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Alternate Perceptions Magazine, May 2018

Symbolism of the Great Serpent in the Adena and Hopewell Cultures (1000 B.C.—500 A.D.)

by: Jason Jarrell and Sarah Farmer

Recently, a debate has developed in the Ohio archaeological community over the age and cultural affiliations of the Great Serpent Mound in Adams County, Ohio. Serpent Mound is the greatest effigy mound in the Ohio Valley. The earthen mound is 1,348 feet long and portrays a serpent with a coiled tail with what has been interpreted as an egg at its mouth. In the 1800s, Frederick Ward Putnam excavated several mounds and other burials in the vicinity of the Great Serpent (1). At least two of the mounds yielded evidence, which today would be recognized as diagnostic of the Adena Culture (1000 B.C.—300 A.D.), while several non-mounded burials resemble Late Archaic (2500—500 B.C.) tombs as found elsewhere in Ohio. There is much more cultural information from Putnam’s excavations that archaeological institutions have never made available to the public in a comprehensive format, but this situation is soon to be remedied (2).

In addition to the evidence recovered in the 1800s, a recent project at Serpent Mound radiocarbon dated the earliest phase of the effigy to around 321 B.C. (3), placing the origin of the mound in the Early Woodland period, which is defined by the Adena Culture. In spite of the Adena evidence, influential organizations have continued to back an alternative interpretation of the Great Serpent Mound which associates the effigy with the much more recent Fort Ancient Culture manifestation (1000—1600 A.D).


One of the criteria recently given for rejecting an Adena affiliation for the Great Serpent Mound is “the virtual absence of serpent imagery in the Adena culture” (4). However, evidence from several archaeological sites reveals that indeed, the Adena Culture did utilize serpent symbolism in a presumably ritual context, and may have even passed the mythology behind the serpent to their contemporaries and successors in the Hopewell Culture.

The Adena-affiliated Wright Mound was located in Montgomery County, Kentucky, and was excavated in the late 1930s (5). The mound contained over 20 burials, some in typical Late Adena log tombs. Calibrated radiocarbon dates from the mound include 120 A.D. and 264 A.D. (6). Burial 11 at Wright consisted of an extended skeleton in a tomb with two logs at each end and side. The body had been laid upon strips of bark, and bark also covered the tomb. The skeleton featured a copper bracelet on each arm and a shell disk bead necklace under the chin. Another “artifact” with Burial 11 recorded by William S. Webb was a serpent skeleton:

“Between the femora was the skeleton of a large snake. This appears to have been an intentional placement and not the result of the death of a transient snake visitor seeking winter quarters.” (5, pp. 35-37)

A similar discovery was documented for Wright Burial 18, which was another extended skeleton in a rectangular log tomb. This burial featured two copper bracelets on each forearm. According to Webb, “At the foot of the burial there was the complete skeleton of a large snake, fairly well preserved.” (5, p. 46) There is another possible example of Adena serpent symbolism from elsewhere in Kentucky. In 1988, Sara L. Sanders surveyed a stone serpent mound situated on a ridge top overlooking the Big Sandy River in Boyd County, Kentucky on the property of Ashland Oil (7). The present authors recently summarized several details of this site in Ages of the Giants: A Cultural History of the Tall Ones in Prehistoric America (Serpent Mound Books & Press, 2017):

“At the time of Sara L Sanders’ survey in 1988, the serpent was 191.4 m in length, the head being 25.6 m long and 11 m wide. The tail was 7.2 m at the widest point and 2.05 m at the narrowest. The serpent was composed entirely of sandstone, the head facing east towards the River. The piled sandstone integrates natural “float rock” into the design. On a lower ledge below the serpent, a semi-circular stone structure 5.2 m in diameter built atop a sandstone outcrop has been interpreted to represent an egg. Sanders considered the Kentucky Serpent to be immediately comparable to the more famous earthen serpent in Ohio.”

While the Kentucky serpent has not been radiocarbon dated, information has been obtained from another stone structure in Boyd County, which may have been constructed by the same community that built the stone effigy. The Viney Branch Stone Mound was also situated to overlook the Big Sandy Valley and has produced calibrated radiocarbon ranges of 890-215 B.C. and 798-1 B.C. (8). This chronology overlaps the periods of the Late Archaic and Adena cultures in the Ohio Valley. The Viney Branch mound contained two cremations, and also covered a crematory and hearth. One of the cremations was placed in a pit. These features are similar to Late Archaic and very early Adena mounds (9).

Another little known stone Serpent Mound was located in West Virginia, situated on a ridgeline overlooking the town of Omar in Logan County. The West Virginia serpent was surveyed by Gary Wilkins in 1979, and found to be “similar in form to serpent mounds found in Kentucky and Ohio” (10, p. 1). The authors also summarized this effigy in Ages of the Giants:

“The serpent was oriented north, the head consisting of an oval ring of stone with a rectangular flat rock at the center. The serpent was composed of large, flat sandstone rocks, extending in undulating fashion over 80 feet to the south, where it joined a natural rock outcrop incorporated into the design. The artificial wall varied between 1 and 3 feet in height and 1.6 and 8 feet in width at the time of the survey. The “natural” section was also aligned with the ridge and extended around 51 feet further to the south.”

Wilkins Himself suggested that the West Virginia stone serpent was “probably late Adena to early Hopewell in age” (10, p. 3). Serpent symbolism has also been documented from Adena sites outside of the Ohio River Valley. Several major Adena sites have been excavated on the East Coast, usually grouped under the cultural label of Delmarva Adena. It is a popular trend in modern studies to explain Adena elements on the East Coast as the simple product of exchange. However, it has been pointed out that regional manifestations of Adena appear in the archaeological record around 800 B.C., emerging from a local formulation of the Late Archaic cultural network (11). This is almost identical to the late Adena expert Don Dragoo’s theory for the origin of Adena in the Ohio Valley (9).

Besides the chronology, Demarva Adena ritualism is also closely linked to the Ohio Valley culture. T. Latimer Ford once pointed out that the number of diagnostic artifacts found at the Demarva Adena site at Sandy Hill in Maryland “far exceeds that recovered from any Ohio or Kentucky Adena site.” (12, p. 86) Commenting on the obvious Adena ritualism at the West River site on Chesapeake Bay, Ford stated in 1976, “While the artifacts might have been trade goods, the cremation and burial traits are not likely to have been diffused to local tribes.” (12, p. 75) There are other Delmarva Adena ceremonial practices, which have been demonstrably connected with the Ohio Valley. For example, the upper medial and lateral incisors and supporting bone of a skull buried at the Rosenkrans site in New Jersey had been intentionally broken out. Herbert C. Kraft suggested that this had been done to allow for the insertion of a worked wolf jaw spatula as reported from the Wright and Ayers Mounds in Kentucky and the Wolford Mound in Ohio, allowing the individual to become a “wolf shaman” (13, p. 29).

With these important ties to Ohio Valley Adena established, it is interesting to note that obvious serpent symbolism has been found at the Delmarva Adena affiliated Boucher site located east of Lake Champaign in Vermont. Three hide medicine bags from the Boucher site are considered part of the paraphernalia of local shamanic practitioners or ritual specialists. One of the hide bags contained the bones of a black snake covered in red ocher, while another bag contained copper fragments (14). The third bag, found near the chest area of a middle-aged male, contained bones of a timber rattler, a black rat snake, American mink, pine marten, cervid, duck, and red fox, as well as a raccoon bacculum, a bone fish hook, and two pebbles (Ibid). The radiocarbon range of the Boucher Site is 885—114 B.C., and at least 15 Adena-style tubular pipes from the site were made of Ohio fireclay (Ibid).

Ohio and Illinois Hopewell

Returning to the Ohio Valley, serpent symbolism was also present in the contemporaries and successors of Adena in the Hopewell Culture (200 B.C.—500 A.D). Christopher Carr and Robert McCord have recently published a fascinating study of four “composite creature” effigies from the Hopewellian Turner Earthworks in the Little Miami valley (15; 16). The four effigies feature elements of rattlesnakes, fish, salamanders, crocodilians, and bear or badger. Carr and McCord suggest that the Turner effigies could represent a very ancient form of the mythic entity, which later evolved to become the “Great Horned Serpent/Underwater Panther” of the historic Native American tribes—albeit from a time before the archetype was associated with Above-World animal elements (such as wings).

Basic serpent symbolism has been found at other Ohio Hopewell sites. As an example, a group of four sandstone tablets from Mound 1 of the Hopewell Mound Group in Ross County are engraved with effigies of a diamondback rattlesnake, the body formed in a “Z” shape (15). Beyond Ohio, serpent symbolism very similar to that documented from Ohio Valley Adena sites has been found in Hopewell burial mounds in Illinois. The Utica Mound Group consists of 3 groups of 27 mounds located on the Illinois River south of Utica, Illinois. Beneath Mound 1 of Group 1, an effigy comprised of hundreds of stones was uncovered about 20 inches above the mound base, described as “A large quantity of rock, which appears to be a large effigy of a snake…” (17, p. 63). The stone serpent measured 25 x 17 feet, and enclosed a central burial area originally containing at least 14 burials. In Mound 3 of group 1 at Utica, the bones of a snake were found placed over the frontal bones of two disarticulated skeletons. In Mound 11 of the same group, two skeletons extended side by side (Burials 10 and 11) also featured a snake skeleton placed over the frontal bones. Finally, a snake skeleton had been placed near the right shoulder of the skeleton of a young female in Mound 1 of Group 2.

The stone serpent effigy and the snake skeletons placed with burials at Utica Mounds are strongly reminiscent of the Adena practices discussed in this article. Similar discoveries were also made at the Adler group of 8 Hopewell mounds near Joliet and the Des Plaines River in Will County, Illinois (18). Beneath Adler Mound 3, a central sub-floor tomb containing the remains of five individuals placed shoulder to shoulder, as well as the skeletons of two infants was uncovered. According to Howard Winters, “With the exception of the two infants in the lower portion of the tomb, all burials were found with the articulated vertebrae of snakes placed several centimeters above their waists.” (18, p. 62) In Adler Mound 7, a tomb was found containing the remains of 4 individuals. Above the waist of one of the burials were found “snake vertebrae, again intentionally placed in that position.” (18, p. 73) Finally, Adler Mound 8 covered a sub floor tomb containing 3 extended burials and one large bundle reburial. Only the skeleton of a young adult male was associated with grave goods. Regarding this burial, Winters notes, “the vertebrae of a bull snake (?) were draped across and above the waist, as in Mounds 3 and 7.” (18, p. 73)

The Great Serpent of Southern Ontario

The local manifestation of the Hopewell Culture in southern Ontario, Quebec, and New York State is usually referred to as Point Peninsula. People participating in the Hopewell/Point Peninsula Culture constructed a Serpent Mound of their own at Roach’s Point on Rice Lake in Peterborough County, Ontario. The Middle Woodland component of the site consist of nine burial mounds, one of which—Mound E—is considered by many to be a serpent effigy (19; 20). The Mound E serpent is 194 feet in length and 25 feet wide at the base, with a maximum height of 5-6 feet. Mound F is located very near the head of the serpent, and has been interpreted as an “egg” similar to that before the head of the Great Serpent Mound in Ohio. The Mound F egg contained at least six burials, one of which was a “trophy skull” burial as found at many Adena and Hopewell sites in Ohio (21). David Boyle found that Mound F also contained a layer of earth mixed with ash and mussel shells 4 feet from the surface at mound center, and beneath this at the mound floor was a stone circle 3 feet in diameter, which exhibited evidence of fire (Ibid). These features are very similar to those documented by Squier and Davis within the ovular “egg” at the mouth of the Great Serpent Mound in Ohio:

“The ground within the oval is slightly elevated: a small circular elevation of large stones much burned once existed in its centre; but they have been thrown down and scattered by some ignorant visitor, under the prevailing impression probably that gold was hidden beneath them.” (22, p. 97)

The Rice Lake serpent was also a burial mound, and may have once contained the remains of at least 60 individuals (19). The burials were likely accretional and span several eras, but the oldest were those placed in burial pits beneath the mound and on the mound floor, with such artifacts as copper, shell, and silver beads, mandibles of timber wolf, bird, and bear, beak of loon, a limestone animal effigy, and a massive double-bitted adze (19; 20). While these burials may seem to strongly differentiate the Rice Lake serpent from its Ohio counterpart, this is not the case. For while Ohio Valley archaeologists largely continue to insist that the Great Serpent Mound in Adams County was not a burial mound, recent research by Jeffrey Wilson (23) has proven that although they were forgotten and poorly documented, burials were recovered from the Ohio Serpent sometime in the late 1800s.

With regards to the cultural influences and affiliations of the Rice Lake Serpent, Michael Spence and J. Russell Harper state, “Mound burial might be a Hopewellian trait, though the serpent shape is possibly related to the Serpent Mound of Ohio, seemingly Adena.” (24, p. 55) Indeed, radiocarbon dates for the Mound E serpent span 128—302 A.D., overlapping the temporal range of Late Adena and Hopewell in the Ohio Valley and elsewhere (25). The Rice Lake Serpent is located in the vicinity of numerous burial mounds, which have yielded extensive evidence of Hopewell influence.

Regional Connections and Conclusion

The purpose of this article is to demonstrate the serpent symbolism of several Adena and Hopewell sites. The authors suggest that in light of this evidence, there is no reason why the Great Serpent Mound in Adams County Ohio—located near the epicenter of Adena and Hopewell—could not be considered as possibly being a site of one or the other, if not both of these cultures. This is especially true in light of much of the evidence (including early radiocarbon dates) collected by William Romain and his associates in recent years. One objection to this article will undoubtedly be that the sites mentioned are from Kentucky, Illinois, West Virginia, the East Coast, and Southern Ontario, while the Great Serpent Mound is located in Southern Ohio. However, we would point out that the archaeological record strongly suggests close cultural connections between the Ohio Valley Adena and Hopewell and the manifestations beyond. Furthermore (and perhaps most importantly), the recent evidence obtained from DNA research (26) and studies of physical skeletal morphology (27) clearly reveal that actual people spread out from the Ohio Valley during the time of Adena and Hopewell, likely taking new ideas and forms of ritualism with them. One of these ideas may well have been a ceremonialism and veneration of an early form of the Great Serpent, as represented at Ohio’s Great Serpent Mound.


1. F.W. Putnam, “The Serpent Mound of Ohio”, The Century Illustrated Monthly Magazine, Vol. 39.
2. Jeffrey Wilson, forthcoming.
3. William F. Romain, “New Radiocarbon Dates Suggest Serpent Mound is More Than 2,000 Years Old”, The Ancient Earthworks Project, 2014, http://ancientearthworksproject.org/1/post/2014/07/new-radiocarbon-dates-suggest-serpent-mound-is-more-than-2000-years-old.html
4. Bradley T. Lepper, “On the Age of Serpent Mound: A Reply to Romain and Colleagues”, Midcontinental Journal of Archaeology Vol. 43 (1), 2018, pp. 62-75.
5. William S. Webb, The Wright Mounds, sites 6 and 7, Montgomery County, Kentucky, University of Kentucky Press, 1940.
6. Robert F. Maslowski, Charles M. Niquette, and Derek M. Wingfield, “The Kentucky, Ohio, and West Virginia Radiocarbon Database”, West Virginia Archeologist, Vol. 47:1-2.
7. Sara L Sanders, “The Stone Serpent Mound of Boyd County, Kentucky: An Investigation of a Stone Effigy”, Midcontinental Journal of Archaeology, 16 (2).
8. Darlene Applegate, “Chapter 5: Woodland Period”, in The Archaeology of Kentucky: An Update, ed. David Pollack, State Historic Preservation Comprehensive Plan Report No. 3, Kentucky Heritage Council, Frankfort, 2008, pp. 339-604.
9. Don W. Dragoo, Mounds for the Dead: An Analysis of the Adena Culture, Annals of the Carnegie Museum, Vol. 37, 1963.
10. Gary R. Wilkins, “A Rock Serpent Mound in Logan County, West Virginia”, Tennessee Anthropological Association Newsletter, Vol. 6 (4), 1981, pp. 1-4.
11. Jay F. Custer, “New Perspectives on the Delmarva Adena Complex”, Midcontinental Journal of Archaeology, 12 (1), 1987, pp. 35-53.
12. T. Latimer Ford, Jr., “Adena Sites on Chesapeake Bay”, Archaeology of Eastern North America, Vol. 4, 1976, pp. 63-89.
13. Herbert C. Kraft, “The Rosenkrans Site, An Adena-Related Mortuary Complex in the Upper Delaware Valley, New Jersey”, Archaeology of Eastern North America, Vol. 4, 1976, pp. 9-50.
14. Michael J. Heckenberger, James B. Petersen, Ellen R. Cowie, Arthur E. Spiess, Louise A. Basa and Robert E. Stuckenrath, “Early Woodland Period Mortuary Ceremonialism in the Far Northeast: a View from the Boucher Cemetery”, Archaeology of Eastern North America 18, 1990, pp. 109-144.
15. Christopher Carr and Robert McCord, “Ohio Hopewell Depictions of Composite Creatures Part 1—Biological Identification and Ethnohistorical Insights”, Midcontinental Journal of Archaeology Vol. 38 No.1, 2013, pp. 5-82.
16. Christopher Carr and Robert McCord, “Ohio Hopewell Depictions of Composite Creatures Part 2—Archaeological Context and a Journey to an Afterlife”, Midcontinental Journal of Archaeology Vol. 40 No.1, 2015, pp. 18-47.
17. Henry C. Henriksen, “Utica Hopewell, A Study of Early Hopewellian Occupation in the Illinois River Valley”, Illinois Archaeological Survey Bulletin No. 5, University of Illinois, Urbana, 1965, pp. 1-67.
18. Howard Winters, “The Adler Mound Group, Will County, Illinois”, Illinois Archaeological Survey Bulletin No. 3, University of Illinois, Urbana, 1961, pp. 57-88.
19. Jeffrey Bryan Dillane, Visibility Analysis of the Rice Lake Burial Mounds and Related Sites, Master of Arts Thesis, Trent University, Peterborough, Ontario, 2010.
20. Jason Jarrell and Sarah Farmer, “The Burial Mounds and Woodland Traditions of Canada”, Ancient American Issue 114, 2016.
21. David Boyle, “Mounds”, Annual Archaeological Report, Ontario, 1897, pp. 14-57.
22. Ephraim George Squier and Edwin Hamilton Davis, Ancient Monuments of the Mississippi Valley, Bartlett & Welford, New York, 1848.
23. Jeffrey Wilson, “The Mysterious Excavations of Serpent Mound”, presentation at Friends of Serpent Mound Mysteries Day event, August 21st, 2016, and forthcoming book.
24. Michael Spence and J. Russell Harper, “The Cameron’s Point Site”, Royal Ontario Museum, Art and Archaeology Occasional Paper 12, Toronto, 1968.
25. Richard B. Johnston, The Archaeology of the Serpent Mounds Site, Royal Ontario Museum, Toronto, 1968, pp. 70-72.
26. Deborah A. Bolnick and David Glenn Smith, “Migration and Social Structure Among The Hopewell: Evidence from ancient DNA”, in American Antiquity, 72 (4), pp. 627-644.
27. P.J. Pennefather-O’Brien, Biological Affinities Among Middle Woodland populations associated with the Hopewell Horizon, PhD Dissertation, Indiana University, 2006.

Wednesday, December 06, 2023