Ohio's Serpent Mound Visitors Guide

Ohio's Serpent Mound Visitors Guide

The Century Illustrated Monthly Magazine
November 1889 - F. W. Putnam
      In September, 1883, in company with four fellow-archaeologists, I started from Hillsborough, in Highland County, Ohio, on an excursion to several ancient earthworks which we had long wished to see. Our plans were so arranged as to take us first of all to the Serpent Mound, thence to Fort Hill, and down Paint Creek to the Scioto, stopping from day to day to visit the most interesting of the many ancient works along the route.

Serpent Mound from below on Brush Creek.  This uplift was caused by a meteor hitting this spot millions of years ago.

      Approaching the "Serpent Cliff" by fording Brush Creek from the west, our attention was suddenly arrested by the rugged overhanging rocks above our heads, and we knew that we were near the object of our search. Leaving the wagon, we scrambled up the steep hillside, and pushing on through bush and brier were soon following the folds of the great serpent along the hilltop. The most singular sensation of awe and admiration overwhelmed me at this sudden realization of my long-cherished desire, for here before me was the mysterious work of an unknown people, whose seemingly most sacred place we had invaded. Was this a symbol of the old serpent faith, here on the western continent, which from the earliest time in the religions of the East held so many peoples enthralled, and formed so important a factor in the development of succeeding religions?

     Reclining on one of the huge folds of this gigantic serpent, as the last rays of the sun, glancing from the distant hilltops, cast their long shadows over the valley, I mused on the probabilities of the past; and there seemed to come to me a picture as of a distant time, of a people with strange customs, and with it came the demand for an interpretation of this mystery. The unknown must become known! This thought took complete possession of me, and on that same evening arrangements were made with Mr. Lovett, the owner of the land, to have the place cleared of underbrush that we might see the great work in its entirety. By noon of the following day the clearing was roughly made, and the view thus obtained of the serpent and the egg as the oval work in front of its jaws has been called led to a still stronger desire to know more, and a resolve to do all in my power to preserve this singular structure, which seemed so strangely transplanted from the mythology of the East.

     When Squier and Davis, after their survey in 1846, gave to the world the first account of this earthwork, it was covered with a thick forest, from which many a noble tree has been cut, as indicated by stumps still standing at the time of our visit. Thirteen or fourteen years after their visit a tornado swept its path directly along the serpent hill, and with the exception of a few saplings the forest was laid low. This led to clearing the land, and to the cultivation for a few years of the portion occupied by the serpent. Nature soon covered the scars with a protecting sod, which was followed by a growth of sumach, redbud, and briers.
, 1-The Oval Embankment in front of the serpent's mouth. In this inclosure is a small mound of stones. 2, The Serpent. 3, A low Artificial Mound near the head of the serpent. 4, A very small Artificial Mound just west of 3. 5, 6, 7, Ancient Excavations, appearing like sink-holes. 8, 19, 20, 21, 22, 23, 24, and in space bordered by 18, 15, 20, 21, are Sites of Ancient Habitations. 9, Burnt Stones on the clay. 10, A recent Indian Grave over two graves. 11, Portions of Three Skeletons in a pile. 12, 13, Skeletons in the clay. 14, Grave with Two Skeletons. 15, Grave with Skeleton, over which was an ash bed. 16, Pieces of a large Clay Pot. 17, Small Burial Mound. 18, Several small Excavations in the clay, filled with dark earth. 19, 24, See above. This Village Site was afterwards found to extend 200 feet east and south. 25, Burnt space under the dark soil extending to the edge of large conical mound. 26, The Conical Mound, a monument over a single body. 27, 28, Cremation Places in the clay under the dark soil. 29, 30, 31, Very Ancient Graves deep in the clay. 32, Small Mound over four ancient graves in the clay.

       Following a graveled path winding up the hill from the picnic grove to the plateau, the first point of archaeological interest is reached. This is a conical mound nine feet high and seventy feet in diameter (26). Northwest of this, and not far from the serpent, is an old burial place which was afterwards the site of a village (8, 19), as shown by the ash beds, the many implements in various stages of manufacture, the many thousand chips of flint and other stones foreign to the locality, and the many potsherds and other objects scattered throughout the dark soil. A small mound (17), about a foot high, west of the path leading from the road to the serpent, and a few stones (10) nearer the path, mark the position of the cemetery, and all about there skeletons have been found in the dark soil or in the clay below it.
     On the south side of the park road, on one of the projecting points of the plateau, now marked by several piles of stones (27-31) which were taken from around the graves in the clay below the soil, were graves of the first period of occupation. On the knoll west of this, over which a wild cherry tree now casts its shade, is a low oblong mound (32), a monument over four ancient graves. From this knoll, looking towards the setting sun, there is a grand view of the valley and the hills beyond; and standing on this spot one can readily imagine why it may have been chosen as the burial-place of the honored among a people whose sacred temple was near by.
     North of this knoll, on the declivity from the plateau to the cliff, are three circular pits, varying in size; and much of the clay used in building the effigy of the serpent was probably taken from these places.
       Following the ridge of the hill northerly to the overhanging rocks, one is forced again to pause and admire the scene before him the beautiful hill-girt valley with its acres of waving corn; the silvery line of the river with giant sycamores and graceful elms along its banks; and the vistas opening here and there, where the broader and deeper portions of the river are bordered with dark-green undergrowth, brightened by gleams of rich color.
Turning from this view, and ascending the little knoll behind the ledge, eighty feet from the edge of the cliff is the western end of the oval figure (1) in front of the serpent's jaws. This oval is one hundred and twenty feet long and sixty feet in greatest width, measured from the outer edge of the bank, which is about four feet high and eighteen feet across. Near the center of the inclosed area is a small mound of stones, which was formerly much larger, since it was thrown down over fifty years ago by digging under it in search of supposed hidden treasure, the popular belief which has caused the destruction of many an ancient cairn. Many of the stones show signs of fire, and under the cliff are similar burnt stones which were probably taken from the mound years ago; for I have been informed by an old gentleman, who remembered the stone mound as it was in his boyhood, that many stones taken from the mound were thrown over the cliff.
     This portion of the hill was either leveled off to the clay before the oval work was made, or there was no black soil upon the hill at that time, as none was used in the construction of the embankment, nor left below it. The same is true of the serpent itself. Careful examination of several sections made through the oval and the serpent, as well as laying bare the edge along both sides of the embankments throughout, have shown that both parts of this earthwork were first outlined upon a smooth surface along the ridge of the hill. In some places, particularly at the western end of the oval, and where the serpent approached the steeper portions of the hill, the base was made with stones, as if to prevent its being washed away by heavy rains. In other places clay, often mixed with ashes, was used in making these outlines; and it is evident that the whole structure was most carefully planned, and thoroughly built of lasting material.
The geological formation of the hill shows first the ledge rock, upon which rests the decayed grayish rock forming the so-called marl of the region, the upper portion of which has by decomposition become a grayish clay. Over this lies the yellow clay of the region, filling in all irregularities, and varying in thickness from one to six feet. Upon this rests the dark soil of recent formation, from five inches to nearly two feet in thickness in different parts of the park. It is necessary to have this formation constantly in mind, as we must, to a certain extent, rely upon it in determining the antiquity of the works and burial-places.
Upon removing the sod within the oval the dark soil in the central portion was found to be nearly a foot in depth, where it must have formed after the oval work was built. How many centuries are required for the formation of a foot of vegetable mold we do not know; but here, on the hard gray clay forming the floor of the oval, was about the same depth of soil as on the level ground near the tail of the serpent, where it has been forming ever since vegetation began to grow upon the spot. The same results were obtained on removing the soil from the triangular space between the serpent's jaws; and that there was about the same amount of soil on the embankments is shown by the fact that the several plowings had not disturbed the underlying clay of which the embankments were constructed. The accompanying section through the western end of the oval illustrates this point.

Cross-section of the Serpent Mound.  The Serpent was made to last for thousands of years with it's rock base covered in clay.  This same method of construction of earthworks is found at other sites throughout Ohio.

       Nine feet from the eastern end of the oval, and partly inclosing it, is a crescent-shaped bank, seventeen feet wide. From the extremities of this crescent, which are 75 feet apart, begin the jaws of the serpent, formed by banks 17 feet wide and 61 and 56 feet, respectively, in length, measured on the inside from the point of union with the crescent to their point of meeting, 47 feet from the convex or eastern edge of the crescent. We must here notice that the open jaws are shown as if the serpent's head was turned upon its right side, and the crescent embankment seems to have been designed to express this by uniting the open jaws across the mouth, indicated by the triangular space. This design was also carried out by making the northern or upper jaw the longer of the two. The head of the serpent across the point of union of the jaws is thirty feet wide and five feet high. From this point the neck extends eastward more than one hundred feet, with a slight curve to the north. Then begins what may be called the body of the serpent, making a graceful curve to the south, then winding to the east and north, then again to the south, and westward down the declivity of the central portion of the hill, where another graceful convolution is made up the opposite ascent to nearly the same level as the head; here it folds round in another full convolution, and the tail follows with a long stretch to the southwest, terminating in a triple coil.

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