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: Travelling to the Realm of the Dead at Grave Creek Mound - Part II

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The large Grave Creek Mound proved to be an irresistible attraction to early antiquarians and curiosity seekers. In 1823, John Haywood mentioned the impressive mound: “of a conical form, 75 feet high. In the interior of this mound, human bones were found, of uncommonly large size.”

After excavations and a collapse in the mound, Will DeHass wrote:

“Two or perhaps three additional vaults have been discovered, located about midway between the upper and lower chambers. These new vaults appear to occupy positions outside of the shaft made by Messrs. Tomlinson and Biggs…In addition to this discovery; one or more skeletons have been found, on the remains of what might properly be called an altar, or fireplace.”

Grave Creek Mound.

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

[Read Part 1 here]

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Who Was Buried Within?

Early diagrams of the mound suggest that it was constructed in two phases, with the two timber tombs built into the primary (oldest) mound layer. In 1984, E. Thomas Hemmings published the results of new research conducted at Grave Creek Mound between 1975 and 1976. At that time, core drilling was used to test 13 sample holes in undisturbed portions of the mound. Charcoal was obtained, and used to generate a radiocarbon date of 200 BC for the secondary mantle of the mound, and analysis of the mound fill suggested that the episodes of building for the entire structure were essentially continuous.

It has been suggested that the ornamented male burial from the lower tomb at Grave Creek was a priest chief or shaman interred with a female accomplice, whose death and burial initiated mound construction. After the mound reached close to 30 feet (nine meters) in height, a second highly honored individual was buried in another log tomb built into the summit, with a headdress of mica crescents.

Following this, the second stage of construction commenced and around 200 BC, the encircling ditch or moat was excavated, and the fill added to the new layer of the mound.

Human effigy pipe made of hard, compact, black stone, with holes in the headdress for pearls. Found by Squier & Davis in an Ohio burial mound.

Human effigy pipe made of hard, compact, black stone, with holes in the headdress for pearls. Found by Squier & Davis in an Ohio burial mound. ( Public Domain )

World Tree, Sacred Mountain

Adena mounds, earthworks circles, and the combination of the two have been interpreted as representing the Axis Mundi (World Tree or Sacred Mountain), upon which the souls of the dead or the spirits of priests could travel between realms. The vicinity of the Grave Creek Mound may have been set aside as an access point to the realm of the dead, with the burial of a powerful shaman in the lower tomb. With the passage connecting the exterior to the open lower tomb, another (female) individual somehow connected with the priest may have been subsequently placed in the vault. The burial in the upper vault may very well have been yet another shaman or ritual leader from the local Adena tribe, whose mortal remains were entombed forever in the World Tree.

The vicinity of the Grave Creek Mound may have been set aside as an access point to the realm of the dead. Representative image (Public Domain)

The vicinity of the Grave Creek Mound may have been set aside as an access point to the realm of the dead. Representative image (Public Domain)

Skeletons Not What they Seem?

There are several press stories (regularly reprinted in recent years) describing skeletons 7-8 feet in length, supposedly found during the 1838 excavations of the Grave Creek Mound. Actually, reliable early accounts suggest that the skeletal remains discovered in the lower vault in 1838 were of ordinary size. In August 1843, Henry Schoolcraft visited the museum inside the mound where he observed a skeleton wired together and placed behind a screen. According to Schoolcraft, the skeleton was “overstretched in the process so as to measure six feet; it should be about five feet eight inches”. This skeleton had been arranged from bones from the lower vault. Dr Clemens described the burial in the upper vault as “a large skeleton” which was “in a state of extreme decay”, while Schoolcraft noted that the bones of the upper vault skeleton were “so much decayed, that no attempt has been made to arrange them” during his visit to the mound. The upper vault skeleton may have been the source of some of the descriptions of large remains from Grave Creek Mound. The sizes of the 10 additional skeletons from the lower chamber and the other skeletons mentioned by DeHass in 1856 are unknown.

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