Travel Log: Serpent Mound

Travel Log 2

(Jan. 3, 2018) Began the next part of my Great Walkabout today. The Upper Midwest leg is officially over and, next up, is the Mid-Atlantic/Southeast leg. But, as I’m not done with Ohio, the Midwest is still technically on the chart, but work with me here, people! One cannot explore without taking some detours and lingering in places where one finds unexpected treasures…like the footprints of our predecessors on this continent. After I said goodbye to my brother’s family in Huber Heights, I drove down to Peebles, home of the Great Serpent Mound.

The Great Serpent Mound is located within a 9-mile wide impact crater from 256 million years ago. It’s hard to see the crater, even if you’re looking at a good aerial image of the area, but it’s there. The structure of the crater and the millions of years of weathering have created a very complicated landscape.

When the asteroid slammed into the ground, it created a “complex” crater. This means the crater wasn’t just a bowl scooped out of the ground like a simple crater (Meteor Crater in Arizona is a bowl-shaped, simple crater). The Ohio impact was big enough to leave a central uplift, a transition zone, and a ring graben.

The uplift is the center of the crater. Watch a drop of water fall into water in slow motion, and you’ll see a complex crater in formation. Notice that cone that pops up in the center of the splash? That’s the central uplift, only in an impact crater the uplift “freezes” and remains. The transition zone is the place where the water (or ground) is disturbed and distorted as you move towards the rim. The ring graben is a trough in the ground just inside the outer ring. That’s a lot of topographical features to look for…and, after 256 million years of erosion, it’s not easy to spot, but it exists. For my own bragging rights, this is, to the best of my knowledge, only the second impact crater (after the Chesapeake Impact Crater from 35 million years ago) I’ve stood inside.

Great Serpent Mound Park
The coils of the serpent have been here for more than 1,000 winters.

No one knows if the builders of the Serpent Mound knew a crater was here, or if the effigy’s location is just a coincidence. There’s no way to tell, but as humans migrated across the continent, this area became home to the ancient Adena and, later, Fort Ancient cultures, both of which left their marks upon the earth. Burial mounds are common around the state, but the Great Serpent Mound and the Alligator Mound are the only two effigy mounds in Ohio. Now, if you’re not sure what an “effigy mound” is, it’s a pile of earth constructed in the shape of a stylized figure or animal (such as a serpent), and the Serpent Mound is the largest effigy mound in all of North America.

Back in the late 19th century the mound was in danger of being obliterated, but was saved by the efforts of Frederic Ward Putnam from the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology at Harvard. Putnam was fascinated by the Native Americans, and the destruction of many aged and sacred sites by modern development upset him.He led the charge that saved the Serpent Mound, and he’s the first man to conduct proper research and excavations on the site. The mound has been extensively studied since, and the latest dating techniques peg it’s construction to about 1,000 years ago.

Originally the Serpent Mound was thought to be a burial mound, but it doesn’t contain artifacts or remains. The two burial mounds nearby (more on them in a minute) indicate the site had a religious significance, but it might also possess an astronomical significance as well. Research in 1987 noted the head of the serpent is aligned with the sunset during the summer solstice. The position and shape of the mound also results in the coils and tail being aligned with sunrise at the winter solstice and the equinox. These positions might be coincidence, or they might be intentional. There is simply no way for this mystery to be solved, but it provides evidence for the sophistication of the ancient Native Americans.

Great Serpent Mound Park
One of the two ancient Adena burial mounds on the site.  These are graves–treat them with respect and don’t climb on them.

The mound was most likely built by the Adena people, who were renowned for their earthworks. Buttressing this theory is the time period they lived and the fact two positively-identified Adena burial mounds are in close proximity to the serpent (“close proximity” being only a one-minute walk from the serpent). The next most likely contenders are the Fort Ancient culture, who were heavily influenced by the Mississippian culture—which had a very important spirit depicted as a rattlesnake. The problems with this theory include the fact the serpent depicted is clearly not a rattlesnake, and carbon dating of charcoal found in the mound leans towards the older Adena culture. For my money, I believe the Adena built it, and the later Fort Ancient peoples maintained and possibly modified it for their own use, but no one will ever know for certain.

The serpent’s tail is a triple-coil spiral. Snaking out (pardon the pun) over 1,348 feet from tail to head, the mound averages three feet high, and may have been as high as five feet in antiquity. Evidence indicates an original head existed short of the current head, with that structure being erased and the current head and oval structure built decades later. The current head is a simple curved triangle into which sits an oval that might represent an egg being eaten, the sun held in the serpent’s mouth, or something else entirely. Again, we can only but guess.

I had the good fortune of being out there alone for a while. No humans, no car noise, no airplanes, nothing. Just me, the birds, the mound, and the wind. As I’ve said, you can learn a lot just listening to the wind in these ancient lands. A dusting of snow still blankets the area, and the record-smashing winter we’re experiencing added another dimension to my education. After nearly an hour I was chilly in my 21st century, high-tech winter clothing. The Native Americans who lived here in antiquity wore skins and lived in structures lacking spray-foam insulation, central heat, or even caulking to seal the joints. And yet…and yet these people thrived in their beloved homeland. Even the winter, while harsh, was nothing more than a common part of their everyday lives.

Great Serpent Mound Park
After more than 45 minutes alone at the site, I finally encountered other people while I was at the head of the serpent, looking back over the oval structure held in the serpent’s mouth.

The site is not large. You need only a bit more than an hour to explore it if you’re pressed for time. There is a small museum, but it’s only open seasonally. The park, however, is open year-round, so you can access it anytime that’s convenient to you. Numerous markers and signs provide a wealth of information about the impact crater and mound, so you will gain a satisfactory understanding of the site even if the museum is closed. The parking fee is $8.00, and this is on an honor system if you arrive off system. Be honorable—pay the parking fee even you’re out there by yourself. I did. Remember—the money is used maintaining this unique treasure.

The Great Serpent Mound is a mystery, and always will be. It’s a powerful place, whether you hold sacred any religious beliefs or not. If you have the good fortune to spend some time out there alone, make sure you listen to wind. If you’re lucky (or favored by the spirits), you might just catch a whisper of the ancients who still walk in those woods, unseen by living eyes.

Just remember this is a sacred site to many peoples, ancient and living. Don’t climb on the mounds or take souvenirs other than photographs. When you go, go with respect.

Great Serpent Mound Park
Looking towards the serpent’s head from the observation tower.

#Ohio #greatserpentmound #serpentmound #nativeamerican #mound #history #historic


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