Symbolism of the Great Serpent in the Adena and Hopewell Cultures – Part II
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?
Read Part I, which examined serpent symbolism present in the Adena culture.
Ohio and Illinois Hopewell
In the Ohio Valley, serpent symbolism was also present in the contemporaries and successors of Adena in the Hopewell Culture (200 BC—500 AD). Christopher Carr and Robert McCord have recently published a fascinating study of four “composite creature” effigies from the Hopewellian Turner Earthworks in the Little Miami valley. The four effigies feature elements of rattlesnakes, fish, salamanders, crocodilians, and bear or badger. Carr and McCord suggest that the Turner effigies could represent a very ancient form of the mythic entity, which later evolved to become the “Great Horned Serpent/Underwater Panther” of the historic Native American tribes—albeit from a time before the archetype was associated with Above-World animal elements (such as wings).
Turner Earthworks in the Little Miami Valley once held a complex of fire chambers and was lost to gravel pits in the 20th century. Credit: University of Cincinnati.
Serpent Symbolism is Hopewell Burial Mounds
Basic serpent symbolism has been found at other Ohio Hopewell sites. As an example, a group of four sandstone tablets from Mound 1 of the Hopewell Mound Group in Ross County are engraved with effigies of a diamondback rattlesnake, the body formed in a “Z” shape.
Beyond Ohio, serpent symbolism very similar to that documented from Ohio Valley Adena sites has been found in Hopewell burial mounds in Illinois. The Utica Mound Group consists of 3 groups of 27 mounds located on the Illinois River south of Utica, Illinois. Beneath Mound 1 of Group 1, an effigy comprised of hundreds of stones was uncovered about 20 inches above the mound base, described as “A large quantity of rock, which appears to be a large effigy of a snake…” (17, p. 63). The stone serpent measured 25 x 17 feet, and enclosed a central burial area originally containing at least 14 burials.
Rattlesnake tablet found at Hopewell Site. It possessed plumes carved into the sandstone near the head that probably represented feathers. Credit: Jerrel C. Anderson
In Mound 3 of group 1 at Utica, the bones of a snake were found placed over the frontal bones of two disarticulated skeletons. In Mound 11 of the same group, two skeletons extended side by side (Burials 10 and 11) also featured a snake skeleton placed over the frontal bones. Finally, a snake skeleton had been placed near the right shoulder of the skeleton of a young female in Mound 1 of Group 2.
The stone serpent effigy and the snake skeletons placed with burials at Utica Mounds are strongly reminiscent of the Adena practices discussed in this article. Similar discoveries were also made at the Adler group of 8 Hopewell mounds near Joliet and the Des Plaines River in Will County, Illinois. Beneath Adler Mound 3, a central sub-floor tomb containing the remains of five individuals placed shoulder to shoulder, as well as the skeletons of two infants was uncovered. According to Howard Winters, “With the exception of the two infants in the lower portion of the tomb, all burials were found with the articulated vertebrae of snakes placed several centimeters above their waists.” (Winters, 1961, p. 62) In Adler Mound 7, a tomb was found containing the remains of 4 individuals. Above the waist of one of the burials were found “snake vertebrae, again intentionally placed in that position.” (Winters, 1961, p. 73). Finally, Adler Mound 8 covered a sub floor tomb containing 3 extended burials and one large bundle reburial. Only the skeleton of a young adult male was associated with grave goods. Regarding this burial, Winters notes, “the vertebrae of a bull snake (?) were draped across and above the waist, as in Mounds 3 and 7.” (Winters, 1961, p. 73)
The Great Serpent of Southern Ontario
The local manifestation of the Hopewell Culture in southern Ontario, Quebec, and New York State is usually referred to as Point Peninsula. People participating in the Hopewell/Point Peninsula Culture constructed a Serpent Mound of their own at Roach’s Point on Rice Lake in Peterborough County, Ontario. The Middle Woodland component of the site consists of nine burial mounds, one of which—Mound E—is considered by many to be a serpent effigy.
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Serpent Mounds of Rice Lake. Credit: Parks Canada
The Mound E serpent is 194 feet in length and 25 feet wide at the base, with a maximum height of 5-6 feet. Mound F is located very near the head of the serpent and has been interpreted as an “egg”, similar to that before the head of the Great Serpent Mound in Ohio. The Mound F egg contained at least six burials, one of which was a “trophy skull” burial as found at many Adena and Hopewell sites in Ohio. David Boyle found that Mound F also contained a layer of earth mixed with ash and mussel shells 4 feet from the surface at mound center, and beneath this at the mound floor was a stone circle 3 feet in diameter, which exhibited evidence of fire (Ibid). These features are very similar to those documented by Squier and Davis within the ovular “egg” at the mouth of the Great Serpent Mound in Ohio:
“The ground within the oval is slightly elevated: a small circular elevation of large stones much burned once existed in its centre; but they have been thrown down and scattered by some ignorant visitor, under the prevailing impression probably that gold was hidden beneath them.” (22, p. 97)
The Rice Lake serpent was also a burial mound and may have once contained the remains of at least 60 individuals. The burials were likely accretional and span several eras, but the oldest were those placed in burial pits beneath the mound and on the mound floor, with such artifacts as copper, shell, and silver beads, mandibles of timber wolf, bird, and bear, beak of loon, a limestone animal effigy, and a massive double-bitted adze. While these burials may seem to strongly differentiate the Rice Lake serpent from its Ohio counterpart, this is not the case. For while Ohio Valley archaeologists largely continue to insist that the Great Serpent Mound in Adams County was not a burial mound, recent research by Jeffrey Wilson has proven that although they were forgotten and poorly documented, burials were recovered from the Ohio Serpent sometime in the late 1800s.
With regards to the cultural influences and affiliations of the Rice Lake Serpent, Michael Spence and J. Russell Harper state, “Mound burial might be a Hopewellian trait, though the serpent shape is possibly related to the Serpent Mound of Ohio, seemingly Adena.” (Spence & Harper, 1968, p. 55)
Indeed, radiocarbon dates for the Mound E serpent span 128—302 AD, overlapping the temporal range of Late Adena and Hopewell in the Ohio Valley and elsewhere. The Rice Lake Serpent is located in the vicinity of numerous burial mounds, which have yielded extensive evidence of Hopewell influence.
Regional Connections and Conclusion
The purpose of this article is to demonstrate the serpent symbolism of several Adena and Hopewell sites. The authors suggest that in light of this evidence, there is no reason why the Great Serpent Mound in Adams County Ohio—located near the epicenter of Adena and Hopewell—could not be considered as possibly being a site of one or the other, if not both of these cultures. This is especially true in light of much of the evidence (including early radiocarbon dates) collected by William Romain and his associates in recent years. One objection to this article will undoubtedly be that the sites mentioned are from Kentucky, Illinois, West Virginia, the East Coast, and Southern Ontario, while the Great Serpent Mound is located in Southern Ohio. However, we would point out that the archaeological record strongly suggests close cultural connections between the Ohio Valley Adena and Hopewell and the manifestations beyond. Furthermore (and perhaps most importantly), the recent evidence obtained from DNA research (26) and studies of physical skeletal morphology (27) clearly reveal that actual people spread out from the Ohio Valley during the time of Adena and Hopewell, likely taking new ideas and forms of ritualism with them. One of these ideas may well have been a ceremonialism and veneration of an early form of the Great Serpent, as represented at Ohio’s Great Serpent Mound.
Top image: The Great Serpent Mound, a pre-historic effigy mound, along Ohio Brush Creek in Ohio. Source: George Bailey / Adobe Stock.
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
Christopher Carr and Robert McCord, “Ohio Hopewell Depictions of Composite Creatures Part 1—Biological Identification and Ethnohistorical Insights”, Midcontinental Journal of Archaeology Vol. 38 No.1, 2013, pp. 5-82.
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.
Henry C. Henriksen, “Utica Hopewell, A Study of Early Hopewellian Occupation in the Illinois River Valley”, Illinois Archaeological Survey Bulletin No. 5, University of Illinois, Urbana, 1965, pp. 1-67.
Howard Winters, “The Adler Mound Group, Will County, Illinois”, Illinois Archaeological Survey Bulletin No. 3, University of Illinois, Urbana, 1961, pp. 57-88.
Jeffrey Bryan Dillane, Visibility Analysis of the Rice Lake Burial Mounds and Related Sites, Master of Arts Thesis, Trent University, Peterborough, Ontario, 2010.
Jason Jarrell and Sarah Farmer, “The Burial Mounds and Woodland Traditions of Canada”, Ancient American Issue 114, 2016.
David Boyle, “Mounds”, Annual Archaeological Report, Ontario, 1897, pp. 14-57.
Ephraim George Squier and Edwin Hamilton Davis, Ancient Monuments of the Mississippi Valley, Bartlett & Welford, New York, 1848.
Jeffrey Wilson, “The Mysterious Excavations of Serpent Mound”, presentation at Friends of Serpent Mound Mysteries Day event, August 21 st, 2016, and forthcoming book.
Michael Spence and J. Russell Harper, “The Cameron’s Point Site”, Royal Ontario Museum, Art and Archaeology Occasional Paper 12, Toronto, 1968.
Richard B. Johnston, The Archaeology of the Serpent Mounds Site, Royal Ontario Museum, Toronto, 1968, pp. 70-72.
Deborah A. Bolnick and David Glenn Smith, “Migration and Social Structure Among The Hopewell: Evidence from ancient DNA”, in American Antiquity, 72 (4), pp. 627-644.
P.J. Pennefather-O’Brien, Biological Affinities Among Middle Woodland populations associated with the Hopewell Horizon, PhD Dissertation, Indiana University, 2006.