The Serpent Mound: A Sacred Gift From the Ancients

It’s a funny thing about snakes. Almost everyone universally despises them, but that wasn’t always the case. In fact, thousands of years ago in what is now rural southwest Ohio an indigenous culture built a remarkable 1,300-foot long mound which is recognized as the largest serpent effigy in the world. 

Effigy mounds are earthen hillocks in the stylized shape of animals or humans, which were created by early cultures in North America. They’re rare, but this serpent mound is exceptionally so because it’s not only a sacred Indian site, but is also a unique piece of monumental art. Its stylized form, grassy curves and geometric head have a modern look, and its position on a high plateau dominates the landscape around it indicating its importance to the builders. 

A depiction of the serpent mound that appeared in The Century periodical in April 1890, drawn by William Jacob Baer.

It was discovered in the late 19th century by Harvard University archaeologist Frederic Putnam. Of course, the fascinating discovery was excavated at the time, but strangely, no artifacts were found in the mound to accurately determine who built it and when. However, there were burial mounds nearby from the Adena Culture, which flourished in the area from 800 B.C. to A.D. 100, so this solved the mystery … at least for a hundred years or so.

Naturally, an archaeological gem like this was a magnet for additional investigation with modern technology, which happened in 1991 and again in 2014. But the conflicting age dates these excavations and radiocarbon tests found raised more questions than answers. Was the Serpent Mound Adena Culture and 2300 years-old, or Fort Ancient Culture which is 1000 years-old? 

Neither of these cultures left many clues about their history, but after years of study the effigy has told us a few things. For instance, the head of the serpent appears to align with sunset on the summer solstice and some scientists don’t believe this could be coincidental. So there’s a possibility that the prehistoric builders were astronomically savvy, and they used the serpent as a calendar to help with planting and harvest.

Many North American cultures thought that snakes had supernatural powers, and serpent-shapes show up repeatedly in their art. So it’s also possible that the mound was a sacred location used for religious ceremonies. 

And from the “What are the Chances?” Department, the plateau where the Serpent Mound is located sits on the edge of a 300-million year-old meteorite impact crater which is one of only 28 confirmed craters in the US. You’d have to go way out on a scientific limb to establish any connection, but there’s no denying that the coincidence is uncanny.

Many of us in the US have been lucky to be able to visit ancient sites around the world, but we sometimes forget that North America has its own deep, rich human history. And just because these early cultures didn’t leave behind long-lasting ruins doesn’t mean they were any less advanced or fascinating. 

So the next time your travels take you to the Cincinnati area, set the GPS for the pleasant 75-mile drive to Peebles, Ohio, and the Serpent Mound is only a 10 minute drive outside the village. We just discovered this impressive mound recently, and it introduced us to a wonderful piece of history right in our own back yard: not a bad thing in these days of Pandemic travel restrictions. 

Happy Trails,

James & Terri

Photo Credits: 1. Sebastian Spindler  11. Chris Curry 

Author: gallivance.net

We're Terri and James Vance - high school sweethearts who went on to international careers and became world nomads. Today, 65 countries later, we're still traveling ... and still in love. Check out Our Story for more of the backstory at gallivance.net.

22 thoughts

    1. Beth, if you get a chance drop by this pleasant, backcountry site. It’s very low key, and you’ll come away with a new appreciation for the indigenous cultures in this part of the world. ~James

  1. I was not aware of this construction and have added it to my quickly growing list of places to see near our relatively new home in Ohio. Thanks for the post.

    1. Ray, this mound is actually quite famous in Native American archaeology. I had read about it, but didn’t know where it was, and had no idea it was so close to my home in Lexington, KY. It’s a beautiful part of Ohio so check it out if you get the chance. Also, since you live there, Ohio is loaded with tons of burial mounds so you might want to check that out as well. ~James

  2. This is fascinating! The shape of the mound does look somewhat modern, and for some reason it reminds me of the Nazca Lines, although both were created at two completely different landscapes.

    1. Bama, I’m always intrigued when I see any of these ancient designs when viewed from high above them and wonder how the designers managed to keep things so smooth and uniform. I don’t know much about the Nazca Lines, but I suspect the Peruvians at the time had clever survey techniques, but the indigenous North Americans we’ll never know. ~James

  3. What a fascinating read! Thanks for pointing the way to an aspect of indigenous culture I knew nothing about.
    Annie

    1. Annie, it’s easy to pass these grassy mounds by as just another historic dot on the landscape, but a bit of research and reading opens a rich world of life before the Europeans arrived. ~James

    1. Thanks Darlene. Recently I’ve been doing lots of reading about the indigenous cultures of North America before the arrival of the Anglo-Europeans, and there’s a wealth of interesting history out there. They get short shrift because they left so few records and are mostly remembered for their mound building, but there’s no reason to believe they were any less advanced than non-American cultures. ~James

  4. What an incredible place! And to think I lived in Cincinnati for six years and never knew about it! Love the view from above and the fact that it’s a work of art as well as having an interesting history and meaning. Even though yes I am quite fearful of snakes I must say!

    Peta

    1. Peta, given the importance of this site to the indigenous cultures of this area, I’m surprised that the mound doesn’t get more publicity. I had read about the serpent mound, and had even seen photos of it, but hadn’t really followed up to find out where it was. And frankly, I just stumbled on its location looking for something else. But, in the end I’m definitely glad I discovered it and visited. The location is lovely. You can see a great aerial view of it on google earth. Check it out. ~James

  5. How cool is this! I haven’t even heard of it, but we live close enough to Cincinnati that it would be worth a short trip to see. Thanks for the details and directions. You find some of the “darnedest” things to see, and I love it!

    1. Rusha, this would be a fun trip for you guys. It’s a low-key place, the countryside is beautiful, and the mound museum is tiny but informative. When we visited the place was almost deserted. Also, if you want to avoid Cincy, take a detour and drive the “Blue Highway” route through Maysville, KY to get there. It’s a delightful, little riverside city and birthplace of Rosemary Clooney. ~James

  6. You said near the end what I was thinking as I read: that “we sometimes forget that North America has its own deep, rich human history.” Ohio! I joke with my Ohio-born husband that there is absolutely nothing of interest there, but you have proven me wrong. 🙂

    1. Lexie, we’ve seen all kinds of cool stuff during the pandemic … even in Ohio. Keep your Buckeye husband away from our blog or you’ll have all kinds of crow to eat. 🙂 ~James

  7. I’ve been to the burial mounds in Texas and Mississippi, but this one clearly is symbolic as well as functional. The snake reminded me of the legend of Bayou Teche, in Louisiana. At the height of the Chitimacha’s power there, a snake miles in length had become an enemy of the Chitimacha. The Chitimacha chief called his warriors and had them prepare to do battle with their enemy. During the fight, the snake fought to survive, but failed. As it turned and twisted before its death, it broadened, curved and deepened the place known today as Bayou Teche. Towns sprang up in each of the curves: Arnauville, Breaux Bridge, St. Martinville, New Iberia, and so on.

    In Breaux Bridge, there’s a monument that shows the snake and the location of the towns. So cool — just like your introduction to your serpent mound.

    1. Thanks for this info Linda. The photo in the link that you provided would have been a perfect addition to this post. I love the twists and turns, that probably mimic the bayou shape. I guess that it’s a human trait to want to understand the origins of the natural things that surround us, and in the absence of science, early humans turned to the divine. We lived in NOLA, and I wish I had paid more attention to the early settlements in LA.

      As I learn more about ancient civilizations in the US, I realize what a focus the Gulf of Mexico and Mississippi River were for groups, both large and small. But, given the natural availability of food this really shouldn’t be much of a surprise. ~James

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