Illustration of the "Emmons mask", a Mississippian culture carved cedarwood human face shaped object once covered in copper and painted with galena and used as part of a headdress

Adena Axis Mundi & Large Skeletal Remains: Archaeology of the Grave Creek Mound - Part I

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The City of Moundsville is located along the Ohio River in Marshall County, West Virginia. From the time of European settlement in the 1770s, Moundsville was regarded by antiquarians as one of the most significant ancient sites in North America. For it was here that the Adena mound builders and their descendants constructed the largest ceremonial center in the Upper Ohio Valley, including the Grave Creek Mound, several earthworks enclosures, and as many as 47 additional mounds. There were also stone mounds averaging four feet (1.2 meters) in diameter, crowning the hills around Moundsville, variously interpreted as lookouts, cairns, or sacred wells.

The ritual landscape of Moundsville continued across the Ohio River in Belmont County, Ohio, where Henry Schoolcraft surveyed the remains of still another stone mound, and described a circular earthen enclosure or henge. The Grave Creek Mound is a massive structure, originally between 62 and 65 feet (approx 19 to 20 meters) high and 240 feet (73 meters) in diameter, with a flat top 60 feet (18 meters) in diameter. Surrounding the mound and located directly at the base was a large circular ditch, 40 feet (12 meters) wide and four to five feet (1.2 to 1.5 meters) deep, with a single causeway entrance at the south.

A map of the Portsmouth Earthworks, Group C, a Hopewellculture series of mounds located in Greenup County, Kentucky. It is part of a larger earthworks complex, the Portsmouth Earthworks, located across the Ohio River in Portsmouth, Ohio. It is also known as the Biggs Site. Representative image.

A map of the Portsmouth Earthworks, Group C, a Hopewellculture series of mounds located in Greenup County, Kentucky. It is part of a larger earthworks complex, the Portsmouth Earthworks, located across the Ohio River in Portsmouth, Ohio. It is also known as the Biggs Site. Representative image. ( Public Domain )

The Adena constructed many circular ditches and earthen banks throughout the Ohio Valley, some featuring interior mounds; practices typically interpreted as an expression of cosmological principles.

Bones of Uncommonly Large Size

The large Grave Creek Mound proved to be an irresistible attraction to early antiquarians and curiosity seekers. In The Natural and Aboriginal History of Tennessee (1823), John Haywood mentioned, “Near Wheeling, in Virginia, on Grave creek, on the lands of Mr. Tomlins, is one mound of a conical form, 75 feet high. In the interior of this mound, human bones were found, of uncommonly large size.”

Grave Creek Mound.

Grave Creek Mound. (Tim Kiser/ CC BY-SA 2.5 )

According to Delf Norona, yet another early chronicler states that the mound had “been so far opened as to ascertain that it contains many thousands of human skeletons”, some of them “of uncommon large size”. In 1838, the owner of the mound initiated amateur excavations, beginning with the digging of a tunnel from the north side of the mound, four feet (about a meter) above the ground level.  As the tunnel passed through the body of the tumulus, numerous deposits of ashes and bones were encountered, possibly representing human cremations placed in the mound over the course of its construction.

Ascending Grave Creek Mound, 2011.

Ascending Grave Creek Mound, 2011. (Sue Ruth/ CC BY 2.0 )

The tunnel eventually reached the “lower vault”, dug seven to eight feet (approx. two and a half meters) deep into the natural surface, consisting of a rectangular, eight by 12 foot structure with log supports and a log covering. The tomb contained the remains of two individuals. One of the skeletons encountered in the chamber was buried with 650 shell beads and an expanded center bar gorget six inches (15 centimeters) in length.

The tomb contained the remains of two individuals.

The tomb contained the remains of two individuals. Representative image. ( Public Domain )

According to Thomas Townsend, the “inferior maxillary bone, or lower jaw, was large and strong,” while the second skeleton was without artifacts and “the bulk much smaller and more delicate”. These observations resulted in the first skeleton being labeled male and the second female. Both burials were extended on the backs, and the smaller skeleton was five foot nine inches (175.26 cm) in length. The lower tomb had originally been connected with a timber-lined passageway inclined 10 to 15 degrees from the north side of the mound, leading downward to the tomb.

Following the discovery of the lower chamber, a shaft was sunk from the top of the mound, and another burial chamber discovered near the top of the primary mound, consisting of a log tomb 18 feet (5.4 meters) long and eight feet (2.5 meters) wide. The chamber contained a single burial with marginella shell beads, between 66 and 150 rectangular mica fragments, a long diamond shaped limestone gorget, and five copper bracelets (three on one wrist and two on the other). The mica pieces were perforated and found so as to suggest that they were attached to a garment or burial shroud. Both the upper and lower chambers were covered with stones, some featuring cup-mark indentations, as found at many Adena sites.


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Hopewell mounds from the Mound City Group in Ohio. Representative image
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