Photo from archaeologicalconservancy.org

I’m not a big fan of snakes.

So why am I on top of a tower, overlooking the enormous reptile slithering down below me, like it has for more than 2,000 years?

My pants are soaked and I’m beginning to rethink my decision to climb the slippery steps overlooking the twisting Serpent Mound in southern Ohio. But there it is, squiggling beneath me, like it did for a thousand years before America was supposedly “discovered.” Scientific dating shows it’s a contemporary of Aristotle.

Serpent Mound is an effigy earthwork, built in the unmistakeable shape of a large snake. It’s the largest one in the world. 1,348 feet long, it twists its way atop a plateau overlooking the river valley down below. The tail end of the mound coils up in a spiral; the mouth end opens up and seems to be devouring a large egg.

Ohio has more than 70 earthworks built by the Native American Adena and Hopewell cultures as far back as several thousand years ago. Some of the mounds are sacred burial places, with their deceased inhabitants entombed facing east and the rising sun. But layered beneath the Serpent Mound sod are mostly rocks, boulders, soil and clay. The reptile’s twists and turns also point out several recurring astronomical events like the solstices and equinoxes. That’s a mighty impressive snake!

Its shape can only truly be appreciated from high above, soaring like a bird. But since it’s pouring rain and I don’t have my drone with me, the best I can do is snap photos from the tower.

Science, Sacred or Sculpture?

I’m drawn to places like this, the mysterious, the curious. What motivated ancient builders to spend their time hand-carrying materials bit by bit to this particular escarpment in Ohio? Even with modern tools and technology, this would’ve been a massive undertaking. A continuous earth berm winding around itself, twisting at one end, then opening up at the other — all the while lining up with important celestial events — is not a simple day’s work. It could’ve taken decades or centuries even, with new layers added generations after previous ones.

The questions make me happy. Why go through all this, when a simple marking on the ground with stones would point out solstices and equinoxes. Is it art for art’s sake? Cool! Good for you, ancient builders. Is the snake sacred or scorned? Why is its real shape only discernible from high in the sky? And why am I here alone in the pouring rain?

It’s my second Native American mound of the day, actually. On my brother’s advice, I stopped off at one of the 70 others earlier today on my way down to teach at The Mountain Workshops, a photo conference held every year in Kentucky. I was also all alone at the first mound in Miamisburg. To get there, I took Mound Road past Mound Business Park, Mound Golf Course. Mound Science and Energy Museum and Stan The Magic Man (someone wasn’t quite down with the program). The Miamisburg Mound was a simple bump or conical mound. It’s one of the two tallest in Eastern North America, measuring 65 feet high and 800 feet around. Past and present seemed to bang into each other as I stood at the summit; a greenskeeper mowed the fairway nearby on the public golf course’s fifth hole and another clanked on his equipment on the eighth. 

I was hoping to see another mound “creatively” named by us European settlers as Fort Ancient, but it was closed for the day.

Really needing to get into some dry clothes, I say goodbye to the Serpent, get tomorrow’s outfit out of my bag and leave on a winding, snaking road which seems to mimic the mound. At the end of this one, instead of an egg being devoured, a scrumptious cheeseburger awaits me at a small diner in town.

Warm again — inside and out — I see on my phone that the New York Times is hiring a travel writer. I quickly apply, using the story above as my guide.

 

A depiction of the Serpent Mound that appeared in The Century periodical in April 1890, drawn by William Jacob Baer