About 1,000 years old and 1,348 feet long from head to tail, Serpent Mound outside Hillsboro in Adams County is arguably one of the most intriguing archaeological structures not only in Ohio, but perhaps throughout the entire world.
“This is a unique site,” said Tim Goodwin, the site manager of Serpent Mound, which is overseen by the Arc of Appalachia Preserve System in partnership with Ohio History Connection, which owns the park.
A one-of-a-kind effigy mound — the largest, in fact, ever documented — Serpent Mound with its head facing the setting sun on the summer solstice and its coils in sync with various phases of the moon, ignites the imagination and has been a subject of archaeological research for many generations.
In the 1848 landmark book “Ancient Monuments of the Mississippi Valley” — the first work ever published by Smithsonian Institution — archaeologists E.G. Squier and E.H. Davis describe Serpent Mound this way:
“Probably the most extraordinary earthwork, thus far discovered at the West, is the Great Serpent … situated upon a high, crescent-form hill or spur of land, rising 150 feet above the level of Brush creek, which washes its base. …
“Conforming to the curse of the hill, and occupying its very summit, is the serpent, its head resting near the point, and its body winding back for 700 feet, in graceful undulations, terminating in a triple coil at the tail. …
“The neck of the serpent is stretched out and slightly curved, and its mouth is opened wide as if in the act of swallowing or ejecting an oval figure, which rests partially within the distended jaws.”
Who built this enormous geoglyph that celebrates the summer solstice? The best evidence indicates it is the work of the Fort Ancient people, who flourished along the Ohio River between 1000 and 1750 CE. Brad T. Lepper, curator of archaeology for Ohio History Connection, collaborated with a team of archaeologists in 1991, and tested bits of charcoal excavated from Serpent Mound. The radiocarbon dates of the samples were both around 1120 CE.
Archaeology, like all science, is based on the evidence available at the time, and research on Serpent Mound continues. “I am developing a proposal to take a few core samples from the mound for the purpose of getting new and better dates for the site,” Lepper said.
Research indicates that the Fort Ancient were descendents of the Hopewell, also mound builders whose . Their massive, 2,000-year-old earthworks aligned with particular astronomical events yield clues about their own culture.
In 2008, the U.S. Department of the Interior put Serpent Mound as well as a group of Hopewell sites in Ohio called the Hopewell Ceremonial Earthworks on its “tentative list” of places to be nominated for the World Heritage List of UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization).
Created in 1945, UNESCO promotes peace through international collaboration. Part of its work is maintaining the list of places in the world that have special cultural and geographical value in telling the story of humanity.
The World Heritage List presently includes 981 sites, including the Great Wall of China, the Cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris and the Grand Canyon. That list also includes Stonehenge in England — another ancient monument which, because of its astronomical alignments, is a popular destination on the summer solstice.
Every year the U.S. Department of the Interior may nominate two sites for the UNESCO list. The Hopewell Ceremonial Earthworks will be presented to UNESCO “probably in three or four years,” said Burt Logan, executive director of Ohio History Connection.
The nomination process is extensive, and Serpent Mound will be presented to UNESCO sometime after the Hopewell sites, according to Lepper, who is authoring both nominations. Lepper also wrote “Ohio Archaeology: An Illustrated Chronicle of Ohio’s Ancient American Indian Cultures,” published by Voyageur, 2005. If you’re an aficionado of Indian mounds in Ohio, Lepper’s book is indispensable.
If accepted as a World Heritage Site, Serpent Mound, which is already a popular destination, will likely attract many more visitors, both nationally and internationally. The park charges by the vehicle, and “25,000 paid for parking” in 2013, Goodwin said.
Serpent Mound draws diverse groups of people — school children on field trips, archaeologists and other scientists, including geologists. The park is inside Serpent Mound Crater, “an impact crater — the only one identified in the state of Ohio,” Goodwin said.
Serpent Mound also attracts the spiritually minded. “(Serpent Mound) was built as an act of worship,” Goodwin said. “This is still considered a sacred site by many people.”
Back in the 1840s, the archaeologists found rocks that had been burned near the oval of the head of the effigy. Looters, apparently, had tossed them about while looking for treasure, they wrote in their book. “The burned rocks in the ‘eye’ are likely exactly what Squier and Davis said it was — an altar where offerings to the great serpent spirit were burned or where fires were kindled as part of other kinds of ceremonies at the site,” Lepper said.
Special events are held at the park to celebrate the summer and winter solstices as well as the vernal and autumn equinoxes. To celebrate the summer solstice, the park’s hours will be extended Friday-Saturday, June 21-22, from 6 a.m. to 9:30 p.m.
“People come here in robes with candles,” Goodwin said.
Whether you dress in vestments or khaki shorts, one thing’s for certain —the sweetness of June slips away quickly and soon it will be winter again. If you need to make some great summer memories that you can hold on to through those dark, bone-chilling days just half a solar cycle away, Serpent Mound may be the place for you.