The Spearhead Mound: Interpretation of a Forgotten Adena Burial Site
The people of the Adena Culture were some of the first to construct burial mounds and earthworks in the Ohio River Valley. Early Adena sites date to between 1000 and 200 BC and usually consist of either an isolated burial mound or a small group of no more than two or three tumuli. The early mounds contain extended and flexed burials, cremations in pits, and bark-lined tombs and represent the generational burial places of local communities or hamlets. Beginning sometime around 200 BC and continuing to around 300 AD, multiple dispersed Adena communities began to assemble together at specific ritual areas to construct large burial mounds and ceremonial earthwork enclosures. This development in Late Adena is considered to represent the expression of a broad sociopolitical identity (Blazier et al. 2005).
Two burials in the Spearhead Mound. (James L. Murphy)
Some of the Late Adena sites became vast ritual landscapes, such as the Wolf Plains Mound Group in Athens County Ohio and the Charleston Earthworks in Kanawha County West Virginia. Late Adena mounds often contain various types of log tombs, and also many more cremations than the earlier structures. While excavations of some of the larger Adena mounds were well documented in the 20th century, others were destroyed with very little professional documentation and forgotten. This article presents the available information for one such mound from Southern Ohio.
The Spearhead Mound
The largest burial mound in Hamilton County, the Spearhead Mound was located in Anderson Township, situated close to the southern bank of Little Dry Run, which ran past its base. In the 1800s, early surveyors of the mound documented its wonderful size and speculated about its contents. Timothy Day (1839) reported that the mound was 40 feet (12.19 meters) high and 600 feet (182.88 meters) in circumference, and suggested that it could hold the remains of a mighty chief. The Spearhead Mound was later surveyed by the archaeological pioneer Charles Metz (1878:125) and found to be 625 feet (190.5 meters) in circumference and 39 feet (11.89 meters) high. At the time of Metz’s research, the landowner forbade excavations in the mound.
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Entrance to the Spearhead Mound looking East. (James L. Murphy)
By the late 1920s, the mound was owned by Willis Walker and W. H. Harber. Walker, who was apparently an enterprising individual, began to tunnel into the mound in 1927, with the intention of setting up a for-profit museum inside the ancient tumulus. According to S. Frederick Starr (1960:53), Walker “tunneled around in the bowels of the mound, strung up electric lights, and, by charging a nominal admission fee, made enough money to pull himself out of the Depression.”
Interior of the main tunnel at Spearhead Mound. Note electric lighting and boxes of excavated material along the left wall. (James L. Murphy)
The contents of the Spearhead Mound as described in this article are derived from several sources, including an informative paper by the late James Murphy published in the Ohio Archaeologist (Murphy 1984), a book by S. Frederick Starr (1960), and a detailed press article by W. L. Brilmayer (1927).
Between May and October of 1927, Walker and his assistants tunneled 350 feet (106.68 meters) into the mound, fortifying the passages with posts and oak flanking (Murphy 1984:25). The first burial encountered by the intruders was around 55 feet (106.68 meters) from the west side of the mound, where the remains of a single individual were found in a prepared bark tomb, along with remnants of animal skins or leather clothing or wrappings, and possibly a leather headdress (Murphy 1984:25).
The next important discovery consisted of a group of burials encountered at the level of the tunnel floor. All that remained of the first burial found in this area were the legs of a badly deteriorated skeleton. Beneath the legs of this burial was another skeleton, buried face downward and missing the feet. Another skeleton with a stone celt was unearthed nearby. Apparently, all burials in this cluster were associated with individual piles of a white chalky substance (Murphy 1984:25), which could have been the residue of deposits of ritual pigments.
Burial in Spearhead Mound including a white chalky substance. Walker is on the left. (James L. Murphy)
The following passage from the report by Brilmayer (1927) includes several interesting comments about these last two burials:
“…they [the legs of the deteriorated skeleton] were removed and the skeleton of a giant, who had been buried face downward was brought to view. The feet of this skeleton are missing, but the remains from the top of the skull to the ankles measures 6 feet and 2 inches in length. The skeleton of another giant was found nearby. The smaller bones of its framework had deteriorated into dust to commingle with the earth surrounding it, but the larger bones remain intact and the outline of the skeleton is plainly imprinted on the soil. The length of the skeleton, from the crown of the skull to the heel, is 6 feet and 7 inches.”
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It is possible that there was another skeleton recovered from this group, but no details are known. While tall, the two “giants” reported from the Spearhead Mound do not represent the tallest Adena known. As the present authors have extensively documented in Ages of the Giants: A Cultural History of the Tall Ones in Prehistoric America (LuLu.com, 2017), the remains of powerfully built individuals reaching 7 feet (2.13 meters) in stature and even taller have been discovered in many Adena and Hopewell mounds in the Eastern Woodlands, including sites beyond the Ohio Valley.
Artist’s representation of the “Adena Giant”, Prehistoric Mound Builders. Credit: Marcia K Moore / Ciamar Studio. Visit www.marciakmoore.com
Continuing to the center of the mound, Walker encountered the remnants of an Adena log tomb in the roof of the tunnel, which contained the remains of one individual with two copper bracelets and a stemmed spear point (Murphy 1984:25). Cremations were encountered throughout the body of the Spearhead Mound (Murphy 1984:25). Brilmayer (1927:3) reported “numerous deposits of ashes of human bodies” during his visit.
View of the ceiling of the tunnel showing log and bark molds and copper bracelets. (James L. Murphy)
On the floor of the mound, another log crypt measuring 7 feet (2.13 meters) long and 3.5 feet (1.07 meters) wide was eventually encountered, which at the time of Walker’s excavation was considered an altar (Murphy 1984:25). In fact, Starr (1960:53) reported that at the time of the mound’s ultimate destruction, many more Adena log tombs were observed:
“The bulldozer operator whose job it was to level this mound, still recalls, two decades later, digging through many log tombs. From his accurate description, it is evident that the most common type of tomb was the simple two-dimensional log structure, constructed by laying two logs on each side of a rectangle around the body.”
The recorded details suggest that the Spearhead Mound was constructed in a similar manner to large Late Adena mounds from Kentucky and West Virginia, as the size of the tumulus grew with subsequent episodes involving the addition of more log tombs, cremations, and earth mantles over time.
Interpretations of Spearhead Mound
Native American tribes 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 and the Thunderbirds inhabit 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 the Great Serpents. 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. A perpetual war exists between the Thunderbirds of the Above Realm and the Great Serpents of the Beneath Realm. This conflict is routinely acted out in the Earth Realm as the Thunderbirds hurl great bolts of lightning down upon the serpents whenever they use springs, rivers and lakes as points of access into the Earth Realm.
Art representing a Native American Thunderbird.(NativeAmericanArts/Deviant Art)
It has been suggested that Adena conical burial mounds were representative of an Axis Mundi or World Tree, which joined the three realms of this cosmological scheme (Carr 2008: 294-296). The construction of the Spearhead Mound along Little Dry Run could have been an intentional use of a natural water source to reference the Beneath Realm aspect of the triune cosmology.
There were at least three other smaller Adena mounds, which were evenly spaced 200 yards (182.88 meters) apart in a line along Little Dry Run (Starr 1960:53). In fact, many Adena mounds are found along rivers or near natural springs and lakes. This includes the original Adena Mound on the Worthington estate in Ross County, Ohio, which was built next to Lake Ellensmere and included soils from the lake in its construction (Mills 1907).
Archaeologist William Romain (2005) has suggested that the Newark Earthworks in Licking County, Ohio were deliberately built in an area surrounded by natural water sources to reflect the “island earth” sitting upon the primordial sea. By burying the dead together inside of a representation of the Axis Mundi, the Adena communities who came together to construct the Spearhead Mound were likely adopting a common mythic ancestry which strengthened social bonds among the living. As a symbolic Axis Mundi, the mound also served to facilitate the travel of the souls of the dead to other realms.
Part of a mound at the Newark Earthworks in Licking County. (Kevin Payravi/CC BY SA 4.0)
The Axis Mundi or World Tree also serves as “a vertical structure by which a shaman can take magical flights to nonordinary worlds above and below this one” (Carr & Case 2006:194). One of the artifacts documented from the Spearhead Mound is an Adena tubular smoking pipe inscribed with a bird like effigy or pattern (Starr 1960:53). Interestingly, another Adena tubular pipe adorned with a bird design was found at the Swanton burial site in Vermont (Perkins 1874:85).
The Adena also produced stylized engraved stone and clay tablets featuring animistic and symbolic figures, some including raptorial birds. Carr & Case (2006:194-195) point out that four of the known tablets (the Cincinnati, Lakin A, Meigs, and Wilmington tablets) depict raptorial birds either at the top of the Axis Mundi or World Tree or ascending its levels. Carr & Case (Ibid) furthermore suggest that this symbolism could represent the shaman merging with the bird spirit to travel along the Axis Mundi and visit different realms above and below.
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Adena Cincinnati, Lakin A, Meigs, and Wilmington tablets. (Caldwell, 1997)
Perhaps the owner of the tubular pipe with the bird design from Spearhead Mound was a shaman who incorporated the artifact into rituals involving travel along the Axis Mundi as depicted on some Adena tablets. Alternatively, if the raptors of Adena iconography were stewards of the dead who carried souls between realms, then the owner of the pipe could have been a mortuary ritual specialist.
William Romain (2009:81) has suggested that the imagery of raptorial birds at some Hopewell mounds in Ohio could represent the Thunderbirds of the Above Realm. The Hopewell Culture was largely contemporary with Adena and the two cultures are considered more or less connected and to have shared in the same cosmological tradition. Historically, tobacco was used by Native American tribes as an offering or intermediary between the Earth Realm and the Manitouk or spirits who dwelt in the Above and Beneath realms—such as the Thunderbirds and Great Serpents. In this context, the ritual practices involving Adena pipes with bird designs could have included evocations of the Thunderbirds to destroy the Great Serpents, to serve as stewards of the dead, or to bring rain or other advantages.
An Adena bird effigy pipe. (The Cleveland Museum of Art)
The Spearhead Mound was pillaged in the 1920s to create a profitable spectacle and was ultimately destroyed in 1940 for gravel operations. It is, unfortunately, one of many hundreds of important archaeological sites in the Ohio Valley lost to economic gain and “progress”.
Top Image: Example of an Adena mound in Mound Cemetery at Marietta Ohio. Unfortunately the Spearhead Mound was destroyed in 1940 for gravel operations. Source: Mike/CC BY ND 2.0
Jason and Sarah are the authors of Ages of the Giants: A Cultural History of the Tall Ones in Prehistoric America (LuLu.com, 2017).
Visit their website: https://www.paradigmcollision.com
Jeremy Blazier, AnnCorinne Freter, and Elliot M. Abrams, “Woodland Ceremonialism in the Hocking Valley”, in Emergence of the Mound Builders, The Archaeology of Tribal Societies in Southeastern Ohio, ed. Elliot M. Abrams & AnnCorrine Freter, Ohio University Press, Athens, 2005, pp. 94-110.
W. L. Brilmayer, “Exploration of Spearhead Mound”, Cincinnati Enquirer Sunday Magazine on October 9 th, 1927.
Christopher Carr and D. Troy Case, “The Nature of Leadership in Ohio Hopewellian Societies: Role Segregation and the Transformation from Shamanism”, in Gathering Hopewell: Society, Ritual, and Ritual Interaction, ed. Christopher Carr and D. Troy Case, Springer, 2006, pp. 177-237.
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.
Timothy C. Day, “Mounds or Tumuli of the Miami Valley”, Monthly Chronicle of Useful Knowledge 1, 1839.
Charles L. Metz, “The Prehistoric Monuments of the Little Miami Valley”, Journal of the Cincinnati Society of Natural History 1 (1), 1878, pp. 119-128.
William C. Mills, “Excavations of the Adena Mound”, in Certain Mound and Village Sites in Ohio, Press of F. J. Heer, Columbus, Ohio, 1907, pp. 5-28.
James L. Murphy, “Hamilton County’s Spearhead Mound (33-Ha-24)”, Ohio Archaeologist, 34 (1), 1984, pp. 25-27.
George Perkins, “On An Ancient Burial Ground in Swanton, Vt.”, Proceedings of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, 22 nd Meeting Held at Portland, Maine, 1873, Salem Press, Massachusetts, 1874.
William F. Romain, “Newark Earthwork Cosmology: This Island Earth”, Hopewell Archaeology Newsletter, Vol. 6 No. 2, 2005.
William F. Romain, Shamans of the Lost World: A Cognitive Approach to the Prehistoric Religion of the Ohio Hopewell, Rowman & Littlefield, 2009.
S. Frederick Starr, “The Archaeology of Hamilton County, Ohio”, Journal of the Cincinnati Museum of Natural History 23 (1), 1960, pp. 1-130.