Hucksters hear the blunt facts about the Serpent Mound


The Serpent Mound in Ohio is an amazing artifact of a past culture — earthworks over 400m long in the shape of a snake.

You can imagine how the European colonizers of the area regarded this immense communal work of architecture…or don’t imagine, just see what a mess they made of the story.

“Unfortunately the Serpent Mound has become the epicenter of efforts to appropriate sacred American Indian sites and replace the Indigenous story with all sorts of fantastic, absurd stories,” said during his solstice presentation.

“Let’s be absolutely clear. At the heart of these myths and fantastic stories is the racist notion that American Indians were too stupid to have built something so wonderful,” he added.

Right. There’s Graham Hancock, of course, babbling about “The Ancients” and a world-spanning civilization of New Age stargazers, or various people on the History Channel claiming that it’s evidence of a race of giants, because, after all, American Indians were too short to build large structures, so there had to be a population of 9 or 10 foot tall giants to build these mounds. It’s disrespectful and nonsensical.

In recent years, activities at the mound have taken on the quality of what Barnes describes as a minstrel show disrespecting and appropriating Native cultures.

Since the 1987 Harmonic Convergence, the mound has become a mecca for followers of New Age spirituality. The idea of the Convergence was created by author and art historian Jose Arguelles who claimed August 16-17, 1987, were significant dates in the Maya calendar and represented an especially auspicious time to meditate for global peace.

Some New Age activities such as digging and burying items in the mound, forwarding information purporting that the effigy was built by aliens from space or prehistoric giants and misrepresenting Native connections to the site has been of growing concern to tribal leaders like Wallace and Barnes. Of even greater concern was the way that past managers of the Serpent Mound site often turned a blind eye to these activities, sometimes allowing such practitioners to manage and stage events at the mound. This sent a message to the public that these wild theories were part of the official history of the site according to Wallace and Barnes.

It was supposed to be a kind of cosmic bomb shelter for people at the end of the world predicted by the Mayan calendar to occur in 2012, for instance. You may have noticed we didn’t achieve world peace in 1987, and the world is still here in 2021, and that whole Mayan calendar thing was nothing more than the end of a calendar cycle. That reminds me — I’ll have to get a new calendar in January. Either that, or the world is ending at midnight on 31 December. Hey, what do the Maya have to do with the native people of Ohio, anyway?

Jason Colavito has a thorough dissection of the absurdist pseudo-history of Serpent Mound. Would you believe that some claim it is a cathedral for a global penis-worshipping cult? Of course you would. There are loonies everywhere, and they tend to get rewarded with a “documentary” series on the History Channel.

The summer solstice was just this past weekend, so I took a look at the calendar of events for Serpent Mound. There was some good stuff about the history of the area and the archaeology of the mound, but also…Bigfoot? Nephilim? New Age quacks peddling crystals and herbs? Whoever runs this event has no integrity at all and willfully misrepresents the truth to make a buck.

The good news though, is that at least this time the organizers invited some of the descendants of the people who actually built the mound to come speak. That’s a little progress.

The Shawnee tribe returned home to the Serpent Mound on the longest day of the year.

The Summer Solstice, June 20, the longest day of the year, marks the first time that the Shawnee tribe has officially returned to the Serpent Mound located in Ohio to present their history and connection to this place that they called home so many years ago.

Although it was certainly ancestors of the Shawnee people who built the magnificent serpent shaped mound, the largest earthwork effigy in the world, Ohio failed to involve the tribe in conveying its meaning to the public until now.

Glenna Wallace, chief of the Eastern Shawnee Tribe of Oklahoma and Ben Barnes, chief of the Shawnee Tribe, also located in Oklahoma, spent the weekend telling visitors to the Serpent Mound historical site about their peoples’ and ancestors’ connection to Ohio and the mound.

I also like the title of the article: “Shawnee reclaim the great Serpent Mound: Ancestors of Native Americans, not prehistoric giants or space aliens, built the mound in Ohio”. The white people who run the solstice event ought to be embarrassed that they had to invite Indians, who had been dispossessed from the land and treated as primitives who couldn’t have built the structure, to come back and tell them the simple truth.

Comments

  1. JoeBuddha says

    I remember a piece where a European American was actually a guest to a raising of one of these mounds. Didn’t matter, I guess.

  2. says

    Chiefs Barnes and Wallace were more than just speakers; they were closely involved in planning the event. In the past 10-15 years the Ohio History Connection (owner of the property) has been moving more and more towards partnering with the tribes that inhabited Ohio in the past. Much of this, from what I know, has been successfully pushed by Brad Lepper, Curator of Archaeology at the Ohio History Connection (among others, and now that view permeates the OHC, up to and including the Director).

    Now if we could just get the damn golf course off the Newark Earthworks (which celebrate the 18.6 year lunistice cycle of the Moon): https://www.nytimes.com/2021/04/12/arts/design/octagon-earthworks-newark-ohio-golf-course-native-american.html

  3. Bernard Bumner says

    Clearly there is ethnocentrism at play, and racism. There is also a common thread of primitivism that runs through mystics and new-agers that unhappily coincides with the modernocentrism of racists.

    Neither permits the idea of an unbroken thread of sophistication that links pre-history and history to the contemporary. Relics either have to reflect a noble lost-age of common ancestors from whom we inherit our most enlightened traits, or else must be diminished and held worthless. What they cannot be is the product of culturally distinct peoples whose history has been obscured and ignored, rather than lost.

    It is similar to the odd notions people have about ancient Egyptian artifacts or pre-Christian British sites like Stonehenge. But with added racism and a willingness to ignore living voices.

  4. R. L. Foster says

    I lived in Ohio for ten years prior to moving to Virginia. I am 1/4 native on my father’s side though I am unaware of any Shawnee connection (my Indian ancestors came from NE Tennessee and south central Kentucky.) While I lived in Ohio I did make contact with some of the few Shawnee families who managed to remain behind after the disastrous conclusion of the Old Northwest Indian Wars. They are located in the Appalachian region of southern Ohio in what became coal country. Unfortunately, they retain very little of their Indian culture and history. They do not speak Shawnee, they attend Christian churches, they work in the same jobs as their White and Black neighbors. They’ve been thoroughly assimilated. One elderly woman even identified as Republican. That said, they do have some some peculiar superstitions and folkways that do not seem Euro-American.

    I recall asking my White colleagues about them when I worked in Athens and they were surprised to learn that they considered themselves Indian. They said, We thought they were all niggers down that way. (Don’t cuss me out. That’s the word they used then and I suspect they still do. This is a deep red part of Ohio. ) It made me uncomfortable to hear that word spoken so openly without a touch of doubt or hesitation. I was also troubled to have it applied to the local Indians. But I was a young state environmental scientist so I had to tread carefully when it came to my own views on race and politics. The locals deeply resented the State regulating the local coal industry and it wouldn’t do for me to get into arguments with them. The Whites down that way act as though they’re the ones who’ve lived in Ohio for the last 10,000 years.

    Which brings me to Serpent Mound. On the weekends I would frequently drive around the region visiting Indian burial mounds and other archaeological sites. Ohio is dotted with them, both large and small. Some are in parks and others on private property. I’d like to say it was simple curiosity on my part. But, I must confess, I had an ill formed desire to see if I could ‘feel’ anything different while in their presence. Most of the time it was just a pleasant walk in the woods or a quick climb to the top of a burial mound. I made it to Serpent Mound one chilly October day. The leaves were turning and the trees were afire with bright reds and golds. The mound isn’t so much a mound as it is a low, twisting ridge winding through the woods. The vegetation is cut back and the site is maintained so I could walk atop the mound itself. I had the place all to myself. Sadly, I didn’t feel anything special. No spirits spoke to me, though a pair of hawks did circle overhead keeping a wary eye on the intruder. It was just a lovely afternoon stroll in the autumn woods. But you can’t help being in a place like that and not try to imagine the people who made it or why. You ask yourself why is the snake holding an egg in its mouth? What did those two things together signify? I have my own theory — they may have seen a comet in the night sky and its head is the egg and the tail the body of the snake. There’s no way to prove that of course, but that’s my take.

  5. R. L. Foster says

    I lived in Ohio for ten years prior to moving to Virginia. I am 1/4 native on my father’s side though I am unaware of any Shawnee connection (my Indian ancestors came from NE Tennessee and south central Kentucky.) While I lived in Ohio I did make contact with some of the few Shawnee families who managed to remain behind after the disastrous conclusion of the Old Northwest Indian Wars. They are located in the Appalachian region of southern Ohio in what became coal country. Unfortunately, they retain very little of their Indian culture and history. They do not speak Shawnee, they attend Christian churches, they work in the same jobs as their White and Black neighbors. They’ve been thoroughly assimilated. One elderly woman even identified as Republican. That said, they do have some some peculiar superstitions and folkways that do not seem Euro-American.

    I recall asking my White colleagues about them when I worked in Athens and they were surprised to learn that they considered themselves Indian. They said, We thought they were all niggers down that way. (Don’t cuss me out. That’s the word they used then and I suspect they still do. This is a deep red part of Ohio. ) It made me uncomfortable to hear that word spoken so openly without a touch of doubt or hesitation. I was also troubled to have it applied to the local Indians. But I was a young state environmental scientist so I had to tread carefully when it came to my own views on race and politics. The locals deeply resented the State regulating the local coal industry and it wouldn’t do for me to get into arguments with them. The Whites down that way act as though they’re the ones who’ve lived in Ohio for the last 10,000 years.

    Which brings me to Serpent Mound. On the weekends I would frequently drive around the region visiting Indian burial mounds and other archaeological sites. Ohio is dotted with them, both large and small. Some are in parks and others on private property. I’d like to say it was simple curiosity on my part. But, I must confess, I had an ill formed desire to see if I could ‘feel’ anything different while in their presence. Most of the time it was just a pleasant walk in the woods or a quick climb to the top of a burial mound. I made it to Serpent Mound one chilly October day. The leaves were turning and the trees were afire with bright reds and golds. The mound isn’t so much a mound as it is a low, twisting ridge winding through the woods. The vegetation is cut back and the site is maintained so I could walk atop the mound itself. I had the place all to myself. Sadly, I didn’t feel anything special. No spirits spoke to me, though a pair of hawks did circle overhead keeping a wary eye on the intruder. It was just a lovely afternoon stroll in the autumn woods. But you can’t help being in a place like that and not try to imagine the people who made it or why. You ask yourself why is the snake holding an egg in its mouth? What did those two things together signify? I have my own theory — they may have seen a comet in the night sky and its head is the egg and the tail the body of the snake. There’s no way to prove that of course, but that’s my take.

  6. R. L. Foster says

    I lived in Ohio for ten years prior to moving to Virginia. I am 1/4 native on my father’s side though I am unaware of any Shawnee connection (my Indian ancestors came from NE Tennessee and south central Kentucky.) While I lived in Ohio I did make contact with some of the few Shawnee families who managed to remain behind after the disastrous conclusion of the Old Northwest Indian Wars. They are located in the Appalachian region of southern Ohio in what became coal country. Unfortunately, they retain very little of their Indian culture and history. They do not speak Shawnee, they attend Christian churches, they work in the same jobs as their White and Black neighbors. They’ve been thoroughly assimilated. One elderly woman even identified as Republican. That said, they do have some some peculiar superstitions and folkways that do not seem Euro-American.

    I recall asking my White colleagues about them when I worked in Athens and they were surprised to learn that they considered themselves Indian. They said, We thought they were all niggers down that way. (Don’t cuss me out. That’s the word they used then and I suspect they still do. This is a deep red part of Ohio. ) It made me uncomfortable to hear that word spoken so openly without a touch of doubt or hesitation. I was also troubled to have it applied to the local Indians. But I was a young state environmental scientist so I had to tread carefully when it came to my own views on race and politics. The locals deeply resented the State regulating the local coal industry and it wouldn’t do for me to get into arguments with them. The Whites down that way act as though they’re the ones who’ve lived in Ohio for the last 10,000 years.

    Which brings me to Serpent Mound. On the weekends I would frequently drive around the region visiting Indian burial mounds and other archaeological sites. Ohio is dotted with them, both large and small. Some are in parks and others on private property. I’d like to say it was simple curiosity on my part. But, I must confess, I had an ill formed desire to see if I could ‘feel’ anything different while in their presence. Most of the time it was just a pleasant walk in the woods or a quick climb to the top of a burial mound. I made it to Serpent Mound one chilly October day. The leaves were turning and the trees were afire with bright reds and golds. The mound isn’t so much a mound as it is a low, twisting ridge winding through the woods. The vegetation is cut back and the site is maintained so I could walk atop the mound itself. I had the place all to myself. Sadly, I didn’t feel anything special. No spirits spoke to me, though a pair of hawks did circle overhead keeping a wary eye on the intruder. It was just a lovely afternoon stroll in the autumn woods. But you can’t help being in a place like that and not try to imagine the people who made it or why. You ask yourself why is the snake holding an egg in its mouth? What did those two things together signify? I have my own theory — they may have seen a comet in the night sky and its head is the egg and the tail the body of the snake. There’s no way to prove that of course, but that’s my take.

  7. specialffrog says

    I only discovered recently that Erich von Däniken is still alive. I had assumed he was some 19th century figure but in fact he is younger than my father.

  8. Allison says

    Totally orthogonal to the “debate,” I know, but:

    I’m always being shown aerial views of things like this. To what extent can you see from the ground what the structures are supposed to look like from the air? The builders presumably didn’t have any way of getting hundreds of feet into the air to view them. (Maybe the builders have far better spatial visualization abilities than most of us “moderns.”)

  9. R. L. Foster says

    I lived in Ohio for ten years prior to moving to Virginia. I am 1/4 native on my father’s side though I am unaware of any Shawnee connection (my Indian ancestors came from NE Tennessee and south central Kentucky.) While I lived in Ohio I did make contact with some of the few Shawnee families who managed to remain behind after the disastrous conclusion of the Old Northwest Indian Wars. They are located in the Appalachian region of southern Ohio in what became coal country. Unfortunately, they retain very little of their Indian culture and history. They do not speak Shawnee, they attend Christian churches, they work in the same jobs as their White and Black neighbors. They’ve been thoroughly assimilated. One elderly woman even identified as Republican. That said, they do have some some peculiar superstitions and folkways that do not seem Euro-American.

    I recall asking my White colleagues about them when I worked in Athens and they were surprised to learn that they considered themselves Indian. They said, We thought they were all niggers down that way. (Don’t cuss me out. That’s the word they used then and I suspect they still do. This is a deep red part of Ohio. ) It made me uncomfortable to hear that word spoken so openly without a touch of doubt or hesitation. I was also troubled to have it applied to the local Indians. But I was a young state environmental scientist so I had to tread carefully when it came to my own views on race and politics. The locals deeply resented the State regulating the local coal industry and it wouldn’t do for me to get into arguments with them. The Whites down that way act as though they’re the ones who’ve lived in Ohio for the last 10,000 years.

    Which brings me to Serpent Mound. On the weekends I would frequently drive around the region visiting Indian burial mounds and other archaeological sites. Ohio is dotted with them, both large and small. Some are in parks and others on private property. I’d like to say it was simple curiosity on my part. But, I must confess, I had an ill formed desire to see if I could ‘feel’ anything different while in their presence. Most of the time it was just a pleasant walk in the woods or a quick climb to the top of a burial mound. I made it to Serpent Mound one chilly October day. The leaves were turning and the trees were afire with bright reds and golds. The mound isn’t so much a mound as it is a low, twisting ridge winding through the woods. The vegetation is cut back and the site is maintained so I could walk atop the mound itself. I had the place all to myself. Sadly, I didn’t feel anything special. No spirits spoke to me, though a pair of hawks did circle overhead keeping a wary eye on the intruder. It was just a lovely afternoon stroll in the autumn woods. But you can’t help being in a place like that and not try to imagine the people who made it or why. You ask yourself why is the snake holding an egg in its mouth? What did those two things together signify? I have my own theory — they may have seen a comet in the night sky and its head is the egg and the tail the body of the snake. There’s no way to prove that of course, but that’s my take.

  10. Dan Phelps says

    #5 The native builders definitely planned the site out in advance, perhaps drawing it out on a skin or something they could draw on. Alternatively, they could have plotted out the shape using sticks or poles to delineate the shape. There were also tall trees in the area before the original forest was harvested; people could have claimed the trees to get a view. Whatever way it was built, there is no reason to posit the woo UFO/extraterrestrial 9’ tall aliens and other nonsense when intelligent humans are known to be there.

  11. woozy says

    “Maybe the builders have far better spatial visualization abilities than most of us “moderns.””

    Maybe visualization was not the end all and be all. One may not be able to see how every piece connects and the builders maybe assumed no-one would ever see it from above but building is a tactile experience. They may have figure no-one would ever be able to see what it is but that wouldn’t mean it isn’t what it is.

  12. Pierce R. Butler says

    Offhand, I can’t think of any “Old World” artifacts of a comparable scale which “need” to be seen from the air (except perhaps a handful of garden mazes for aristocratic amusement), but North and South Americans built them over and over.

    Can anyone more fluent in monumentology list any eastern-hemisphere counterparts?

  13. raven says

    @11

    Hill figure From Wikipedia

    A hill figure is a large visual representation created by cutting into a steep hillside and revealing the underlying geology. It is a type of geoglyph usually designed to be seen from afar rather than above. In some cases trenches are dug and rubble made from material brighter than the natural bedrock is placed into them. The new material is often chalk, a soft and white form of limestone, leading to the alternative name of chalk figure for this form of art.

    Hill figures cut in grass are a phenomenon especially seen in England, where examples include the Cerne Abbas Giant, the Uffington White Horse, and the Long Man of Wilmington, as well as the “lost” carvings at Cambridge, Oxford and Plymouth Hoe. From the 18th century onwards, many further ones were added. Many figures long thought to be ancient have been found to be relatively recent when subjected to modern archaeological scrutiny,

    There are Hill figures in the UK, made by removing turf above a chalk substrate.
    A lot of these are recent, the last one dating from 2010 but ancient ones are also known.
    There might not be many large scale monumental mounds in the Old World because it has been settled a lot longer. As population density rises, they tend to get in the way of farming and whatever and end up disappearing.
    There were many mounds in the Ohio area, left by the Native Americans, most of them have since disappeared. As noted above, one has a golf course over it.

  14. Pierce R. Butler says

    raven @ # 12 – Thanks!

    But – … usually designed to be seen from afar … seems conceptually different from whatever the ancient-American artists had in mind.

  15. nomdeplume says

    This kind of misuse of indigenous history and archaeology has also become a problem in Australia.

  16. stroppy says

    woozy @ 10

    Yes.

    There is a classic dichotomy in aesthetics between seeing and knowing.

    In any case, I would guess that the serpent was meant to be experienced as an actual serpent that size on the ground.

  17. magistramarla says

    I grew up near The Cahokia Mounds in Illinois – https://cahokiamounds.org/ .
    My grandfather would take me there to picnic and learn about the Native Americans who had built the site.
    I just checked to see is any new-agers have appropriated the site, but it still seems to be dedicated to education – whew!!
    North of where I grew up, on the cliffs above the River Road along the Mississippi, was the Piasa Bird. http://www.altonweb.com/history/piasabird/ . My grandfather also took me there to learn about The Illini Indians and their mythology.
    Both of those places were treated as educational and almost sacred. I hope that is still true today.

  18. lumipuna says

    Re: 11 (on old world artifacts)

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Turf_maze

    Historically, turf mazes were confined to Northern Europe, especially England, Germany and Denmark. Hundreds of similar labyrinths still exist elsewhere in Scandinavia, Lappland, Iceland and the former Soviet Union, but their paths were normally marked out with stones, either on grass or on flat areas of bare rock.

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Troy_Town

    (this name apparently generally refers to the more ancient turf or stone mazes)

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stone_labyrinths_of_Bolshoi_Zayatsky_Island

    (a notable example of stone mazes)

  19. woozy says

    Also rattling off the top of my head the concept “If you could see this from above” has be rattled about throughout history and I don’t think the practical response of “but it can’t be (and so far as all we know of technology never will be) so what’s the point in speculating” has ever been a canceling factor.

  20. woozy says

    The 2 square miles of Paris between the Military Academy and the Place de Trocadero including the Champs du Mars and the Eiffel Tower, (the museum of man, the aquarium, etc. etc.) is absolutely symmetric. For a 1.4 in one direction and half a mile in the other. That rather impressed me as a 15 year old.

  21. says

    Pierce R. Butler@11

    Can anyone more fluent in monumentology list any eastern-hemisphere counterparts?

    By no means an expert, but this in the Ukraine is one that I know of.

    There were almost certainly more big prehistoric ceremonial earthworks in Europe. But erosion, repurposing, ploughing, and layers of subsequent archeology means that whatever remains might hidden below buildings, only visible as crop marks or to trained archeologists. Even if the remains of an earthwork are found, there might not be dateable evidence associated with it.

    The stone monuments like dolmen, menhirs and cromlechs seem to have fared better.

  22. wsierichs says

    Poverty Point, in northeast La., has the remains of a large Indian earthwork. A big chunk has disappeared under a bayou, but enough remains to be impressive. I visited it once when I lived in that area. There was even a festival at one time in the 1980s centered around Poverty Point. I don’t know if it’s still being held. I have a poster a friend gave me about it.

    Also, Alabama has Moundville, a number of large mounds in a large field. The biggest was apparently for the use of the king (or whatever title they used) and perhaps religious leaders. Smaller ones had (probably) other significance. It was a large settled town or city (by regional standards). It’s a few miles south of Tuscaloosa. I visited it several years ago while driving through the area and had a few hours to spare.

    Also, we have the reports of the Spanish about the large pyramids and building complexes built by the Aztecs and other Mexican tribes, as well as the Mayan ruins (mostly abandoned by the 16th century). So the idea that Indians could not bbuild large, complex structures was always, obviously false. Racism and ignorance combined to create that phony idea.

  23. birgerjohansson says

    A “penis-worshipping cult”??
    It would have had to be the schlong of a giant aardvark, they are grotesque.
    .
    BTW we see the similar assumption of travelling non-natives with the “zimbabwe” structures in… Zimbabwe.
    Obviously made by travellers sent by king David to queen Sheba.

  24. Pierce R. Butler says

    rsmith @ # 20: … this in the Ukraine …

    Thanks, for the closest-yet example of what I had in mind. That picture implies a scale on which it seems a person walking around on the central ring could probably see the entirety of the project, though not in one glance.

    Not sure what altitude an observer would need to reach to find out how an Eastern European landmark got an Indian Ocean name…

  25. Alt-X says

    Worshiping the artefacts of the people they dislike. Kinda like Christians taking over the Jewish god.

Leave a Reply