America’s Ancient Past: Part 1

This week’s post is dedicated to my fellow WordPress blogger Ed Mooney, who has a fantastic photography blog primarily about ruins in Ireland. In an exchange of comments on one of his posts, we ended up talking about ancient finds in the United States. I did not know much about them and became interested in finding out more about them. Thanks for the inspiration, Ed! 🙂

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The United States may be only a few hundred years old, but North America has a much longer history. In lands that are now part of the United States, remnants of the Mound Builders’ civilizations continue to fascinate archaeologists and the general public.

The Mound Builders

The Mound Builders consisted of cultures that existed in North America long before Europeans began exploring the continent. According to Wikipedia, these cultures are divided into three categories:

  • Pre-Columbian cultures of the Archaic Period (around 8000 to 2000 BCE)
  • Adena and Hopewell cultures of the Woodland Period (roughly 1000 BCE to 1000 CE)
  • Cultures living in regions of the Great Lakes, the Ohio Valley, and Mississippi River valley and its tributaries during the Mississippian Period (roughly 3400 BCE to the 16th century CE)

As their name implies, the Mound Builders built earthworks, which are earthen mounds used for various purposes. According to The Columbia Encyclopedia, “many served as burial mounds, individual or collective funerary monuments,” while “others were temple mounds, platforms for religious structures.” Wikipedia also notes that these “burial and ceremonial structures were typically flat-topped pyramids or platform mounds, flat-topped or rounded cones, elongated ridges, and sometimes a variety of other forms.” Some Mound Builders also made effigy mounds, which Wikipedia describes as mounds that “were constructed in the shapes or outlines of culturally significant animals.”

Sources:

“Archaic period in North America” – Wikipedia “Mound Builders” – The Columbia Encyclopedia

“Mound Builders” – Wikipedia “Woodland period” – Wikipedia

Several areas where the Mound Builders once lived are now historic sites. This week’s post will feature four of these sites: Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site, Fort Ancient, and the Criel and Grave Creek Mounds in West Virginia.

Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site

Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site is located in Illinois. Here is a brief description of this site by Discover Magazine reporters Karen Wright and Grant Delin:

The 4,000-acre complex preserves the remnants of the largest prehistoric settlement north of Mexico, a walled city that flourished on the floodplain of the Mississippi River 10 centuries ago. . . . A thousand years ago, no one could have missed Cahokia—a complex, sophisticated society with an urban center, satellite villages, and as many as 50,000 people in all. Thatched-roof houses lined the central plazas. Merchants swapped copper, mica, and seashells from as far away as the Great Lakes and the Gulf of Mexico. Thousands of cooking fires burned night and day. And between A.D. 1000 and 1300, Cahokians built more than 120 earthen mounds as landmarks, tombs, and ceremonial platforms.

Source: “Uncovering America’s Pyramid Builders” – Discover Magazine

Cahokia site.jpg

By Varing (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Cahokia site illustration
Cahokia 18 April 2014, 01:46:26

Monks Mound is the largest of the Cahokia mounds that still stands today. According to Wikipedia, it is ”a massive platform mound with four terraces, 10 stories tall, and the largest man-made earthen mound north of Mexico.”

Source: “Cahokia” – Wikipedia

Cahokia Monks Mound.jpg

By (WT-shared) Ethajek at wts wikivoyage (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Cahokia Monks Mound
Monk’s Mound in Cahokia
9 January 2010 (original upload date)

 

Monk’s mound panorama.jpg

By TimVickers (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Monks Mound Panorama
Monk’s Mound a Pre-Columbian earthwork, located at the Cahokia site near Collinsville, Illinois

Besides mounds, Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site has an “American Woodhenge.” It is a timber circle with the “placement of posts [that] marked solstices and equinoxes,” and it was reconstructed using the original post holes found on the site.

Mound 72 Woodhenge diagram HRoe 2013.jpg

Herb Roe [CC-BY-SA-3.0 or GFDL], via Wikimedia Commons

Cahokia Woodhenge diagram
A diagram of solstice and equinox sunset and sunrise positions at the Mound 72 Woodhenge at the Cahokia Mounds site near Collinsville, Illinois, USA.
28 March 2013

 

Cahokia-net.jpg

Drpaluga at en.wikipedia [CC-BY-SA-3.0, GFDL, GFDL or CC-BY-SA-3.0], from Wikimedia Commons

Reconstructed American Woodhenge at Cahokia
Photo by Nathaniel Paluga of the reconstructed American Woodhenge at en:Cahokia
28 March 2009 (original upload date)

Here are some examples of artifacts found at the Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site:

Keller figurine.jpg

By TimVickers (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Keller Figurine found at Cahokia Mounds site
Pre-Colombian art, from Cahokia Mounds site

 

(Man smoking from frog pipe) effigy pipe HRoe-2010.jpg

By Heironymous Rowe (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 or GFDL], via Wikimedia Commons

Effigy pipe of male figure crouching and smoking from a frog effigy pipe found at Cahokia
Effigy pipe of male figure crouching and smoking from a frog effigy pipe. Made of red flint clay from Cahokia. The pipe is 20.5 centimeters high and 36.5 centimeters long. Click to enlarge and see back of pipe. It is on display at the Sam Noble Oklahoma Museum of Natural History, University of Oklahoma.
5 July 2010

 

Cahokia Birdman tablet HRoe 2012.jpg

Herb Roe [CC-BY-SA-3.0 or GFDL], via Wikimedia Commons

Cahokia Birdman tablet
An illustration of an avian themed Mississippian culture incised sandstone tablet with an S.E.C.C. “Birdman”. The tablet was found in 1971 during excavations into the east side of Monks Mound at Cahokia. It measures approximately 4 inches (10 cm) in height.
28 April 2012

 

Fort Ancient

Fort Ancient is located in Ohio. In a Free Republic article, Bob Downing describes Fort Ancient as follows:

The site, atop a wooded bluff 235 feet above the Little Miami River in Warren County, was built 2,000 years ago by ancient Indians that archaeologists call Hopewells. The intricate mounds stretch nearly 3 ½ miles and enclose about 100 acres atop a promontory on the east bank of the river in Washington Township. The earthen walls are as high as 23 feet and as wide as 68 feet. The walls are divided by 67 crescent-shaped gateways. There are stone pavements in some places. Some call Fort Ancient Ohio’s Stonehenge, and it is one of Ohio’s top prehistoric sites.

 

Source: “Ohio’s Stonehenge” – Free Republic

SunWatchVillage.jpg

Photo by Andrew Sawyer a.k.a. Asawyer sunwatch.
w:en:Image:SunWatchVillage.jpg by Asawyer sunwatch, 10/12/2006 14:00 (UTC) https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:SunWatchVillage.jpg

Partially reconstructed Fort Ancient settlement at SunWatch Indian Village SunwAtch Indian Village.
Partially reconstructed Fort Ancient settlement at SunWatch Indian Village.

The most famous mound built by the Fort Ancient people is the Serpent Mound (also called the Great Serpent Mound). The Arc of Appalachia Preserve System describes the Serpent Mound as “the largest surviving example of a prehistoric effigy mound in the world.” According to Wikipedia, “including all three parts, the Serpent Mound extends about 1,370 feet (420 m), and varies in height from less than a foot to more than three feet (30–100 cm).”

Sources:

“What Is Serpent Mound?” – Arc of Appalachia Preserve System

“Serpent Mound” – Wikipedia

Serpent Mound (aerial view).jpg

By Timothy A. Price and Nichole I.; uploaded by the authors. (Part of the archive Image:Serpent Mound.jpg) [GFDL, CC-BY-SA-3.0 or CC-BY-2.5], via Wikimedia Commons

Aerial view of the Great Serpent Mound
View of the The Great Serpent Mound, one of the most important prehistoric effigy mounds of Adena Culture, located on the Ohio river, Ohio, USA.
Stump in March of 2002

 

Serpent Mound1 HRoe 2005.jpg

Heironymous Rowe at en.wikipedia [CC-BY-SA-3.0, GFDL, GFDL or CC-BY-SA-3.0], from Wikimedia Commons

Serpent Mound
A photo of Serpent Mound in Peebles Ohio
2005 (14 September 2008 (original upload date))

Here are some examples of artifacts found at Fort Ancient:

Buffalo style mask gorget Ohio HRoe 2010 01.jpg

By Herb Roe, http://www.chromesun.com (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 or GFDL], via Wikimedia Commons

Mississippian Shell gorget from a Fort Ancient site in Ohio
Mississippian Shell gorget from a Fort Ancient site in Ohio, now at the Southern Ohio Museum and Cultural Center in Portsmouth, Ohio 18 August 2010

 

Ft Ancient Pottery HRoe 2005.jpg

Herb Roe [CC-BY-SA-3.0 or GFDL], from Wikimedia Commons

A pot from a Fort Ancient culture site in Ohio
A pot from a Fort Ancient culture site in Ohio.
2008-09-23 (original upload date)
(Original text : 2008)

 

West Virginia Mounds

West Virginia has two noteworthy burial mounds: the Criel Mound and the Grave Creek Mound. Both started out conical in shape, but changes were made to both mounds over time. For instance, the Criel Mound underwent flattening in the 1800s. According to Wikipedia, “residents of the area leveled the top in 1840 to erect a judges’ stand, as they ran horse races around the base of the mound at the time.” The West Virginia Archives & History website notes that “during the last two hundred years” the top of Grave Creek Mound “has been home to a saloon, dance platform, and artillery pieces during the Civil War.”

Despite suffering wear and tear over the years, both mounds remain large structures. Here is some additional information about the dimensions of both mounds from Wikipedia:

The Criel Mound is a Native American burial mound located in South Charleston, West Virginia, USA. The mound was built by the Adena culture, probably around 250-150 BC, and lay equidistant between two “sacred circles”, earthwork enclosures each 556 feet (169 m) in diameter. It was originally 33 feet (10 m) high and 173 feet (53 m) in diameter at the base, making it the second-largest such burial mound in the state of West Virginia.

 

Source: “Criel Mound” – Wikipedia

 

Grave Creek Mound is the largest conical type of any of the mound builder structures. Construction of the mound took place in successive stages from about 250-150 B.C., as indicated by the multiple burials at different levels within the structures. In 1838, road engineers measured its height at 69 feet (21 m) and its base as 295 feet (90 m). Originally a moat of about 40 feet (12 m) in width and five feet in depth, with one causeway across it, encircled the mound.

 

Source: “Grave Creek Mound” – Wikipedia

Since they served as burial mounds, it is no surprise that human remains and some artifacts were found inside of them. According to the West Virginia Archives & History website, two skeletons were initially found in excavations of the Criel Mound by Professor P. W. Norris of the Smithsonian Institute in 1883 and 1884, and further digging revealed “numerous other skeletons . . . , including a burial vault containing the remains of eleven Native Americans thought to have been killed in battle.” The West Virginia Archives & History website adds the grim detail that there “was also evidence that some may have been buried alive.”

Sadly, the Grave Creek Mound was not as carefully excavated as the Criel Mound. The West Virginia Archives & History website describes how “Jesse and Abelard Tomlinson, and Thomas Briggs gutted the mound, destroying much of the archaeological evidence provided by the scientific study of other mounds” in 1838. Inside the mound, the “two men (the website does not specify which two) discovered a burial chamber in the center containing two skeletons and [a] large amount of jewelry and another room with one skeleton and jewelry.” In addition, Wikipedia notes that later archaeological researchers also found “a small sandstone tablet” inside the Grave Creek Mound (the Grave Creek Stone), and the “authenticity of the tablet and the meaning of its inscription is quite controversial.”

Sources:

“Criel Mound” – Wikipedia “Grave Creek Mound” – Wikipedia

“Mounds & Mound Builders” – West Virginia Archives & History

Criel Mound.jpg

By David G. Simpson (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

The Criel Mound in South Charleston, West Virginia, USA
The Criel Mound in South Charleston, West Virginia, USA.
12 February 2006

 

Grave Creek Mound.jpg

By Tim Kiser (w:User:Malepheasant) (Own work (self-made photograph)) [CC-BY-SA-2.5], via Wikimedia Commons

Grave Creek Mound in Moundsville, West Virginia
Grave Creek Mound in Moundsville, West Virginia
20 December 2006

 

Grave Creek Stone and wax cast.jpg

By Smithsonian Institution [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons Source: http://www.econ.ohio-state.edu/jhm/arch/grvcrk.html

Original Grave Creek Stone and cast
The Grave Creek Stone beside a plaster cast of the stone in the Smithsonian Museum of National History’s collection.
16 December 2012, 23:46:08
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