Serpent Mound in rural Adams County, Ohio, is one of the premier
Native American earthworks in the hemisphere. Its pristine flowing
form was enhanced by major reconstruction in the 1880s. That reconstruction
now appears to have been the second time in its long life that Serpent
Mound has shed some of its skin.
Estimates of the age of the earthwork are now radically revised
as the result of a new radiocarbon analysis, suggesting that the
mound is about 1,400 years older than conventionally thought. The
new date of construction is estimated at approximately 321 BCE,
one year after the death of Aristotle in Greece.
and other interpretive material have been made obsolete virtually
overnight, along with ideas about the indigenous culture responsible
for the astounding artwork. A paper by an eight-member team led
by archaeologist William Romain has been published in the Journal
of Archaeological Science with a free-access summary available
The new data alters thinking about three things: the culture
responsible for the mound; the Native groups that are direct descendants
of those builders; and the purpose and iconography of the work.
Dispatching other theories about Serpent Mounds origin, Romains
summary concludes: Both the consensus of opinion and radiocarbon
evidence suggest an Adena construction.
Traditionally, Serpent Mound was attributed to the Adena Culture
or Civilization, based on an adjacent conical Adena burial mound,
and the similarity of style of the effigy with many other Adena
earthworks of the Ohio Valley. Just 30 miles southeast of Serpent
Mound were the Portsmouth Works, with only a few surviving remnants,
interpreted by the pioneering archaeoastronomer Stansbury Hagar
as representing the effigy of a rattlesnake 50 times larger than
Serpent Mound, both with species identification features indicative
of the timber rattlesnake.
However, an investigation in the 1990s found two charcoal samples
in Serpent Mound that dated to the later time of about 1070 CE.
Site managers then attributed construction to the Late Woodland
Fort Ancient Culture, even though the so-called Fort
Ancient Culture has been disassociated from the Fort Ancient
earthwork in Warren County, Ohio, and is not known to have built
large earthworks. Indeed it has been misnamed a culture
and is now understood more as an interaction phenomenon involving
multiple ethnolinguistic groups that came together in the Ohio Valley
in the Late Woodland Period, between 500 CE and 1200 CE.
Fort Ancient Culture is neither a fort, nor ancient,
nor a culture. Yet it has been identified as the author of Serpent
Mound, except in those circles where the mound has been attributed
to giants or space aliens or giant space aliens.
Theories Threaten Serpent Mound, Demean Native Heritage
Fort Ancient designation has been problematic, because
as an unreal entity, the so-called culture has no clear descendants.
Adena, on the contrary, is strongly identified from archaeology,
genetics, and historical linguistics as Algonquian, its descendants
being the Anishinaabeg, the Miami-Illinois, the Shawnee, the Kickapoo,
the Meskwaki, and the Asakiwaki.
The new investigation by Romain and others found much older
charcoal samples in less-damaged sections of the mound. The investigators
conjecture that the mound was originally built between 381 BCE and
44 BCE, with a mean date of 321 BCE. They explain the more recent
charcoal found in the 1990s as likely the result of a repair
effort by Indians around 1070 CE, when the mound would already have
been suffering from natural degradation. Late Woodland Period graves
at the site suggest the earthwork continued to serve a mortuary
function, and that this was the principal nature of the site, directing
spirits of the dead from burial mounds and subsurface graves northward,
not a place to conduct large ceremonial gatherings as has been suggested
by tourism/promotion interests.
Without Serpent Mound as a ceremonial center at
its geographic core, the notion of a Fort Ancient Culture
has literally been gutted.
That the new date adds a very sophisticated earthwork to the
corpus of the Adena, whom some had considered primitive,
lends new weight to reconsideration of the non-distinction between
Adena and Hopewell and the need for a general
revision of the naming conventions for prehistoric cultures of the
Ohio Valley. A simplified revised chronology would see the Adena
Civilization leading straight to the historic Central Algonquian
tribes in the heartland of the Ohio Valley.
The new study comes just as Serpent Mound is being advanced
for addition to the UNESCO World Heritage List, a nomination that
will have to be rethought as a result of the new date and its implications.
Members of the Central Algonquian tribes now have scientific claim
to be considered the heirs of Serpent Mound, raising questions about
the structure of site management, now conducted by the Ohio History
Connection and Arc of Appalachia Preserve System.
What is certain is that ancient Ohioans were not only building
extremely sophisticated geometric works that rivalled or surpassed
those of contemporary classical Greece, but they were also repairing
or renovating them over millennia.