Forest Gardens

So, a member of the Out of Babel research team sent me this cool link. (The research team being blog readers/friends who send me links.)

Apparently, the native peoples of British Columbia made gardens in the temperate rain forests up there. These were patches of forest where they planted edibles such as “hazelnuts, crabapples, cranberries, and hawthorn.” These patches persist to this day. They did not look like agriculture to the Europeans. We are just now realizing what they were, a mere 200 years behind the times as usual.

This article brings to mind the Wild Yam Question, which was raised by an old ethnology professor of mine. Part of the Wild Yam thesis is that people groups who look to city-dwellers’ eyes like hunter-gatherers, may actually be engaging in horticulture, where they plant a staple food (such as sago palm) in clusters in the forest and then rotate where they harvest it, which looks like pure foraging but isn’t. According to the linked article, the forest gardens in BC are the first instance of this kind of horticulture that has been discovered in a temperate climate.

And not to go on a patented Out of Babel rant, but I’ll just note that this kind of discovery undermines the old model of anthropology where people start out as hunter-gatherers and progress to gardens, then large-scale agriculture, and so on, becoming more urban as they go. This suggests that there are a variety of ways to do agriculture and that people can mix elements of different lifestyles to suit their needs. This, in turn, suggests that we can’t just look at whether a given people group has agriculture, and assume that we can infer from this when they lived or what stage of development they were in. There may well have been people groups who went from being farmers or herdsmen to being hunters when forced to do so, either because they were migrating or in response to some disaster. In fact, this is exactly what happens to Enmer’s tribe in my trilogy.

The Dia de los Muertos Book Tag

Jyvur Entropy created this tag with Anna Book Critter, and I got it off Jyvur’s blog.

For a tag, you are given a series of prompts around a particular theme, and you answer the prompts, usually with the names of books you’ve read.

Para que lo sepas, I had to restrain myself from naming one of my own books for almost every one of these prompts. After all, the Scattering Trilogy is multigenerational; life-affirming; about rebirth; includes a fair amount of food, etc. Anyway, that’s en mi opinion. But I will do this tag like a normal person and name books by other people.

Photo by Chait Goli on Pexels.com

The Day of the Dead is all about remembering and honoring past generations.

Name a book with an intergenerational cast or a strong focus on family.

Pavilion of Women, by Pearl Buck. Buck is a master at sliding seamlessly through time in her stories. In the opening scene, Madame Wu is sitting in her chamber on the morning of her fortieth birthday. Her maidservant comes in to comb her hair, and suddenly we are in this same bedroom twenty-four years ago, on the morning after Madam Wu married Mr. Wu, and the same maidservant has come in, and she is nervous as a cat around her new mistress, because she knows that she just had sex for the first time. Now, twenty-four years later again, the servant is much more at ease with Madam Wu, but she does not know that her mistress has decided that as of her fortieth birthday, she will stop living to keep the Wu household running smoothly, and start living for herself. She just has to get through the party.

Dia de los Muertos is an important Mexican holiday. Name a book that takes place in Mexico or includes Mexican culture. 

I’ve been slo-mo bingeing on books about the archaeology of Mesoamerica. Of course, with books like these, which are about as old as I am, you need to supplement them with current articles, since new discoveries and analyses keep being made.

This holiday is often celebrated with vibrant, colorful imagery and sugar skulls. Name a book with a cover as visually-interesting and colorful as a sugar skull.

I will never stop promoting the art of Trina Schart Hyman.

Food is an important part of the Dia de los Muertos celebration. Food is set out on altars for the spirits of departed family members.

Tell us a book where food really makes the story!

The No. Ladies’ Detective Agency books. These are written from multiple perspectives, but arguably the main character is Precious Ramotswe, founder of the No. Ladies’ Detective Agency, the only female-run detective agency in Botswana. Mma Ramotswe is fat (“traditionally built”), and while not unusually greedy, she does enjoy her food and thinks about it fairly often. She always likes to visit the formidable Mma Potokwane, who runs an orphanage, because although Mma Potokwane is sure to ask for some kind of favor for her orphans, she always serves Mma Ramotswe a generous piece of cake, sometimes two.

“Some people very clearly and obviously would like to eat more cake. It might as well be printed on their forehead: Greedy person.” Ah yes, that would be me.

Dia de los Muertos is not only celebrated in Mexico, but also in Central and South America. Name a book that takes place in Central or South America or has a Central or South American author. 

I’ve read a lot of missionary stories, but Bruchko is one of the most remarkable. It takes place among the Motilone, who live in the jungle somewhere along the border of Venezuela and Colombia.

In addition to sugar skulls, flowers and butterflies are also symbols of this holiday. Tell us a book with flowers or butterflies on the cover

Nailed it.

The Day of the Dead is about celebrating life. Name a book that celebrates life. 

The book of Job, in the Bible.

You think I’m kidding? No, listen.

Job isn’t about Job patiently putting up with suffering, proving what a good person he is, and then God rewards him. That’s the caricature, but it’s almost the opposite of the real theme of the book.

The consensus in Ancient Near Eastern wisdom literature was that, since God is just, if anything bad happens to anyone, it must be their fault. This is still, by the way, the essence of human wisdom in many parts of the globe, especially in Hinduism. It is also many people’s instinct when we see a horrible disaster befall someone, to find some way that the unfortunate person brought it upon themselves, or “how this could have been avoided.” It makes us feel a little more in control.

The book of Job exists to subvert this universally accepted bit of “wisdom.”

Job starts out as a model of the good person in the Ancient Near East. He has seven sons (the perfect number!), and three daughters; he offers regular animal sacrifices to God. And he’s rich, as he should be. Everything is making sense, see?

Now we take this model Good Person and visit all kinds of punishments on him. And this must be an expose, right? It must be Justice Falling At Last!

Job’s three “friends” show up, and they proceed to preach some very reasonable, theologically sound sermons just like you could hear in any of the wisdom literature of the day. God is just. He rewards the righteous and punishes the wicked. Therefore you must have deserved this somehow. If you say you haven’t, you are defying God! Beat that!

Their logic is flawless. And God sides with Job against them. “You have not spoken of me what is right, as my servant Job has.”

If that’s not life-affirming, I don’t know what is.

It is also a day of remembering loved ones who passed on. Name a book that was either given to you or reminds you of a loved one who passed away. 

Let me tell you about Alice.

I can tell you all about her now, because she’s with the Lord. No privacy risk or anything like that. I’d post a picture if I had one, but I don’t.

By the time I knew Alice, she was in her late eighties. (I was in my late teens.) She mentored me for a few years before she got dementia. She was a sweet, little old German-American lady, with a sly sense of humor. She could do impressions, but used this skill judiciously. Once she said to me, “You want to know why I never married?” And then, for an answer, she quoted the King James verse, but with different punctuation: “I would not have thee, ignorant brethren.” Props to you if you get that joke.

The “brethren” that she “would not have” were certainly missing out, because Alice was a treasure. Perhaps they overlooked her good qualities because of a facial deformity. She had been bitten on the cheek by a horse as a child, and it wasn’t until she was an adult that she was able to afford corrective surgery.

Anyway, one day when I was at Alice’s house, I picked up the book The Holiness of God by R.C. Sproul. She encouraged me to borrow it. I expected it to be a dry, academic read, because it was on a lofty theological topic. But no, it was written for the layperson, and was very accessible. A page-turner, in fact. To this day I associate that book with Alice.

El flor del Muerto – The flower of the dead. Marigolds are used in massive quantities on the Day of the Dead. These flowers represent the sun and rebirth. Also believe to guide the spirits back home. Name a book about rebirth. 

The Great Good Thing, by Andrew Klavan. Unfortunately, I have lent my copy out, so I can’t show you a picture. This is the story of how Klavan grew up as secular Jew on Long Island, ran away from home, lived as a hobo for several years, became a hard-boiled noir crime writer and a Hollywood success, and then became a Christian at the age of 50. He is now a Christian, Jewish, hard-boiled noir crime writer who also writes YA and fantasy.

If you want to read a novel about rebirth, try Identity Man, also by Andrew Klavan.

Colors are used as a form of symbolism in the decorations and sugar skulls. Some of the colors used in association with Dia de los Muertos are yellow (unity), white (hope and purity), red (blood and life), purple (mourning), and pink (happiness). 

Take a photo of some book spines in the Dia de los Muertos colors!

And a happy Dia de los Muertos to all who celebrate ❤

P.S. Disclaimer about Memorializing Our Dead

If anyone feels uncomfortable with me doing this tag, because, you know, skulls and dead people and paganism, I get it.

Let me reiterate a point I have made before, that pagan practices (especially old ones with deep roots) often fulfill basic human needs that every society needs to fulfill, such as celebration, marking the seasons, etc. In this case, the basic human need is to continue to feel a connection to, and to honor, our loved ones who have died. In a way, it’s part of the mourning process. Modern American society is terrible at this, sorry to say. The only formal time to remember the person is during the funeral and burial, after which the mourners are expected to basically stop talking about the person except to very close friends or relatives. Bringing them up, or continuing to visibly grieve, causes that sin of all sins, social awkwardness. This is pretty harsh, and it does not match well with the way that grieving goes for most people.

There are ways to provide for ongoing grieving, honoring, and remembering that are not ancestor worship. For example, in Indonesia, the Muslims have memorial services at 30 days, 100 days, and a year after the death. The people groups of Kalimantan (pagan and sometimes Christian as well) have a second, larger, funeral ceremony, usually a year later, when they dig up the person’s bones and re-inter them in an ossuary with the bones of the family. The Christians will have about a week or so of viewing services while they wait for people to gather for the funeral; then the graveside service; then that night an additional “comfort” service. Most of these take place at the family’s house, and they mean the house is filled with people, songs, and food. The family is not left alone. The people who attend don’t have to say or do anything special beyond “we share in your grief.” They just have to be physically present. This is also a better social rule than having to come up with something to say.

Christians will also have a vigil at their relatives’ graves on the night before Easter. This might sound creepy – and maybe it is – but sometimes when facing something as awful as death, we have to embrace the creepy and it will actually haunt us less.

So all that to say, while I am not recommending pagan worship, and while Christians are definitely forbidden from trying to contact the dead, I think having something like a Dia de los Muertos is a good idea on a psychological level. And yes, I did get teary-eyed when watching Coco.

I Did Not Expect This (Archaeology Nerd Version)

I have to admit, I expected that the Etruscans would turn out to have been a Hamitic people. But according to this article, it looks like they came from the Pontic-Caspian steppe, just like the early Romans did … and more or less just like historical tradition said they did …

Of course, the sample size is small (only 82 individuals). It may yet be revealed that the Etruscans intermarried with an earlier, possibly Hamitic people, from whom (maybe?) they also got their language and their metalworking skills? But that’s pure speculation on my part. Who knows? Genetics and history both allow for a lot of speculation.

What More Could You Ask in a Reconstructed Face?

He’s a Dutch Neanderthal. Seriously.

As you know, I am both.

Take a minute and go look at his face.

Now come back.

Cute, right? Plus, he’s thought to have lived in “Doggerland, the now-submerged region between the United Kingdom and continental Europe.” If that’s not cool I don’t know what is. I recently saw a theory somewhere that Doggerland was the inspiration for Tolkien’s map of Middle Earth, that his cycle of stories is supposed to be a history of very ancient times before those lands were swallowed up by the sea.

Now, we could quibble about how much this facial reconstruction owes to imagination. We’d need to know how big was the “piece of skull” used in it. Was it just a fragment, or was it a good bit of the skull? But as for me, I’m not going to look a gift Neanderthal in the mouth. (So to speak.) Also, I know someone who looks a bit like this. A little more chin, a little less nose, but still a human face.

Poverty Point: Star of My Show

Near Bayou Macon, Louisiana, is an archaeological site called Poverty Point. I am drawing for information about Poverty Point primarily on the book Mysteries of the Ancient Americas, 1986, by the The Reader’s Digest Association Inc., but here is the official Poverty Point web site. It is now a World Heritage Site. Here is a recent article about an archaeological project done at Poverty Point.

First, the Obligatory Eye-Rolling at Mainstream Archaeology

Like many North American sites, Poverty Point was hard to spot because it consists of earthworks that had been overgrown with forest. (And not only North American sites. Radar technology is revealing that the Mayan civilization was much more extensive than first thought — because the jungle took over so quickly — and is also revealing old settlements in what was hitherto thought to be never-before-settled Amazon rainforest.)

Earthworks are basically impossible to date, but for other reasons, Poverty Point is thought to be about 3,000 years old (i.e. about 1,000 B.C.). However, it helps to remember that when dealing with paleontology and even archaeology, dates are often basically just made up — i.e. reached through dead reckoning based on a shaky framework of background assumptions. But let’s accept 1,000 B.C. for now.

Mysteries, which again, was published in 1986, also makes several more or less dubious claims about the builders of Poverty Point. Here’s a sampling:

“[S]cholars think it is doubtful that societies on the chiefdom level existed in North America 3,000 years ago.” (page 111)

“[This civilization] had no writing, no true agriculture, and no architecture except for its earthworks. Its weapons were simple: the spear, the atlatl, the dart, the knife, and possibly the bola. Even the bow and arrow was unknown to these people.” (page 112)

“Considering the massiveness of Poverty Point’s ridges and mounds, one naturally assumes that they were built over many generations or even centuries.” (page 112)

Mysteries of the Ancient Americas

The first of these quotes is 100% pure assumption, based on the noble savage mythology so beloved of modern academics.

The second is also pure assumption. A better way to put it would be that we have found no evidence of writing, agriculture, etc., so far. The findings reported at the first link above seem to confirm that agriculture was not a big thing at Poverty Point, based on the remains of the peoples’ diet, but this could have been simply because the fishing and foraging was so abundant. It does not necessarily mean they were “only hunter-gatherers” who had not “advanced” to the level of agriculture. C.f. similar claims being made about Gobekli Tepe. As for the bow and arrow, I take it that remnants of all these other weapons have been found, but not bows. Even that, I take with a grain of salt, as it seems that almost every week, something is discovered that we had thought this or that ancient group didn’t have. (Here’s the latest example, which even refers to ancient humans as not particularly ‘smart,’ with ‘smart’ in scare quotes.) But even if the Poverty Point people did not use bows and arrows, this does not necessarily mean the weapon was “unknown” to them. Perhaps they had specialized in other weapons instead. Not everybody in the Middle Ages was an English longbowman, but boy oh boy did they know about them!

Finally, the third claim made in the Mysteries quote box (which they at least had the grace to call an assumption), appears to have been possibly disproven by the second link above. “New radiocarbon dating, microscopic analysis of soil, and magnetic measurements of soils at Ridge West 3 found no evidence of weathering between layers of soil, suggesting that the earthwork had been built rapidly.”

Now, the Site Itself

from Mysteries of the Ancient Americas, p. 111

It’s easier to just show you guys this diagram than to try to describe it, but buckle up, here comes the description. The Poverty Point site consists of earthen ridges set concentrically inside each other, in what looks like a C-shape from the air. “The two central aisles point toward the setting sun at solstice” (ibid). Directly to the west of all this is a large man-made mound (Mound A), while a ways farther north there is a smaller mound (Mound B), which seems to be a burial mound. Bayou Macon, directly to the east, cuts through the eastern side of this whole complex. Was this whole thing originally C-shaped, or was it a circle? Probably a C shape, because there are similar, smaller sites around this region which tend to be “constructed in a semicircle or semioval pattern with the open side facing the water and with one or more mounds located nearby.” (ibid)

The book uses the word “ceremonial” a lot, and honestly I can’t fault them. This complex was constructed by human beings, and now, millennia (?) later, more human beings come and look at it and say, “This looks like it was clearly designed for ceremonial purposes.” That’s a valid argument. The architecture is having a certain effect on us, and we can assume that it had that same effect on our long-lost fellows, and was designed to.

Poverty-Point-related sites have yielded thousands of little decorated clay balls, called Poverty Point objects, that we think were used for cooking. There are also little clay sculptures of female torsos (with or without heads), reminiscent of the Venuses found around ancient Europe. There are also “myriads of stone tools,” including drills, awls, and needles, made both from local stone and from flint imported from as far away as Indiana. They made “plummets,” perhaps as bola weights or perhaps as weights for fishnets, “most often of hematite in graceful teardrop or oval shapes [and] often decorated with beautifully executed stylized designs representing serpents, owls, and human figures.” (ibid, p. 115)

But it is in lapidary work that the Poverty Point people excelled. Pendants, buttons, beads, and small tablets are worked in an array of such colored or translucent stones as red jasper, amethyst, feldspar, red and green talc, galena, quartz, and limonite. Most of these stones were obtained by far-flung trade. Among the pendants are a number of bird effigies — red jasper owls and parakeets, and bird heads worked in polished jasper and brown and black stones. There are also representations of a human face, a turtle, claws, and rattles, and stubby but carefully made tubular pipes.

Mysteries of the Ancient Americas, p. 115

O.K., I’ve changed my mind. Perhaps this C-shaped complex was not ceremonial, it was a lapidary factory.

Regardless, the Poverty Point “hunter-gatherers” have once again made my point for me: that wherever human beings go, they start up civilization and display mathematics, art, and craftsmanship.

The Snake City

I guess there have been a lot of “snake cities” throughout history. In my third novel, The Great Snake (upcoming, hopefully in 2022), Snake City is founded by a small group who break off from our main group of characters. Their city is like a smaller, less populous version of Poverty Point.

As you can see, our city is much smaller. It overlooks the Mississippi River itself, rather than a bayou. The temple is built not on a man-made mound, but on a natural hill. The people actually live on top of the ridges. They aren’t lapidary craftspeople (at least, not as of the end of the novel). And, finally, this city is about 7,000 years earlier in time than Poverty Point. Other than that, though, it’s exactly the same.

In the cover image, Klee is standing on the lower hill that houses the women’s complex. Behind her, the temple looms over her from atop the hill. It has a Mayan-style roof comb that is facing away from the viewer. In this view, the snake is either hovering in the air just east of the temple, or possibly it is out over the river.

This Link Has Everything

Possible shaman’s snake stick from 4,400 years ago discovered in a Finnish lake”

First of all, the tongue twister. Shaman’s snake stick. Say that five times fast! The stick was a carved wooden snake, found in a lake (stop me before I rhyme again!) or swamp, so … possibly released there on purpose?

Secondly, an adorable picture of Finns digging in the mud. They look so happy. (As anyone should when they get to dig in the mud and find archaeological artifacts.)

Thirdly, this quote: “[S]nakes are loaded with symbolic meaning in both Finno-Ugric and Sámi cosmology, and shamans were believed to be able to transform into snakes.” Add these remote people, living at the far northern edge of the world, to the long long list of the world’s peoples who find spiritual and/or cosmological significance in snakes.

This link even has a book tie-in for me! Yes, it does! The upcoming third book in my trilogy will be called The Great Snake. And yes, it has snake cosmology. And no, this is not very original, but it is based in research. TGS is not available for pre-order yet, but you can get ready for it by buying and reading The Strange Land if you haven’t already done so. TSL is where the serpent makes its debut, at least in my books.

The Quieter Side of Mesa Verde

Here is a small part of the Mesa Verde formation, seen from the North, as we head west along Highway 160 towards the town of Cortez. My boys and I “camped” at Mesa Verde last month, but we didn’t really camp camp. We just slept in a tent. We drove into town to get our meals, so I don’t call that camping. There were some much more hard-core campers in the sites near ours, including a family who had come all the way from Maine.

Once you have entered the park and the road has begun to climb, you can stop at an overlook and look out towards the East, over Mancos Valley.

The most famous cliff house in Mesa Verde is called Cliff Palace. It’s the one that you usually see pictures of. To get to it, you take a short but steep hike down into a canyon with a ranger for a guided tour. I’ve done this once in the past, but this year, Cliff Palace Loop road was closed for maintenance. So, we (along with every other visitor) went instead to “the quieter side of Mesa Verde” (per the brochure), namely Wetherill Mesa.

Here’ a view from the top of Wetherill Mesa. As you can see, it’s at a very high elevation, with views in the distance of some of Colorado’s majestic mountains. Notice also the many burned trees. The climate is so dry here that you can see the skeleton forests left by many generations of past forest fires.

Wetherill Mesa is a very large area. There are several different sites of ruins that you can visit, including a couple of “overlooks” from which you can see cliff dwellings but not walk to them. As noted last week, my boys and I did one cliff dwelling hike on Wetherill Mesa, to a site called Step House. Unfortunately I don’t have a picture of the whole complex from a distance, just close-ups of its features. It is not a large ruin, but here are the steps that made it famous:

They look like scattered rocks, but if you look closely, you can see that they have been fitted into steps. To the right is the edge of the “proto-kivas” found at Step House. Farther to the right of that, you would find the dwelling itself, and in front of it a proper kiva (though still smaller than those at some other sites).

This proto-kiva has burned wood still as it was left about 800 years ago, much as that blows the mind.

Some small rooms behind the proto-kivas (the one on the lower left has a reconstructed roof on it).

Here’s the proper kiva, which is in front of the dwelling part of pueblo.

And here are the walls of the pueblo, rising up from the edge of the kiva in the foreground to the underside of the overhang.

The other place we visited on Wetherill Mesa was a series of dwelling sites that were not cliff houses, but were built up on top of the mesa. A few of these sites were pueblo-style (square buildings made with stones, and attendant kivas), but one was an earlier pit house (cool!). I’ll show you pictures of this stuff another time, and give you some basic archaeological information as well, but for now I’ll close because this post is getting pretty long already. I do just want to add that, as we were informed by a sign, as you walk from the parking lot to get to the excavated dwellings, you are walking past other sites that have not yet been excavated. Mesa Verde, and in fact the Four Corners region in general, is literally covered with archaeological sites, some known, some unknown! You think of people in, say, Jerusalem as people whose daily lives are literally lived atop layers of history, but the more I learn, the more it seems this is true everywhere you go in the world. They are even finding ancient human settlements in the Amazon rainforest now.

O.K., that’s enough archaeological nerding out for one day. I hope you enjoyed the tour! Have a great weekend!

“We Are Human Like You”

Photo by Suliman Sallehi on Pexels.com

Today I want to share a passage from Acts chapter 14.

This incident took place in the town of Lystra, in what today is Turkey. For context, this means it’s in the same general culture area as Troy, Gobekli Tepe, and according to the map in my NIV study Bible, it is just about 150 miles inland from Tarsus, the town where Paul grew up. Of course, when he was growing up there, surrounded by Roman and Hellenistic and pre-Hellenistic paganism, Paul was Saul: good Jewish boy, overeducated, one of history’s geniuses, fire in his eyes, very purist about the Torah. Since his childhood in Tarsus, Paul has had a number of very formative experiences and is now a very different person. He is still familiar with the local pagan mindset, but now he has a much more inviting attitude towards them.

I post this passage because the appeal that Paul and Barnabas make to the people of Lystra about the Creator is similar to the attitude taken toward Him by Ki-Ki, the shaman in my book The Strange Land. What can you say about the Creator to a people who know nothing about Him except what they can glean from the human experience? Here it is.

[Paul and Barnabas] fled [Iconium] to the Lycaonian cities of Lystra and Derbe and the surrounding country, where they continued to preach the good news.

In Lystra there sat a man crippled in his feet, who was lame from birth and had never walked. He listened to Paul as he was speaking. Paul looked directly at him, saw that he had faith to be healed and called out, “Stand up on your feet!” At that, the man jumped up and began to walk.

When the crowd saw what Paul had done, they shouted in the Lycaonian language, “The gods have come down to us in human form!” Barnabas they called Zeus, and Paul they called Hermes because he was the chief speaker. The priest of Zeus, whose temple was just outside the city, brought bulls and wreaths to the city gates because he and the crowd wanted to offer sacrifices to them.

But when the apostles Barnabas and Paul heard of this, they tore their clothes and rushed out into the crowd, shouting: “Men, why are you doing this? We too are only men, human like you. We are bringing you good news, telling you to turn from these worthless things to the living God, who made heaven and earth and sea and everything in them. In the past, he let all nations go their own way. Yet he has not left himself without testimony: He has shown kindness by giving you rain from heaven and crops in their seasons; he provides you with plenty of food and fills your hearts with joy.” Even with these words, they had difficulty keeping the crowd from sacrificing to them.

Acts 14:6 – 18

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.