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.
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.
James & Terri