The Liverpool Mounds in Illinois: Part 2 - Rediscovering Hopewell Ritual and Meaning
In part 1 of this article, the features of the Liverpool Mound group in Fulton County Illinois were described. This second half focuses on the possible meanings of the mounds and their contents and should be cross-referenced with the data from Part 1.
The Importance of Location
One of the most important symbolic aspects of the Liverpool Mounds could have been their location. As explained by Cole and Deuel:
“Here, toward the close of the glacial epoch, a stream fed by the retreating ice laid down a long wide bar of gravel and sand which later stood as an island, at times of high water. Even this ridge was flooded, from time to time, causing considerable shifting of sands and the deposit of river silt. The high ground attracted the attention of Indians who established camp sites on it and later placed four burial mounds at the most elevated section. A fifth mound (F°87) was built a few hundred yards to the northeast.” (1:132-133)
View Northward from South Overlook of the Illinois River from Sparrowhawk Mountain. (Granger Meador/ CC BY NC SA 2.0 )
Cole and Deuel also noted that in addition to being flanked by the Illinois River on the east side, the Liverpool Mounds faced swamp lands to the west. The explanation for locating the Liverpool Mounds in such a setting can be found in Native American cosmology. Native Americans of the Eastern Woodlands and the Plains viewed the cosmos as divided into three “realms”: The Above Realm, the Earth Realm, and the Beneath Realm. The Great Spirit (s) and the Thunderbirds inhabited the Above Realm, the Earth Realm is the world in which living humans, plants, and animals live, and the Beneath Realm is a watery abyss beneath the earth, inhabited by fish, frogs, and other watery creatures. The ruler of the Beneath Realm is the “Great Horned Serpent” or “Underwater Panther”, a being associated with floods and danger, but also magic and medicine.
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Horned Serpent in a Barrier Canyon Style Petroglyph, Western San Rafael Swell region of Utah, USA. (Markarian421/ CC BY SA 3.0 )
As explained by archaeologist William Romain, “In many cosmologies, the earth is described as a flat, circular island floating in a surrounding primordial sea.” Romain has suggested that some famous Ohio Hopewell mound and earthworks sites—including the Newark Earthworks in Licking County—were specifically constructed in areas surrounded by rivers so as to reflect the “island earth” (Ibid).
Part of a mound at the Newark Earthworks in Licking County. (Kevin Payravi/ CC BY SA 4.0 )
Likewise, the construction of the Liverpool Mounds in an area overlooking a major river, which had been subject to repeated flooding since distant times, would have been a highly symbolic act. This is especially true since the rise where the mounds were built became an island at times of high water. Archaeologists have also developed the theory that artificial burial mounds of the Hopewell culture could have been representations of an axis mundi or world tree , which joined the Earth Realm/Island with the Above and Beneath Realms.
The Earth Diver Recreating Earth
There is another mythic concept connected with the island earth cosmology: the Earth Diver. As explained by Romain, “Associated with the belief that the earth is a circular island floating in a surrounding sea are many examples of the Earth-diver myth – wherein a mythical creature, such as the otter, is said to have dived to the bottom of the primordial sea to bring back a piece of mud, which magically expanded, thereby creating the earth.”
North American river otter. (Sage Ross/ CC BY SA 3.0 )
Importantly, in many versions of the Earth Diver myth, the mud must be retrieved in the aftermath of a terrible flood, so that the world can be re-created. Considered in the contexts of the Earth Diver, the Liverpool Mounds themselves could have been part of a symbolic landscape, representing the earth emerging from the primordial sea, as the consistent flooding and transformation of the area of the mounds into a literal island reflected the creation and re-creation of the world. The fact that the Liverpool Mounds were constructed of sand and clay brought from the Illinois River below the ridge (1:135), and the tomb of stone and puddled clay from Mound F°79, are also indicative of the Earth Diver, or creation of the world.
There are further meanings, which can be determined by a review of the contents and artifacts of the Liverpool Mounds. Thomas et al. have published a study of the animal power parts from Hopewell mounds, in which they identify these objects as clan markers. By far, the most prevalent clan represented in Hopewell mounds is the Bear Clan, which was apparently more numerous and prestigious than other clans.
Thin copper bear claws. (University of Nebraska Lincoln/ CC BY NC 4.0 )
Due to these factors and others, the Bear Clan has been considered as an ancient ceremonial society, which was directly involved in burial ritual and the processing of the dead at Hopewell mounds. The most common objects indicating membership in the Hopewell Bear Clan are real and imitation bear teeth (Ibid). Artifacts indicative of the Bear Clan from the Liverpool Mounds include the necklace of bear teeth from Log Tomb A, the bear tooth pendant from Log Tomb B, the split bear teeth and bear canine teeth worked into daggers in Log Tomb C, and the 10 copper imitation bear teeth from the Rock Wall Tomb. The perforated and cut human jawbones from the mounds are also suggestive of the possibility that individuals buried there had played a role in burial ritualism.
Hopewell mica hand. ( Public Domain )
Recent research has shown that the burial ritualism of some Hopewell sites in Southern Ohio was focused uniquely upon the Beneath Realm/Underworld, which contrasts sharply with most Native American traditions in the Eastern Woodlands, that emphasize the journey of the soul in the Above or sky world to the land of the dead. There is evidence that the Liverpool Mounds also represent such a site.
For example, one of the artifacts discovered in unknown context in one of the Liverpool mounds, is a headdress of natural deer antlers, “only slightly modified from their original configuration” (8:82). Antler headdresses of the Hopewell Culture in Southern Ohio have been interpreted to represent the Great Horned Serpent, ruler of the watery Beneath Realm. Effigies of aquatic or water-based creatures in Hopewellian iconography have also been associated with the Beneath Realm and Great Serpent.
Hopewell copper antler headdress on a mannequin. (University of Nebraska Lincoln/ CC BY NC 4.0 )
In the traditions of the Northeastern tribes, the Great Horned Serpent/Underwater Panther is often portrayed as having scales of shell or copper. In the rites of the Grand Medicine Society of the Anishnaabeg, the initiate is shot with sacred shells, which are considered to be from the body of this entity (Ibid).
According to George Lankford, the association of shells with medicine, magic, and the Great Serpent could explain the prevalence of conch shells in the ancient exchange network in the Northeast (Ibid). By the time of European contact, the Great Horned Serpent was also considered the guardian and master of the Great Lakes copper supply, and copper fragments (like shells) were believed to be pieces of the creature’s body, which held potent magical powers.
Hopewell copper object. (University of Nebraska Lincoln/ CC BY NC 4.0 )
Considering these associations, objects from the Liverpool Mounds, which could have referenced the Great Serpent or Beneath Realm include: the frog effigy pipe, marine shell beads, pearl beads, and central conch shell from Log Tomb B, the copper flakes and pearl beads from the Mat Burial, the shell and pearl beads from Log Tomb C, and the frog effigy pipe and pearl beads from the Rock Wall Tomb.
In particular, the contents of Log Tomb B are suggestive of an ancient Medicine Society rich in Beneath Realm symbolism. Another artifact from Log Tomb B is a piece of horn shaped fossil, which is interesting in light of the fact that it has been suggested that in Ohio, Hopewell sites which dealt with the Beneath Realm water monsters were intentionally built in areas of high fossil content. Also, a piece of horn shaped fossil was found with a burial at the Turner Mounds in Southwestern Ohio, a site rich in the symbolism of the Great Horned Serpent or Underwater Panther and also oriented to the Beneath Realm.
Image of Underwater Panther, from the National Museum of the American Indian, George Gustav Heye Center library. ( Public Domain )
There are some North American mythologies which incorporate all of the historic traditions that we have inferred from the Liverpool Mounds, such as the Island Earth, Earth Diver, and the Great Serpent and other denizens of the Beneath Realm. For example, in some Algonquian traditions, the culture hero Nanabozho wages a war of vengeance upon the Great Serpents of the Beneath Realm for the murder of his brother Wolf. The serpents then bring about a Great Flood in retaliation, which only Nanabozho survives.
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Following the flood, the Earth Diver myth takes place, as a natural creature brings mud from beneath the waters to re-create the world. In several narratives, these events are followed by a truce between Nanabozho and the Beneath Realm entities, which offer the hero the rites of the Grand Medicine Society as a peace offering. Finally, the soul of Wolf is sent to the realm of the dead to light an eternal flame to guide the souls of the deceased.
Perhaps the Liverpool Mounds were intended to evoke a prehistoric version of such an epic in the form of a ritual drama associated with the burial of the dead, under the guidance of a branch of the powerful Hopewell Bear Clan.
This article is dedicated to Cheryl Claassen, Robert Hall, George Lankford, William Romain, and Christopher Carr, whose work has done so much to illuminate the ancient people of North America.
Faye-Cooper Cole and Thorne Deuel, Rediscovering Illinois , University of Chicago Press, 1937.
William F. Romain, “Newark Earthwork Cosmology: This Island Earth”, Hopewell Archaeology Newsletter, Vol. 6 No. 2, 2005.
Christopher Carr, “World View and the Dynamics of Change: The Beginning and the end of Scioto Hopewell Culture and Lifeways”, The Scioto Hopewell and Their Neighbors: Bioarchaeological Documentation and Cultural Understanding, ed. D. Troy Case and Christopher Carr, Springer Science and Business Media, 2008, pp. 289-333.
David Mather, “The Grand Mound and the Muskrat: A Model of Ancient Cosmology on the Rainy River”, Minnesota History Quarterly 64: 5, Spring 2015, pp. 194-205.
Chad R. Thomas, Christopher Carr, and Cynthia Keller, “Animal-Totemic Clans of Ohio Hopewellian Peoples”, Gathering Hopewell: Society, Ritual, and Ritual Interactions , ed. Christopher Carr and D. Troy Case, Springer, 2006, pp. 339—385.
Jaimin Weets, Christopher Carr, David Penny, and Gary Carriveau, “Smoking Pipe Compositions and Styles as Evidence of the Social Affiliations of Mortuary Ritual Participants at the Tremper Site, Ohio”, Gathering Hopewell: Society, Ritual, and Ritual Interactions , ed. Christopher Carr and D. Troy Case, Springer, 2006, pp. 533-552.
Christopher Carr and Robert McCord, “Ohio Hopewell Depictions of Composite Creatures Part 2—Archaeological Context and a Journey to an Afterlife”, Midcontinental Journal of Archaeology Vol. 40 No.1, 2015, pp. 18-47.
William S. Webb and William Haag, The Fisher Site, Fayette County, Kentucky, 1947.
Matthew S. Coon, “Variation in Ohio Hopewell Political Economies”, American Antiquity 74 (1), 2009, pp. 49-76.
George E. Lankford, “The Great Serpent in Eastern North America”, Ancient Objects and Sacred Realms: Interpretations of Mississippian Iconography , ed. F. Kent Reilly and James F. Garber, University of Texas Press, Austin, 2007, pp. 107-135.
William F. Romain, “Hilltop Enclosures: Were They the Dwelling Places of Underworld Monsters?” Ohio Archaeologist Vol. 46 No. 2, pp. 36-44.