Serpent Mound, Ohio

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

This post originally appeared on this site on July 19, 2019.

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 to 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 Mound “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)

Do Your Part. Stop Eating, Going to the Bathroom, and Reproducing.

So, this might be a little bit of a rant.

Today we have this lovely article, the link for which was sent to me by my husband:

Hobbits and other early humans not ‘destructive agents’ of extinction, scientists find

I’ll give you a moment to click on the link and go read the article in all its awful glory.

Ah.

There. You back?

Let’s take a moment to appreciate everything going on with this article. First of all, the unironic use of “hobbits” in the headline. Waaay down in the article we get the explanation, “For example, on Flores in Indonesia, where the “Hobbits,” or Homo floresiensis, lived …” I kind of have an issue with naming an actual group of humans, “hobbits.” Granted, maybe they were short, like some people groups living in the Philippines, Australia, and Africa today. And at least, in the explanation, the term is put in quote marks. But when you use Hobbits with no quote marks in a headline, it gives the impression that you don’t know what you are talking about, sort of like some of the news articles that came out when the Lord of the Rings movies did, which incorrectly summarized the books.

Secondly, when we did start calling everyone hominins instead of hominids? That also looks like a typo. I’m guessing what it actually is, is some newfangled anthropological term that is meant to imply a class of beings that were somehow even less human than hominids. You all know my feelings on that. (Human rights for Neanderthals!)

Thirdly, as a not-too-dim layperson, I’ve got to say that the “findings” in this article strike me as a sort of rickety Tower of Babel of assumptions (see what I did there?), piled on top of one another, each one of which could possibly turn out to be bunkum. First, there is the difficulty and inconsistency of dating events millions of years in the past. Related to this is the uncertainty of determining, at this time depth, such things as exactly when and why a given species went extinct, and when a population actually arrived on an island.

Finally, the word “jerk.” I don’t mind this word; I use it when called for. In this article, all it takes to be a jerk, apparently, is to exist as a human and cause some kind of detectable change to the natural environment. This is coming out of the whole world view where humans are not part of any kind of design for the world and are not supposed to alter it in any way; hence any human-caused environmental change is by definition bad. I mean, I’m with you; I think the Mediterranean dwarf elephant was cute and it’s too bad if humans contributed to its demise. But when things pass away, we can mourn them even if it was their time to pass away.

Example: I recently heard the argument made that “the earth is fragile.” Evidence to back this up was that the Everglades, a unique swamp ecosystem in Florida, will vanish if sea levels rise. Now, that would be a shame. We would indeed lose many things if sea levels rose. But the Everglades are not the same as the earth. Sea levels have been lower in the past, as evidenced by many archaeological sites that we discover off the coasts. Sea levels rose, and those parts of the land were lost to us. But the earth went on. On the other hand, much of North America was once, I am told, a shallow inland sea. Now it’s plains, mountains, deserts, etc. Again, the ecosystems changed — a lot — but the event was more properly termed change than just purely destruction.

Assuming that the many premises in this article are actually true, and that they actually support the conclusion that ancient humany people had less of an impact on the natural environment than did people in the last 12,000 years or so, I can think of one major reason that would be the case: population density. Lower populations have less impact on their environment. They just do. You cannot eat all the mammoths when the mammoths outnumber the people. Also, if you have a teeny tiny village of just a few dozen people, even your sewage is not that big a deal. You can go and do your business back in the woods behind your garden. People don’t even really see the point of toilets until a certain population density is reached.

So, if a larger population means more environmental impact, and environmental impact means you are a “jerk,” then we have finally identified the problem. The problem, on this value system, is that there are too damn many of you. Put another way, the big problem with you is that you exist.

So, if you want to be morally upright according to this value system, but you don’t quite feel up to suicide, I suggest you that make like Harry Potter and “be in [your] room, being very quiet and pretending [you] don’t exist.”

Here are some practical ways to apply that.

Stop eating all the animals. (Ideally, stop eating.) Stop breathing out so much carbon dioxide. Try not to fart, of course, and also not to produce too much sewage. (That will be easier once you stop eating.) And whatever you do, for God’s earth’s sake don’t produce any more awful human beings! They will just go on eating and breathing and pooping and doing all those icky things that destroy the beautiful Everglades.

Misleading Archeology Headline of the Week

Pottery Shard May Be ‘Missing Link’ in the Alphabet’s Development

So, according to the article itself, here’s what is really going on:

“… the script represents a “missing link” connecting alphabetic inscriptions found in Egypt and Sinai with later writing from Canaan. The writing uses an early version of the alphabet in which letters bear a resemblance to the Egyptian hieroglyphs they evolved from. The finding appears to overturn a previous hypothesis that the alphabet only came to Canaan when Egypt ruled the area.”

OK, so instead of this particular alphabet being brought directly from Egypt through imperialism, it seeped over much earlier, through cultural influence. That’s a “missing link”? O.K.

Also, note that this shard has been dated to about 1450 B.C., which is much younger than some other systems of writing, including the Vinca signs.

But my favorite line from the article is this: “… the researchers have not definitively determined what the inscription says. Also unclear is whether the writing was meant to be read from left to right or right to left.” So, we don’t know whether to read it right to left, but we have come up with a tentative translation.

I Guess We’re Really Doing This, Book #2

Don’t you look handsome, Book #2!

Uploading you was tricky. It was a two-week ordeal that gave me fits. Now, that could have been because I am nearly computer illiterate, but I prefer to think it was Satan — a.k.a. Resistance — trying to keep you from being published. You know, because you are so important and all.

Anyway, here we are.

Hi Blog Readers! Soon You Can Buy My Second Book!

The Strange Land is set go on sale May 3, in honor of a certain dear older relative’s birthday. You should be able to pre-order it soon. I just checked, and it doesn’t appear to be on Amazon yet, but that’s probably because I only released it for publishing just a few hours ago. When I have a link, I will give you one on this very blog. I’m also updating the “buy my books” page.

The Strange Land picks up more or less where The Long Guest left off and follows the second generation of Enmer’s family. Here is the back cover:

Aaand there it is … the one embarrassing typo.

And just for the thrill of it, here is the spine:

A sample print copy is on the way to my house. Let’s hope that by the time it arrives, the typo will have vanished!

Have a great week, all, and I will keep you updated.

Pre-order The Strange Land on Amazon.

More About the Antikythera Mechanism: An Ancient Greek Computer

It was sort of an i-phone, actually. We use ours to check Facebook.; they used theirs to check the position of the planets.

It was only about the size of a shoebox. It was found in a shipwreck. Because of the corrosion and the delicacy of it, reconstructing it has been the task of decades. They left us a puzzle; we are figuring it out. Here is an article about some of the latest discoveries about it. Here you can see a video about it.

There are still some questions. Like, did it do some things that we haven’t found yet (due to the damage to it)? How did they make it (since we don’t think they had lathes)? Given that they could make things like this, how come we haven’t found a lot more? In fact, are there more to be found in this very shipwreck? Why didn’t they make clocks? (Hint: maybe because you don’t really need clocks until you have electric lights and trains.) So many exciting questions! No sarcasm here. I really am excited.

This reminds me of what my Old Testament Backgrounds teacher once said about Babel: “If God hadn’t confused the languages, perhaps the industrial revolution could have happened right then.”

Archaeological Find: Yikes.

Archaeologists in Israel Unearth 3,800-Year-Old Skeleton of Baby Buried in Jar”

Ancient world, why oh why did you bury babies in jars? And why did you have myths about children being imprisoned in jars while still alive?

Maybe you had a good reason. The archaeologists in this article are giving you the benefit of the doubt, saying that you wanted to protect the body, or re-create a womb-like environment. That could be true. I hope it’s true.

But all I can say is that this creeps me out.

Let’s Go Way Back

Today, because yesterday was Valentine’s Day, I am posting a poem that I … ahem … love. No, it’s not by me, nor is it by G.K. Chesterton. (Though he did write some great poetry.) It’s by a rising star who happens to be a friend of mine … Benjamin Ledford.

The Normans came to England and they found the Saxons there.

The Saxons said “Go back to France! We’re first! This isn’t fair!”

But the Saxons came from Germany where they had lived before,

And came and found the Angles living on the English shores.

The Angles were from Denmark whence they came in viking raids,

And they conquered tidy towns and forts that Roman troops had made.

The Romans came from Rome, of course, that goes without much saying,

And when they invaded England it was Celts that they were slaying.

Some Celts had fled to Scotland as they hurried to escape,

But others were already there — the Picts for goodness’ sake!

And before the Picts or Celts or Brits or any of these others,

There was someone building Stonehenge in the south with giant boulders.

And those Stonehenge folks, well surely, they’re the oldest Englishmen.

But could it be, or do you wonder,

Was there someone there before them?

Ben Ledford, 2021

Now, go forth and read this to your history students!