Adena Axis Mundi & Large Skeletal Remains: Travelling to the Realm of the Dead at Grave Creek Mound - Part II
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. (Tim Kiser/CC BY-SA 2.5)
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.
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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. (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)
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.
Some of the skeletons were in a very deteriorated conditions. Representative image. (Public Domain)
It is also possible that the reports of large skeletons from the Grave Creek Mound may have been reported by individuals who confused them with skeletal remains recovered during digs prior to the 1838 excavations (such as those noted above by Haywood and Norona), or from subsequent little-known discoveries.
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For example, in 1853, Wills DeHass excavated Mound 46Mr19, which was 13 feet high and 240 feet in diameter (four meters high, 73 meters in diameter), located about a mile northeast of the Grave Creek Mound. The following details of the excavations are from the December 6, 1853 edition of The New York Times:
“Some two weeks since we assisted in penetrating some distance into one of the large mounds on the flats of Grave Creek…Since that time, that persevering, thorough, and intelligent archaeologist, Mr Willis D Hass, in behalf of the Smithsonian Institute, proceeded to a further exploration of the mound…Above the stones forming the centre of the concavity was found a skeleton in an evidently charred state. One part of the forearm bone, about four inches long and very large, was in the most perfect condition. Close to this skeleton were two copper wristlets…These wristlets from the shape were worn tight to the wrist, and yet were ten inches in circumference, or an inch larger than the largest wrist in the city."
“These wristlets from the shape were worn tight to the wrist, and yet were ten inches in circumference, or an inch larger than the largest wrist in the city." Representative image. (Public Domain/Detail)
Moundsville was a ritual area and earthworks center for hundreds of years. As described by the authors in Ages of the Giants (Serpent Mound Books and Press, 2017), the descendants of the Adena continued to build mounds in the vicinity well into the Middle Woodland period and the time of the Hopewell Culture. Today, the Grave Creek Mound stands as a colossal reminder that Moundsville was once a place of sacred earth, where the realm of the living interacted with the realm of the dead.
Jason Jarrell and Sarah Farmer are investigative historians and avocational archaeologists, and are the authors of Ages of the Giants: A Cultural History of the Tall Ones in Prehistoric America (Serpent Mound Books and Press, 2017). | ParadigmCollision.com
Top Image: 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 (HerbRoe/CC BY-SA 3.0) and Axis Mundi – world tree (Public Domain);Deriv.
Don W Dragoo, Mounds for the Dead: An Analysis of the Adena Culture, Annals of the Carnegie Museum, Vol. 37, 1963.
Delf Norona, Moundsville’s Mammoth Mound, Moundsville, W.Va., 1962.
Henry R. Schoolcraft, “Observations Concerning the Grave Creek Mound, in Western Virginia”, Transactions of the American Ethnological Society, Vol. 1, Article 3, 1845.
Daniel B. Fowler, E. Thomas Hemmings, and Gary R. Wilkins, “Some Recent Additions to Adena Archeology in West Virginia”, Archaeology of Eastern North America, Vol. 4, 1976, pp. 110-121.
Delf Norona, “Skeletal Material From the Grave Creek Mounds”, West Virginia Archeologist, Vol. 6, 1953, pp. 7-39.
Thomas Townsend, “Grave Creek Mound”, West Virginia Archeologist Vol. 14, 1962.
E. Thomas Hemmings, “Investigations at Grave Creek Mound 1975-76: A Sequence for Mound and Moat Construction”, West Virginia Archeologist 36 (2), 1984, pp. 3-45.