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Alternate Perceptions Magazine, July 2018

The Liverpool Mounds in Fulton County Illinois: Rediscovering Hopewell Ritual and Meaning

by: Jason Jarrell and Sarah Farmer

(This article is dedicated to Cheryl Claassen, Robert Hall, George Lankford, William Romain, and Christopher Carr, whose work has done so much to illuminate the ancient people of North America.)

“Archaeology seeks to explain the inner workings of cultures in which even baked clay jars were animated with their particular spirits. But, until as archaeologists we develop more than a little empathy for the prehistoric Indians we presume to understand, prehistory may never be more than what it has become, the soulless artifact of a dehumanized science.”

--Robert Hall, “Ghosts, Water Barriers, Corn, and Sacred Enclosures in the Eastern Woodlands”, American Antiquity Vol. 41, No. 3, 1976, pp. 360-364.

The quote above from the great anthropologist Robert Hall (1927-2012) encapsulates one of the most pervasive issues in the archaeology of the Eastern Woodlands and the Plains of North America: it lives in the shadow of an altogether soulless legacy. During the late 1800s and early 1900s, both antiquarians and archaeological institutions, whose only purpose was the recovery and documentation of exotic artifacts, wantonly destroyed a vast number of important burial mounds and other sites in the greater Mississippi Valley. For example, between 1882 and 1886, the Bureau of American Ethnology of the Smithsonian Institution excavated over 2,000 mounds in 140 U.S. counties, obtaining 40,000 artifacts. And yet, in spite of having the resources to conduct such a massive operation and the opportunity to cast a serious light on the ancient cultures whose graves they plundered, the agents of the Bureau were working under a mandate issued from director John Wesley Powell, which insisted that all discoveries made in the mounds could only be interpreted as evidence of a savage and barbaric people (1).

By the mid-twentieth century, things were changing in American archaeology, as archaeologists such as William S. Webb, Don Dragoo, Ernest Sutton, and Olaf Prufer began to delve into the possible cultural history and meaning behind the extravagant burial mounds of the Ohio Valley. Unfortunately this work was offset by the contemporary “research” of individuals like Raymond S. Baby of the Ohio Historical Society, who used bulldozers and dynamite to excavate some of the most important burial mounds in Ohio. In more recent times several philosophical researchers, most notably Cheryl Claassen, Robert Hall, George Lankford, William Romain, and Christopher Carr, have contributed colossal efforts to understanding the prehistoric cultures as the legacy of living people, whose own traditions can be found embodied in the rites and practices of the ancients. In this article we follow in the footsteps of these figurative giants in re-examining a little known group of Hopewell mounds in Illinois.

The Liverpool Mounds

The Liverpool Mound group consisted of five Hopewell burial mounds (F°77, F°78, F°79, F°80, and F°87) situated on the west side of the Illinois River in Fulton County Illinois, one half mile below the village of Liverpool. The mounds were subjected to excavations on several occasions between 1926 and 1930, including explorations by Frank Solomon (a commercial digger), the Dickson brothers, and the University of Chicago. Cole and Deuel recorded many of the findings in a volume published in 1937 (2). It is possible that the Liverpool site was multi-component (used by more than one culture over time). As such, only the definitively Hopewellian material will be discussed in this article.

Liverpool Mound F°77

Log Tomb A

At the center of Mound F°77, a rectangular log tomb (hereafter Log Tomb A) had been constructed by stacking logs 6-8 inches in diameter three deep at each side and end. Two saplings had been placed at each corner to function as supports for a bark roof over the tomb. In the Northeast of the tomb was a 6-8 inch deep clay pit, which exhibited evidence of burning. Three burials were found in Log Tomb 1, two of which were associated with bead necklaces and a copper celt, while the third wore a necklace of bear teeth.

Log Tomb B

The second log tomb of Mound F°77 (hereafter Log Tomb B) featured ends and sides one log high, and a covering of split logs. In the northeastern corner was a cremation pit lined with heavy clay, burned to a deep red. The bottom of the pit was covered with wood ash, in which were three scorched bone skewers. Over the ash was a deposit of artifacts including a Hopewell platform pipe with a frog effigy, a copper adze, and a cut human upper jawbone. There were eight human burials in Log Tomb B (5 males, 2 females, and 1 child). Burial 1 included a necklace of marine shell beads and a piece of horn shaped fossil, and was surrounded by 13 bone skewers which may have held down a covering. Burials 2 and 3 both wore necklaces, and a copper awl was found between them. Burial 7 featured a necklace of river pearls including a bear tooth pendant with inset pearls, and a copper adze. At the center of Log Tomb B was a conch shell with a large deposit of lime, and mica flakes, galena fragments, and quartzite pebbles were scattered about the floor.

Mat Burial

Mound F°77 also included a “Mat Burial”, where an extended body was found covered with burned pieces of a bark or reed mat pegged down with three bone skewers. Upon the mat were fragments of lime and copper flakes. The overall burial had been covered with a canopy, which was also burned. The skeleton featured a deposit of stones near the head, a necklace of 120 silver beads, between 400 and 500 pearl beads (once attached to a garment). A copper adze, copper blade, and a cut human upper jaw had all been all placed below the feet.

Liverpool Mound F°78

Log Tomb C

Liverpool Mound F°78 contained yet another log tomb (Log Tomb C), which was between 3 and 4 feet in height and constructed of oak logs. The tomb contained multiple burials with such artifacts as 37 bone daggers and/or awls, 10 split bear teeth, 2 bear canine teeth cut into dagger shapes, 6 copper awls, 1 Hopewellian platform smoking pipe, around 300 pearl beads, and 1 string each of pearl and shell beads.

Liverpool Mound F°79

Rock Wall Tomb

Liverpool Mound F°79 contained a rock walled tomb 10 feet long and 20 feet wide, which featured a puddled clay lining holding the stones in place. Within the tomb were around 40 burials, each surrounded by smaller circular rock walls 2-10 inches wide. An ash-covered area was located in the southwestern corner of the large tomb. A number of artifacts were found with the dead in the F°79 tomb, including 27 bone skewers, 1 frog effigy pipe, 1 pearl bead necklace, around 1200 pearl slug beads, 82 copper beads, 1 copper wedge, 10 imitation bear teeth made of sheet copper, 2 pink flint cores, and 4 human upper jaws and 1 lower jaw, which had been cut and perforated for suspension.

One of the most important symbolic aspects of the Liverpool Mounds could have been their location. As explained by Cole and Deuel:

“Here, toward the close of the glacial epoch, a stream fed by the retreating ice laid down a long wide bar of gravel and sand which later stood as an island, at times of high water. Even this ridge was flooded, from time to time, causing considerable shifting of sands and the deposit of river silt. The high ground attracted the attention of Indians who established camp sites on it and later placed four burial mounds at the most elevated section. A fifth mound (F°87) was built a few hundred yards to the northeast.” (2:132-133)

Cole and Deuel also noted that in addition to being flanked by the Illinois River on the east side, the Liverpool Mounds faced swamp lands to the west. The explanation for locating the Liverpool Mounds in such a setting can be found in Native American cosmology. Native Americans of the Eastern Woodlands and the Plains viewed the cosmos as divided into three “realms”: The Above Realm, the Earth Realm, and the Beneath Realm. The Great Spirit (s) and the Thunderbirds inhabited the Above Realm, the Earth Realm is the world in which living humans, plants, and animals live, and the Beneath Realm is a watery abyss beneath the earth, inhabited by fish, frogs, and other watery creatures. The ruler of the Beneath Realm is the “Great Horned Serpent” or “Underwater Panther”, a being associated with floods and danger, but also magic and medicine.

As explained by archaeologist William Romain (3), “In many cosmologies, the earth is described as a flat, circular island floating in a surrounding primordial sea.” Romain has suggested that some famous Ohio Hopewell mound and earthworks sites—including the Newark Earthworks in Licking County—were specifically constructed in areas surrounded by rivers so as to reflect the “island earth” (Ibid).

Likewise, the construction of the Liverpool Mounds in an area overlooking a major river, which had been subject to repeated flooding since distant times, would have been a highly symbolic act. This is especially true since the rise where the mounds were built became an island at times of high water (2). Archaeologists have also developed the theory that artificial burial mounds of the Hopewell culture could have been representations of an axis mundi or world tree, which joined the Earth Realm/Island with the Above and Beneath Realms (4).

There is another mythic concept connected with the island earth cosmology: the Earth Diver. As explained by Romain (3), “Associated with the belief that the earth is a circular island floating in a surrounding sea are many examples of the Earth-diver myth – wherein a mythical creature, such as the otter, is said to have dived to the bottom of the primordial sea to bring back a piece of mud, which magically expanded, thereby creating the earth.” Importantly, in many versions of the Earth Diver myth, the mud must be retrieved in the aftermath of a terrible flood, so that the world can be re-created (5). Considered in the contexts of the Earth Diver, the Liverpool Mounds themselves could have been part of a symbolic landscape, representing the earth emerging from the primordial sea, as the consistent flooding and transformation of the area of the mounds into a literal island reflected the creation and re-creation of the world. The fact that the Liverpool Mounds were constructed of sand and clay brought from the Illinois River below the ridge (2:135), and the tomb of stone and puddled clay from Mound F°79, are also indicative of the Earth Diver, or creation of the world.

There are further meanings, which can be determined by a review of the contents and artifacts of the Liverpool Mounds. Thomas et al. have published a study of the animal power parts from Hopewell mounds, in which they identify these objects as clan markers (6). By far, the most prevalent clan represented in Hopewell mounds is the Bear Clan, which was apparently more numerous and prestigious than other clans (7). Due to these factors and others, the Bear Clan has been considered as an ancient ceremonial society, which was directly involved in burial ritual and the processing of the dead at Hopewell mounds (6). The most common objects indicating membership in the Hopewell Bear Clan are real and imitation bear teeth (Ibid). Artifacts indicative of the Bear Clan from the Liverpool Mounds include the necklace of bear teeth from Log Tomb A, the bear tooth pendant from Log Tomb B, the split bear teeth and bear canine teeth worked into daggers in Log Tomb C, and the 10 copper imitation bear teeth from the Rock Wall Tomb. The perforated and cut human jawbones from the mounds are also suggestive of the possibility that individuals buried there had played a role in burial ritualism.

Recent research has shone that the burial ritualism of some Hopewell sites in Southern Ohio was focused uniquely upon the Beneath Realm/Underworld, which contrasts sharply with most Native American traditions in the Eastern Woodlands, that emphasize the journey of the soul in the Above or sky world to the land of the dead (8). There is evidence that the Liverpool Mounds also represent such a site. For example, one of the artifacts discovered in unknown context in one of the Liverpool mounds, is a headdress of natural deer antlers, “only slightly modified from their original configuration” (9:82). Antler headdresses of the Hopewell Culture in Southern Ohio have been interpreted to represent the Great Horned Serpent, ruler of the watery Beneath Realm (10). Effigies of aquatic or water-based creatures in Hopewellian iconography have also been associated with the Beneath Realm and Great Serpent (8).

In the traditions of the Northeastern tribes, the Great Horned Serpent/Underwater Panther is often portrayed as having scales of shell or copper (11). In the rites of the Grand Medicine Society of the Anishnaabeg, the initiate is shot with sacred shells, which are considered to be from the body of this entity (Ibid). According to George Lankford, the association of shells with medicine, magic, and the Great Serpent could explain the prevalence of conch shells in the ancient exchange network in the Northeast (Ibid). By the time of European contact, the Great Horned Serpent was also considered the guardian and master of the Great Lakes copper supply, and copper fragments (like shells) were believed to be pieces of the creature’s body, which held potent magical powers (11). Considering these associations, objects from the Liverpool Mounds, which could have referenced the Great Serpent or Beneath Realm include the frog effigy pipe, marine shell beads, pearl beads, and central conch shell from Log Tomb B, the copper flakes and pearl beads from the Mat Burial, the shell and pearl beads from Log Tomb C, and the frog effigy pipe and pearl beads from the Rock Wall Tomb.

In particular, the contents of Log Tomb B are suggestive of an ancient Medicine Society rich in Beneath Realm symbolism. Another artifact from Log Tomb B is a piece of horn shaped fossil, which is interesting in light of the fact that it has been suggested that in Ohio, Hopewell sites which dealt with the Beneath Realm water monsters were intentionally built in areas of high fossil content (12). Also, a piece of horn shaped fossil was found with a burial at the Turner Mounds in Southwestern Ohio, a site rich in the symbolism of the Great Horned Serpent or Underwater Panther and also oriented to the Beneath Realm (8).

There are some North American mythologies, which incorporate all of the historic traditions that we have inferred from the Liverpool Mounds, such as the Island Earth, Earth Diver, and the Great Serpent and other denizens of the Beneath Realm. For example, in some Algonquian traditions, the culture hero Nanabozho wages a war of vengeance upon the Great Serpents of the Beneath Realm for the murder of his brother Wolf. The serpents then bring about a Great Flood in retaliation, which only Nanabozho survives. Following the flood the Earth Diver myth takes place, as a natural creature brings mud from beneath the waters to re-create the world. In several narratives, these events are followed by a truce between Nanabozho and the Beneath Realm entities, which offer the hero the rites of the Grand Medicine Society as a peace offering (11). Finally, the soul of Wolf is sent to the realm of the dead to light an eternal flame to guide the souls of the deceased.

Perhaps the Liverpool Mounds were intended to evoke a prehistoric version of such an epic in the form of a ritual drama associated with the burial of the dead, under the guidance of a branch of the powerful Hopewell Bear Clan.

Jason and Sarah are the authors of “Ages of the Giants: A Cultural History of the Tall Ones in Prehistoric America” (LuLu.com).

Their website: paradigmcollision.com


1. J. W. Powell, “On Limitations to the Use of Some Anthropologic Data”, Annual Report, 1881.
2. Faye-Cooper Cole and Thorne Deuel, Rediscovering Illinois, University of Chicago Press, 1937.
3. William F. Romain, “Newark Earthwork Cosmology: This Island Earth”, Hopewell Archaeology Newsletter, Vol. 6 No. 2, 2005.
4. Christopher Carr, “World View and the Dynamics of Change: The Beginning and the end of Scioto Hopewell Culture and Lifeways”, The Scioto Hopewell and Their Neighbors: Bioarchaeological Documentation and Cultural Understanding, ed. D. Troy Case and Christopher Carr, Springer Science and Business Media, 2008, pp. 289-333.
5. David Mather, “The Grand Mound and the Muskrat: A Model of Ancient Cosmology on the Rainy River”, Minnesota History Quarterly 64: 5, Spring 2015, pp. 194-205.
6. Chad R. Thomas, Christopher Carr, and Cynthia Keller, “Animal-Totemic Clans of Ohio Hopewellian Peoples”, Gathering Hopewell: Society, Ritual, and Ritual Interactions, ed. Christopher Carr and D. Troy Case, Springer, 2006, pp. 339—385.
7. Jaimin Weets, Christopher Carr, David Penny, and Gary Carriveau, “Smoking Pipe Compositions and Styles as Evidence of the Social Affiliations of Mortuary Ritual Participants at the Tremper Site, Ohio”, Gathering Hopewell: Society, Ritual, and Ritual Interactions, ed. Christopher Carr and D. Troy Case, Springer, 2006, pp. 533-552.
8. 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.
9. William S. Webb and William Haag, The Fisher Site, Fayette County, Kentucky, 1947.
10. Matthew S. Coon, “Variation in Ohio Hopewell Political Economies”, American Antiquity 74 (1), 2009, pp. 49-76.
11. George E. Lankford, “The Great Serpent in Eastern North America”, Ancient Objects and Sacred Realms: Interpretations of Mississippian Iconography, ed. F. Kent Reilly and James F. Garber, University of Texas Press, Austin, 2007, pp. 107-135.
12. William F. Romain, “Hilltop Enclosures: Were They the Dwelling Places of Underworld Monsters?” Ohio Archaeologist Vol. 46 No. 2, pp. 36-44.

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