Ohio Mounds: Portsmouth Ohio Earthwork Complex

Ohio Mounds Portsmouth Ohio Earthwork Complex

   The beautiful plain at the confluence of the Scioto and Ohio rivers, where now the flourishing town of Portsmouth is located, forms the site of a singular and interesting series of works. It has been preferred to present them together, as they seem to be intimately connected, leaving the reader to form his own conclusions respecting them.
The works consist of three divisions or groups, extending for eight miles along the Ohio river, and are connected by parallel lines of embankments. Two of these groups are on the Kentucky side of the river; the remaining one, together with the larger portion of the connecting embankment, on the Ohio shore. A reference to the accompanying map, exhibiting a section of eight miles of the Ohio valley, will show the relative positions and general plan, though not the exact proportions of the series. The avenues or "covered ways," extending from one work to the other, have induced many persons to assign them a military origin, and a design to protect communication between the groups. But unless the work at A be regarded as a work of defence, it is very certain that we must seek for some other explanation of their purposes. These avenues constitute a remarkable feature; and as enlarged plans and full descriptions of the several groups follow, it may be well to notice them more particularly here. It will be seen that from the central group B, three lines lead off: one to the south-east, to a point on the Ohio, nearly opposite to which, on the Kentucky side, it is resumed, leading to the circular work C; another bears south-west, to a point on the river, nearly opposite the large and regular work A. It does not appear to be resumed on the other side of the river. A third line runs north-west for a considerable distance, and loses itself in the broken grounds towards the Scioto. It may have communicated with other works in that direction, which have been obliterated by time, or, which is most likely, were destroyed in the manifest changes which the plain in that direction has undergone within a few centuries.
      These lines consist of parallel embankments of earth, now measuring about four feet in height, by twenty feet base. They are not far from one hundred and sixty feet apart. The line leading towards the mouth of the Scioto, however, at about midway of the distance, suddenly contracts to seventy feet. It is said to have as suddenly widened further on, enclosing a square area, with a gateway opening to the north. The town of Portsmouth is built over this portion, and all traces of the parallelogram and the walls have disappeared. Near the point of contraction in this line are two or three mounds of medium size.
      It is a fact to be observed in these as in similar lines at other places, that they are not interrupted by the inequalities of the ground, but conform to the undulations of the surface, running sometimes at right angles to the terrace banks, and sometimes diagonally up and down them. At some points these banks are very steep,—so steep, indeed, that in clambering up them the explorer is inclined to doubt that they were ever used or intended for purposes of communication. The only interruptions are those caused by the passage of streams, there being no gateways observable. The total length of the parallels now traceable may be estimated at eight miles, giving sixteen miles of embankment to the parallels alone. If we include the walls of the entire series, we have a grand total of upwards of twenty miles.
      After this general view, the reader will be prepared to examine the groups forming the series A, B, and C, in the order of their succession.
   The singular work, a plan of which is here given, occurs on the Kentucky side of the Ohio river, opposite the old mouth of the Scioto, about two miles below the town of Portsmouth. The terrace on which it is situated is elevated some fifty feet above the first bottom, and extends back to the hills, which at this point are at some distance from the river. It is much cut up by ravines, and is quite uneven.
The square work across the river in Greenup Kentucky was a square with each wall measuring 800 feet in length, a number that is duplicated throughout the Ohio Valley.  The sacred via that extends from the square was 210 feet wide and 2100 feet long.  This number is also repeated throughout the Ohio Valley being mostly used in the construction of henges at Anderson and Cambridge City Indiana and at Chillicothe and Athens county, Ohio where the henges were 210 feet in diameter giving them a circumference of 660 feet.  This length was also used at the Newark circle, Highbank and Hopeton where the circles measures 1050 feet or 210 X 5 = 1050.

     The main body of the work is situated upon a very beautiful level, somewhat ascending to the east. The wings are on equally beautiful levels, except that they are broken at two or three points by ravines.
The principal work is an exact rectangle, eight hundred feet square. The walls are about twelve feet high, by thirty-five or forty feet base, except on the east, where advantage is taken of the rise of ground, so as to elevate them about fifty feet above the centre of the area. This feature is exhibited in the section a b.
     The hollow way between the south-eastern wall and the terrace bank beyond seems artificial,—at any rate, it has been modified by art. The gateway on this side is entered by a slightly elevated causeway. At the southern angle is a bastion, probably natural but adapted by art, which commands the hollow way or ditch. The wall at this part is distinctly marked, but not more than three feet high. On the south-western side is a sort of runway, resembling a ditch, which loses itself in a deep gully towards the river. It is undoubtedly wholly or in part artificial. There are no traces of ditches elsewhere about the work. A narrow gateway thirty feet wide opens in the middle of each side, and at the northern and western angles, as represented in the plan.
This painting of the Portsmouth parallel sacred vias can seen in the city at the edge of the Ohio River.

     The most singular features of this structure are its outworks, which consist of parallel walls leading to the north-east and south-west. They are exactly parallel to the sides of the main work, and are each two thousand one hundred feet long. Some measurements make them of unequal lengths; but after a careful calculation of the space occupied by the interrupting ravines, they are found to be very nearly, not exactly, of the same length.
      The parallel to the south-west has its outer wall in line with the north-western wall of the main work, and starts at thirty feet distance from the same. It is broken by a deep ravine near its extremity, which is probably four or five hundred feet wide. Crossing the ravine, the walls, traces of which are seen on the declivity, continue to some distance, and then curve on a radius of one hundred feet, leaving a narrow gateway eight feet wide in the centre. Converging walls start from the point of curve, but lose themselves after running three hundred feet, without meeting. Just beyond and a little to the right, on the plain, are two clay mounds, also a small circle one hundred feet in diameter, the walls of which are two feet high.
      The parallel to the north-east starts from the centre (nearly) of the main work, and is similar to the one already described, save that it is not terminated by converging walls, and has no mounds beyond. It is interrupted by two ravines, the walls running to their very edges. The left wall of the parallel bends to a right angle as it approaches the main work.
      To the left of this parallel, four hundred and fifty feet from a point eight hundred feet distant from the main work, on a high peninsula or headland, is a singular redoubt, an enlarged view of which is given in the supplementary plan N. To the left of it is the bank of the second bottom, fifty feet high, and very steep. To the right is the hollow of a small stream with steep banks. The embankment of this work is heavy, and the ditch deep and wide, and interior to the wall. From the bottom of the ditch to the top of the wall, is perhaps twelve or fifteen feet. The enclosed oval area is only sixty feet wide by one hundred and ten long. It has a gateway to the north-east ten feet wide,—outside of which, in the deep forest, is the grave of one of the first settlers. The object of this enclosure it is difficult to divine. If a place of burial, as has been suggested, properly conducted excavations would disclose the fact.
A light wall of some hundred paces in extent runs from the left hand entrance of the main work, along the verge of a declivity terminating at the western angle. On this side are also three mounds, each about six feet high,&mdsah;formerly much higher, having been greatly reduced by the plough. From the western angle a deep gully runs off to the river; it has been mistaken by some for a covered way. The entire main work, the greater part of the lower parallel, and a portion of the upper one, are now in open cultivated grounds. The walls of the main work are so steep as to preclude cultivation, and now form the fence lines of the area, which is fifteen acres. The area of the parallels is ten acres each;—total, thirty-five acres.
       Between this work and the river are traces of a modern Indian encampment or town,—shells, burned stones, fragments of rude pottery, etc., also some graves. This was a favorite spot with the Indians, for various reasons, one of which is its proximity to a noted saline spring or deer lick, known as "McArthur's Lick." From the size of the walls, their position, and other circumstances, it has been supposed that this was a fortified place. If palisaded, it Would certainly be impregnable to any savage attack. If designed as a sacred place, its sloping area would be most fit for the observance of sacrifices or ceremonies.
Horseshoe shaped works have always been associated with the life giving properties of the Earth Mother.  In this work the serpentine earthwork (representing the sun) passes over the central area giving it the rejuvenation of "life."

 group also occupies the third terrace, and, though not so imposing in magnitude as the one just described, seems to be the grand centre from which the parallel lines, characterizing this series of works, radiate. Its details are intricate, and can only be understood by the aid of the plan. The two crescent or horse-shoe-shaped walls constitute the first striking feature which presents itself. They are both of about the same size and shape, measuring eighty feet in length by seventy in breadth. The earth around them appears to have been considerably excavated. Enclosing these in part is a circular wall now about five feet high. The elevation to the right appears to be natural, although evidently much modified by art. It is eighteen feet high at the end next the principal division of the work, but gradually subsides into a low ridge towards the enclosed mound a b. A full view of the entire group may be had from its summit. The mound just mentioned is twenty-eight feet high, by one hundred and ten base; it is truncated and surrounded by a low circumvallation. There are several small circles, measuring from one hundred and fifty to two hundred and fifty feet in diameter; also a few mounds, in the positions indicated in the plan.
No one, after examining its details, would be apt to ascribe a military origin to this group. The most reasonable conjecture respecting it is, that it was in some way connected with the superstitions of the builders; in what manner, of course, it is impossible to determine. A thorough examination of the mounds might throw some light on the question. At any rate, it is entirely unique in many of its features, and furnishes an interesting study for the antiquary.
One of the horseshoe shaped works is still visible in a public park.  The horseshoe representing the vulva of the Earth Mother and her life giving properties.
group is on the Kentucky shore, and principally occupies the third terrace, or high level at the base of the hills bordering the valley. The ground is here considerably broken. The northern portion of the work is somewhat lower than the remainder, and a small brook cuts through the outer wall on the south. This work is in many respects novel, and for this reason, as well as from the connection in which it is found, is entitled to an attention not otherwise merited; for no person looking merely for what is striking from position, or imposing from magnitude, would be apt to pay it a second visit. It consists of four concentric circles, placed at irregular intervals in respect to each other, and cut at right angles by four broad avenues, which conform in bearing very nearly to the cardinal points. A large mound is placed in the centre; it is truncated and terraced, and has a graded way leading to its summit. A reference to the plan and sections will exhibit in one view the dimensions and general aspect of the work, obviating the necessity of a detailed description.
The mound in the centre, at first glance, would be taken for a natural elevation; and it is possible that it is a detached spur of a hill, modified and perhaps enlarged by art. A hillock in such a position is, however, a circumstance of very rare occurrence. From the level summit of this mound, a complete view of every part of the surrounding work is commanded. Were it not for the obstructing forests, it is believed the eye might obtain, from this position, a view of the river and intermediate plain, as also of the works beyond, and several miles distant. .On the supposition that this work was in some way connected with the religious rites and ceremonies of the builders, this mound must have afforded a most conspicuous place for their observance and celebration. And it is easy, while standing on its summit, to people it with the strange priesthood of ancient superstition, and fill its avenues and line its walls with the thronging devotees of a mysterious worship. Whatever may have been the divinity of their belief, order, symmetry, and design were among his attributes; if, as appears most likely, the works that most strongly exhibit these features were dedicated to religious purposes, and were symbolical in their design.
The burial mound represents the head of the solar serpent.  The mound itself being symbolic of the sun.
      About one mile to the west of this work are a number of mounds, some of considerable size, and also a small circular work, D, of exquisite symmetry and proportion. It consists of an embankment of earth five feet high by thirty feet base, with an interior ditch twenty-five feet across by six feet deep, enclosing an area ninety feet in diameter, in the centre of which rises a mound eight feet high by forty feet base. A narrow gateway through the parapet, and a causeway over the ditch, lead to the enclosed mound.
This type of mound is also called a sunken mound that occurs most prominently in England. It is its appeaance that gives more credibility to the claims that the Portsmouth Works were a recreation of the Avebury henge and sacred vias in England.
Unless your a universty archaeologist, it is hard to dismiss the similarities in the Avebury and Portsmouth works.