Conflicting Stories About The Serpent Mound: WYSO Curious Digs In
The Serpent Mound in Adams County is probably the most famous of Ohio’s many sacred earthworks constructed by prehistoric Native American peoples.
As part of our series WYSO Curious, which lets you ask questions we answer on air and online, Barbara Bayliff of Dayton wrote in to say this:
I am curious about the Serpent Mounds! Is there spiritual power there? What do they mean? How old are they?
For the uninitiated, the Serpent Mound is among several earthen mounds on a site in Adams County in southern Ohio, and it stands out because of its giant snake-like shape—it’s 1,427 feet long, making it one of the largest snake structures in the world. The head of the serpent points towards the spot where the sun sets on the summer solstice, and observers have guessed that the coils in its body also align with sunrises on solstice and equinox dates. Barb Bayliff, our question-asker, went there herself quite a while ago.
“I was kind of under-impressed, but I was a lot younger then,” she says. “I don’t think I was looking for the same things as I would be now.”
Now it’s on her bucket list: she’s interested in the connection between nature and the spiritual world, and would like to get back to see it.
At first, we thought there wasn’t much of a story here, mainly because not too long ago, our friend Noah Adams at NPR did a story exploring the Serpent Mound and what it might represent. His story repeats the commonly accepted knowledge about the origins of the mound: the Fort Ancient people, relatives of Mississippian Native Americans who lived near the Ohio River valley between 1000 and 1700 C.E., constructed the Serpent Mound around 1,000 years ago. This timeline for the construction of the mounds is based on a 1991 study of charcoal samples from the mound itself. In the late 1800s, a researcher named Frederic Putnam with Harvard’s Peabody museum rediscovered and studied the mound, and it was reconstructed in the early 1900s and turned into a park.
But just a few months ago, a new study was released that contradicts the prevailing theory about the origins of Serpent Mound—it turns out the mound may have been built much earlier.
Conflicting carbon records
An analysis of the soil and charcoal from multiple samples in and below the mound finds it could have been constructed as early as 320 B.C.E., which would put it in what’s known as the Adena period. The Adena culture is believed to be responsible for a few other mounds on the same site where artifacts have been recovered, and before 1991, many people assumed the Serpent Mound was a part of that history. Because no artifacts have been found in the Serpent Mound itself, the commonly held belief about the mound’s origins has managed to flip-flop back and forth over time.
Bill Romain, a long-time scholar of Ohio’s ancient earthworks, organized the recent study and has an involved explanation of it on his personal website. He says acknowledging an earlier date for the mound has profound consequences.
“It tells us that Ohio Native Americans almost 2,000 years ago were aligning the sites with astrological events,” Romain says. “To attribute it to Adena people would increase our knowledge of the sophistication that these folks had about the world around them.”
But he also understands that there’s no way to fully recover the story without extensive excavation on a site that’s become important to many people in the modern day.
A guessing game about the past
To some, the distinction between an older and a newer construction is important. Our understanding of Fort Ancient culture is based on very limited sources, and it’s not clear what contemporary native tribes are descended from Fort Ancient peoples. Adena is similarly imprecise, referring to a culture and a period of time rather than an individual tribe, but at least some believe the Adena influenced Algonquian language and culture. Modern-day tribes including the Anishinaabeg, the Miami-Illinois, the Shawnee and the Kickapoo are descended from the Algonquians, which means an Adena identification would link the Serpent Mound to living groups.
But the fact remains that both cultures are known to have constructed earthworks for ceremonial and burial purposes, and carbon dating for an earthen structure that’s been rebuilt multiple times can be unreliable. Some resources on Serpent Mound already leave the dates open-ended, and there’s no obvious way to resolve the controversy.
“Neither set of radiocarbon dates can provide a definitive record of the age,” says Brad Lepper, an archeologist with Ohio History Connection who worked on the 1991 study and continues to defend its accuracy. He believes the question should be resolved for now by looking to cultural context. “Who is more likely to have built a gigantic effigy of a serpent? For me that fits into the Mississippian culture—serpent symbolism was really important for those people. The serpent was one of the key gods or deities.”
Lepper says there’s little evidence that the Adena venerated serpents or would have had a reason to build a giant mound in the shape of one. He’s now waiting on sampling results from another technique known as optically stimulated luminescence, which he believes could more definitively date the material at the base of the mound. For now, he says Ohio History Connection will stick with the current theory that the mound is about 1,000 years old—no one’s planning to rewrite any history books just yet.
“There hasn’t been for me, and I don’t think for the archeological community as a whole, there hasn’t been enough evidence to push it one way or the other at this point.”
Different things to different people
Delsey Wilson, Executive Director of Friends of the Serpent Mound, moved in the sixth grade to a house her parents built about 1,500 feet from the mound. She’s lived next to Serpent Mound ever since, and she has closely followed developments in the scientific study of the site. Friends of the Serpent Mound also helped out with the recent study led by Bill Romain, and Wilson says she has no reason not to believe that evidence.
“Bill Romain’s findings perfectly, I believe, explain Brad’s findings” she says, referring to Brad Lepper. Romain, et. al. believe the site was occupied and reconstructed by the Fort Ancient people, but its origins are much older. She’s also not sure how the matter will ever be fully resolved—Ohio History Connection owns the site, and lots of other people have their hands in it.
“Who is the committee or the person or the group who makes decisions? Who decides who gets to do research there, and who decides what gets put on the new signs? That really has yet to be established,” she says.
But Wilson says to her, that’s part of the beauty of Serpent Mound: it means different things to different people. A variety Native American tribes and people of Native American descent visit the mound yearly, and many other non-native people have found meaning in the site as well.
“Let me quote my father,” says Wilson. “Any place can be a spiritual place, it’s what we make it. If we go to a place and it moves us in a way, then we call that place a spiritual place. Any place can have that power over a person...it just seems that Serpent Mound has affected a lot of people to the point where they find it very moving, very spiritual, and so they come back to it.”
WYSO Curious is our series driven by your questions and curiosities about the Miami Valley. Is there something you’ve always wondered about the Miami Valley’s history, people, culture, economy, politics or environment? Send in a question now, and check back to see which questions we’re considering. WYSO Curious is a partner of WBEZ's Curious City, which was founded by Jennifer Brandel and is one of ten Localore productions brought to life by AIR.
Lewis Wallace is WYSO's managing editor, substitute host and economics reporter. Follow him @lewispants.