Seip Earthworks and Serpent Mound

Seip Earthworks, another section of the Hopewell Culture National Historical Park, is one of the five nearly-identical complexes in the Scioto River Valley that follows the pattern of a large circle, a small circle, and a square. It is unique however in that it is centered around one of the largest Hopewell mounds found anywhere: 240 feet by 130 feet ,and 30 feet high. Referred to as the Seip-Pricer Mound, the mortuary mound was found to cover one small and two large buildings containing fire pits and interred human remains. There is no evidence that any of the buildings functioned as a crematory as in Mound City.

Much of the 2 mile long embankment wall at Seip has since been flattened by centuries of plowing, but the ten foot high wall originally enclosed 121 acres providing space not only for the huge Seip-Pricer Mound and other smaller mortuary mounds, but also multiple buildings as indicated by remaining post hole patterns. The floors of these buildings are littered with broken tools, shells, and animal bones leading archaeologists to identify these structures as workshops and centers of production. Due to the concentration of artisans working here – and the absence of evidence of production in other mound complexes – it is believed that Seip was likely a center of trade.

Seip-Pricer Mound, Seip Earthworks, Hopewell Culture National Historical Park, Ohio

Seip-Pricer Mound, Seip Earthworks, Hopewell Culture National Historical Park, Ohio

Burial mound, Seip Earthworks, Hopewell Culture National Historical Park, Ohio

Burial mound, Seip Earthworks, Hopewell Culture National Historical Park, Ohio

Excavated workshop, Seip Earthworks, Hopewell Culture National Historical Park, Ohio

Excavated workshop, Seip Earthworks, Hopewell Culture National Historical Park, Ohio

Serpent Mound, which lies to the southwest of many of the Hopewell sites in the Scioto River Valley, is a the largest effigy earthwork in the world, stretching 1,348 feet in length and maintaining 20 to 25 feet in width across a bluff. Unlike the burial mounds or embankment enclosure walls constructed by the Hopewell, the earthwork is a representation of ancient beliefs, specifically related to the mythology of the powerful great serpent. As such, it was very likely a ceremonial and gathering place.

The earthwork’s naturalistic appearance, easily discernible to visitors, has generated over a century of research and scholarship, but the the dating of the mound is still inconclusive, a problem greatly exacerbated by the lack of artifacts buried within the structure. The older theory attributed Serpent Mound to the Adena who were precursors of the Hopewell and inhabited the area from approximately 800 BC to 100 AD. This hypothesis was largely based on radiocarbon dating of organic material excavated from the serpent’s body, dating of two (out of three total) nearby burial mounds, evidence of Adena-era habitation adjacent to the mound, and the known tradition of mound building in the culture.

In recent years the theory has been introduced that it was in fact built by the later so-called Fort Ancient Culture based on a radiocarbon dates of ca. 1070 and 1120 AD. This speculation was bolstered by the later date of third burial mound as well as the presence of a larger Fort Ancient village partially constructed over the Adena habitation site. Supporters of this later attribution point to the importance of serpent symbolism in the culture overall (and the absence of serpent imagery in the Adena culture), the practices of constructing stone effigies of serpents, and the persistence of the mythology of the Great Serpent into the historical traditions of the Shawnee, who were direct descendants of the Fort Ancient peoples. One last argument is that the precise alignment of different sections of the serpent with solstices, lunar paths, and other solar events displays knowledge that is demonstrated in the construction of other Fort Ancient sites demonstrates whereas many of these alignments are absent from Adena sites despite at least rudimentary knowledge of the solar calendar. A final hypothesis proposes that the Fort Ancient peoples refurbished or reconstructed the earlier effigy originally constructed by the Adena; this would explain the radiocarbon results for both time periods.

Overall, the attribution of the mound is problematic. Because it is a unique structure, very little can be inferred from its construction with regards to placing it firmly in either the Adena or Fort Ancient traditions. Also likely due to its unique purpose, no artifacts were buried within the mound despite there being a custom to do so in both the Adena earthworks and the Fort Ancient platform and burial mounds; this of course greatly inhibits accurate attribution. Despite the inability to definitively date the mound however, there is little doubt that both cultures used the site or place and that it had a ceremonial function.

Serpent Mound from above on the observation tower, Serpent Mound, Ohio

Serpent Mound from above on the observation tower, Serpent Mound, Ohio

Serpent Mound, Ohio

Serpent Mound, Ohio

Head of serpent, Serpent Mound, Ohio

Head of serpent, Serpent Mound, Ohio

Serpent Mound, Ohio

Serpent Mound, Ohio

Serpent Mound, Ohio

Serpent Mound, Ohio

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