147-167.

        1. Brad,

          You should know that I have read the Lepper-Frolking paper because we have discussed it privately. It was that paper which convinced me that the so-called Alligator Mound could not possibly have been intended to represent a Water Panther, whatever it is you mean by a Water Panther, which you have never clarified.

          In that paper, you employ the same kind of faulty logic that you have employed vis-à-vis Serpent Mound and the not-so-great, non-Hopewell, non-Road. That is, you come up with some trademark guess about what the original builders had in mind to represent, without revealing your process for generating hypotheses, and before you have even identified the language family of the builders or the purported purpose of the work. Then you search the literature for some other non-comparable work from any other culture near or far for which the attributed interpretation matches your preconceived conclusion, and then you try to use that analogy to defend your original trademark interpretation.

          Thus, you use your own interpretation of an Ohio River petroglyph, exact location and date unknown, as a Water Panther to back your own interpretation of Alligator Mound as a Water Panther, even though the petroglyph very clearly depicts a fisher (Martes pennant) and not a Water Panther. (By your own logic, Alligator Mound should then also represent a fisher, which it does.) Likewise you use Mississippian rattlesnake gorgets from a vastly different time and place to argue by analogy that the ellipse of Serpent Mound represents an eye, when the Missippian gorget features depict the crania and rattles of the snakes, not eyes. (By your own logic, the Serpent Mound ellipse should then represent the cranium, which it does.) And you use ceremonial roads from the southwestern desert and the Yucatan to argue by analogy that parallel walls in Ohio, which do not imply a roadway, were also ceremonial procession paths.

          There are numerous problems with such a methodology. First, you are obviously cherry-picking, trying to find single cases that appear to be analogous, rather than working from first principles about the language, culture, and purposes at work in Ohio. Second, your analogs are not congruent with one another. Are we to believe that the mound-builders in Ohio had time-machines by which they sometimes transported themselves to New Mexico, and other times to Missouri, across centuries and millennia? Why are your selected analogs appropriate for comparison and not others? And third, your analogs consistently fail on substance. The Ohio Valley petroglyph does not depict a Water Panther. The Mississippian gorgets do not depict snake eyes. The parallel walls near Newark, Ohio, do not signify a walkway.

          Only after you have drawn a false analogy do you then attempt to interpret purpose, which is backwards from the point of view of ethnology (a theory of purpose is essential for the process of choosing appropriate cases for comparison). So you are destined to get it wrong, and you do. You say that these were “shrines” where “the power of the great Serpent spirit could be invoked.” How that is supposed to differ from “worshipping a god” I cannot fathom. You are indeed describing the worshipping of a god, and one of your cited sources, McKenney, says as much, as you quote him saying – “to secure the pleasure of this god.” That’s clear enough and it is a totally discredited view of Native American spirituality.

          It is clear from your last response that you do not understand basic concepts like “Manitou” and are unfamiliar with the historiography of this subject. The idea that manitous were “great spirits” is a very common and very wrong error. It is now well understood by historians and ethnologists that Christian missionaries expropriated words like Manitou and Teotl and altered them to fit the meanings convenient for translation of Christian doctrine (with substantial feedback effects on Native Americans forced to send their children to missionary schools). The “ethnographic” accounts you have just cited are little more than the accounts of Christians interpreting the behavior of Native Americans in Christian terms, and sometimes observing behaviors themselves radically altered by unfolding European conquest.
          In the pre-conquest Algonquian vocabulary, Manitou means nothing more than the soul possessed by every animate being. It is a marker of animate gender in Algonquian language, precisely identical to the suffix “coatl” in Uto-Aztecan language. Thus, every living being from a man to a dog to a dragonfly is a Manitou, and also some objects we regard as inanimate qualify such as the sun, the moon, the stars, and storms. Euro-Americans frequently misunderstood this, and thought that when Natives called the sun a Manitou they were calling it a god, when actually they were just denoting it as an animate being.

          As for the “great spirits” or “Gitchie Manitou” or “Mishipeshu,” etc. these were either fabrications by the Christians or additional misunderstandings. I have seen you write numerous times of “Mishipeshu” as the great Water Panther deity, which is a mistake. Though there was some variance by dialect, “peshu” designated a lynx, “mishipeshu” designated a great-lynx or cougar (an ordinary one). The Water Panther, which was not an actual cat, was designated by various pseudonyms which sometimes contained the term “mishipeshu” but with modifiers to suggest its transcendent quality, not meaning that it was a deity but that it resides in the world beyond, the world of the dead, where it was a monster to be battled and overcome. Much of this got confused after Christianization, but the idea that ancient Ohioans would build “shrines” to an otherworld monster is extremely absurd.
          All of this is well established in the literature. The great ethnologist Frances Densmore proved in the 1920s that the term “Gitchi Manitou” had been an invention of Christian missionaries and that Ojibwe communities isolated from the missionary schools had never heard of any such being. Unfortunately, in Ohio, no Native communities remained free of such contamination, so Native informants of even the 18th century were spitting back some form of Christian doctrine amalgamated with Native words. Such testimony cannot be the basis for interpretation of Woodland Period works, built at a time before there were “great spirits.” A good review article that summarizes the evidence against any “great spirit” in the pre-conquest Americas is one by Jordan Paper titled “Post-Contact Origin of an American High God” from the American Indian Quarterly, 1983.

          Once it is realized that the ancient Algonquians had plenty of animate spirits in this life and beyond, but no gods, the idea that any earthworks served as “shrines” can be tossed out the window. This should be obvious anyway from the fact that these works were specifically located AWAY from population centers. The Algonquians were extremely practical about the after-life journey. They didn’t “pray” about it or build temples for it, they built structures that would materially help departed souls on their journey in various incarnate forms. That is perhaps most obvious from the fact that the head portion of Serpent Mound took up the entire platform, leaving no place to walk or stand, with no pathways or gateways. Judging from historic Algonquian cemetery customs, it is more than likely that such places were taboo to living humans — the opposite of “ceremonial centers.”

          And that realization ought to be reflected at the sites, in educational material, and in the UNESCO nomination.

    2. Lance Foster, Tribal Historic Preservation Officer of the Ioway Tribe (closely related to the Kansa), has clarified for me the meaning of “kan” in the Plains Siouan languages, confirming in my mind that it is probably a borrowing from Algonquian. The stem appears in the often-used expression “Wakan Tanka” (see Dances With Wolves). This is usually translated sloppily as Great Spirit or Great Mystery and is indeed the phrase that Christian missionaries expropriated to translate the Christian god into Siouan.

      Tanka means great — no issue there. It is “kan” that means something mysterious, ineffable, ancient, or sacred, depending on the specific language. However, it also has the sense of “snake” and in Ioway language, “Wakan” means snake, as in something that is mysterious, ineffable, sacred, etc. It appears that the Kansa were called that by their neighbors as probably meaning “the snake people” originally — related to the Algonquian term for “snake people” which is Kanabeg or Kenabec.

      But bird imagery is also involved. The name Kansa also has the meaning of swift, and in Shawnee language the word for Thunderbird or serpent-bird is Wakan. This entire family of terms pretty clearly hearkens back to the Cult of the Feathered Serpent, when the Rattlesnake and Thunderbird together defined the essence of the sacred and ineffable.

  8. Wakan is *not* thunderbird in Shawnee. I am willing to have a private conversation on the matter; not here.

    -Ben Barnes
    2nd Chief, Shawnee Tribe (the real, federally recognized one)

    1. Look forward to discussing it. Of course there are many ways to translate an abstract concept like Thunderbird or Thunderer. One dictionary gives the Shawnee word as “Wakan” — different from other Algonquian languages. It may have come from a source with Siouan influence.

  9. I’m reading along, trying to follow the various assertions and critiques, and am reminded of the British apocryphal scholar who spent his career proving that the Odyssey and Iliad were not written by Homer, but by a completely different blind shepherd of the same name.

    Whatever one might say about a road, great or Hopewell or whatever, but I’ve walked and flown and seen in visual and photographic evidence a linear pair of walls going no less than ten miles south of the Octagon portion of the Newark Earthworks. Those ten miles of parallel embankments are great enough for me, and connected enough to the Newark Earthworks complex to warrant a provisional “Great Hopewell Road” even if they never made it south of Walnut Creek . . . but if they went that far, why would they have stopped there?

    As for the always-up-for-debate historic label of Alligator Mound, stay tuned!

    1. First, parallel walls do not imply a “road.” Why would they? Such sets of parallel walls, of which there were many (dozens if not hundreds), were set between 90 and 200 feet apart from each other, enough to accommodate a cavalry brigade fully flanked, but the ancient Indians had neither horses nor wagons nor any wheeled vehicles. So why would these structures be roads? It’s nonsensical. Some of the sets of parallel walls are sealed off at one end (as at Hopeton) or at both ends (as at Cedar Bank) or were crossed numerous times by creeks in ravines (as at Old Fort). This tells us clearly that these were NOT procession paths, and there is absolutely nothing to suggest that they were procession paths. They were originally called “roads” or “vias” by Euro-Americans who assumed they were looking at the ruins of some vanished Caucasoid civilization that did have horses and wagons or chariots. To continue the misguided use of “road” to describe these structures is to continue the assumption of non-indigenous construction.

      Once we dispense with the invalid assumption that these were roads, the question of why they would “not continue” becomes also nonsensical. They need not have continued because they were not roads. Every pair of these parallel walls continued for a ways and then abruptly stopped, often at the bank of a stream, such as at Hopeton, occasionally continuing on the reverse side of the stream, as at the Portsmouth Works, which crossed the Ohio River twice.

      This feature is a major clue to the actual purpose of these constructions. They appeared from the air to be artificial streams, often branching off of natural streams, and the walls may have allowed them to hold water, explaining the reason for their extreme width. There is evidence from a number of sites that they were lined with clam shells, which would enhance the appearance that these were stream-beds. Such mock stream-channels were not for human use, but would be built for the purpose of guiding flocks of migratory birds, which were believed to carry the souls of the human dead. Once this is appreciated, the routes of these parallel walls, which were part of one system (or a small number) becomes completely logical — the Indians were giving the birds shortcuts to the north, avoiding the many detours of the Scioto River, and then veering to Newark to avoid a water crossing of Lake Erie. As a guide-path for birds, there is no reason for the paths to have been continuous. In some places, the birds followed natural streams or other natural markers. In this scheme, the parallel walls don’t emanate from Newark; rather they funnel the birds toward Newark from the south. (That birds do follow such artificial paths was discovered by ornithologists in the 1990s.)

      And they weren’t “Hopewell” because even if they were built in the Middle Woodland Period, which has not been established (no such walls have been carbon dated to my knowledge), there was no separate “culture” corresponding to the mythical concept of “Hopewell” — a protested name with extreme connotations of racism and cultural expropriation.

  10. Oh and the distinction of the longest set of parallel walls does not go to Newark. That distinction again goes to Portsmouth, where there were at least thirteen miles of parallel walls, not counting sections that appear to have been washed out in the floodplain. That Portsmouth is generally thought to be an Early not Middle Woodland construction, that emphasizes the inappropriate use of the name “Hopewell.”

  11. Well, parts of Portsmouth are Early Woodland. I’m not too worked up about Adena or Hopewell if the context is clear; they are the Ohio River watershed expression of Early and Middle Woodland, which are cultural terms for a wider area. Hopewell Culture is a term that gets stretched to cover a multitude of sins, and I’m sure I’ve committed my fair share.

    But I see at Portsmouth what I think (suspect, infer, wonder about) as happening as you look at the overall design and fragmentary data we have for the Hopewell Mound Group & the Newark Earthworks, just to take the two most dramatic ones. Just as you can go to Philadelphia and see the Pennsylvania State House, revalorized (if you will) to Independence Hall, the much less re-purposed and re-renovated Carpenter’s Hall of the same period, the First Bank of the United States from a generation after those two, and a modernistic Liberty Bell Center holding a major object of the landscape from the initial period (not to mention the Robert Venturi “Benjamin Franklin House” framework monumentalizing a lost structure a block away, and a mere marker for the third & first official President’s House no longer there at all down the street), all clustered around a still open park/plaza/lawn, with an important cemetery a block beyond its foot. Do you call that area a “Colonial” site? If someone said “that’s an inaccurate description of Independence National Historical Park,” I’d have to reply “that depends on the context of what you say, but it’s a bit pedantic to argue that.” There’s the currently most well-known element, and certainly most visible, and it drives the general understanding. To call the Portsmouth Works “Early Woodland” is a bit like saying the whole Philadelphia site is really a Franklin monument — you could make the case, and I might smile and nod in agreement with a few points, but I suspect I’d never go along with trying to reframe the whole in that particular part.

    Likewise your note on “roads.” If someone wanted to call them “processional ways,” I’d say that’s interesting, somewhat tenable, but folks aren’t going to go to that specific a term without more data. The migratory bird theory is interesting, and may yet be shown a strong contender, but it’s simply a stretch to say “it IS that” without stronger evidence. Which I look forward to seeing!

    But you can’t call the term “roads” completely out of line. Road is a good general term; your objection, that they simply could not be for human general movement since they didn’t have horses or carts, doesn’t hold up. The same questions have been asked of the Chacoan roads of the American Southwest a millennium later, and a number of studies and tests have shown that the relatively obtuse appearance of these relentlessly linear paths (up cliffs, across the terrain without deviation) actually does enhance travel time. Runners and fast walkers and corpulent archaeologists have all tried it, and the Chaco roads do get people more efficiently and swiftly from point to point. Add in the need to possibly pause at stated intervals for a ceremonial sequence, and the 200 foot wide “causeways” (to use the 19th century term, offered interchangably with “covered ways” but neither now used because, while evocative, they create confusions all their own) seem like a road of a very basic sort.

    And I don’t know of any 10 mile straight line stretch in Portsmouth. If you add ’em all up . . . but then, if you used that math in Newark, we’d have more than 13 by a long stretch, but I’ll admit I’ve never taken out the compass and protractor with that calculation in mind. There may be a Google Maps session in my future!

    1. “Road” is not a good general descriptor since we have little or no data about any roadway or surface. What we have are parallel walls. Squier and Davis called these parallel walls, or where they rise from one terrace to another, graded ways. Moorehead continued to label these “parallel walls” for the important reason that walls do not imply a road surface between them except to the sloppy mind. Some of them may have held water at least part of the year, and that definitely would make them NON-roads.

      Calling them roads misleads the public (and professionals) into thinking we know something we don’t, or into thinking exactly the wrong thing, which is that the “roads” were important and not the walls. There is no reason to call walls roads except to build in bias for a particular theory that is very likely wrong.

      As for the path from Chillicothe to Newark, a number of investigators have pointed out that there are definite obstructions along that path where no “road” could ever have traveled. One of those obstructions — exactly on the proposed path — is the summit of Sugarloaf Mountain, which is rather steep. The summit of a mountain makes perfect sense if conceived as a marker along a flight path for birds. It makes no sense at all if conceived as a logical human procession pathway where there is no evidence of even a trail.

      At Portsmouth I gave you the length of one single connected set of parallel walls. So that takes the prize for length. If we consider disconnected sets of parallel walls, then the entire pathway starting at Portsmouth, through what is now Scioto, Pike, and Ross counties along what became the Scioto Trail, then veering toward Newark must be considered as a single system, with its origin and center at Portsmouth. “Newark” was not a territorial designation relevant to the ancient Algonquians.

      As to age, Portsmouth displays all the signs of being the earliest center of this civilization, with the possible exception of the Kanawha Valley, the axis between the Kanawha Valley and Portsmouth clearly being the initial population center. I agree that Portsmouth (and Kanawha) show signs of continued heavy settlement and construction. The early and continuing centers have greater importance than sites like Newark that display only late development and almost no population evidence. To extend your analogy, a city like Las Vegas, which shows only recent development, is not more important historically than a city like Philadelphia, even if the two exhibit about the same amount of construction. The earlier center served for a longer time period, influenced the later locations, and probably had much construction of earlier generations that had been replaced.

  12. Help me out, I truly am curious. Where is there a continuous 13 mile stretch of parallel walls at Portsmouth? This sloppy mind would like to know. I’m missing it, along with much else, I’m sure.

    1. Look at the Squier and Davis drawing of the Portsmouth Works. From the center at Mound Park, three sets of continuous parallel walls extended, one to each of the three points in the Portsmouth triangle — one east to the Hardin site (concentric circles), one southwest to Old Fort, and one northwest to Tremper Mound. The section below downtown Portsmouth was obliterated before 1848, but reliable testimony supports that it existed. The branch toward Tremper was truncated by migration of the Scioto River across the bottomlands but can reasonably be assumed to have existed.

      In an article about the Portsmouth Works published in the 1870s, J.P. McLean estimated the total length of these connected parallel walls as 13 miles, doubled if counting the walls separately. He included the destroyed section below downtown but did not include any extension into the bottomlands. The branch toward the Hardin site is about 6 miles, the branch toward Old Fort is about 4 miles, and the branch toward Tremper is about three miles. (My breakdown.) In his 1933 article about the Portsmouth Works, Stansbury Hagar repeated and endorsed the McLean estimate of length, stressing that the two lower portions which he interpreted as a rattlesnake were ten miles in length.

      These figures also do not include the parallel walls of Old Fort itself, which extended for one mile, making 14 miles in all.

      McLean identified other sets of parallel walls within Portsmouth, missed by Squier and Davis, but these were not continuous with the others. One of these was a Graded Way, which if confirmed (I think it is confirmed) was a true graded road that could turn out to be the largest single earthwork in the Ohio Valley in terms of volume, though it had a natural component.

      1. I should clarify that Squier and Davis were significantly inaccurate in two respects, as they often were. First, the Hardin site (concentric circles) was about two or three miles east of where they placed it, so the walls leading there were significantly longer than shown. Second, the northwest branch heading toward Tremper was significantly longer. They also got the shape of the Ohio River incorrectly, though that does not affect the question of wall length. I’ve plotted these sites on Google Earth to get a proper map.

  13. Thanks, I get your arguments better. We may be talking past each other to some degree, but I’d go back to the traced and traceable, right down to 1964 aerial photos, of the parallel walls from the southern corner of Newark’s Octagon to Beaver Run and on at the very least, as walked and noted by the Salisburys in 1862, to the National Road — ten miles in one linear stretch. That’s the part that I think is unmatched elsewhere, and why even if you leave out the proposal that they continued to Chillicothe, it is indeed a “Great Hopewell [Road].” Or “Great Hopewell Parallel Walled Way.” At any rate, that’s the aspect I was pointing at. Add in the other parallel wall routes amongst the Newark Earthworks, and you get at least another three miles’ worth.

    You posit that they were not suitable for walking (having walked them, I’m puzzled by that to start with), but that they had a purpose relating to migratory birds. Is that a symbolic sort of “drawing down the moon” relationship of a ceremonial process and the birds’ meaning to the Middle Woodland folk who built them, or do you have ideas about how such parallel wall structures would “guide” flocks of birds in flight? That’s an argument I’ve not encountered before; I’d be willing to read anything you can point me to on the subject.

    1. I’m not sure if you posted that comment about the long linear or stretch before or after I posted my comment showing that Portsmouth does have a longer continuous set of walls. The Portsmouth walls were not straight and may have even undulated in a serpentine fashion (which helped prompt the interpretation that they constituted a rattlesnake), but so what? Parallel walls are parallel walls, and if there were undulations at Portsmouth, that would only make the walls longer.

      Moreover, you are missing an important possible connection that comes of a proper consideration of chronology. It may seem a strange coincidence that the lower portions of the walls at Portsmouth — the sections that constituted the rattlesnake — extend for ten miles, and the walls southwest of Newark also extend for ten miles.

      You asked why they would go for ten miles and then stop. One answer would be that the Newark walls recapitulated the earlier Portsmouth walls in length. There are indeed other features in the Chillicothe and Newark areas that appear to be recapitulations or simulacra of features at Portsmouth. Warren DeBoer suggested something similar (but not the same features I refer to) in his article about the “targeting” arrangement of Scioto Valley earthworks. In other words, the walls at Newark may have extended for ten miles (a significant length, approximately, in the Adena measurement system), precisely because the principal set of walls at Portsmouth extends for that same length, and this was seen as the prototype site. With that perspective, the idea that the Newark walls had to extend further would be very wrong.

      As for the walls not necessarily being walkable — sure they are walkable NOW, but we don’t know what the surface was like at time of construction. Perhaps they were intended to hold water at least partially, and that would make them unwalkable. Many or most of the sets of parallel walls were crossed by stream channels or even rivers and ravines. These would make the paths unwalkable. Also, Brad Lepper has suggested that these “vias” may have been “paved” with clamshells. Walking on a road of clamshells in hide moccasins would be an interesting experiment.

      You have misunderstood what I said about bird migration. First, get whatever ideas of symbolism you have out of your head. This has nothing to do with any kind of symbolism or ceremony. Pre-Columbian Central Algonquians believed that they would resurrect in the form of migratory birds when they died. This was a literal belief that was well documented upon first contact. Central Ohio, namely the Scioto Valley and its adjunct valleys, constitute the principal migratory bird flyway in eastern North America. The location of funereal mounds and earthworks along the flyway is not coincidental.

      Migratory birds can also be led in migration by roads and other artificial structures — something that our highways often do unintentionally and to ill effect. The ancient Algonquians, believing that the birds carried the souls of their dearly departed, had a strong interest in guiding the flocks along migration pathways that would be shorter and less hazardous. The pathway laid out by the various parallel wall segments between Porstmouth and Newark in fact led birds along a less-hazardous migration pathway, and that is likely the principal purpose for which the walls were built. Nothing to do with symbolism or ceremony. They were functional structures that served a purpose.

  14. Hold the phone. In your reply you stated: “Pre-Columbian Central Algonquians believed that they would resurrect in the form of migratory birds when they died.”

    Citations please. That’s a big statement considering it is not recorded by any ethnographers that I am acquainted with, nor is it echoed in any contemporary Shawnee belief system.

    Ben Barnes, Second Chief of Shawnee Tribe

    1. Of course it was recorded by ethnographers. It was the principle belief of Great Lakes Indians recorded in the Jesuit Relations of the 16th-17th centuries. We can also be confident that it was a Paleolithic belief shared between Eurasia and both American continents, highly concentrated among the Algonquians, because the motif of migratory birds carrying the souls of the dead has been tracked and mapped by the Russian ethnographer Yuri Berezkin in numerous articles he has published in the journal Folklore.

      Moreover, this belief lies at the heart of the system of Algonquian totemism. It’s not possible to understand the Central Algonquian totemic system or Algonquian star lore without an appreciation of that core belief.

      The problem with most popular ethnography is that it explores only what was within the living memory of Natives when modern ethnographers went to work in the latter part of the 19th century, without appreciating how forced Christianization in the Great Lakes region had obliterated the old cosmology. The ethnologists of the 19th and 20th centuries were interested in what Natives believed and practiced then, not what their ancestors had believed and practiced pre-conquest.

  15. And since the principal carrier of human souls had been the Passenger Pigeon, as reported in the Jesuit Relations and by the Bureau of Ethnology, and that bird was extinct in the wild by 1900 with migration patterns radically disturbed by the onset of the 1800s, the Algonquians who had focused their funereal practices on the pigeons quickly altered those practices.

  16. Hmm. Had sinus surgery today, so I’ll just promise to follow this line of thought with some further reading . . . I’m just going to say for now that, Brad Lepper and others have noted some freshwater mussel shell paving (the areas around the headwaters of the Monongahela recorded a few of these in the stretches of parallel walled passages from the river up a ways along the banks), but I don’t know that anyone has suggested their length was paved thusly. More research is needed!

    As for “Portsmouth priority,” it’s like arguments for and against Mark’s priority in Biblical studies versus Matthew and Luke. You can find many assertions about Matthew, Luke, and Q preceding Mark’s account . . . but many doesn’t mean mainstream. I do promise, though, to look into the question of Portsmouth having a prior, pre-eminent claim in Ohio Middle Woodland prehistory.

    1. That’s a really bad analogy because with the New Testament gospels, we’re talking about works for which no original material exists, so it’s a debate about disembodied language. In the earthwork case, it’s not a matter of how many “scholars” subscribe to which doctrine — who would even count as a scholar since virtually no professionals have been willing to stake any claim about chronology? Rather, it’s a question of the empirical evidence as we set about to figure out the chronology. Logic here does play a role. Does anybody think that a sophisticated and extensive civilization started in Newark? Why would it? What’s in Newark? Newark was a very inconvenient place to get to for people traveling principally by canoe. Newark as a population center of the civilization lacks sensibility and material evidence.

      On the other hand, the confluence of the region’s two major rivers along which the earthworks were located makes perfect sense. Even in historic times, the two principal towns of the Shawnee before they were pushed north were at the confluences of the Ohio with the Kanawha and the Scioto. (And both of those towns may have evolved continuously from Adena times.) Simple transit logic dictates why.

      On the macro level, the heavy concentration of Early Woodland mounds in Kentucky and West Virginia and the relative absence of Middle Woodland mounds in those states, with the flowering of Ohio earthworks in the Middle Woodland Period makes the general direction of earthwork construction clear: It moved from south to north. DeBoer’s work confirms this northward movement within the Scioto Valley.

      Radiocarbon dates confirm that picture, as Olaf Prufer was first to note. Tremper Mound — part of the Portsmouth Works — was the first expression of the style that some still insist on calling “Hopewell.” On the other hand, the last such expressions in the middle Ohio Valley were the High Bank site near Chillicothe and then the Newark Octagon Works.

      That’s a pretty solid basis for saying that this civilization was first centered along the Kanawha-Portsmouth axis and only later extended northward to Newark in terms of earthwork construction.

      1. Geoffrey,
        You clearly have a vendetta against Brad Lepper’s life research and dedication towards this topic of effigy mounds and earthworks. I stumbled upon this post while writing a research paper over the Alligator Mound specifically for my term paper in a class, and let me tell you… you are quite entertaining to read at 1:30 in the morning. The fact that you started this argument/discussion back in November of 2011 is very telling. Thanks for the lengthy comment section, love it!

        1. Schifty, no kidding. Though entertaining as it was, it was a very hard read to get through every word. Congrats to Mr. Lepper for so politely encouraging Mr. Sea to provide the entertainment. Not only does Mr. Sea clearly have a history of disagreeing with Mr. Lepper, I suspect he probably disagrees with just about everyone since he expressed each of his opinions, some of them quite fringe, without room for discussion.

          I read this entire thread and I don’t think one phrase can be produced where Mr. Sea uses any phrasing to suggest that any of his conclusions are open to further consideration. Each time he communicates it is to unequivocally state exactly what an earthwork is, how is should be interpreted, who created it, what it was for, when it was created, who is wrong in their conclusions of what, etc.

          Even when Mr. Bradbury simply offered the idea that the Serpent mound could be an interpretation of the Eastern Hognose snake Mr. Sea responds;

          “By citing the opinion of modern “naturalists,” you assume that the ancient Algonquians had studied Euro-American herpetology, that they intended this huge earthwork as a naturalist field guide (for whom?), that the spiral does not represent something other than a snake’s tail, and that they had no artistic conventions of their own.”

          No rational person, and I think “rational” is the key consideration here, would read Mr. Bradbury’s suggested interpretation and conclude that he indeed “assumes” the scope of incredibly presumptive nonsense offered by Mr. Sea. Heck, if Mr. Sea offered the hognose suggestion instead of Mr. Bradbury, and Mr. Lepper responded with the same presumptive reply as Mr. Sea, then Mr. Sea would have written a twelve paragraph rebuttal to Mr. Lepper (which he should then write to himself) itemizing each stupid part of that response in order to demonstrate his superior ability to capture the complete volume of folly from anyone who dares to disagree with him.

          I recently read “History Got it Wrong: Scientists Now Say Serpent Mound as Old as Aristotle” (http://indiancountrytodaymedianetwork.com/2014/08/07/rethinking-ohios-history-serpent-mound-older-some-its-dirt-156268) and thought it taught me something. I even made notes about it. Now, seeing that it was written by the same Mr. Sea who has left the many questionable comments above, I know better how to apply the opinions of the article.

          I suppose the most useful thing Mr. Sea retaught me is to not believe everything you read.

          1. I have commented only on Brad Lepper’s ideas as he so frequently expresses them, almost all of which regarding Serpent Mound have been shown to be contradicted by evidence. That includes not only the dating of the mound and the attribution of “culture” but all of his various “interpretations” which emanate from his bizarre unsupported idea that effigy mounds on hilltops far from lakes were built to in some way venerate a “water panther” figure that exists only in Lepper’s imagination. He borrows the name “Mizhipezhi” to name this alleged creature without realizing that the name explicitly means panther in Algonquian language — an ordinary panther not any kind of mythical beast. Obviously, Serpent Mound does not represent a panther, and no evidence of veneration of it is present. I

            I have not spoken of any personal qualities of Brad Lepper, which I don’t claim to know. I have no idea why Brad puts forward so many baseless interpretations and hope that he stops. You, however, have chosen to make personal assaults on me, rather than on my ideas, which apparently you cannot challenge. That, of course, is classic ad hominem attack.

  17. For reasons I have already expressed, and those I reiterate below, I doubt you represent Mr. Lepper’s opinions on Serpent Mound correctly with respect to panthers since Mr. Lepper seems to disagree with most of what you say, and everything you say that you attribute to him.

    Calling your comments entertaining and suggesting that some of your conclusions, which you so fervently espouse, are irrational, fringe, and questionable, are very reasonable personal emotions I felt and opinions I derived.

    Now, suggesting how you would have responded if the rolls between you and Mr. Bradbury were reversed was definitely speculative on my part. Perhaps my speculation was similar to yours when you made the statement; “The lack of evidence pertains to the convolutions in Brad Lepper’s brain, not the actual scientific record.” However, mentioning the multiple logical errors you made by concluding what Mr. Bradbury must assume when he simply pointed out that he “thinks” present day naturalists or herpetologists can identify serpent mound as representing a specific type of snake illustrated either your interesting thought processes or your disagreeable nature.

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