Alternate Perceptions Magazine, May 2017
Adena Mounds in the Vicinity of St. Albans, West Virginia
by: Jason Jarrell and Sarah Farmer
The Coal River 1
The Coal River 2
The Coal River 3
One of the largest concentrations of ancient Adena earthworks in the Ohio Valley was located at Charleston in Kanawha County, West Virginia, consisting of around fifty earthen mounds, between eight and ten sacred enclosures, and numerous stone mounds crowning the bluffs of the surrounding area (1). Excavated in 1883 and 1884 by the Bureau of Ethnology of the Smithsonian Institution, these works have long eclipsed a lesser-known group of sites in the vicinity of the nearby city of St. Albans. One interesting group of earthworks was located on the Inman Farm, on the Coal River two miles from the confluence with the Kanawha River. On a promontory 300 feet high, overlooking a horseshoe bend in the river, the Smithsonian agents surveyed an Adena enclosure, several earthen and stone mounds, and a “graded way”. The graded way was a raised earthen pathway 20 feet wide, with the side facing the slope sustained by flat stones.
The ancient way passed by the mounds and led to the enclosure at the northern end of the area. The enclosure was a typical Adena “sacred circle”, consisting of a circular bank of earth 104 feet in diameter and 3-4 feet high, with an interior ditch and a single entrance at the northwest in the form of a causeway 12 feet wide. In the center of the enclosed space was a conical mound 3 feet high and 20 feet in diameter, composed of thick clay and ashes and sandstone slabs. The excavators dug to 6 feet below the mound floor, where a single adult skeleton was found extended on its back with a slate gorget in the outstretched right hand. (1)
Other Adena mounds built within earthen enclosures include the Biggs Mound in Kentucky, the Coon, Conus, and Adena mounds in Ohio, and the Natrium and Grave Creek Mounds in West Virginia, as well as many others. Some archaeologists believe that the combination of the circular earth enclosure with the conical mound represents a cross section of the Axis Mundi (as a World Tree or Holy Mountain), which connected the middle earth realm of the living with the upper and lower realms of the dead in ancient Woodland cosmology. The situation of Adena mounds and enclosures at high places has also been considered as suggestive of the Axis Mundi. (2) Also, the circular ditches of Adena enclosures have been interpreted as a water barrier intended to separate the souls of the dead from the living.
Just 200 yards south of the enclosure and mound the Smithsonian excavated another tumulus 6 feet high and 50 feet in diameter. Below the mound floor agents found a vault 8 feet long, 3 feet wide, and 3 feet deep, containing a single extended adult skeleton. A sandstone gorget, leaf shaped flint blade, and a hematite celt or ax had been placed on the chest. In the bones of the open right hand were found three caches of five flint blades each. Several other mounds in the area were opened and found to contain cremation deposits at the mound floor. (1)
According to P. W. Norris’ original field notes, numerous other stone and earthen mounds were located along the Coal River and fronting St. Albans along the Kanawha River, as well as in the hills surrounding the town (3). The Ennis Mound was located on Thorpe Road along the Coal River, five miles from St. Albans, and was 3 feet high and 30 feet in diameter before excavations conducted between May and October of 1980 by the West Virginia Archeological Society (4). The mound contained at least thirty-five cremation burials, some of which had been burned elsewhere and then transported to the mound for burial. Several hearths and pits in the mound were associated with post molds, features interpreted to indicate that wooden structures may have held those bodies that were cremated on site. The total number of burials from the Ennis Mound is unknown. There were several concentrations of charcoal in the mound, which may have been the remains of cremated infants, and several groups of stones found on the mound floor could have been the remnants of tombs of long disappeared burials (4, p. 39).
Among the artifacts recovered from the Ennis mound are twelve flint points including one Adena spear point, twelve pieces of worked hematite, four mica fragments, one cup marked stone, one quartz hemisphere, one truncated sandstone cone, and at least fourteen sherds of pottery. The mica fragments may have been pieces of a single cut-out destroyed with a cremation. The sandstone cone and quartz hemisphere were mound shaped, and it has been suggested that they were tokens, which gave the owner access to mound burial upon death. The mound has been radiocarbon dated to 300 +/- 45 B.C. (4, p. 39)
The Murad Mound was located in St. Albans, just across the Kanawha River from Dunbar in close proximity to the Charleston Earthworks. The Murad Mound was 10.5 feet high when excavated in 1962 and 1963 by former State Archaeologist, Edward McMichael. The mound was found to contain two elaborate Adena log tombs (5). The external dimensions of the first tomb uncovered were 9 feet 2 inches by 16 feet 2 inches, and the internal measurements were 5 feet by 11 feet 10 inches. Inside the tomb an extended skeleton was found on a prepared clay floor with a copper bracelet on each wrist. Post molds were found in each corner and mid-way along the south wall of the tomb, and a roofing of bark covered with sandstone slabs was detected. (5) This tomb was radiocarbon dated to 440-405 B.C. (6). The second tomb discovered was 18 feet long and 12 feet 9 inches wide, comprised of two logs on each side and three across each end. Corner posts supported a roof and the whole was covered with bark. The extended skeleton of a 30-40 year old adult was found on a clay platform inside the tomb, with copper bracelets on the wrists. The legs were covered in red ocher. (5) The logs of the tomb were of American red cedar, and a sample was used to generate a radiocarbon date of between 100 and 40 B.C. (6)
Studies of Adena settlement patterns from elsewhere in the Ohio Valley indicate that small groups of mounds or isolated tumuli served as burial sites for local dispersed communities, while multiple regional communities gathered together on a regular, ritualized basis at the larger earthworks sites for interment of the chosen dead, as well as other group activities of a ceremonial and socio-economic nature (7). In the vicinity of St. Albans, local Adena communities probably utilized smaller sites, such as the Coal River and Ennis mounds, for several generations. These communities would have also gathered periodically to join other Adena groups from throughout the Kanawha Valley for ritual activities at the Charleston Earthworks. This would account for the greater emphasis on simple pit burials and cremations at the mounds further away from Charleston, contrasted by the classic Adena log tombs in the Murad Mound. The Murad Mound was likely influenced by the proximity to the Charleston Earthworks, where ideas concerning mound construction and burial ritual from other areas of the Ohio Valley were exchanged between ritual specialists.
As noted above, the sites described in this article comprise a series of lesser-known Adena mounds in an understudied part of West Virginia. The reality is that the entire Ohio River Valley was effectively transformed into a ritual landscape during Adena and Hopewell times, from roughly 1000 B.C. to 450 A.D. While the larger and more elaborate earthworks sites have received due attention, the smaller sites utilized by individual Woodland communities have become somewhat obscure in the archaeological research. As the evidence from the mounds in the St. Albans vicinity demonstrates, these sites are no less relevant to our understanding of these ancient peoples than their better-known counterparts.
1. Cyrus Thomas, 12th Annual Report of the Bureau of Ethnology, 1894.
2. 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.
3. P. W. Norris, Smithsonian Manuscript 2400, Kanawha Valley Mound Explorations.
4. Hillis J. Youse, “Excavation of the Ennis Mound (46-Ka-108)”, West Virginia Archeologist, No. 32, 1981, pp. 38-40.
5. Edward V. McMichael and Oscar L. Mairs, “Excavation of the Murad Mound, Kanawha County, West Virginia: And an Analysis of Kanawha County Mounds”, Report of Archeological Investigations 1, West Virginia Geological and Economic Survey, Morgantown, West Virginia, 1969.
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. David Crowell, Elliot M. Abrams, AnnCorinne Freter, and James Lein, “Woodland Communities in the Hocking Valley”, in Emergence of the Mound Builders, The Archaeology of Tribal Societies in Southeastern Ohio, ed. Elliot M. Abrams & AnnCorrine Freter, Ohio University Press, Athens, 2005, pp. 82-97.