Symbolism of the Great Serpent in the Adena and Hopewell Cultures – Part I
Recently, a debate has developed in the Ohio archaeological community over the age and cultural affiliations of the Great Serpent Mound in Adams County, Ohio. So, what does the evidence really show regarding the origins of this mysterious earthwork?
Serpent Mound is the greatest effigy mound in the Ohio Valley. The earthen mound is 1,348 feet long and portrays a serpent with a coiled tail with what has been interpreted as an egg at its mouth. In the 1800s, Frederick Ward Putnam excavated several mounds and other burials in the vicinity of the Great Serpent (F.W. Putnam, “The Serpent Mound of Ohio”, The Century Illustrated Monthly Magazine, Vol. 39.). At least two of the mounds yielded evidence, which today would be recognized as diagnostic of the Adena Culture (1000 BC—300 AD), while several non-mounded burials resemble Late Archaic (2500—500 BC) tombs as found elsewhere in Ohio. There is much more cultural information from Putnam’s excavations that archaeological institutions have never made available to the public in a comprehensive format, but this situation is soon to be remedied.
In addition to the evidence recovered in the 1800s, a recent project at Serpent Mound radiocarbon dated the earliest phase of the effigy to around 321 BC, placing the origin of the mound in the Early Woodland period, which is defined by the Adena Culture. In spite of the Adena evidence, influential organizations have continued to back an alternative interpretation of the Great Serpent Mound, which associates the effigy with the much more recent Fort Ancient Culture manifestation (1000—1600 AD).
Serpent Mound. Credit: Roy Luck / flickr
The Adena Culture
The Adena Culture emerged in the Ohio River Valley sometime between 1400 and 800 BC, and persisted until around 300 AD. They raised earthen mounds ranging from just a few inches to nearly 70 feet high (21 meters). Within the mounds, the honored dead were buried in sub-mound pits, log tombs, and occasionally elaborate timber structures. The human remains from the mounds were frequently found with artifacts, including copper bracelets, beads, and gorgets, as well shell, flint, and slate objects. The Adena also constructed circular earthen enclosures. These “sacred circles” usually included an interior ditch following the circuit of the earthen wall and one causewayed entryway. These structures are typically considered to have served some ritual or ceremonial purpose.
One of the criteria recently given for rejecting an Adena affiliation for the Great Serpent Mound is “the virtual absence of serpent imagery in the Adena culture”. However, evidence from several archaeological sites reveals that the Adena Culture did utilize serpent symbolism in a presumably ritual context, and may have even passed the mythology behind the serpent to their contemporaries and successors in the Hopewell Culture.
The Adena-affiliated Wright Mound was located in Montgomery County, Kentucky, and was excavated in the late 1930s. The mound contained over 20 burials, some in typical Late Adena log tombs. Calibrated radiocarbon dates from the mound include 120 AD and 264 AD. Burial 11 at Wright consisted of an extended skeleton in a tomb with two logs at each end and side. The body had been laid upon strips of bark, and bark also covered the tomb. The skeleton featured a copper bracelet on each arm and a shell disk bead necklace under the chin.
View of the Wright Mound from south showing men working on the 50-foot profile. Photograph taken 5 February 1938. Credit: William S. Webb Museum of Anthropology at the University of Kentucky
The Serpent Skeletons
Another “artifact” with Burial 11 recorded by William S. Webb was a serpent skeleton:
“Between the femora was the skeleton of a large snake. This appears to have been an intentional placement and not the result of the death of a transient snake visitor seeking winter quarters.” (5, pp. 35-37)
A similar discovery was documented for Wright Burial 18, which was another extended skeleton in a rectangular log tomb. This burial featured two copper bracelets on each forearm. According to Webb, “At the foot of the burial there was the complete skeleton of a large snake, fairly well preserved.” (5, p. 46).
An artist's depiction of a log-tomb burial from Wright Mound (Henderson and Schlarb 2007). Artwork modelled after Feature 22, Burials 20 and 21 (Webb 1940, 44). Original artwork by Jimmy A. Railey. Credit: Kentucky Archaeological Survey.
The Kentucky Serpent
There is another possible example of Adena serpent symbolism from elsewhere in Kentucky. In 1988, Sara L. Sanders surveyed a stone serpent mound situated on a ridge top overlooking the Big Sandy River in Boyd County, Kentucky on the property of Ashland Oil. The present authors recently summarized several details of this site in Ages of the Giants: A Cultural History of the Tall Ones in Prehistoric America (Serpent Mound Books & Press, 2017):
“At the time of Sara L Sanders’ survey in 1988, the serpent was 191.4 m in length, the head being 25.6 m long and 11 m wide. The tail was 7.2 m at the widest point and 2.05 m at the narrowest. The serpent was composed entirely of sandstone, the head facing east towards the River. The piled sandstone integrates natural “float rock” into the design. On a lower ledge below the serpent, a semi-circular stone structure 5.2 m in diameter built atop a sandstone outcrop has been interpreted to represent an egg. Sanders considered the Kentucky Serpent to be immediately comparable to the more famous earthen serpent in Ohio.”
While the Kentucky serpent has not been radiocarbon dated, information has been obtained from another stone structure in Boyd County, which may have been constructed by the same community that built the stone effigy. The Viney Branch Stone Mound was also situated to overlook the Big Sandy Valley and has produced calibrated radiocarbon ranges of 890-215 BC and 798-1 BC. This chronology overlaps the periods of the Late Archaic and Adena cultures in the Ohio Valley. The Viney Branch mound contained two cremations, and also covered a crematory and hearth. One of the cremations was placed in a pit. These features are similar to Late Archaic and very early Adena mounds.
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The West Virginia Serpent
Another little-known stone Serpent Mound was located in West Virginia, situated on a ridgeline overlooking the town of Omar in Logan County. The West Virginia serpent was surveyed by Gary Wilkins in 1979, and found to be “similar in form to serpent mounds found in Kentucky and Ohio” (10, p. 1). The authors also summarized this effigy in Ages of the Giants:
“The serpent was oriented north, the head consisting of an oval ring of stone with a rectangular flat rock at the center. The serpent was composed of large, flat sandstone rocks, extending in undulating fashion over 80 feet to the south, where it joined a natural rock outcrop incorporated into the design. The artificial wall varied between 1 and 3 feet in height and 1.6 and 8 feet in width at the time of the survey. The “natural” section was also aligned with the ridge and extended around 51 feet further to the south.”
Wilkins Himself suggested that the West Virginia stone serpent was “probably late Adena to early Hopewell in age” (10, p. 3). Serpent symbolism has also been documented from Adena sites outside of the Ohio River Valley. Several major Adena sites have been excavated on the East Coast, usually grouped under the cultural label of Delmarva Adena.
It is a popular trend in modern studies to explain Adena elements on the East Coast as the simple product of exchange. However, it has been pointed out that regional manifestations of Adena appear in the archaeological record around 800 BC, emerging from a local formulation of the Late Archaic cultural network. This is almost identical to the late Adena expert Don Dragoo’s theory for the origin of Adena in the Ohio Valley.
Delmarva Adena at Pig Point. Credit: Bensozia
Besides the chronology, Delmarva Adena ritualism is also closely linked to the Ohio Valley culture. T. Latimer Ford once pointed out that the number of diagnostic artifacts found at the Delmarva Adena site at Sandy Hill in Maryland “far exceeds that recovered from any Ohio or Kentucky Adena site.” (12, p. 86). Commenting on the obvious Adena ritualism at the West River site on Chesapeake Bay, Ford stated in 1976, “While the artifacts might have been trade goods, the cremation and burial traits are not likely to have been diffused to local tribes.” (12, p. 75)
There are other Delmarva Adena ceremonial practices, which have been demonstrably connected with the Ohio Valley. For example, the upper medial and lateral incisors and supporting bone of a skull buried at the Rosenkrans site in New Jersey had been intentionally broken out. Herbert C. Kraft suggested that this had been done to allow for the insertion of a worked wolf jaw spatula as reported from the Wright and Ayers Mounds in Kentucky and the Wolford Mound in Ohio, allowing the individual to become a “wolf shaman” (13, p. 29).
With these important ties between the Ohio Valley and the Adena culture established, it is interesting to note that obvious serpent symbolism has been found at the Delmarva Adena affiliated Boucher site located east of Lake Champaign in Vermont. Three hide medicine bags from the Boucher site are considered part of the paraphernalia of local shamanic practitioners or ritual specialists. One of the hide bags contained the bones of a black snake covered in red ocher, while another bag contained copper fragments. The third bag, found near the chest area of a middle-aged male, contained bones of a timber rattler, a black rat snake, American mink, pine marten, cervid, duck, and red fox, as well as a raccoon bacculum, a bone fish hook, and two pebbles. The radiocarbon range of the Boucher Site is 885—114 BC, and at least 15 Adena-style tubular pipes from the site were made of Ohio fireclay (Ibid).
Coming next in Part 2: Serpent Symbolism in the Hopewell Culture.
Top image: Aerial View of Serpent Mound. Credit: The Archaeological Conservancy
Jason and Sarah are the authors of Ages of the Giants: A Cultural History of the Tall Ones in Prehistoric America (Serpent Mound books and Press, 2017).
Their website: paradigmcollision.com
F.W. Putnam, “The Serpent Mound of Ohio”, The Century Illustrated Monthly Magazine, Vol. 39.
Jeffrey Wilson, forthcoming.
William F. Romain, “New Radiocarbon Dates Suggest Serpent Mound is More Than 2,000 Years Old”, The Ancient Earthworks Project, 2014, http://ancientearthworksproject.org/1/post/2014/07/new-radiocarbon-dates-suggest-serpent-mound-is-more-than-2000-years-old.html
Bradley T. Lepper, “On the Age of Serpent Mound: A Reply to Romain and Colleagues”, Midcontinental Journal of Archaeology Vol. 43 (1), 2018, pp. 62-75.
William S. Webb, The Wright Mounds, sites 6 and 7, Montgomery County, Kentucky, University of Kentucky Press, 1940.
Robert F. Maslowski, Charles M. Niquette, and Derek M. Wingfield, “The Kentucky, Ohio, and West Virginia Radiocarbon Database”, West Virginia Archeologist, Vol. 47:1-2.
Sara L Sanders, “The Stone Serpent Mound of Boyd County, Kentucky: An Investigation of a Stone Effigy”, Midcontinental Journal of Archaeology, 16 (2).
Darlene Applegate, “Chapter 5: Woodland Period”, in The Archaeology of Kentucky: An Update, ed. David Pollack, State Historic Preservation Comprehensive Plan Report No. 3, Kentucky Heritage Council, Frankfort, 2008, pp. 339-604.
Don W. Dragoo, Mounds for the Dead: An Analysis of the Adena Culture, Annals of the Carnegie Museum, Vol. 37, 1963.
Gary R. Wilkins, “A Rock Serpent Mound in Logan County, West Virginia”, Tennessee Anthropological Association Newsletter, Vol. 6 (4), 1981, pp. 1-4.
Jay F. Custer, “New Perspectives on the Delmarva Adena Complex”, Midcontinental Journal of Archaeology, 12 (1), 1987, pp. 35-53.
T. Latimer Ford, Jr., “Adena Sites on Chesapeake Bay”, Archaeology of Eastern North America, Vol. 4, 1976, pp. 63-89.
Herbert C. Kraft, “The Rosenkrans Site, An Adena-Related Mortuary Complex in the Upper Delaware Valley, New Jersey”, Archaeology of Eastern North America, Vol. 4, 1976, pp. 9-50.
Michael J. Heckenberger, James B. Petersen, Ellen R. Cowie, Arthur E. Spiess, Louise A. Basa and Robert E. Stuckenrath, “Early Woodland Period Mortuary Ceremonialism in the Far Northeast: a View from the Boucher Cemetery”, Archaeology of Eastern North America 18, 1990, pp. 109-144.