Effigy Mounds

Mound A at Poverty Point has the shape of a bird with spread wings. In addition, another bird is seen in Motely Mound, which lies some kilometers north of Mound A, although it was probably left unfinished because the tail is just sketched. This kind of earthwork is called an effigy mound because it represents a living creature. It was planned and built with the aim of replicating on the ground, on a gigantic scale, a living being. It is difficult, although possible, to identify the figure when standing on the mound, for a clearer image the mound must be viewed from above, in an observation tower or airplane, or in an aerial photograph. Many of these mounds were destroyed by farming, but some survived, including the Serpent Mound and the Alligator Mound, both in Ohio, which were first studied by E. Squier and E. Davis in 1847.

Serpent Mound is a unique object in the world (according to some sources, another existed in Morrow, Ohio, but unfortunately it was destroyed). Basically it is a winding earthwork that resembles a serpent, partially curled up in a spiral and partially stretched to form seven winding parts; the jaws are stretched in order to swallow a huge "egg" earthwork that stands behind them. The mound is on a peculiar site: a geological formation that was probably the result of a meteorite crash. On ground level, the mound looks inconsequential, but when viewed from above, such as from a specially built platform, its grandeur and size, almost 400 meters long, are impressive (Plate 13).

Dating the mound is difficult. Until recently, it seemed certain that it was built by the Adena or the Hopewell and that it was, therefore, at least some 2000 years old. Samples of wood found on the site and recently analyzed have dated from about 1000 AD, during the so-called Fort Ancient period. For now these datings are only an ante quem term, however, and I agree with Romain (2000) that the monument is most likely Hopewell. In order to accurately date Serpent Mound it would be necessary to follow the same procedure used in dating Stonehenge, which requires finding materials that were used in the first stage of construction.

How can we determine the intended purpose of Serpent Mound? Let's look at the alignments defined by the serpent shape. A winding object such as Serpent Mound involves many different "privileged directions''; therefore, studying the alignments entails the data selection problem that we mentioned in Chapter 3: if there are many apparently significant directions and only some of them are astronomically related, reporting just the latter

Figure 6.2: Serpent Mound in a 19 century depiction


Figure 6.3: Map of Serpent Mound by Squier and Davis

type could attribute to the mound a significance it does not merit. However, there is no doubt that the north-south axis runs from the tip of the serpent tail to the central apex of the head, and that the oval embankment points to the summer solstice sunset (Romain 2000). Further, alignments to the four standstill positions of the moon extend through the convolutions of the serpent's body, and can be individuated by measuring the symmetry axes of the U-shaped winding of the body itself. It is unlikely that these astronomical directions are the result of a casual orientation of the site, but this does not mean that Serpent Mound was an observatory; rather, it was conceived and built as a huge calendar to keep track of the cycles of the sun and moon.

But why a serpent? It may be that the serpent was linked to celestial occurrences, and the work could be a representation, a replica on Earth, of the constellation Draco. However, it is difficult to demonstrate that this was the intention of the builders, unless we find some independent evidence: it may be sufficient to note that the shape of the Big Dipper, another northern constellation, can be easily superimposed on the serpent as well. To find replicas of constellations on the ground is anyway fascinating, as we shall see in the course of this book and especially in Chapter 11, which discusses a place where some tenacious people (including myself) hope to solve one of the most interesting problems in pre-Columbian archaeology.

Figure 6.4: Alligator Mound

Alligator Mound, near Granville, Ohio, is not far from the Newark, Ohio, earthworks, which we will discuss shortly, and probably belongs to the same Hopewell period (but keep in mind that, as in the case of Alligator Mound, a more recent date of construction is suspected).

When looking at its layout, and despite its traditional name, Alligator Mound does not look like an alligator. It does resemble a four-legged animal, about 70 meters long, that seems to be crouched on a southwest-facing hill. The tail is curled up in a spiral, and something protrudes from the right side, possibly a fifth leg. Thus the first problem is determining what type of animal this is. Many authors have suggested a puma, basing this idea mostly on the figure's similarity to many Hopewell puma statues of the same period. Others have suggested a possum, a lizard, or a salamander; I believe the latter is the most reasonable interpretation. But once again we are unable to determine why the mound was built. The azimuths defined by the figure, including the main, southeast-oriented axis, have not yet been studied. Anyway, Alligator Mound was a perfect place to observe the sky, and nearby residents of Newark were very interested in doing that.

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