An ode to the sacred mound sites of the Midwest.
by Frank Joseph
Our schools are very deficient in educating their students about the human prehistory of North America. For example, most Americans are unaware that their predecessors here created an art form on a colossal scale unmatched anywhere else in the world. More than 10,000 earth sculptures once spread from eastern Minnesota, throughout Wisconsin, down to northern Illinois, across Indiana, and into Ohio.
The majority of these effigy mounds were concentrated in Wisconsin. Sometimes over a thousand feet long, they were superbly molded images of birds, dogs, snakes, bears, panthers, buffalo, men, fish, and turtles, referred to by archaeologists as “biomorphs.” Others, known as “geoglyphs,” were abstract shapes, linear embankments, ridge-topped mounds, and conical pyramids. Still others were crafted into designs clearly representing beasts which the pre-Columbian inhabitants of our continent were supposed to know nothing about; namely, elephants and horses.
Mounds Mark Sacred Sites
To these early artists, the rolling plains of the Upper Midwest comprised a vast canvas for a regional menagerie of oversized animal figures. But they signified far more than artistic achievement, however monumental. Each effigy mound marked a particular sacred site, a concentration of Earth energies used by tribal shamans and their initiated followers. The effigy mounds were places of spiritual power epitomized in the shapes of animals. Birds were synonymous with the soul, bears signified rebirth, as did snakes, but what the other creatures symbolized to the prehistoric mound builders is less certain.
Comparably ancient hill figures, such as the White Horse of Uffington or the Cerne-Abbas Giant, may still be seen in Britain, while Peru’s Nazca desert is famous for its prehistoric and gigantic illustrations of animals such as spiders and condors. But North America once boasted by far the largest collection of zoomorphic landscape art on Earth. Tragically, most of it was destroyed by the farmer’s plow, as settlers moved across the upper middle western states in the early decades of the 19th century. Archaeologists hurried from one effigy mound to another, preserving them at least in pencil sketches, and surveyed measurements, prior to the Earth-sculptures’ obliteration, sometimes before the very eyes of scholars.
Only a few examples survive as testimony to the creative skill and nature-oriented spirituality of a vanished people. The most impressive specimen lies atop a steep hill in the Ohio Valley. Visitors enter the site off the main road via an ascending driveway that ends in a parking lot before a small museum. An aerial view of the one-quarter mile-long geoglyph is afforded by climbing to the top of a 20-foot observation tower nearby. From this overlook, the snake appears to writhe across the ridge in seven humps, its huge jaws agape before an egg-shaped mound, its tail ending in a spiral.
The Great Serpent Mound
With an average width of 20 feet and a height of 5 feet, the serpent’s overall length is 1,254 feet, following its coils and humps. Although the Great Serpent Mound is clearly discernible at ground level and more so from the observation tower, it may be fully appreciated from the vantage point of an airplane at 300 to 500 feet above the structure. From any point of view, however, its fine proportions testify to the technical and artistic sophistication of its creators.
Who they may have been and when they built the mound are questions still debated by investigators, more than 170 years after its discovery. Answers range from the dogma of conservative scholars certain the image was built by ancestors of local Indians only a few centuries ago, to the controversial conclusions of archaeo-astronomers who argue that the structure, which appears to represent the constellation Draco, was oriented to that area of the night sky around 2000 b.c.
Whoever its builders may have been, they thoroughly cleaned up after themselves. Not a trace of tools, implements, or weapons of any kind have ever been excavated from the site. Its construction involved careful planning. Flat stones were selected for size and uniformity, and lumps of clay were laid along the ground to form a serpentine pattern. Then basketfuls of soil were piled over the pattern and finally molded into shape. This process formed an interlinking reinforcement of various materials that have preserved the Great Serpent Mound’s configuration over centuries or millennia.
The effigy lies in proximity to other significant archaeological sites. Among these are Fort Hill in neighboring Highland County, an enormous stone enclosure above the Ohio Bush River; Mound City, near Chillicothe; and Fort Ancient, another walled enclosure. Farther still from the Ohio Valley, at the shores of Lake Nell, near the port town of Oban, Scotland, winds a serpent mound less than half the size of its American counterpart, but closely resembling it in other respects. The intriguing correspondences linking the Ohio earthwork with ancient Old World myth convince some observers that it is the handiwork of overseas visitors in prehistoric times. Others reject such parallels as just so much coincidence.
The Serpent Mound was never a habitation site, serving instead as a ceremonial center attracting worshipers from great distances. In Old Europe, the serpent-and-egg theme was associated with the deified physician of ancient Greece, Asclepius. He was regularly portrayed in surviving classical art beside a snake with an egg in its mouth. The same image was known much earlier to the Egyptians as Kneph, the sky-serpent, from whose jaws the Cosmic Egg, the source of all life, emerged.
As it happens, the Great Serpent Mound’s location is unique, situated as it is near the western edge of a crater formed by a meteor that struck the Earth about 3,000 years ago. Did the effigy’s creators witness a meteor strike and raise the biomorph as a visual explanation of the event? In any case, its position at the edge of an astrobleme, or impact crater, implies that archaeo-astronomers may be correct in suggesting that the mound was made in reference to some celestial happening.
In October 1983, a dispassionate researcher with no interest in the paranormal was visiting the Great Serpent Mound for the first time. He was alone after closing time at the archaeological park, near sunset, when an uneasy feeling gradually crept over him. He could not shake the sensation of being watched. The nameless anxiety grew by degrees until it seemed the woods entirely surrounding the site were filled with the presence of unseen people silently and intensely staring at him. He noticed, too, that not a breath of wind stirred. No birds sang in the trees. The whole area was absolutely calm and still, as though under a glass dome.
“It suddenly seemed like the inside of a cathedral,” he later remembered. He felt strangely welcome and at peace. The feeling of being watched was so strong, he almost expected to see native faces peering out at him from behind the leaves.
Years later, he was surprised to read in a famous Time-Life series, Mystic Places, that another visitor to the Great Serpent Mound described a similar encounter, although of a decidedly less amiable character. This person, too, experienced the abrupt calm and feelings of being watched. But as he walked around the jaws of the effigy, hundreds of dried leaves suddenly swirled together, rising in the form of a large man. The visitor fled in horror, never to return.
While the world’s largest surviving zoomorph is found in Ohio, another effigy mound in Wisconsin is no less impressive a sacred site. At Lizard Mounds, in the eastern part of the state, the visitor approaches the site by car, driving through open, underpopulated farm country. But the moment he turns onto the road leading into the public park, the site stands out boldly–a small but dense forest of tall pine trees alone among an ocean of fields. From the parking lot, a marked trail winds through the woods to each of the 31 large effigy mounds masterfully sculpted from the Earth itself into the vibrant images of birds, reptiles, panthers, buffalos, and unidentifiable creatures. They seem to move among powerfully centered linear structures, including embankments and conical pyramids. Altogether, these earthworks comprise the largest surviving collection of geoglyphs in North America. No other group is so numerous, well preserved, or diversified in form, or exhibits such outstanding examples of prehistoric art on so colossal a scale. The figures are expressionistic, though stylized. Nothing about them bespeaks the crude, the savage, or the primitive. They are all proportional, refined, and graceful, reflecting the ordered minds that conceived, molded, and appreciated them, to say nothing of the skillfully organized system of labor and surveying technology responsible for their creation. Who their builders and worshipers were, not even the resident Menomonee Indians can tell. The place is, therefore, a prehistoric enigma. All that seems certain is that it was finally abandoned around a.d. 1319 for reasons unknown. Even the dates of its construction and occupation are doubtful. It would appear, however, to have been laid out by the same people who built Aztalan, a city flourishing about 75 miles to the southwest, because identically styled earthworks once surrounded that remarkable ceremonial center. Aztalan’s final phase, when the population within and outside its stockaded walls may have reached 10,000 or more inhabitants, began around a.d. 1100 and ended suddenly at the same time Lizard Mounds was deserted. In any case, a few of the Lizard Mounds effigies served as tombs. The deceased were placed in pits beneath the geoglyphs with decorated clay pots, bone harpoons, pipes, copper arrowheads, and ritual crystals.
The precinct was used exclusively for spiritual purposes. No one ever resided within the sacred arena; settlement was in surrounding villages. The largest effigy of the group is 300 feet in length, but the site derives its modern name from a 238-foot-long figure thought to represent a lizard. Even so, the figures are not so large that they cannot be made out at ground level. Seen at altitude, however, they assume a startling perspective to appear in their proper proportions, implying that they may be appreciated only from the sky. In this feature, at least, they may be compared with Ohio’s Great Serpent Mound.
The modern park trail appears to follow closely the original ritual path used by the ancient worshipers as their processions wound from one effigy to the next. Today’s pilgrim walks for about 250 feet through the woods before coming to the first structure, the longest of the slender linear mounds, some 200 feet in length. It marks the real beginning of the sacred precinct. Beyond it stands a small, conical pyramid, followed by a tear-drop figure pointing at another cone of the same size.
All the mounds are only three or four feet high. Despite having endured unknown centuries of erosional forces, the earthworks were probably not much larger at the time of their creation than they now appear. The first animal effigy encountered is the so-called “Panther Mound.” Visitors come upon it gradually, imperceptibly, from the point of its tail. The tail thickens by degrees as the bioglyph takes form. As it does so, its power seems to gather momentum, increasing along the arched back to the massive head. It is flanked by a pair of large, conical mounds. The trail forces each visitor to walk between the two cone pyramids.
These are followed by a smaller, linear structure. A few paces more brings the forepart of the most massive of the Panthers into view. There are three more such earthworks before visitors reach the focal point of the site–a pair of elongated figures facing each other in a combined spread of 425 feet. The trail leads directly between their heads, narrowing the site’s inherent energy into a narrow gap. It is important to know that the sole surviving Indian tradition of Lizard Mounds involves this very spot.
The Menomonee remember that each winter solstice, their ancestors gathered behind these twin zoomorphs to observe sunset before the longest night of the year, marking the world’s transition from darkness back into the light, and the human soul’s reemergence from death to light. Tribal leaders stood at the twin-headed focal point. At that critical moment, as the sun shed its last ray precisely between the two animal heads, the great shift between darkness and light–death and life–took place.
Curious if this Menomonee tradition had any basis in fact, James Scherz arrived at Lizard Mounds on the late afternoon of 1989′s winter solstice. A Professor of Civil Engineering and Environmental Studies at the University of Wisconsin in Madison, and pioneer of archaeo-astronomy in his state, he was highly qualified to test any scientific basis for Native American myth. As he observed dusk on the longest night of the year, Professor Scherz saw the sun go down precisely between the two earth-sculpted birds’ heads, just as described by the Menomonee Indians.
Just beyond the zoomorphs lies the effigy mound after which the set has been named. The lizard represents the underlying motive force of all living creatures, the vital spirit of action. In native South American symbolism, the lizard is associated with precipitation, from dew to deluge, although that meaning does not seem to apply at the Wisconsin location. The trail leads away from the eponymous earthwork to smaller effigies, including a pair of linear embankments pointing to the only oval mound at the site.
Although not so spectacular as the others, it is the key to this sacred center, representing as it does the Cosmic Egg, the Womb of Life, earlier encountered at Ohio’s Great Serpent Mound. More than any other figure, the oval earthwork identifies the site as a sacred center. The trail passes between the heads and along the outstretched wings of two enormous bird effigies. Perhaps they were meant to signify the uplifting experience of walking among the colossal figures of Lizard Mounds.
Although America’s surviving effigy mounds are few in number, they still resonate with at least some telluric power of the Earth from which they were so beautifully fashioned long ago.
Frank Joseph is a regular FATE contributor and editor of Ancient American.