The Serpent Mound (Adams County in Ohio)
The Great Serpent Mound
Located atop a plateau overlooking the Brush Creek Valley in Adams County, Serpent Mound is the largest surviving example of a prehistoric effigy mound in the world. The head of the serpent is aligned to the summer solstice sunset and its three coils also may point to the sunrise on both the summer and winter solstices as well as the equinox sunrise.
Over 1,300 feet long, its shape resembles an uncoiling serpent. Serpent Mound represents the peak of prehistoric effigy mound-building in the world and is part of a tradition of effigy mound building among some American Indian cultures of the present Eastern United States.
While the purpose of Serpent Mound is unknown, anthropologists and archeologists continue to ponder and debate its purpose and design. Serpents are a common feature in the art of the Late Prehistoric Period (A.D. 900 to A.D. 1650). The Great Serpent was a source of enormous spiritual power that a widespread pre-Columbian culture could invoke to aid them in hunting and in curing illnesses. Many American Indians of the Eastern Woodlands believed the Great Serpent was a powerful spirit of the Underworld. It is possible that Serpent Mound represents these beliefs. Other scholars consider it important that the serpent aligns astronomically to mark the passage of the seasons. The head of Serpent Mound is aligned to the setting sun on the summer solstice and the coils may be aligned to the summer and winter solstice and equinox sunrises. These alignments support the idea that Serpent Mound had a ceremonial purpose.
Serpent Mound also represents an important moment in the preservation of Ohio earthworks. In 1883, Frederic Ward Putnam, curator of Harvard’s Peabody Museum, visited Serpent Mound for a second time and saw that nineteenth-century farming practices were destroying the integrity of the site. On June 4, Putnam wrote a letter to the Cincinnati Post in 1887 describing his return visit to the mound.
In response to what he witnessed, Putnam was inspired to save Serpent Mound from further destruction. He published an open letter to the public in the Boston Herald requesting donations to preserve Serpent Mound. By 1887, he had raised nearly $6,000 from private donors so that the Peabody Museum could purchase the site. With the preservation of the site assured, Putnam worked to explore and restore the site and established Serpent Mound Park, so that the public could view the great effigy. Putnam’s preservation of Serpent Mound motivated the Ohio General Assembly to pass a law exempting prehistoric parks from taxation and making other provisions for their preservation. In 1900, the trustees of Harvard University, on behalf of the Peabody Museum, deeded Serpent Mound to the Ohio State Archaeological and Historical Society (now the Ohio History Connection).