Mound Country

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Robert Maslowski and I made our way carefully across the tobacco field, trying not to disturb the neat rows of freshly plowed furrows. On the other side of the flat valley, a tractor moved slowly across the horizon “settin’ tobacco,” as they call planting seedlings in this part of West Virginia. Our destination was also far away: an oasis of greenery in the distance that was a prehistoric Indian mound.

Maslowski suddenly picked up something from a furrow and handed it to me. I could see it was a flint arrowpoint, less than two inches long, flatter on one side than the other, and unevenly shaped, but it wasn’t until Bob said “Early Adena” that I realized I was holding a true prehistoric artifact in my hand, one that had been crafted by the Adena Indians hundreds of years before Christ and at least twenty centuries before Europeans set foot in this part of America. Maslowski, an archeologist with the Army Corps of Engineers, explained that recently plowed fields were fertile grounds for finding prehistoric Indian artifacts. From time to time he would stop to pick up a fire-cracked rock, evidence of an ancient campsite, or to point out a grayish patch in the soil caused by the high ash content of prehistoric debris, probably mussel shells.

Elaborate earthworks engineered two thousand years ago by an impenetrably mysterious people still stand in astonishing abundance throughout the Ohio River Valley

Our walk across the tobacco field came on the first day of a trip I took to the Indian mounds and other prehistoric earthworks of the upper Ohio River Valley, an area that includes sites on tributaries many miles away from the river itself. This part of the Ohio River has both heavy industry and great stretches of unspoiled scenery; it defines eastern and southern Ohio on one side and forms borders for western West Virginian and northern Kentucky on the other. An atlas published in 1814 shows how archeologically rich this region once was; dots on a map indicate large clusters of prehistoric sites, especially along rivers flowing into the Ohio, like the Muskingum, the Scioto, the Hocking, and the Great Miami. Most of these sites are gone, “plowed down,” as they say, for agriculture or otherwise destroyed in the name of progress. But more survive here than in any other part of the country.

In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the mounds were a source of wonder—and pride, in that they were thought to be much older than any man-made monument in Europe. Most Americans believed that they had been built by some prehistoric master race, the “ancient white aborigines of America,” a people of skill and culture who came to be known as the Mound Builders. At the heart of the Mound Builder theory was the assumption that contemporary Indians lacked the intelligence, technical know-how, or energy to be Mound Builders—a theory bolstered by the fact that more modern Indians had no knowledge or collective memory of the mounds.

 

Ideas about where the ancient builders came from varied, ranging from Europe—Wales, Norway, Greece—to the Bible: the Lost Tribes of Israel or the sons of Shem. Ephraim Squier and Edwin Davis, authors of the important mid-nineteenth-century survey Ancient Monuments of the Mississippi Valley , thought the Mound Builders originally came from Mexico or Peru. Others claimed they were a superior indigenous race that had been driven south to Mexico by savage invaders.

There were dissenters from Mound Builder orthodoxy all along, enlightened souls who had no trouble believing that the mounds had been built by ancestors of modern Indians, and they grew in number as the nineteenth century wore on. Among them were Thomas Jefferson, who described excavating a mound in Notes on the State of Virginia , and the famous explorer John Wesley Powell, who dismissed the Mound Builder theory as a “romantic fallacy.” In 1881, as the first head of the Bureau of Ethnology, Powell assigned the eminent archeologist Cyrus Thomas to survey prehistoric earthworks. Thomas and his crews excavated many mounds in the Ohio Valley, including the one toward which Maslowski and I were now heading. Thomas concluded in a 730-page report published in 1894 that there was “an unbroken chain connecting the moundbuilders and the historical Indians.” Thomas’s well-researched conclusions were supposed to put an end to the Mound Builder theory once and for all.

On my trip I would see more impressive mounds; even close up, this one looked more like a natural feature that farmers had plowed around rather than over. And I would see more accessible ones, with parking lots and visitors’ centers, paved paths, and steps to the summit. Here access was difficult, and the top could be reached only by bush-whacking up through locust trees and brambles. The view from the top was blocked by vegetation, but on the ground we could make out a rock-filled indentation in the earth that, Bob informed me, had been dug by the Cyrus Thomas expedition in 1890.