The Serpent Mound Debate

Archaeologists disagree about who built this remarkable effigy mound now known as Serpent Mound, and when they did it.

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An aerial photograph of Serpent Mound taken from a drone. The mound is a National Historic Landmark. Credit: Jarrod Burks.
An aerial photograph of Serpent Mound taken from a drone. The mound is a National Historic Landmark. Credit: Jarrod Burks.

Fall 2017: By David Malakoff.

Anyone who has tried to catch a snake knows the reptiles are elusive. So it only seems appropriate that Serpent Mound, a twisting, quarter-mile long, three-foot-high earthwork in southern Ohio, has eluded archaeologists’ grasps for decades. Over the past 170 years, researchers have offered changing and conflicting views on the age of the iconic effigy, which has been designated a National Historic Landmark. Some believe that people of the Adena culture, who created countless elaborate earthen mounds in the central Ohio River Valley and adjacent lands, built the serpent about 2,300 years ago. But others assert that it’s less than half that age, and that it was produced by the Fort Ancient people, who also built earthworks in this region.

Regardless of who is right, recent research has cast new light on one of North America’s most distinctive, mysterious, and disputed ancient sites. “The great Serpent Mound is a really special place,” said archaeologist Bradley Lepper of the nonprofit Ohio History Connection, which owns the site. “You can’t walk along those curves without wanting to know more about who built it, when they built it, and what they were thinking. It is just a fascinating effigy.”

In the 1840s, journalist Ephraim Squier and physician Edwin Davis—both avid artifact collectors—embarked on a systematic effort to document and map ancient earthworks across the Eastern United States. In 1846, acting on a vague tip about a “work of defence” atop a heavily wooded cliff overlooking Brush Creek in Adams County, the two men were surprised to find the giant effigy. After careful mapping (a backbreaking task), its form became clear: an enormous egg-shaped head with a single eye, attached to a body with a half-dozen curves and a tightly coiled tail. It was, they later wrote, “probably the most extraordinary earthwork thus far discovered.” Scholarly speculation about the serpent’s origins began swirling.

Excerpt.

Read more about 3D Modeling Ohio Earthworks from our recent blog by Jamie Davis.

Read More in our FALL 2017 Issue of American Archaeology, Vol. 20 No. 4. Browse Content of this Issue: Fall 2017 . Browse Articles Excerpts from our last issue, SUMMER 2017.

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2 COMMENTS

  1. I challenge that it is a serpent at all. Are we to believe that they built an effort to a snake overlooking the river, the river that was their life source? I would re-examine the theory and consider that this is more likely an effigy to the river.

  2. This earthwork depicting the maze sprout and the bean (the bean is believed to most likely be a squash native historically to these parts of North America) situated at the stalk base with its major axis falling to the summer solstice sunset and hump areas along the length of the sprout with their respective apex axis marking the 2 solstice sunrises of the year as well as the mid calendar equinox all plotted off of true north. This marriage of maze and squash represents the deep seated horticulture base of indigenous peoples to this area and their ties to the seasons that govern the growth and harvest of crops and therefore give life as its gift. Native Eastern Woodland Nations lore tells of the corn and the bean in oral tradition and their accompaniment with one another as a sacred partnership giving structure to the sprout as the maze grows tall. The origin and prehistoric use of the mound structure is at its heart a Farmers Almanac of sorts for a people to whom maze cultivation rooted them in many ways and was celebrated in its kind with ritual celebrations like the Green Corn Dance. Use of the mound would be described in simple terms as “this is what best to plant, this is when to plant, and this is when to harvest”. While this is not as exciting and shrouded in illusion as stories of great serpents, meteor craters, and eggs of all things in a reptiles mouth drawn by a people of no common history, save that of comparatively recent unmentionable despair, this is a marker that allowed for the successful planting and harvesting, in an area of this nation fertile beyond imagining for thousands of years. Opposing views, most commonly known, is the white European descriptions and misguided assumptions that describe no less than a mystical serpent holding an egg in its mouth with ties to astrology and no other cultural or otherwise fitting information as if made in as whimsical manner as a painting or sculpture. This despite the obvious intensive labor of some great work needing to defy the elements that could insure timely harvest and success of crops feeding countless people. The currently labeled “Serpent Mound” represents to this day the initial perception and label of white European settlers grappling with and confounded by a new environment. Many scholars have studied and continue to study this area, mounds, and other artifacts in effort to match data and make the name “serpent mound” fit what cannot easily be explained by those foreign to the land. One might argue had any one of a number of first settlers inquired about this and many other similar structures to the Shawnee elders of the area in the mid and late 1700’s the matter might have been explained in as many minutes.

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