Snake on a Plain

An aerial view of Serpent Mound, image courtesy of Britannica Online. Of course I would forget my camera when I visited the site.

Over the past few months I’ve visited some amazing places and have met some incredible people for my Odd Ohio blog, but one thing kept popping up on my travels: Indian burial and ceremonial mounds. Each time I researched “interesting places in southeast Ohio” (or some variation of that), burial mounds always came up in my search. There was that pesky mound that was rooted right in the middle of the Civil War battle site in Meigs, and I even made an entire trip out of one burial mound located in Marietta. Well, I thought it was right time to do the natural thing, which was to visit the Indian mound of Ohio: Serpent Mound. Serpent Mound is like the Michael Jordan of mounds – the Big Kahuna, the Head Honcho, one of Ohio’s greatest cultural treasures.

I once traveled to Serpent Mound during my elementary school years, since the site is only an hour away from my home in Cincinnati. I’m sure I was happier playing “Miss Mary Mack” with my friends on the bus ride to the mound instead of actually visiting the mound, so I decided it was time for a big-girl trip to Peebles.

The mound is located off State Route 73 near Scioto Brush Creek in Adams County, constructed at the edge of what is believed to be a meteor crater several hundred million years old. My sister and I drove toward what we hoped was the mound as the area is completely surrounded by trees. Only once you reach the mound is there a clearing and the 1,330 foot long hill is in sight. But what makes this particular mound so special is not it’s length or height (an average of three feet tall), but its serpent-like figure. According to the mound’s official website, “Serpent Mound is the largest and finest serpent effigy in the United States. Nearly a quarter of a mile long, Serpent Mound apparently represents an uncoiling serpent.” (Note: Effigy mounds are raised piles of earth built in the shape of animals by Native American tribes).

Exciting!

Unfortunately, the historical museum at Serpent Mound is closed until April, which has happened to me several times these past few months. I wanted to visit the Hocking Valley Scenic Railway (you know, those trains that are visible while driving through Nelsonville on SR 33), but the railway does not open until April. I also wanted to visit a few museums in Chillicothe that seem to be out of commission until Spring. But regardless, my sister Sarah and I traveled to Serpent Mound and paid the $7 suggested donation fee to enter the site and wandered around for about an hour. (The $7 per car pays for the upkeep of the mound and the grounds).

So what is this mysterious mound? Who constructed it? What is it’s purpose?

Mandy Henderson is a volunteer coordinator for the Arc of Appalachia Preserve System, the organization that currently manages Serpent Mound, which is also in partnership with the Ohio Historical Society, the organization that owns the mound. According to Mandy, Serpent Mound “is not, as far as our current knowledge, a burial mound.” Answer number one.

The average height of the mound is only 3 feet tall, image courtesy of Flickr user jimmywayne

“No one knows for sure who built Serpent Mound, although it is generally accepted that it was one of the prehistoric, Native American mound-building cultures such as those cultures known as the Fort Ancient, Adena or Hopewell…The question of who built the Serpent Mound is somewhat controversial among archaeologists who have studied the mound, with differing opinions held by many.”

According to Ohio History Central, “serpents are a common feature in the art of the Late Prehistoric Period (900 A.D. to 1650 A.D.). Many American Indians of the Eastern Woodlands believed the Great Serpent was a powerful spirit of the Underworld. Serpent Mound may be a representation of these beliefs.” And perhaps these late American Indians completed this mound during the same time.

What is known is that the mound might have a correspondence to astronomical bodies. According to Mandy, scientists and archaeologists believe this because “it is thought that because parts of the Serpent Mound point toward the son or moon during certain astronomical events such as equinoxes or solstices.”

The authors of Ohio History Central agree: “The head of Serpent Mound is aligned to the setting sun on the summer solstice and the coils may be aligned to the summer and winter solstice and equinox sunrises. These alignments support the idea that Serpent Mound had a ceremonial purpose.” Although no one knows for sure.

Like I mentioned briefly above, many believe the mound was built by the Adena culture because there are a few Adena burial sites in close proximity to the mound. However, others believe the mound was built by the Fort Ancient culture. It is certain that Serpent Mound is linked with other Ohio mounds, which were all built by Mound Builders, who came from various Native American tribes. No significant artifacts were found from the Adena culture, but is believed that perhaps the Adena built the mound and other cultures later edited the mound or refurbished the site, perhaps by the Fort Ancient culture. The Fort Ancient culture was a prominent Mississippian traveling culture that was in the Ohio area during 1070 A.D. Although no significant artifacts of the Fort Ancient culture were found here, again, the rattlesnake was a common effigy in this culture, although Serpent Mound is missing a rattle.

So why a snake? The Mound Builders believed these creatures had mythical powers, but not much more is known about it’s symbolism in Ohio Native American cultures. Hidden by surrounding trees for many years, the mound was first excavated by Harvard University archaeologist Frederic Ward Putnam in the late 19th century. In 1887, Putnam purchased the land in order to preserve and continue to excavate the site, which is now owned by the Ohio Historical Society.

Today, Serpent Mound holds high importance for Ohio as it is recognized as a National Historic Landmark.

“The Serpent Mound is important to Ohio because it has such evocative iconography, because it is so ultimately mysterious and because it stands as a place marker remembering Ohio’s unbelievably accomplished prehistoric cultures,” believes Mandy.

“Thousands of people visit Serpent Mound each year from all over the world and the site is under consideration to be nominated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. I often say that Ohioans live near earthworks just as impressive as Stonehenge, but we often overlook the importance of Ohio’s native cultures and their artworks.”

Serpent Mound is open 365 days a year during daylight hours. The museum is open 7 days a week from April through October and also contains a nature and native culture book and gift shop. There is a path that goes around the entire snake and a large tower with an aerial view. The entrance fee is free, although the organization suggests a $7 donation to help pay for the upkeep of this amazing cultural treasure.

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