About American Indian Burial Mounds And Their Builders.
In many parts of the United States, from western New York to the Rocky Mountains and even beyond, there are great numbers of artificial heaps and extensive embankments of earth. These show skill in construction, and from them have been dug many relics of artistic merit and good workmanship. At one time these earthworks and relics were generally believed to be the work of a single, highly civilized people, who preceded the Indians, who were not related to them, and who are now extinct. To this people the name “mound-builders” was given.
There are three ways in which we can learn about these so-called “mound-builders.” We may learn something from the mounds themselves, from the relics found in the mounds, and from the bones of persons who were buried in them.
Studying the mounds themselves, we find that they differ in different areas. We will look at three areas:
(1) In Ohio there are thousands of mounds and earthworks. Near every important modern town there are groups of them. Cincinnati, Chillicothe, Dayton, Xenia, are all near important mounds. For photos of all the largest mounds in Ohio
The regular enclosures are numerous in this area: these are great embankments of earth inclosing a regular space. Some are in the form of circles; others are four-sided; in a few cases they are eight-sided. Sometimes a square and a circle are united. There is one such combination at Hopeton; one of the embankments is a nearly true circle containing twenty acres; joined to it is a square of almost the same area.
At Newark there was a wonderful group of enclosures. The group covered about two miles square and consisted of three divisions, which were connected with one another by long parallel embankment walls. One circle in this group contained more than thirty acres: the walls were twelve feet high and fifty feet wide; a ditch seven feet deep and thirty-five feet wide bordered it on the inner side; a gap of eighty feet in the circle served as an entrance. In the center of the area enclosed by this great circle was a curious earth heap somewhat like a bird in form. Northwest from this great circle, nearly a mile distant, were two connected enclosures, one octagonal, the other circular: the former contained more than fifty acres, the latter twenty. East from these and northeast from the great circle was a fine twenty-acre enclosure, nearly a square in form. Besides these great walls, there were long parallel lines of connecting embankment walls, small circular enclosures, and little mounds in considerable variety. This great mass of works represented an enormous amount of time and labor.
What was the purpose of these regular enclosures? Some writers claim that they were forts for protection; others consider them protections for the corn-fields; others think they were places for games or religious ceremonials; one eminent man insists that they were foundations upon which were built long and narrow houses.
“Altar mounds” occur in Ohio. Professor Putnam and his assistants opened a number of these. They are small, rounded heaps of earth. At their center is a basin-shaped mass of hard clay showing the effect of fire. These basins are a yard or four feet across and contain ashes and charcoal. Upon these are found many curious objects. On one altar were two bushels of ornaments made of stone, copper, mica, shells, bears' teeth, and sixty thousand pearls. Most of these objects were pierced with a small hole and were apparently strung as ornaments. These objects had all been thrown into a fire blazing on the altar and had been spoiled by the heat. After the kindling of the fire, and the destruction of these precious things, earth had been heaped up over the altars, completing the mound.
The most famous mound in Ohio is the great serpent in Adams County. It lies upon a narrow ridge between three streams, which unite. It is a gigantic serpent form made in earth; across the widely opened jaws it measures seventy-five feet; the body, just behind the head, measures thirty feet across and five feet high; following the curves the length is thirteen hundred forty-eight feet. The tail is thrown into a triple coil. In front of the serpent is an elliptical enclosure with a heap of stones at its center. Beyond this is a form, somewhat indistinct, thought by some to be a frog. Probably this wonderful earthwork was connected with some old religion. While there are many other earthworks of other forms in Ohio, the sacred enclosures, the altar mounds, and the great serpent are the most characteristic.
Great Serpent Mound: Ohio. (From The Century Magazine.)
(2) In Wisconsin the most interesting mounds are the effigy mounds. There are great numbers of them in parts of this and a few adjoining states. They are earthen forms of mammals, birds, and reptiles. They are usually in groups; they are generally well shaped and of gigantic size.Maps, Diamgrams and History of all the Wisconsin Mounds Here Among the quadrupeds represented are the buffalo, moose, elk, deer, fox, wolf, panther, and lynx. Mr. Peet, who has carefully studied them, shows that quadruped mammals are always represented in profile so that only two legs are shown; the birds have their wings spread; reptiles sprawl, showing all four legs; fish are mere bodies without limbs. We have said these earth pictures are gigantic: some panthers have tails three hundred and fifty feet long, and some eagles measure one thousand feet from tip to tip of the outspread wings. Not only are these great animal and bird pictures found in Wisconsin in relief; occasionally they are found cut or sunken in the soil. With these curious effigy mounds there occur hundreds of simple burial mounds.
The purpose of the effigy mounds is somewhat uncertain. Some authors think they represent the totem animals after which the families of their builders were named, and that they served as objects of worship or as guardians over the villages.
Ground Plan of Earthworks at Newark, Ohio. (After Squier and Davis.)
(3) Farther south, in western Tennessee, another class of mounds is common. These contain graves made of slabs of stone set on edge. The simplest of these stone graves consist of six stones: two sides, two ends, one top, and one bottom. There may be a single one of these graves in a mound, or there may be many. In one mound, about twelve miles from Nashville, which was forty-five feet across and twelve feet high, were found about one hundred skeletons, mostly in stone graves, which were in ranges, one above another. The upper graves contained the bones of bodies, which had been buried stretched at full length; the bones were found in their natural positions. The lower graves were short and square, and the bones in them had been cleaned and piled up in little heaps. This mound was very carefully made. The lids of the upper graves were so arranged as to make a perfectly smooth, rounded surface. Sometimes these stone graves of Tennessee are not placed in mounds, but in true graveyards in the level fields. In these stone graves are found beautiful objects of stone, shell, and pottery. The stone-grave men were true artists in working these materials.
In the same district are found many dirt rings called “house-circles.” These occur in groups and appear to mark the sites of ancient villages, each being the ruin of a house. These rings are nearly circular and from ten to fifty feet across, and from a few inches to two or three feet high. Excavation within them shows old floors made of hard clay, with the fireplace or hearth. The stone-grave people lived in these houses. They often buried little children who died, under the floor. Their stone coffins measured only from one to four feet long. They contain the little skeletons and all the childish treasures—pretty cups and bowls of pottery, shell beads, pearls, and even the leg bones of birds, on which the babies used to cut their teeth as our babies do on rubber rings.
These are but three of the areas where mounds are found; there are several others. If the “mound-builders” were a single people, with one set of customs, one language, and one government, it is strange that there should be such great differences in the mounds they built. If we had space to speak about the relics from the mounds, they would tell a story.
Shell Gorgets: Tennessee. (After Holmes.)
They would show that the builders of the mounds, while they made many beautiful things of stone, shell, bone, beaten metals, could not smelt ores. They were Stone Age men, not civilized men. The objects from different areas differ so much in kind, pattern, and material as to suggest that their makers were not one people. Study of skulls from mounds in one district—as Ohio or Iowa—show that different types of men built the mounds even of one area.
So neither the mounds, the relics, nor the remains prove that there was one people, the “mound-builders,” but rather that the mounds were built by many different tribes. These tribes were not of civilized, but of barbarous, Stone Age men. It is likely that some of the tribes that built the mounds still live in the United States. Thus the Shawnees may be the descendants of the stone-grave people, the Winnebagoes may have come from the effigy-builders of Wisconsin, and the Cherokees may be the old Ohio “mound-builders.”