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)
Occam’s Razor is the logical principle that states that,
when there are two competing explanations for a given phenomenon, we should
choose the explanation that is simpler – i.e., is less elaborate, introduces
fewer hypotheticals, conditions, or “assumptions.”
We all use this principle without realizing it (more on this later), but the first time I remember consciously applying it was in high school.
I was given an assignment to write a research paper on anything I wanted. What I wanted was to write about this thing I had vaguely heard of, which I called “weird science.” By this I meant wild, speculative theories, research into cryptids, and things like that. In practice, my “weird science” paper turned out to be, basically, a book report on Chariots of the Gods.
The Ancient Aliens Theory
Chariots of the Gods was published in 1968 and written by Erich von Däniken. It advanced the theory that superintelligent extraterrestrials colonized earth long ago and were responsible for various mysterious or hard-to-explain structures built by ancient people, such as the pyramids at Giza, the pyramid/observatories throughout MesoAmerica, the Nazca Lines, etc.
Since the publication of Chariots, this idea has made it into fiction numerous times. There was the movie Stargate (1994), which focused on ancient Egypt, and which I love because its hero is a linguist. (On first contact with a group of strangers, a military officer shoves him forward and says, “You’re a linguist, aren’t you? Go talk to them.”) More recently there was Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008). (Spoiler: it’s an alien skull). These ideas have now been made into a TV series (Ancient Aliens), and in fact there is a whole ancient aliens interest crowd out there now.
I Knew Better, But Couldn’t Explain Why
But reading through Chariots of the Gods was my first time to stare these ideas straight in the face, as it were. And of course, I thought they were cool, even if some of the evidence was a little weak. Von Däniken made much of a particular Mayan sarcophagos engraving that he said “clearly” showed an astronaut reclining inside a small spaceship, complete with controls, microphone, et al. If you’ve seen the panel, it’s really kind of hard to tell what the heck it is, beyond a human seated in an awkward position. See this article, by a fellow WordPress blogger. There you will see a picture of the original panel, a copy of Von Däniken’s diagram and “explanation” of it, plus a convincing argument that the whole thing is far better explained by Mayan cosmology.
Things like the Nazca lines were a little harder to explain (or at least to guess the purpose of), given that it is literally impossible to tell what they portray without viewing them from an airplane.
Anyway, weak evidence or not, I thought von Däniken made a compelling case. Compelling, but not plausible. In other words, there was actually no way to falsify the claims. The theory was logically consistent. But it was also, how do you say it, a little bit … elaborate. (Or, as Bertie Wooster describes it, “A word that begins with an e and means being a damn sight too clever.”) It was fun to think about as a theory, but didn’t seem terribly likely from the point of view of wanting to find out what actually happened.
The Razor to the Rescue!
This was where Occam’s Razor came in. I was relieved to learn that I didn’t have to accept Chariots’ premise just because I couldn’t find a logical inconsistency. Occam’s Razor to the rescue! One theory to explain ancient structures required an entire extraterrestrial civilization capable of space travel; another, equally logical, only required me to believe that ancient human beings were smarter than we give them credit for. Problem solved. I wrote the book report and went on my merry way.
The Razor Left some Loose Ends
Except that the problem was only sort of solved. The overly elaborate explanation didn’t ring true, but my simpler one left an awful lot of questions unanswered.
It didn’t tell us anything about how the ancient people managed to make the pyramids at Giza; the jigsaw-puzzle fitted megaliths at Machu Picchu and Saksaywaman; the 1,000-ton megaliths at Baalbek, Lebanon; the heads at Easter Island, etc. Whatever techniques they used, we couldn’t get the same results today. And why would anyone choose to use huge megaliths in any building project, assuming that handling megaliths was as difficult back then as it is today? Saying “they were smarter than we are” might be true, but it just passes the mystery of how it was done from E.T. back to ancient people again, sort of like a hot potato, without really clearing anything up.
Why were ancient people so interested in astronomy? Why did they build giant drawings that are best viewed from above? For the “gods” to see, perhaps. But where did they get this idea of “gods” who might actually visit? (No, I am not going back to the aliens. Hang on.) Were they smart enough to lay out perfect geometrical structures that covered miles, yet dumb enough to believe in “gods” on zero evidence (assuming their evidence was the same as we have today)?
These questions are not going to go away, because the structures themselves are there. This is not like an unconfirmed UFO sighting. Anyone can go and look at these structures, marvel at the mathematical and engineering ability that went into them, and confirm that, in some of the cases, to this day we don’t know how the heck it was done.
Whatever theory we come up with to answer these questions is likely to sound just as implausible as a race of aliens.
When the Razor Cuts Off Too Much
And here we come up against a limitation of Occam’s Razor. The Razor, useful as it is and cool as its name undoubtedly sounds, does not help us distinguish between plausible and implausible assumptions. Our sense of which theory is “simpler” depends to a large extent on our sense of which theory sounds more likely. In other words, there’s a short, slippery slope sometimes from Occam’s Razor to Confirmation Bias.
What is more plausible: that aliens visited earth thousands of years ago, or that ancient humans were at least twice as smart as we are today? Whichever sounds more likely will look like the “simpler” explanation. (Of course, given those options, we might start casting desperately about for a third one.)
If it is an article of faith with … someone … (I name no names) that human beings started out as, essentially, animals, and that throughout all of history, humans have been getting steadily smarter and more technologically advanced, then, in a minute … that person … might find themselves invoking aliens. Because when confronted with the amazing engineering feats of the distant past, aliens are going to seem like a more likely culprit than those people that we think of as cave people.
There is another view of history that goes at least some of the way toward explaining these ancient mysteries without invoking aliens at all. I’ll write about it in a later post.