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Earthen Mounds

The Hopewell Culture (c. 2300 B.c.c. A.d. 400)Burial mounds

Mounds are artificially constructed heaps or banks of earth built to contain sacred objects. Their basic construction is the same all over the world: a pit is dug and lined, and the sacred contents are deposited and covered with earth. Sometimes these objects are sprinkled with red ocher, a pigment used to make paint, perhaps as a way to revive the spirits thought to dwell within them.

If we were to go for a walk on an open plain in Illinois or Ohio and were to come across one of these "dirt piles," we probably would ignore it. But an archaeologist would be thrilled to find a sacred mound, for it might conceal vital clues to the ancient past of Native America: human and animal bones, weapons, ornaments, and mysterious clay figurines.

Some of the oldest and largest mounds in the world are found in America. The older North American mounds are cone-shaped and can reach heights of 70 ft (21 m) or more. Some of the more recent mounds are shaped like animals, people, or abstract forms and are therefore known as "effigy" mounds because they symbolize another object. No one knows what the effigy mounds were used for. Some archaeologists believe that they functioned as totem poles. As with totems, a few human bones were buried within the effigy mounds for their symbolic value. Found mostly in Wisconsin, Minnesota, Iowa, and Illinois, effigy mounds are shaped like deer, turtles, snakes, eagles, foxes, bears, birds, and human beings. Today, the Great Serpent Mound winds along a river near a public park in Peebles, Ohio, for a distance of over 1 mi (1.6 km), its head recoiling as if to snatch into its hungry jaws a frog or other mysterious oval-shaped object. An enormous bird mound at Poverty Point, Louisiana, faces westward, its wings outstretched in a symbolic moment of flight.

Tens of thousands of mounds are found in the United States. Many more originally must have existed. St. Louis was the location of so many sacred mounds that it was once known as Mound City; today just one of those mounds remains. A great number of mounds have been bulldozed into the ground, their contents either thought-lessly pirated by treasure hunters or casually destroyed.

Most mounds were used for burials, but a significant number, built in the vicinity of the Mississippi River about A.D. 700 and later, were known as Temple Mounds. They looked like flat-topped pyramids crowned with wooden temples.

Who built the North American mounds? Archaeologists believe that they were the product of two ancient native cultures: the Adena and the Hopewell.

The Adena culture (c. 2800 B.C.-A.D. 100)

The Adena people probably were descended from archaic native Americans who inhabited parts of America in 3000 B.C. Found primarily near Chillicothe, Ohio, but also located throughout north Kentucky, West Virginia, Indiana, and Pennsylvania, the Adena built conical mounds averaging 10-20 ft (3-6 m) in height. In the simplest form of Adena burial, the body was placed in a shallow pit lined with clay or bark and covered with layers of different-colored soils. As time went on, the Adena returned to the same burial mounds, added more burials on top of them, and covered them with fresh soil. This process went on for several generations until the mounds got to be enormous, some reaching heights of over 50 ft (15 m).

Some of the higher-ranking members of Adena society were given special burials. Their bodies were wrapped in cloth, sprinkled with red ocher, and placed in specially constructed thatch houses. Sometimes the burials were accompanied by grave goods—personal possessions such as weapons and tools, left there for use in the afterlife. The houses were then burned, and mounds were constructed over the charred remains.

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