Art Through Time: A Global View
The Natural World Art: The Serpent Mound
Mound building first appeared in North America as early as the fourth millennium BCE and continued into the second millennium CE.
Effigy mounds—mounds in the shape of animals and other figures—are known from the late first millennium CE on and can be found across the present-day states of Wisconsin, Minnesota, Illinois, Ohio, and Iowa. The largest of these effigy mounds is the Serpent Mound, which undulates across a hilly overlook in Adams County, Ohio, before ending in a coil formation.
Running some 1,330 feet from start to finish and averaging four to five feet in height, the Serpent Mound is unique among Native North American Earthworks and the identity of its makers is contested. For many years, it was thought to be the creation of the Adena culture (500 BCE–200 CE), to whom two conical mounds in the region are also attributed. More recent radiocarbon dating, however, places the mound’s construction closer to 1000–1200 CE. In this case, it is probably the work of the Fort Ancient culture (1000–1550 CE), who built several other burial mounds in the vicinity and are associated with a village located near the effigy’s tail.
Most of the mounds that have been excavated in North America are burial mounds. Unlike these, the Serpent Mound does not seem to have functioned as a burial site. Indeed, the reason for its creation remains something of a mystery. As with other ancient Earthworks in both North America and abroad, it was, most likely, the site of sacred rituals and linked to astronomical occurrences. Scholars have pointed out that the head of the serpent is aligned with the summer solstice sunset and it is believed that the coiled tail might be aligned with the winter solstice sunrise. With the new dating, it has also been suggested that the Serpent Mound might have some relation to two well-known eleventh-century celestial events—the 1054 stellar explosion that produced the Crab Nebula and the 1066 appearance of Halley’s Comet.
Another puzzling element of the Serpent Mound is the significance of the ovular shape at the snake’s head. Various suggestions have been put forth to explain its meaning. Some have proposed that the head depicts the serpent with its jaws spread open in the act of devouring an egg. Others have related the form to the horned serpent that is a recurrent character in American Indian mythology. Still others have suggested that the elliptical shape represents the serpent’s eye.
Berlo, Janet Catherine, and Ruth B. Phillips. Native North American Art.Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 1998.
Bjelajac, David, and King Pu Laurence. American Art: A Cultural History, 2nd ed. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall, 2004.
“Serpent Mound.” In Places (SW). The Ohio History Connection Web site. https://www.ohiohistory.org/visit/museum-and-site-locator/serpent-mound.