How do you handle expresssions of time when writing about a preindustrial culture that does not use our time divisons?
Not that Preindusrial People Are Unaware of Time …
I’m not meaning to imply that people in preindustrial cultures take no notice of time. This is a notion, sometimes asserted, that goes with the romantic “noble savage” idea that because hunter-gatherers live closer to the earth, they necessarily live a “simpler” life, comparatively free from worries, cares, and conflict. See The Gods Must Be Crazy, the Wild Yam Question, and many others.
In fact, the earth is trying to kill you, so people who live close to the earth have plenty of survival-related worries (besides the usual human sin problem that did not first arise with industrialization). Farmers have to pay detailed attention to months and seasons, as do hunters, who also have to be concerned with times of day. So, no, there are no “time-free” people. In fact, there have been many ancient cultures that were very, very concerned with calendars. See Stonehenge, above, which was apparently a computer for predicting eclipses, and the Maya, who could be fairly said to be obsessed with dates.
But, Seriously, How Do You Deal with Time?
But, of course, it makes no sense to have a hunter-gatherer culture going around talking about the months by the names we give them. Let alone the days of the week, although if you follow Genesis, people have always known that days come in sevens and one day is for rest. Talk of seconds and minutes is even more of an atmosphere killer when it comes to verisimilitude.
Sci-fi writers can make up their own time divisions or draw on terms from sci-fi convention: clicks, parsecs, light-years, cycles, and no, I don’t know what most of these words mean really. They are fun, though. Perhaps in the comments you can enlighten me.
Anyway, here is how I deal with time. I didn’t spend a lot of … you-know-what … thinking about this when I first started drafting. I became more aware of it as my characters moved more into a hunter-gatherer lifestyle. You will still occasionally see the word, for example, “hours” crop up in my books. But when it would not take too much rewriting to get rid of modern time-words, here is what I use:
I don’t talk about specific months by name. Rather, I talk about seasons. (Early spring, midwinter, etc.) (However, if you are interested, my character Ikash’s birthday is in April and Hyuna’s birthday is right around Christmas.)
I do sometimes mention months in a generic sense, because everyone is aware of lunar months. I don’t say “moons,” because that sounds … well, I just feel like saying “moons” is a minefield.
It has never been necessary for me to mention weeks, either.
For “minute,” I try to use “moment,” which is less specific and technical sounding.
They number in the hundreds, can be larger than an NFL football field and are found across Saudi Arabia. … radiocarbon dating of charcoal found within one of the structures indicates people built it around 5,000 B.C.
“This ‘monumental landscape’ represents one of the earliest large-scale forms of monumental stone structure construction anywhere in the world.”
Oooh, so many thoughts.
We keep finding these things everywhere. And every time one is found, it’s older than expected, such that it seems we are constantly being told that “the earliest” or “one of the earliest” has just been found.
There is Gobekli Tepe in Turkey, the earliest (?) stone temple.
There are standing stones, marching stones, and stone circles all over the Middle East and Europe.
So, I don’t necessarily believe that these monuments in Saudi Arabia are “the first” of anything (even though, I’d like to point out, the monument could be older than the charcoal they found in it).
What I do believe is that they are yet more evidence that the compulsion to build massive stone structures, and the engineering skills to pull it off, was near universal among ancient humanity.
It looks most probable to me that these “earliest monuments” in Arabia were contemporaneous, or nearly so, with the other “earliest stone monuments” and temples and things that we keep finding, all over the world.
Perhaps people were dispersing from somewhere (somewhere near the Fertile Crescent, say), taking this building culture with them as they went. They would have hit northwest Arabia fairly quickly. The Table of Nations, in Genesis 10, lists all the peoples that descended from Noah’s three sons after the Flood. Though this is supposedly a comprehensive list, when it tells where they settled, the homelands listed for them are all in the Fertile Crescent, the Levant, and Arabia, though it is obvious that some of these peoples eventually ended up settling in much more far-flung places.
See also my posts about The Lost Civilizations of the Stone Age, by Richard Rudgley, who presents evidence that fully functioning human civilizations existed 10,000, 20,000, or even 30,000 years ago.
I wonder whether you’ve ever heard of Gobekli Tepe. I hadn’t until just a few years ago, which makes sense because it wasn’t rediscovered (and so, presumably, begun to be excavated) until the 1990s.
It’s called the world’s oldest temple because it dates back more than 10,000 years. In the article I will link to below, dates of 11,500 years ago and even 15,000 years ago are mentioned. This puts it in the Neolithic: the Stone Age. Like many other ancient complexes that have been given more recent dates, it is made of megaliths placed with geometrical precision.
The Dating of Gobekli Tepe
It sounds really to cool to say that a til-recently-unknown stone structure in Turkey with an exotic name is the “world’s oldest temple.” But as we sometimes mention on this blog, it’s very possible that some of the other megalithic structures found around the world are in fact older than conventional dating would have it. An argument has been made, for example, that the Sphinx and the pyramids at Giza are closer to 20,000 years old. Gobekli Tepe, then, is the oldest megalithic temple that has been able to convince mainstream archaeologists of its bona fides. At any rate, it clearly hails from a very ancient time when people all over the world were for some reason (and with some method???) building stuff with megaliths.
Two archaeologists from Tel Aviv University, PhD candidate Gil Haklay and his supervisor, Prof. Avi Gopher, have now unveiled new secrets of its sophisticated architecture, highlighting an intricate geometrical pattern that was conceived before humans had even discovered agriculture or pottery.
… Um, are you sure they hadn’t discovered agriculture or pottery, Professors?
Göbekli Tepe features dozens of monolithic pillars four to five meters tall placed along at least 20 concentric rings, which archaeologists refer to as “enclosures.” The pillars are decorated with remarkable reliefs depicting animals including gazelles, jaguars, Asiatic wild donkeys and wild sheep. …
“We found that there is a center point in each enclosure, which we identified not only in the three in the main excavation area, but also in others located outside it,” Haklay explained. “We also found out that the center of these enclosures was always located between the two large central pillars aligned with the front side. These pillars also presented an anthropomorphic structure and they have a front side. In each enclosure based on the surrounding peripheral pillars was found an alignment with the narrow front side. This was our first observation: an abstract design rule.“We later noticed that the role of those center points extended beyond an individual enclosure, because the three center points of enclosures B, C and D form an almost perfect equilateral triangle,” he added.
Haklay highlighted that they went on to verify whether the geometric pattern was confirmed by further observations, for example the orientation of the central pillars. They found many other elements supporting it. Among others, the main access to the structure was located between the only two pillars carrying anthropomorphic as opposed to animal reliefs.
But how was all this accomplished?
[I]t is not clear how long its construction took but it might have been centuries if not more, with different people initiating it and adding to it.
But yet later, we get this:
This discovery also overcame a previous theory common among researchers that the enclosures were conceived and built in unrelated stages.
Huh? So it was built over hundreds of years, added to a little at a time, but yet planned by one or a few masterminds?
“We are talking about hunter-gatherers, but at the same time we see signs of a very complex social structure,” Haklay said …
But how could such a complex design be envisioned by people who did not even know how to create a simple pottery vessel?
Oh, stop. Just … stop.
Gobekli Tepe in Fiction
There is one novel that I know of which focuses squarely on Gobekli Tepe: The Genesis Secret, 2009, by Tom Knox. See my review of it here. Interestingly, though Knox is not a believer in the Judeo-Christian God (quite the opposite, in fact), he takes seriously the accounts of giants walking the earth in Genesis 6 and, in fact, his novel ends up revealing that Gobekli Tepe was built at the initiation of a violent, giant race who left large, misshapen skulls behind them.
In film, within the last year I saw on a Netflix a Turkish show called The Gift. In it, a young artist who lives in Istanbul finds that a symbol she has spontaneously drawn all her life has recently been uncovered at the ancient site of Gobekli Tepe. I enjoyed this show, but be warned it has some entirely gratuitous sex scenes.
And Now, for a Really Wild Speculation …
People who take Genesis seriously as history have speculated about the location of the original Garden of Eden. Genesis mentions four rivers as arising from the Garden (or running into it; the linguistics are ambiguous). Two of these are the Tigris and Euphrates. The other two (the Gihon and the Pishon) have been lost to time.
Of course, to try and locate the original Garden is probably impossible. If you suspect, as I do, that the Flood was a result of continental-drift like changes in the Earth’s geography, then nothing anymore is located where it was in Adam’s day, including rivers. On this view, the modern-day Tigris and Euphrates are probably just named after some much more ancient rivers, which could have been in a completely different location.
But if we assume that the continents look more or less the same now as they did in Adam’s day, we can try to guess the region where Eden once stood. One likely candidate is northeastern Africa, or even what is now the floor of the Red Sea (sea levels having risen).
Another candidate is the mountainous region of eastern Turkey, near the headwaters of the modern-day Tigris and Euphrates, along with several other rivers.
The Maya flourished between approximately 1000 BC and 1500 AD in Central America. Their civilization was centered in the Yucatan Peninsula and the lowland and hilly regions south of it. Their sites are found in what are now the countries of Mexico, Belize, Guatemala, and Honduras.
There is so much to learn about the Maya. I have barely dipped my toe in it. As always when learning about a new culture or civilization, I was met with the thrill of the exotic followed by a creeping feeling of familiarity. Though the Maya are very unique, in their own distinctly Mayan way they also epitomize certain things about human beings. In some sense, the more unique they are, the better they epitomize it.
They Are Surprising to Other People
I don’t know why, but people always get excited when they discover other people. (Animals get excited too: “Oh goody! A person!”) And we are always discovering other people, in the most remote corners of space and time, where for some reason we did not expect to find them, though you would think we’d have learned our lesson by now.
The Maya were particularly hard to find because of the geography of the region they inhabited. Jungle is not kind to the preservation of buildings or artifacts. It destroys things quickly, grows over things and hides them, and can make the region impassable.
A really thick jungle allows no roads through it, and once they arrived, here is what some of the archaeologists found:
“The rain was incessant,” Charnay complained. “The damp seems to penetrate the very marrow of our bones; a vegetable mould settles on our hats which we are obliged to brush off daily; we live in mud, we are covered in mud, we breathe in mud; the ground is so slippery that we are as often on our backs as on our feet.” Once Charnay awakened to find 200 “cold and flat insects the size of a large cockroach” in his hammock, 30 of which clung to his body and bit him painfully.
The Magnificent Maya, p. 22
They Got Romanticized
In the early 1500s, during the Spanish conquest of the region, Spanish priests managed to preserve some Mayan cultural data – vocabulary lists, transcriptions of myths, and a few codices (books) – at the same time they were brutally wiping the culture out. These records remained obscure until, 300 years later, there was a resurgence of interest in the Maya. Explorers, hobbyists, and artists who happened to have the time, money, and fortitude to brave the jungles started unearthing Mayan ruins and making sketches and watercolors of them. In some cases, these sketches are the only record we have, since the jungle has continued its destructive work in the 200 years since.
Once European academics started getting interested in the Maya, they realized there was a very elaborate system of numbers and pictographs that they could not read. Thus began a long, haphazard process of rediscovering old codices and cross-checking them with symbols found on the monuments, as recorded in photographs and drawings. The number system was easier to decipher – dots for ones and bars for fives, for example – and so the first thing that got decoded were dates and astronomical cycles,
… which led many experts to conclude that Maya writing was limited to such matters. As late as the 1950s this was still the most prevalent view, and its chief spokesmen were the American archaeologist Sylvanus G. Morley of the Carnegie Institution in Washington, D.C., and J. Eric S. Thompson, a British archaeologist also affiliated with Carnegie. Thompson drew a picture of the Maya as a peaceful, contemplative people, obsessed with the passage of time, and guided by priests who watched the movements of celestial bodies and discerned in them the will of the gods. Maya cities were ceremonial centers, he believed, not bastions of the worldly power.
The Magnificent Maya. p. 33
Over the next few decades, through the work of several brilliant code breakers, about 80 percent of Mayan glyphs were deciphered. Turns out they are a combination of ideograms (an image representing an idea) and phonetic units (an image representing a sound). As this work went on, researchers have been able to read more and more of the Mayan myths and history, which in turn has helped us better to interpret their art. They started to discover that the 19-century “noble savage” characterization of the Maya was badly mistaken.
They Were Shockingly Cruel
First of all, the Mayan society was indeed hierarchical, with battles for succession and kings of city-states engaging in (perhaps ritual?) warfare. Discoveries during the 1990s confirmed that this hierarchy was present hundreds of years earlier than previously guessed. (Archaeologists’ preconceptions might have had something to do with these inaccurate guesses. See my post about Serpent Mound for a critique of the 19th-century idea that civilizations always develop along certain lines, from hunter-gatherers, to villages, to cities.)
But warfare was only the beginning. There was also the bloodletting, the torture, and the human sacrifice.
Apparently, Mayan royalty were expected to offer blood to their gods. During these bloodletting rituals, they would have visions. There are pictures and statues of both men and women doing this. Women would draw a stingray spine through their tongue to produce the blood. Men would draw blood from their tongue, earlobes, or genitals. (Yikes.) They would allow the blood to be absorbed by sheets of bark paper, which was then burned, the smoke being a way of getting the blood to the gods.
If a culture is going to have a painful ritual, it’s good that it should be done by the royalty. That’s certainly better than having a royalty that is unwilling to suffer for their duty and their people. If this were the only painful ritual the Maya had, I’d kind of admire it. But it wasn’t.
The Maya were big on human sacrifice. Decapitation was popular, or they might throw the victims into a sacred cenote (large natural limestone hole filled with water) if one was available. High-born victims, captured in war, would be mutilated and displayed before the community before being offed. Later, perhaps under the influence of the feathered-serpent cult of the Toltecs, Mayan priests would cut out the victim’s heart, offer it (and its steam – ew!) to the sun, and then kick the body down the steps of the temple. This ritual was still being conducted at Uxmal in the 1500s, which is why we know about details like the kicking of the body (Magnificent Maya, 139 – 140). Chacmools, which were obviously built to hold something, may have been made to hold human hearts.
Then there were the ball games. Did I mention that the Maya were big sports fans? Like, really big. You have probably heard of this game, where the players would use their hips and buttocks to bounce a large, heavy rubber ball off the sloping walls of the court. Apparently, the Maya took their sports so seriously that the losers of this game might be sacrificed, either by one of the methods above, or by being trussed up and used as the ball until they died (94 – 95). This very ball game features in the Mayan creation story, the Popol Vuh, where the Hero Twins play the game against the inhabitants of the Underworld. The reason they are obliged to do so? The rulers of the Underworld “covet [the brothers’] sporting gear and want to steal it” (56 – 57). This story, too, features a lot of torture.
Cruelty is always shocking, which is why the heading for this section says “shockingly cruel.” But it should not shock us to discover that a previously unknown civilization featured widespread, institutionalized atrocity. Every single human culture has something like this. Cultures can have good historical moments when the human evil is comparatively restrained, and they can have bad historical moments when it is encouraged. You could argue that in the case of the Maya, it had really gotten out of hand, and I think you’d be right. But I don’t think that makes the Maya different from any other people in their basic humanity. In their uniqueness, they epitomize what human beings are capable of. People are extremely creative, and they have often used their creativity to dream up ways to torture one another. This is why we have the expression, “Man, the glorious ruin.”
They Were Jaw-Droppingly Smart
And now we get to the glorious part. No matter how depraved, broken, fallen, or ruined they may be, human beings never stop being made in the image of God, which means they will keep on being creative and clever and productive. It has long been a theme on this blog that ancient people were smarter than modern people expect. This is because they were people, and people are always surprising other people – because the other people are proud – with their cleverness.
The Maya were advanced mathematicians. They had the concept of zero, and the idea of place value, which the Romans did not have. They had calculated the solar year at 365.2420 days (the modern calculation is 365.2422), and the time of the moon’s orbit at 29.528395 days (modern figure is 29.530588). They had figured out the average synodical revolution of the planet Venus (the amount of time it takes for Venus’s orbit and the earth’s orbit to sync up so that Venus is rising in the exact same spot in the sky). This average happens to be 583.92 days, and they had figured out how to reconcile this with their “sacred year” (13 months of 20 days each) and with the solar year, by adding days every certain number of years, similar to our leap year. Bringing all these interlocking calendars into sync then allowed them to calculate mind-blowingly distant dates without losing accuracy.
All the above information is from Graham Hancock in Fingerprints of the Gods. Hancock then quotes Thompson, the romanticizer whom we met a few sections ago. Studying the Mayan calendar, Thompson had reason to be impressed:
As Thompson summed up in his great study on the subject:
“On a stela at Quiriga in Guatemala a date over 90 million years ago is computed; on another a date over 300 million years before that is given. These are actual computations, stating correctly day and month positions, and are comparable to calculations in our calendar giving the month positions on which Easter would have fallen at equivalent distances in the past. The brain reels at such astronomical figures.”
Hancock, Fingerprints of the Gods, p. 162
Hancock, being a bit of a snob, questions why the Maya “needed” to develop these calendrical and mathematical tools. He speculates that the Maya had inherited “a coherent but very specific body of knowledge … from an older and wiser civilization.”
“What kind of level of technological and scientific development,” Hancock asks, “was required for a civilization to devise a calendar as good as this?” (158 – 159)
Of course, he is asking these questions because he’s heading in the direction of civilization having dispersed from a “mother-civilization.” That’s fine with me, but in asking these questions he also betrays a worship of science and technology that is distinctly modern and that, when applied to ancient peoples, makes us shortsighted. Why should mathematical genius exist only in the service of technology? The Maya were smart, and they wanted to make these calculations about the celestial bodies and about dates in the distant past and future. Isn’t that enough? Furthermore, they actually recorded why they were so obsessed with these calculations. Their cosmology held that time proceeded in predictable cycles of disasters, and they were pretty concerned with knowing when the next one was coming. That was the purpose of the Long Count calendar, as Hancock himself points out on page 161. It was a doomsday clock. That may also have been a big part of the reason for the horrifying sacrificial system.
The Long Count calendar is what everyone was talking about when they were saying the Maya had predicted a cataclysm for Dec. 23, 2012. It didn’t happen – phew! – and, frankly, for obvious reasons I don’t completely buy in to their cosmology. Although we do need to consider the possibility that in converting the dates, we made a mistake in interpreting their extremely complex system.
Bottom Line, the Mayans are People
I can’t say that I find the Mayan – or the Toltec, Aztec, or Olmec – myths or aesthetic particularly attractive. I dipped my toe in because as part of the research for my books, I need to at least know my way around the ancient Mesoamerican mindset. As the research proceeds, I find myself becoming increasingly fascinated with these people. But I still wouldn’t want to have lived as one. This has been true of virtually every ancient culture I’ve studied.
So, taking it in reverse order, here is what we have learned about the Maya, and here is what we have learned about humans.
Humans are smart.
Humans are evil.
Humans are wonderful.
Humans are everywhere.
Hancock, Graham, Fingerprints of the Gods. 1995, Three Rivers Press, Random House, Inc., New York, New York.
Reader’s Digest books, editors, Mysteries of the Ancient Americas. 1986, The Reader’s Digest Association, Inc., Pleasantville, New York.
Who is this handsome fellow? He is Lord Pacal (or Pakal), denizen of the most spectacular tomb ever discovered from the Mayan civilization. This is the tomb at Palenque, the excavation of which reads like an archaeological thriller. The limestone slab covering Lord Pacal’s coffin is the location of the famous Mayan “astronaut” carving, the actual cosmological significance of which is explained here.
This watercolor of him is my own interpretation, done from a photograph of a sculpted head of him, reproduced below.
Though I did my best, in the sculpture his face is even longer, leaner, more angular, more … well … Mayan. I took a guess about skin, hair, and eye color. I also had to interpret his hairstyle and headdress, after staring for some time at the textures in the statue. As near as I can tell, his hair has been arranged to cascade upward and forward over some sort of cone-shaped crown, which I imagined to be jade, a stone the Maya valued. The hair style is apparently meant to accentuate the tall, narrow shape of the head, which was a head shaped valued by the Maya if we go based on their other art. The headband I rendered as a buff-colored woolly material, again based on its texture, though given Pacal’s status it could have been red or gold.
I spent maybe an hour or two on this watercolor, but no doubt the sculptor spent much, much longer on his or her rendering of Lord Pacal, which was probably the most important work of his or her lifetime.
You can see that it’s a dramatic face. You can see why I wanted to paint it.
In my watercolor, Lord Pacal came out looking surprisingly sensitive and gentle. In real life, he probably wasn’t, at least not by the time he reached the age of his death. He was buried with six teenaged human sacrifices, and he came from a culture that produced statues of torture victims.
But my main concern here is with the shape of his face. I am fascinated by the wildly varying types of shape that can and do work as recognizable, and indeed attractive, human faces. Lord Pacal’s face is almost a perfect diamond. It’s widest at the brows and cheekbones, narrowest at the chin and forehead.
As I went to draw this face, I was reminded that I had once drawn another face with a similar shape.
Here is a pen portrait I did from life. This man’s jaw is a touch wider than Lord Pacal’s, but the main difference between the two faces is the nose. This model has a small, rather flat nose with a very low bridge, unlike Lord Pacal’s knifelike nose with its very high bridge, extending all the way up into his forehead, which seems to have been a convention in Mayan portrait art. Whether it this was an ideal of beauty or a real-life physical feature, I don’t know. I do know that low nose bridges are not valued in the culture that the second portrait came from … though I think both kinds can be perfectly beautiful.
And my second model for a diamond-shaped face came from … Borneo. Land Bridge, baby!
The Magnificent Maya, Lost Civilizations series, by the editors of Time-Life Books, Alexandria, Virginia, 1993.
(Much more has been discovered about the Mayan civilization since the publication of this book. In particular, Lidar and UAV aerial imaging have revealed that the Mayan cities were much larger and more numerous than was known in 1993. However, though the context for their interpretation might have changed, the artifacts documented in The Magnificent Maya have not ceased to exist, so I am using the book as an introductory source.)
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.
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
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.
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,
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
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
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.
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
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.
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.
“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
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
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
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.
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).
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.
Sons of the gods by Douglas Van Dorn, Waters of Creation Publishing, Erie, Colorado,
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)
In this post I attempt to summarize Graham Hancock’s book Fingerprints of the Gods: The Evidence of Earth’s Lost Civilization (1995). This book influenced the background for my novels. It also, in my mind, dovetails with Douglas Van Dorn’s biblical/archaeological research on giants in ways that I am sure Hancock never intended or imagined.
This post is only a summary. It will naturally be much less convincing than the book itself. My copy of Fingerprints runs 578 pages counting the bibliography and index. Hancock builds up to his thesis slowly, presenting many different lines of evidence and dropping mysterious hints to keep the reader intrigued. He also has to get into some fairly technical topics, particularly when talking about astronomy. I can’t do any of that in a 1,000-word post. So, like a bucket of cold water in the face, you will be treated to Hancock’s thesis in all its bizarre and fascinating glory.
Incredibly Sophisticated, Incredibly Ancient Maps
Hancock’s first two chapters are dedicated to the details of a number of old maps drawn up during the 1500s which show parts of South America that were undiscovered by Europeans at that time. More intriguingly, they show the coast of Antarctica as it appears under the ice. (This was before modern man’s discovery of Antarctica, and before seismic surveys revealed what lay beneath the ice.) The best-known of these is the Piri Reis map (drawn up in A.D. 1513), but there are others, such as the Orontes Finaeus map, the Mercator map, and the Buache map. All these mapmakers drew on older maps, which they compiled. Piri Reis, for example, had access to the Imperial Library at Constantinople, which is probably where he got the sources for his map.
The other amazing thing about these old maps is they often show locations in South America, for example, at accurate longitude and latitude.
The lesson that Hancock draws from these maps is this. Whatever source maps Piri Reis and others used, must themselves have been drawn up by an advanced seafaring civilization that had explored the world and knew how to project longitude and latitude. Amazingly, these seafarer/mathematicians apparently charted Antarctica at a time when it was not yet completely covered in ice. That makes their civilization, how do you say? Very, very old.
Ancient Astronomer/Engineers Again
Hancock then turns to the sophisticated ancient buildings that have baffled us in previous posts. He dedicates ten chapters to the Incan and pre-Incan civilization: the Nazca Lines, the amazing complex at Lake Titicaca, and the tradition that connects these to a bearded culture-bringer (the Viracocha), who came from over the sea.
Eleven more chapters describe the Central American cultures: their obsession with numbers, with calculating exact dates in the distant past and future, with forestalling the apocalypse (including by human sacrifice). They were also sophisticated astronomers. The pyramid complex at Teotihuacan, for example, appears to have been laid out as a scale model of the solar system.
And then there is ancient Egypt. Seventeen chapters are dedicated to it. There are many things to notice. Here are just a few: ancient Egyptian civilization seems to have appeared suddenly as a high civilization, complete with myths, history, engineering, and an obsession with boats. Overall, its history is one of slow decline and loss of knowledge, rather than slow buildup. (Interestingly, the same point has been made about ancient Sumer.)
The pyramids at Giza do not match the pyramids that are supposed to have been built immediately before and immediately after them. They are far more durable and sophisticated than these others. If we accept the received chronology, the Egyptians built some relatively crummy pyramids, then a few generations later built some amazingly good ones, then turned around and went back to building relatively low-quality pyramids again. Hancock suggests that instead, the Giza pyramids are much older than commonly thought. They were built with knowledge or technology that was subsequently lost. The comparatively crummy pyramids are attempts to copy the ones at Giza.
Hancock writes, “Robert Bauval’s evidence showed that the three pyramids [at Giza] were an unbelievably precise terrestrial map of the three stars of Orion’s belt, accurately reflecting the angles between each of them and even (by their respective sizes) providing some indication of their individual magnitudes. Moreover, this map extended outwards to the north and south to encompass several other structures on the Giza plateau … the Giza monuments were so arranged as to provide a picture of the skies … as they had looked – and only as they had looked – around the year 10,450 BC.” (page 356)
The Great Pyramid at Giza has a ratio of 2pi between its original height and the circumference of its base. This strengthens the argument that it was meant to represent a star (a circle). The Pyramid of the Sun at Teotihuacan has a ratio of 4pi between height and base circumference. Both of these pyramids had to have an odd angle of slope to accomplish this (52 degrees for Giza; 43.5 degrees for Teotihuacan), so it seems to have been intentional. Pi was supposedly not calculated correctly until it was done by Archimedes in the third century BC, but apparently the ancient Egyptians and the ancient Mexicans were familiar with it.
Where Hancock is going with all this is that people on both sides of the Atlantic got their amazing engineering, mathematical, and astronomical knowledge from an older “source” civilization. He thinks it was the same seafaring civilization that apparently charted Antarctica. This impression is strengthened by the Egyptian obsession with boats and by the Incan legends that say all this knowledge came from over the sea.
Is Hancock Arguing for Aliens?
Not in this book.
He has written several books about ancient mysteries. I have not read them all. He has now started writing fiction, and in the one novel of his that I have read, it becomes apparent that his interest in all this is decidedly New Age in character. The novel features an angelic/earth mother spirit guide, telepathic Neanderthals, the whole nine yards. So, I can’t swear that aliens won’t show up at some point. But that is not the thesis of Fingerprints. Hancock is arguing that there was a very advanced civilization of people well before 10,000 BC. Whether these people were taught by aliens, spirits, or some other stuff like that, he does not say, thankfully. Because, luckily, this book relies heavily on evidence.
So the ancient cartographers were not aliens, not even according to Hancock. But still we have a problem: Where was this civilization located? You don’t normally get an advanced civilization until you have a critical mass of arable land. In short, a continent. Hancock believes he has solved this problem. He believes there was such a mass of land, but that it has since undergone a cataclysm. And now we come to the really wild part of his thesis.
It’s the End of the World As They Knew It
Mythology about a period of cataclysms in ancient times is universal. Hancock dedicates four chapters to this alone. Flood myths, for example, are very common. But most cultures also record things like earthquakes, fire falling from the sky, the sun not rising for some long period of time, or an endless winter. Hancock discusses myths like this in some detail from the following cultures: Aztec, Sumerian, Greek, Inuit, Chinese, Southeast Asian, Pacific, Indian, Egyptian, Mayan, and Norse. It should not be hard for the reader to track down these myths. Some cultures (the Aztecs and the Hopi, for example) believe that disasters come at regular intervals and that each one ushers in a new age of the world.
Hancock believes that these myths are actually historical records (with all the usual caveats about them becoming garbled, etc.) of a period of geologic upheaval that happened within human history. I’ll put it in his own words:
“This geological theory was formulated by Professor Charles Hapgood and supported by Albert Einstein. What it suggests is a complete slippage of our planet’s thirty-mile-thick lithosphere over its nearly 8000-mile-thick central core, forcing large parts of the western hemisphere southward towards the equator and thence to the Antarctic Circle. This movement is not seen as taking place along a due north-south meridian but on a swivelling course – pivoting, as it were, around the central plains of what is now the United States. The result is that the north-eastern segment of North America (in which the North Pole was formerly located in Hudson’s Bay) was dragged southwards out of the Arctic Circle along with large parts of Siberia [which were dragged into the Arctic Circle].
“In the southern hemisphere, Hapgood’s model shows the landmass that we now call Antarctica, much of which was previously at temperate or even warm latitudes, being shifted in its entirety inside the Antarctic Circle. The overall movement is seen as having been in the region of 30 degrees (approximately 2000 miles) and as having been concentrated, in the main, between the years 14,500 BC and 12,500 BC – but with massive aftershocks on a planetary scale continuing at widely-separated intervals down to about 9500 BC.” (page 471)
So that’s the thesis. Here are the things it explains:
Why North America was once covered with glaciers, centered around Hudson Bay, and why they suddenly started melting.
Why, during the same period of time, Siberia was apparently not covered in glaciers
Why there is evidence that the climate was once much warmer in parts of Siberia. We find flash-frozen mammoths with temperate or even tropical plants still in their mouths and stomachs. (Actually, I still don’t understand how mammoths could be flash-frozen even with Hancock’s thesis. But at least it offers some explanation.)
Why there is evidence that the climate was once much warmer in Antarctica as well.
According to Hancock’s theory, the survivors of this advanced civilization that previously existed on what is now Antarctica fled their homeland, taking their science with them.
They settled in other parts of the world and tried to rebuild.
Hancock also thinks that they deliberately seeded myths and cults to preserve knowledge and to draw people’s attention to the processional cycle of the constellations because they wanted to warn them. They believed that geological disasters like this occurred cyclically in concert with celestial events. He believes this is why the pyramids were built, for example. A good chunk of his book is about this, but I don’t have time to relate it here.
What’s a Christian Writer to Do With All This?
First of all, it is not possible to integrate everything. It just isn’t.
To take just one example from above, if the earth’s crust took 2,000 years to slip, how did mammoths come to be flash frozen? I have no idea. I don’t think anybody does, whatever their theory.
To take another example, Hancock’s thesis requires that after the age of cataclysms, there were human survivors in scattered parts of the world. These were then visited by refugees from the mother civilization, who taught them things, and they remember these culture-bringers in their mythology. You cannot make this work perfectly with the idea that at one point there was a universal flood that wiped out all humankind except four couples, and that the flood myths are memories of that.
Every culture has stories of culture-bringers (human or divine) who taught them to do things that are basic to that culture. Most cultures with a flood myth have the survivors of the flood landing right in that culture’s homeland and becoming the direct ancestors of that culture. Most of them don’t have a section in there where the survivors land somewhere very far away, and then their descendants travel a really long way to get to the current homeland. Most peoples believe that they live at the mythic center of the world. So you have to take these things into account. Every origin myth cannot be true in all its details.
That said, here is what I, as a Christian, have attempted to do with Hancock’s thesis and more importantly with the evidence that inspired it.
What I appreciate about Hancock is his attempt to take seriously the many lines of evidence that human beings were familiar with advanced mathematics, engineering, and astronomy long ages before we are told that human civilization started. This fits in, far better than the received “cave man” picture, with the ancient world as it is hinted at in the early chapters of Genesis. There we see civilization taking off like rocket, apparently with writing and record-keeping, and flourishing until it is destroyed by the flood.
Hancock’s theory of earth crust slippage does not contradict the Genesis account either. It is not hard to imagine an age of cataclysms leading up to the great flood. We are not told that this happened, but then Genesis, with its laser focus on redemptive history, does not tell us a great many of the things we would like to know. If we imagine earth crust slippage culminating in a worldwide flood, we end up with almost the same picture as that painted in Fingerprints. The only difference is that the amazing monuments at Giza and other places could not have been built by refugees from a mother civilization. They would have to have been built by Noah’s descendants trying to recover lost knowledge … or by the almost-unknown-to-us civilizations before the flood.
Genesis: Even More Daring than Hancock
Genesis does not give us a complete picture of the antediluvian world. It tells us only a few major names and events with very little explanation or context. We are not told how long the antediluvian period lasted; what the world population was before the flood; what the people or animals looked like or their relative sizes; what kind of technology existed; whether there were cities. As a result, we tend to picture Noah and his family, almost all alone, out in the middle of a desert (inspired by the way the Middle East appears today), with a bunch of modern-day animals. But we aren’t told that’s how it was. We aren’t told much at all. In fact, we don’t have – anywhere – any reliable sources that can tell us much about the very ancient world.
Genesis does, however, tell us one very weird thing which fits in well with worldwide myths but which Hancock’s thesis basically ignores.
Interesting as I find Fingerprints of the Gods, it is of course not perfect. Among other problems, it fails to take seriously the universal testimony of human culture that there used to be “gods.” Hancock falls prey (at least in this book) to the materialist notion that anything attributed to gods must be explainable by smarter people with higher technology. Of course, this smuggles in the idea that most ancient humans were stupid and gullible and would apply the “gods” label to anything they didn’t understand. This kind of snobbery dogs Hancock. For example, he quotes with approval a source that wonders how the Mayans could have had such advanced calendars when they hadn’t even invented the wheel.
Genesis, on the other hand, does not patronize ancient humans. Shockingly, it vindicates their myths. It is recorded in Genesis chapter 6 that the “sons of God” (some kind of heavenly beings, members of the divine council) came down to earth and intermarried with human women, and that their offspring were giants.
Obviously, that is a stunning claim. I can’t blame you if you’re not convinced of it on first hearing. Some day I will deal with it in more detail in another post (one that summarizes Douglas Van Dorn’s book). For now, I just want to say a few things about this idea as it relates to Hancock’s thesis.
Every culture, worldwide, has myths about gods and giants. There is a huge body of mythology about this stuff, and it usually shows up in the form of origin stories and tales that purport to be about historical rulers. No doubt the ideas of gods and giants, and many other themes from mythology, are a deep part of the human mental furniture. But this does not necessarily mean they are not also memories of historical events. How and why did this particular furniture get in our particular living room? Perhaps people did not get these ideas just from plumbing the depths of the human psyche. We might want to take these stories seriously as memories of historical events, since we are taking seriously the stories of floods and cataclysms that show up in the same cultures, and often in the very same narratives.
And, if you are still with me, taking seriously the idea of gods and giants might also give us our answer as to how people managed to build incredibly sophisticated monuments out of megaliths. Imagine a world in which people typically live almost a thousand years (per the ages given in Genesis) … in which ten or twelve generations can be alive at the same time, so knowledge is not lost … in which people are smarter and healthier than we are now, since there has been less genetic decay … and in which some of these people are actual giants. All of a sudden it starts to sound … maybe … almost possible. Maybe you and I could build the Giza pyramids too, if we had a thousand years to do it in and if we had intelligent giants helping (even directing?) us.
Now it’s your turn. I am posting this 24 hours late (I usually post on Friday, not Saturday), and even with the extra time, I realize this post is loosely written. This is such a big topic, worthy of an essay weeks or months in the making … not to say years. I did not spend years, months or even weeks on this post (although I have spent a few years thinking about all this stuff). My goal is not to make a watertight argument, just to sketch out some intriguing possibilities. Still, if you find problems with the post, point them out in the comments section (alongside your laudatory comments, of course) and I’ll do my best to tighten and polish it.