Serpent Mound

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I heard about the Great Serpent Mound in high school, I don't know where from. It is the largest effigy mound (mound in the shape of a person or animal) in existence. I was immediately fascinated with it. I even put it in a Rolemaster campaign I was trying to run, but it scared the players so much that they decided to "hunt and trap for furs until we go up a level." I've always wanted to go there and see it. So I August of 2019, I hopped on my motorcycle and rode ten and a half hours to Ohio.

The Mound Itself

The mound is about three feet high. The height of the mound varies from place to place. As I was walking along beside it, it was generally at hip height, but got near my knees at some points and up to my rib cage at other points. There is a round oval at one end (the head). Next to but separate from that is a triangular section (the neck) which becomes one long, winding mound (the body) before ending in a spiral (the tail).

The mound and the area around it are mowed like a lawn, so it's just a grassy mound. I believe they have agreements with the local tribes that include not walking on the mound. I'm not sure how they mow the mound without getting on it. They may use weed whackers or other special equipment. When I got there they had just finished mowing the mound, and were starting to mow the area around it. That was done with a typical large riding mower.

While the mound is made out of plain earth, the base of the mound is fortified with stones and clay. This prevents erosion, and is part of why the mound is still around today, possibly 2,400 years after it was first built. We know this because the mound was found by white people back before white people really cared what the Native Americans thought, and they just chopped a section out and looked at it. Frederic Ward Putnam of Harvard was the man who first excavated in, after it was first reported by Squier and Days in 1848.

The full mound is 1,300 feet long, which is more than four football fields. But since the mound twists and turns so much, it actually fits in a much smaller space. Imagine a typical high school football field with a quarter mile track around it. The main body of the mound, from the head down to where the body turns off to the side, would fit just within the oval of that track. Then the body turns off to the side for another 150 to 200 feet to where it spirals into the tail.

The Purpose of the Mound

The mound is not a burial mound. There were no remains, human or otherwise, in the section cut out by the first whites to find the mound. There are two burial mounds on the site, separate from the serpent mound. It makes sense, because it's a very nice location, up on a cliff looking out over a wide stretch of land and the Ohio Brush Creek. The cliff was actually formed by a meteor impact, but it was so long ago that it doesn't really look like a crater. One of the burial mounds is from the Fort Ancient culture, and one is from the earlier Adena culture.

It is believed that there used to be an altar inside the oval head of the mound. If you make a line from the triangle point where the neck meets the body, through where the altar would be in the center of the oval, it points directly to where the Sun sets on the Summer Solstice. And to this day this is a big event at the mound. The person at the small museum/gift shop said there is a line of people waiting to get in when they open in the moring, and by sunset the entire site is full of people waiting to see the sunset.

Furthermore, three of the twists in the body line up with the sunrises for the solstices and the equinoxes (this is not totally clear, they may line up with other astronomical events, or it may be coincidence). So this is not just the largest effigy mound in existence, it has astronomical significance. It has other significance as well, representing the Great Serpent, also known as the Lord of the World Below (the realm beneath the ground and in the lakes and rivers).

The History of the Mound

No one is really sure at this point what the full history of the mound was, of course. There is clear evidence from the nearby burial mounds that the Adena and Fort Ancient cultures were both in the area. But which culture built it? Carbon dating is inconclusive because it's just earth. If you find something in the mound and carbon date it, you can't be sure that thing is from when the mound was built, of if it was an earlier artifact that dug up and put there by the builders.

The current theory that the nearby museum puts forth is that the mound was originally built by the Adena culture. It is known that the Summer Solstice was very important to the Adena culture, so this fits with the way the main body of the mound is aimed. It is then believed that the Fort Ancient culture found it well after the Adena died off. The Fort Ancients then maintained the mound for some time, and possibly even modified it. There is evidence that one turn in the body of the serpent, right near where it joins the neck, was taken out at some point. On the other hand, serpent imagery was very popular around the time of the Fort Ancient culture, so they may have been the original builders. That would puts the mound's age closer to 1,000 years.

The museum also has a hypothetical reconstruction of how the mound was built. The digging of the earth was done with stone tools. The tools they showed in the museum looked much like round axes and not much like shovels, so I'm not sure how that worked. Then the earth was put into woven grass baskets and carried by hand to where the mound was being built. There is also some evidence (especially the way clay was used) that the mound was planned out ahead of time before the earth was laid down. I would think it would have to be, in order to get the astronomical lines correct.

My Impression

This is the third ancient structure I have seen used to mark astronomical events. The first I saw were Mayan pyramids in the Yucatan, which mapped out the solstices and equinoxes to the horizon. During high school, I saw Stonehenge in England. At first I wasn't impressed with the Serpent Mound compare to Stonehenge. However, walking around it and getting a more visceral feel for it, I find it to be more impressive. Both the size of it and the longevity of it definitely impress me. Plus, by the time I saw Stonehenge they had roped it off and you couldn't get very close to it. Obviously they don't want you walking on the Serpent Mound, but you can walk right up to it and check it out. Of course, for sheer size and scope the Yucatan pyramids can't be beat.

The Motorcycle Ride

The motorcycle ride to Ohio was notable in terms of sheer terror. I went north a bit in Maryland up to US 70, and then over Cumberland Gap. It was raining a bit going over the mountains, but not enough to really get me wet. However the speed and the curves combine with the heavy truck traffic were too much for me. I had two near death incidents with trucks while going over the gap. One was the trucker being a jerk and cutting me off at high speed. But the other was a failure on my part to take a curve correctly, which got me way to close to another semi. The height was also problem. One of my fears riding a motorcycle was always over shooting a curve and riding off the side of the road. Well, if you go off the side of the road going over Cumberland Gap, you are going off the side of a cliff. A large cliff.

I was totally freaked out by the ride to Ohio. I stopped an hour short of where the mound is in Ohio, and it was really hard to force myself to get on the motorcycle the next day to see the mound. I developed temporary acrophobia from the experience. If you look at the first picture in the gallery above, you will see a shadow on the right side of the picture. That is an observation tower on the site, to give you a better view of the mound as a whole. It's a two story, metal frame structure. And it's not some wimpy metal frame, either. That thing is rock solid. There are no pictures from the top of the tower because I got halfway up it and freaked out. I couldn't get my hands off the railing to take my phone out and get a picture, and had to climb back down with a white knuckled grip on the railing.

That night I had no idea what I was going to do. I could not imaging riding back over Cumberland Gap again. I thought about renting a van to drive the motorcycle back, I thought about selling the motorcycle in Ohio and renting a car to get back, I even thought about leaving the motorcycle in an alley with the keys in the ignition.

I ended up taking 50 back. 50 is a much slower road than 70, but it is a lot twistier. I was still in a panic about riding the motorcycle, but I managed to get to the mountains. I had thought about getting a rental van when I got close to the mountains, but I rode on because the traffic was very light (it was Sunday morning by that point). The light traffic allowed me to go through the mountains at whatever speed I wanted to, because no one was behind me. After lunch I had to pull over a dozen or so times to let faster traffic go by, but I got across the mountains. The ride back took me eleven and a half hours.

When I got back, the motorcycle was no fun any more. You make a lot of tradeoffs to ride a motorcycle, but it's worth it because they are so fun. When they're not fun any more it's not worth it. So I bought myself and car, and when spring rolls around I will be selling my motorcycle.