What is Serpent Mound?
"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... I mused on the probabilities of the past; and there seemed to come to me a picture as of a distant time" - F.W. Putnam at the Serpent Mound, 1883
Nominated as a World Heritage Site, Serpent Mound is the largest surviving example of a prehistoric effigy mound in the world. Stretching 1,348 feet over the ground, the beautifully preserved ancient earthwork depicts the form of an undulating serpent with an oval shape at the head.
Many groups of cultures called the area of Southern Ohio home for thousands of years prior to European contact, and vestiges of their sophisticated art and large-scale earthen creations still remain. Unfortunately many of our land's prehistoric earthworks have been lost in the recent centuries to development and agriculture.
Who built Serpent Mound?
Early excavations of portions of the Serpent Mound revealed no artifacts to help identify which Native American culture constructed this immense earthwork. It is possible that several different cultures used the site in succession over time, regardless of the identity of the original builders. Three conical burial mounds are associated with the site. Two of them belong to the Adena Culture (800 BC-100 AD), and one to the Fort Ancient Culture (1000-1650 AD). A nearby village site evidences occupation by both the Adena and the later Fort Ancient Cultures.
The most recent evidence for the authorship of Serpent Mound came in 1991, when a small excavation site from the late 1800's was carefully reopened for new examination. Pieces of charcoal recovered at that time were radio carbon dated to a little more than 900 years ago, which would seem to indicate the much later Fort Ancient Culture. The builders left no written records, so investigation and speculation continues on in both archaeological and less formal circles - attempting to explain the Serpent's mysterious origins.
What is purpose of the Serpent Mound?
The original purpose of the Serpent Mound remains a mystery - no record of explanation other than the earthwork itself has been discovered, and the historic oral traditions that might have connected us to the distant past were interrupted or discounted. However, there are many theories as to what the earthwork could have been intended for. Striking astronomical correlations suggest a sacred or practical calendar, and an earthly acknowledgment of cosmic celestial events. The nearby burial mounds (though the Serpent Mound itself does not contain any human burials), and the timelessly moving quality of the serpent's coils suggest it was once a site of sacred worship. Some people conjecture the serpent's form mirrors constellations found in the sky above.
The serpent motif has a connection to the cycles of birth, death, and nature in many cultures throughout the world. Modern visitors may enjoy contemplating the mysteries of our land's ancestors, feeling a connection to the past, and sensing of wonder at the scale of early people's physical and artistic accomplishments. Mystery, rather than certainty, remains this site's greatest gift to present generations, and all visitors are welcome to enter the circle of conjecture.
What is the recent history of the site?
Serpent Mound was known to Native peoples and early settlers of Adams County for many years, but was brought to general attention in the 1840's by the famous pair who made a broad survey of Ohio's earthworks: Squier and Davis. In the 1880's, Massachusetts archaeologist Frederick Ward Putnam became interested in the site and noticed that it was being degraded by erosion and vandalism. He was able to raise the funds to purchase the land in the name of Harvard University, and it was dedicated as a public park. In 1900 the site was turned over to the Ohio Historical Society, which supervised the building of the observation tower overlooking the effigy, and later in the 1930's, the facilities and shelter house. The interpretive exhibits in the museum were added in the mid-1970's.