General consensus is that the steppe-dwelling kurgan builders were the ancestors of the Indo-Europeans. (They later moved west into Europe and east into India.) So I could call her Grandma.
But, the specific group this burial is thought to be from, lived there from 800 B.C. to 300 A.D. That’s well after the dispersal of the Indo-Europeans to Europe, though some of them were still apparently hanging around in central Asia.
Other things to love about this article …
She’s an older woman, about 50, buried with a toddler. Could have been Zillah from my books!
Her crescent pendant shows that archaeologists don’t know squat, and the headlines are even worse. The subheader says “a 50-year-old woman was buried with a unique ‘male’ pendant.” Reading down in the article, we find that “She was buried with this artifact that we had believed to be a sign of male burials,” because similarly shaped pendants had previously been found in men’s burials in kurgans in southern Siberia. So, because we had never found this type of pendant buried with a woman, we assumed it was a male artifact. We should be careful about making extrapolations based on what we haven’t yet found. And then putting them into headlines.
The Scythians are cool! Many of them were red-haired. When living in Asia, they made very tall hats out of felt (you can find reconstructions on Pinterest). Bill Cooper, in his book After the Flood, shows that the ancient Irish believed themselves to be descended from the Scythians, and that the word Scot comes from the same root (pp. 110 – 111).
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
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)
Notice how about half of them are about mountain men and the American West? And the other half are about: Scotland, gnomes, language, and “The All-Beef Cookbook.” Seems like a haul tailor-made for me, no?
Guess where this came from.
A friend, who works at the library, showed up with a pipe-smoke-scented box of books that were being thrown out.
This haul was selected for my reference library by God Himself.
Also, the photograph of a nameless old shack was in the box too.
Today, because yesterday was Valentine’s Day, I am posting a poem that I … ahem … love. No, it’s not by me, nor is it by G.K. Chesterton. (Though he did write some great poetry.) It’s by a rising star who happens to be a friend of mine … Benjamin Ledford.
The Normans came to England and they found the Saxons there.
The Saxons said “Go back to France! We’re first! This isn’t fair!”
But the Saxons came from Germany where they had lived before,
And came and found the Angles living on the English shores.
The Angles were from Denmark whence they came in viking raids,
And they conquered tidy towns and forts that Roman troops had made.
The Romans came from Rome, of course, that goes without much saying,
And when they invaded England it was Celts that they were slaying.
Some Celts had fled to Scotland as they hurried to escape,
But others were already there — the Picts for goodness’ sake!
And before the Picts or Celts or Brits or any of these others,
There was someone building Stonehenge in the south with giant boulders.
And those Stonehenge folks, well surely, they’re the oldest Englishmen.
But could it be, or do you wonder,
Was there someone there before them?
Ben Ledford, 2021
Now, go forth and read this to your history students!
Most notable achievements involve multiple factors… What this suggests is that an individual, a people, or a nation may have some, many, or most of the prerequisites for a given achievement without having any real success in producing that achievement. And yet that individual, that people or that nation may suddenly burst upon the scene with spectacular success when whatever the missing factor or factors are finally get added to the mix.
Poor and backward nations that suddenly moved to the forefront of human achievements include Scotland…
Scotland was for centuries one of the poorest, most economically and educationally lagging nations on the outer fringes of European civilization. There was said to be no fourteenth-century Scottish baron who could write his name. And yet, in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, a disproportionate number of the leading intellectual figures in Britain were of Scottish ancestry — including James Watt in engineering, Adam Smith in economics, Dave Hume in philosophy, Joseph Black in chemistry, Sir Walter Scott in literature and John Stuart Mill in economics and philosophy.
Among the changes that had occurred among the Scots was their Protestant churches’ crusade promoting the idea that everyone should learn to read, so as to be able to read the Bible personally, rather than have priests tell them what it says and means. Another change was a more secular, but still fervent, crusade to learn the English language, which replaced their native Gaelic among the Scottish lowlanders, and thereby opened up far more fields of written knowledge to the Scots.
Thomas Sowell, Discrimination and Disparities, pp. 9 – 10
1) A fictional family you would like to spend Christmas dinner with?
Whooo this is a tricky one!
I think the ideal place to spend Christmas would be in Germany, Austria or Switzerland, soo … Heidi? Problem is, I haven’t read it.
The Von Trapp family? Not fictional, and not sure I could live up to their standards.
How about Denmark? Hamlet’s family? Never mind, too much family tension.
Scotland? MacBeth? Nope … nope … nope.
How about a big English country house from an Agatha Christie novel? There is sure to be a murder, but on the other hand the food and the service would be terrific. But I would certainly make a fool of myself on account of not having sufficiently good table manners and not understanding the British class system. A fate worse than … death.
Bertie and Jeeves? Getting closer, but Bertie by himself is not really a family.
I’ve got it. Almost all the Grimms’ fairy tales take place in Germany. All I have to do is find a fairy tale family to spend Christmas with.
Cinderella? … Family tension again.
Little Red Riding Hood and her grandmother? That would be great, except I think in the original version they die.
Hansel and Gretel? Yet more family tension, and they are starving. Maybe I could spend Christmas with Hansel and Gretel and their father post-witch.
Actually, now that I think about it, I have a pretty good family to spend Christmas with already. There is plenty of food, no murder, and a minimal amount of family tension. In this case, truth is better than fiction.
2) A bookish item you would like to receive as a gift?
An agent! A publisher! A BOOK DEAL! (hysterical laughter)
3) A fictional character you think would make a perfect Christmas elf?
Puck from A Midsummer Night’s Dream. He’s already an elf, so it’s not a stretch.
4) Match a book to its perfect Christmas song.
Game of Thrones … We Three Kings.
(I haven’t read it, but it’s about kings, right?)
5) Bah Humbug. A book (or fictional character) you’ve been disappointed in and should be put on the naughty list?
Austin Lively of Andrew Klavan’s serialized novel, Another Kingdom.
Austin, Austin, Austin. You spent the first two seasons transforming from a Hollywood wannabe into a brave and honorable man.
Now, at the beginning of the third season, you’re a powerful Hollywood SOB who is taking women to the Casting Couch.
What happened? Have you forgotten who you are, Austin?
You’d better remember quick, because until you do, I am going to be cheering over every bad thing that happens to you.
6) A book or fictional character you think deserves more appreciation and deserves to be put on the nice list?
Anthony Trollope isn’t as well-known as Jane Austen but his books are just as funny.
7) Red, Gold, and Green. A book whose cover has a wonderfully Christmassy feel to it.
8) A book or series you love so much, you want everyone to find it under their Christmas tree this year so that they can read and love it too.
The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series, starring Precious Ramotswe and Grace Makutsi (both of the agency) … Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni of Tlokweng Road Speedy Motors … Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni’s hapless assistant, Charlie … the somewhat overbearing Mma Potokwane who runs the orphanage … and many, many others.
These books are just so heart-warming and they go down so easy. Although written in a certain order, it’s easy for the reader to jump right in even if you read them out of order. And they are addictive. I think a book or two – or a crateful – from this series would brighten any reader’s Christmas.