Setting: Beringia

Here’s the setting for my second book: Beringia circa 10,000 BC.

As you can see, at this time the sea levels were lower (coastlines are a guess). Volcanoes were active in what is now the Kamchatka Peninsula.

The area that is now the Bering Strait is believed to have been a vast plain that somehow, despite being so far North, supported a great variety of game, including different varieties of mammoth.

Meanwhile, weirdly, North America was still covered in ice sheets. No one knows why this should be, but here is a guess. Anyway, the ice sheets were beginning to melt, creating an ice-free corridor down into the Americas. When exactly this corridor became passable is up for debate. There may also have been a coastal way to access North America (not shown on this map). Meanwhile, there could also have been people migrating to America from Africa via the Atlantic, and from Asia via Polynesia.

The corridor could also have been the route that Gigantopithecus took to get to America.

Late in the book, my characters discover mountains of ice. The ice is south of them and lies between them and the sea. They are just as confused by this as you are.

Maybe They Had a Tram

Today is Columbus Day, and also Native American Day. I know this because I have a wall calendar that was sent to me by St. Joseph’s Indian School in Chamberlain, SD. If it’s Native American Day, they ought to know.

So, thanks to them – and the kids who attend the school – for this post.

Since we are honoring Native Americans today, let’s return to a common theme on this blog: ancient people were a lot smarter than we think.

“An island grave site hints at far-flung ties among ancient Americans: Great Lakes and southeastern hunter-gatherers may have had direct contact 4,000 years ago”

Misanthropic Quote of the Week: About Stone Age People

The Lovas [Hungary] find [of an ochre mine dated to 30,000 years ago] … appears unexpectedly, out of nothing, as it were. [It] consisted of tools suited to quarry red paint — a purely ‘luxury’ article, according to our present outlook. The quantity and perfect finish of the tools, together with the difficulties involved in obtaining the raw material, demanded an astonishing degree of concentration … on the part of primitive man. Such qualities are not usually associated with palaeolithic man who is regarded as being unable to concentrate his attention, rather clumsy and heavy in his cerebral activities except those connected with the fundamental functions of self-preservation and the propagation of the race.

Mészáros and Vertes, quoted in The Lost Civilizations of the Stone Age by Richard Rudgley, pp. 179 – 180

This academic-ese for, “Gee, we thought that paleolithic people were stupid brutes, but now it turns out they were people after all.”

I especially love the snooty euphemisms except those connected with the fundamental functions of self-preservation and the propagation of the race. It might be couched in academic terms, but this is clearly a reference to our mental picture of a cave man clubbing a saber-toothed tiger and then dragging some poor woman away by her hair.

Poem: The Stone Serpent of Loch Nell

Why lies this mighty serpent here,

Let him who knoweth tell —

With its head to the land and its huge tail near

The shore of fair Loch Nell?

Why lies it here? — not here alone,

But far to East and West

The wonder-working snake is known,

A mighty god confessed.

Where Ganga scoops his sacred bed,

And rolls his blissful flood,

Above Trimurti’s threefold head

The serpent swells his hood.

And where the procreant might of Nile

Impregned the seedful rood,

Enshrined with cat and crocodile

The holy serpent stood.

And when o’er Tiber’s yellow foam

The hot sirocca blew,

And smote the languid sons of Rome

With fever’s yellow hue,

Then forth from Esculapius’s shrine

The Pontiff’s arm revealed,

In folded coils, the snake divine,

And all the sick were healed.

And Wisest Greece the virtue knew

Of the bright and scaly twine,

When winged snakes the chariot drew

From Dame Demeter’s shrine.

And Maenad maids, with festive sound,

Did keep the night awake,

When with three feet they beat the ground,

And hymned the Bacchic snake.

And west, far west, beyond the seas,

Beyond Tezcuco’s lake,

In lands where gold grows thick as peas,

Was known this holy snake.

And here the mighty god was known

In Europe’s early morn,

In view of Cruachan’s triple cone,

Before John Bull was born.

And worship knew of Celtic ground,

With trumpets, drums, and bugles,

Before a trace in Lorn was found

Of Campbells or Macdougalls.

And here the serpent lies in pride

His hoary tale to tell,

And rears his mighty head beside

The shore of fair Loch Nell.

Poem written by Prof. Blackie, accompanying the description of the Loch Nell serpent by Miss Cummin, quoted in The Serpent Mound by E.O. Randall

Neolithic People Were Really Smart

“Scottish Crannogs Dated to Neolithic Period” in Archaeology

“Diver’s 5,500-year-old Discovery Hauls History of Scottish Crannogs Into Question” in Ancient Origins (By the way, see what they did there? The discovery was hauled up out of the water, and it hauls the history into question …?)

What is a crannog and would you like to live on one?

Turns out a crannog is a small artificial island made by piling rocks in a loch (that’s lake to you non-Scots), on which people lived.

These things are really widespread. Check out the map in the Ancient Origins article that shows their locations all around Scotland and the outer Hebrides. And apparently they exist in Ireland too.

According to the two articles above, crannogs once were thought to date to the Iron Age or even to medieval times. Now a few of them have been dated to the Neolithic era. I am a dating skeptic, but given what we suspect about the brilliant engineering capabilities of ancient man, the Neolithic idea sounds as plausible as any.

And if they are indeed Neolithic, the crannogs were probably built by pre-Celtic people. If we follow Arthur C. Custance, it’s likely the builders were Hamite. Imagine the engineering ability that it would take to create a livable artificial island that is still around thousands of years later.

I can’t imagine what would make people think they needed to live on these tiny, inconvenient islands, but it can’t have been good.

Serpent Mound, Ohio

Body of the serpent seen from the viewing tower, looking North

Ohio’s serpent mound was first discovered by white people in about 1846.  It was difficult to survey or even to find due to being covered in trees and brush.  When the brush was partly cleared, it became obvious that the mound, perched on a cliff at the confluence of a creek (which cliff itself resembles the head of a serpent), was a really remarkable earthwork and was designed to be visible from the nearby valley.

The following article will draw on the book The Serpent Mound by E.O. Randall, published in 1905, which is a compilation of maps, surveys, and speculation about the mound by archaeologists of the time; and on my own visit to the mound. One advantage in using these older sources is that we get a variety of voices, we can learn what the Mound looked like when it was first (re)-discovered, and we get an archaeological perspective that is different from the modern one.  For example, one source in Randall’s book says the mound appears to be “not more than 1,000 years old, nor less than 350 years” (p.50).  This is not very precise, but I actually prefer it to a super-confident proclamation about the mound’s age based on dating methods and assumptions that might be suspect.  In fact, the uncertainty of this early source is echoed by the informational video in the mound’s museum.  It features an archaeologist saying that we could get “a million different carbon dates” from the mound because the earth was that used to build it was already old and had been through multiple forest fires, etc.  He adds that it’s basically impossible to carbon-date earthworks.

On the Road to Serpent Mound

Walking south along the serpent (viewing tower in background)

To get to Serpent Mound (at least from where we are), you get in your car and head south over the Ohio highways.  You leave behind the urban build-up and progress into farm country.  Eventually, the landscape becomes less Midwestern and more Appalachian. Hills and hollers take the place of open farmland.  Finally, after hopping from one rural route to another, you find yourself winding through thickly wooded hills in southern Ohio.  You approach the Mound from the South.  Though it stands on a bluff overlooking Brush Creek, the area is so heavily wooded that you can’t catch a glimpse of the Mound on your way in.

Large burial mound some ways south of the serpent

This land was purchased in 1885.  At that time, the land was owned by a farmer and the Mound was “in a very neglected and deplorable condition” (Randall 106).  To save the Mound from “inevitable destruction,” a Prof. F.W. Putnam arranged to have it bought by the Trustees of the Peabody Museum, Cambridge, where he was Chief of the Ethnological and Archaeological Department.  Putnam later worked to have a law protecting it passed in Ohio, the first law of its kind in the United States (Randall 108).  Today the Mound is a National Historical Landmark.  Besides the Serpent itself, the area includes some additional burial mounds, a picnic shelter, and a tiny, log-cabin-style museum.

You disembark in the parking lot.  The heat, the humidity, the strong sweetish green smells, and the variety of insect life remind you of your Appalachian childhood.  They also remind you why you are planning to move out West.

The Serpent Mound Itself

An old drawing of the serpent as it would look if there were no trees around it (Randall p. 8)

Serpent Mound is difficult to describe in words, so please see the associated maps and photographs.  It is 1335 feet long (winding over an area of about 500 feet), varies from three to six feet high, and slopes downward from the spiral tail to the jaws and egg which stand on the tip of the overlook.  The head faces West towards the sunset at Summer Solstice.   The body includes three bends which may sight towards the sunrises at Summer Solstice, Equinox, and Winter Solstice (short lines of sight and the gentle curves of the Serpent make it difficult to tell whether these alignments were intended for astronomical viewing).

Archaeologists have discovered the serpent once had a fourth coil near the head, which was deliberately dismantled.

It was made apparently by hand on a base of clay, followed by rocks, more clay, dirt, and then sod.  Though it cannot be carbon-dated, there is evidence that it is not as ancient as some megaliths elsewhere in the world.  The bluff it sits on and the creeks that surround it cannot be older than the retreat of the glaciers.   The burials near it date to the Adena period, which runs 600 B.C. to 100 A.D., though there is no way to tell if the burials are contemporaneous with the Serpent or were added later.  There has even been speculation that the Mound could have been built by the Fort Ancient culture, which flourished around 1000 A.D.

The “egg” which the Serpent contains in its jaws (or, the Serpent’s eye) used to have in its center a stone altar which bore traces of fire.  (In the largest burial, too, the corpse was placed on a bed of hot coals and then covered with clay while the coals were still smoldering.)   We assume, then, that the Serpent was the site of ceremonies, but we have no way of knowing anything about their nature.

A close up view of the oval “egg.” It once contained an altar.

The Serpent, despite its name, does not give a spooky or “wrong” feeling.  The scale of it is very human and does not overwhelm.  The shapes and proportions of the curves are pleasing and give a sense of calm and beauty.  The Serpent is, in fact, inviting to walk on.  One is tempted to walk along the curves, climb down into the oval of the egg, step into the middle of the spiral tail.  One cannot do this, of course, as it is strictly forbidden.

The only problem with Serpent aesthetically (if this is a problem) is that it’s impossible to view it all at once.  This is mostly because of the bend in the tail.  In modern times an understated observation tower has been placed next to the Serpent, right near the tailmost curve.  But even from the top of this tower it is impossible to take in the entire Serpent with either eye or cellphone camera.  Looking to the left, we get a view of the spiral tail.  Looking to the right, we see the undulations stretching off into the distance and falling away with the slope of the hill, but even then we cannot see the entire head because it takes its own slight curve and is blocked by trees. 

Approaching the tail spiral. In the background, the cliff drops away into a wooded vista.

I can’t help but think this effect is intentional.  This monument is not designed to be taken in all at once, looking along a line of sight, and to overwhelm the viewer.  Instead, it’s apparently designed to draw us on, tantalizingly offering small charming vista after small charming vista.  There is no one best place to view it.  Perhaps the architects among us can explain what this says about the minds and intentions of the people who designed it.

Fort Ancient, another hill-and-plateau complex in southern Ohio, is also sprawling, hard to view, and offers the same “please explore me” effect.

Fort Ancient is a plateau surrounded by man-made hills with gaps in them, overlooking the Little Miami River, Ohio. It has man-made mounds on it as well.

“Effigy Mounds” in North America

The Serpent is definitely not the only large animal-shaped mound in North America.  There are many of them, called by archaeologists “effigy mounds” (not the usual meaning of the term effigy). 

“The effigy mounds appear … in various parts of … the Mississippi Valley.  They are found in many of the southern states; many appear in Illinois, but Wisconsin seems to have been their peculiar field.  Hundreds of them were discovered in that state … In Wisconsin they represent innumerable animal forms: the moose, buffalo, bear, fox, deer, frog, eagle, hawk, panther, elephant, and various fishes, birds and even men and women.  In a few instances, a snake.  In Wisconsin the effigies were usually situated on high ridges along the rivers or on the elevated shores of the lake.  Very few effigy mounds have been found in Ohio – though it is by far the richest field in other forms of mounds.” (Randall 31) 

There are, of course, large animal-shaped terraforms in other parts of the world, such as the Uffington and Westbury White Horses in Britain and the Nazca Lines in Peru.

So Ohio’s serpent mound is not unique.  It is, however, impressive and well-done, and tends to strike people as mysterious and significant.

The Serpent Mound is a Giant Rorschach Blot

Map of the serpent found in the museum

Whatever else it might be, the Serpent Mound reliably functions as a giant Rorschach blot.  It appears significant but ambiguous.  Everyone who is not content admit that we don’t know its purpose tends to bring their own interpretation.

Here are four examples.

One example, roundly mocked in Randall’s book, is the “amusing and ridiculous” “Garden of Eden fancy” (p. 93).  This theory, put forward by a Baptist minister of the day, is that the Mound was built by God Himself to commemorate the eating of the forbidden fruit and to warn mankind against the Serpent.  The oval object, which many people take to be an egg, is on this view the forbidden fruit itself, which the Serpent is taking in its jaws as if to eat or offer.  Furthermore, the three streams that come together nearby represent the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.  “Pain and death are shown by the convolutions of the serpent, just as a living animal would portray pain and death’s agony … America is, in fact, the land in which Eden was located” (pp 99, 101). 

Now, here’s another interpretation, based on the accepted anthropology of the day: “Students of anthropology, ethnology and archaeology seem to agree that among the earliest of religious beliefs is that of animism or nature worship.  Next to this in the rising scale is animal worship and following it is sun worship.  Animism is the religion of the savage and wilder races, who are generally wanderers.  Animal worship is more peculiarly the religion of the sedentary tribes … Sun worship is the religion of the village tribes and is peculiar to the stage which borders upon the civilized.  ‘Now judging from the circumstances and signs,’ says Dr. Peet, ‘we should say that the emblematic mound builders were in a transition state between the conditions of savagery and barbarism and that they had reached the point where animal worship is very prevalent’” (pp. 37 – 38).

This theory of the slow development of man’s religion as they rise out of “savagery” into “barbarism” and finally into “civilization” is reported with much more respect than the Baptist pastor’s theory, but it is in fact just as fanciful.  It is based on an overly neat-and-tidy and, frankly, snobby view of the history of religion that was popular for many years but that actual history does not support.  But, again, Rorschach blot.

Many other observors have linked the Mound with its oval to the “egg and serpent” origin mythology that crops up in many places in the world, including Greece and India. This theory receives many pages in Randall’s book.

We got rained on while at Serpent Mound. Coincidence? I think not!

To take just one more out of many other examples, on this very blog we learned from a book review that Graham Hancock’s latest book prominently features the Serpent Mound as part of his latest theory that North America is, in fact, the source of the Atlantis legends.  He believes that the Mound is meant to represent the constellation Draco and was built during an era when Draco was ascendant.  Or something like that.

I, too, have taken the Serpent Mound Rorschach test and here is what I see.  I see more evidence that serpent mythology (with or without eggs) and the strong motivation to build large, long-lasting religious monuments are both universal in human culture.  I personally think that these things didn’t arise independently in every corner of the world but were carried distributively and that they represent distant memories of certain events in human history, which are hinted at but not fleshed out in the early chapters of Genesis. However, I am not fool enough to think that the existence of Serpent Mounds “proves” any of this.  It is, as I said, a Rorschach blot.

Other Serpent Mounds Around the World

Otonabee Serpent Mound sits on the north shore of Rice Lake, not far from the city of Toronto, Ontario (Randall 114). It is 189 feet long. The head faces “a few degrees north of east,” with an oval burial mound in front of the head which could represent an egg (115). 

In Scotland, there is the stone serpent of Loch Nell:

“The mound is situated on a grassy plain.  The tail of the serpent rests near the shore of Loch Nell, and the mound gradually rises seventeen to twenty feet in height and is continued for 300 feet, ‘forming a double curve like the letter S’ … the head lies at the western end [and] forms a circular cairn, on which [in 1871] there still remained some trace of an altar, which has since wholly disappeared, thanks to the cattle and herd boys.  … The mound has been formed in such a position that worshippers, standing at the altar, would naturally look eastward, directly along the whole length of the great reptile, and across the dark lake to the triple peaks of Ben Chruachan. This position must have been carefully selected, as from no other point are the three peaks visible.  General Forlong … says, ‘Here we have an earth-formed snake, emerging in the usual manner from dark water, at the base, as it were, of a triple cone – Scotland’s Mount Hermon, – just as we so frequently meet snakes and their shrines in the East.’” (Randall pp. 121 – 122)

Speaking of Mount Hermon.  This large, lone mountain sits at the northern end of the Golan Heights in Israel.  It is so high that it is home to a winter ski resort.  In ancient times, this region was called Bashan.  It was known for its large and vigorous animals (the “bulls of Bashan”), and for its humanoid giants.  Down to Hellenistic times, Bashan was a center for pagan worship (the Greek god Pan had a sacred site there).  And guess what else it has?  A serpent mound.

“The serpent mound of Bashan has ruins on its head and tail.  The ruins are square (altars?) on top of small circular mounds” (Van Dorn 144).  

The Ohio serpent’s spiral tail, which evokes a stone circle. Viewing tower in the background.

This serpent mound is less than mile from a stone circle called Gilgal Rephaim (“Wheel of the Giants”).  (Stone circles, as sacred sites, are also found throughout the world.)  “The Wheel contains some 42,000 tons of partly worked stone, built into a circle 156 meters in diameter and 8 feet high on the outer wall.  It is aligned to the summer solstice.  The area is littered with burial chambers … If you go due North of the Wheel, [sighting] through the serpentine mound [and proceed] for 28 miles, you will run straight into the summit of Mt. Hermon” (Van Dorn 145).

Serpent, altar, circle, and sacred mountain.  I don’t know about you, but the site in Golan sounds a lot scarier to me than Ohio’s Serpent Mound. However, it also makes me wonder whether people in Ohio – and Scotland – were trying to re-create this arrangement.

Sources

Giants: Sons of the gods by Douglas Van Dorn, Waters of Creation Publishing, Erie, Colorado, 2013.

The Serpent Mound: Adams County, Ohio: Mystery of the Mound and History of the Serpent: Various Theories of the Effigy Mounds and the Mound Builders, by E.O. Randall (L.L., M., Secretary Ohio State Archeological and Historical Society; Reporter Ohio Supreme Court), Coachwhip Publications, Greenville Ohio, 2013.  First published 1905.  This book is a compilation: “The effort has been made not merely to give a description, indeed several descriptions, of Serpent Mound, but also to set forth a summary of the literature concerning the worship of the serpent. … It is hoped that this volume, while it may not solve the problem of the origin and purpose of the Serpent Mound, will at least add to its interest and give the reader such information as it is possible to obtain.” (page 5)

This Delightful Archaeological Dig Proves We Know Nothing

“Archaeologists Are Finding Woodstock Really Did Take On Life of Its Own”

Yes, you read that right: “Woodstock” and archaeology in the same sentence.

Imagine how fun it would be to excavate Woodstock.

There are people still alive who were there. There are documents and maps and photographs. We know what the purpose of the gathering was and how many days it lasted. We know what to expect.

Nevertheless, the article includes this line:

“By examining surface vegetation and rocks in the area, now covered in forest, the team was able to identify 24 booth sites and 13 other ‘cultural features’ that were made by people, but whose function is not known.”

On a dig at a site that is just 50 years old, still in living memory, there are man-made features whose function is not known.

So many things to speculate about here. Are the structures additional snack booths? Port-a-Johns? First Aid tents? Opium dens? Bases for journalists or event security? Hideouts built by parents who were checking up on their children? Just really big and elaborate tents made by unusually enterprising attendees?

Further speculation. What if this site were 1,000 years old? 5,000 years? What if we didn’t know exactly how old it was? What if we weren’t sure whether it had been used annually for 500 years by 1,000 people or once, for three days, by 400,000? What if it were a refugee camp, a religious gathering, or some sort of pagan orgy? Perhaps we would find the names of the gods and goddesses who were worshiped here. (Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, and The Grateful Dead. The latter were probably entities less like gods and more like the Valkyries or the Furies, though in this case they seem to have been male.)

What if Herodotus had told us a little something about this gathering, though he only heard about it third-hand and didn’t seem to know much about it, and we are not even sure this is the same one he meant?

Please, speculate a little more in the comments. Go wild.