Preservation and Demolition: Archaeology and Scientific Society in Ohio

In their mission to preserve and excavate Ohio’s mounds, archaeologists and interested lay people formed alliances that crossed professional and geographical boundaries. Local amateurs recruited elite Harvard and Smithsonian scientists to their cause. These professionals played crucial roles in raising funds for preservation, administering sites, and professionalizing excavation, but the Ohio State Archaeological and Historical Society remained involved, ultimately retaining custody over the most prized mounds. Central to these negotiations between midwestern amateurs and eastern professionals was a man whose identity fell between professional and amateur, east and west.

George Frederick Wright was a minister and autodidactic geologist well-known for his research on the ice age and essays on science and religion. Wright became interested in the mounds while a student at Ohio’s Oberlin Theological Seminary, and in 1860 wrote a letter urging the Ohio legislature to preserve them. When he returned to Oberlin as a professor of New Testament in 1881, after twenty years as a minister in Vermont and Massachusetts, Wright again turned his attention to the preservation of Ohio’s mounds. His great geological feat, a survey of the glacial boundary of the ice age from the Atlantic Ocean to the Mississippi River, “led me,” he wrote in his autobiography, “through many sections containing prehistoric mounds and earthworks.” He joined the Ohio State Archaeological and Historical Society when it was founded in 1885, and quickly became involved in its preservationist efforts; in 1887 he was appointed chairman of the Society’s Mound Committee.

Although it was merely a regional institution, the Ohio State Archaeological and Historical Society was a prestigious one. This was due in part to its close ties to state and federal government. The society counted the governor and a former United States Senator among its founders, received state funds from 1888, and granted the governor authority to appoint some of its trustees in 1891. Rutherford B. Hayes, President of the United States a decade earlier, served as the Society’s president from 1891 to 1892.

Wright also held this seat after his 1907 retirement from Oberlin. Well before he took on this leadership role, Wright served as a tie between the Society and the scientific elite of Boston, who he met during his years in New England. Wright collaborated with Frederic Ward Putnam, director of Harvard’s Peabody Museum of American Archaeology and Ethnology, and Asa Gray, one of the Peabody’s trustees, in efforts to preserve the mounds. Gray was an eminent botanist and Wright’s partner in the reconciliation of Darwinism with conservative Protestantism. Putnam was a natural ally who had excavated Ohio mounds himself and wrote to Wright that “all students of American archaeology know [the mounds] to be as important to the history of America as the pyramids of the Nile valley are to that of Egypt.” Putnam and Wright also shared the controversial belief that humans had long occupied North American, and saw the mounds as evidence of this ancient habitation.

The Ohio mounds also served as research sites for archaeologists such as Warren K. Moorehead, who conducted digs in southern Ohio in the summer of 1888 and published his findings in the Society’s journal, the Ohio Archaeological and Historical Quarterly. Moorehead recruited a fellow scholar and “three Irishmen,” and “five of us began the demolition of a mound.” It was the first of many, some empty, some the burial sites of skeletons and tools.

Archaeologists and other scholars found empty mounds particularly interesting, as they were thought to be ceremonial in purpose. Moorehead was most excited by a low circular mound “surrounded by a low circle [of earth] 200 feet in diameter.” This mound held only 42 mica sheets, leading Moorehead to

consider this the most positive proof of “Ceremonial structures.” The enclosed mound, the mica and other objects, the absence of skeletons, lead me to believe that this mound was erected for some religious purpose, that it was not a burial mound, nor a house site. The mound may have been a “temple site,” for the summit was slightly flattened. This is to me the most mysterious structure I ever excavated.

The ceremonial mound which drew the most scholarly and public interest was the Serpent Mound of Adams County, a long curving embankment with a wide mouth and spiraling tail sitting on a ridge. The Serpent Mound was first described scientifically by Ephraim Squier and Edwin Davis in their 1848 Ancient Monuments of the Mississippi Valley, the book which set the standard for scholarship on the mounds until the 1880s. Interest in the mound peaked around the turn of the century, when it was the subject of a number of articles and book chapters. E. O. Randall, an Ohio Supreme Court reporter who served as secretary for the Ohio Society in the 1890s and 1900s, published The Serpent Mound, Adams County, Ohio: Mystery of the Mound and History of the Serpent, a summary for lay people of scholarly studies of the mound, in 1905. It sold a thousand copies in two years, leading Randall to publish a second edition. As Randall described the mound, “the head of the serpent across the point of union of the jaws is thirty feet wide, the jaws and connecting crescent five feet high. The entire length of the serpent, following the convolutions, is thirteen hundred and thirty-five feet.” There was also an oval near the serpent’s mouth which scholars often described as an egg being eaten by the snake.

Frederic Ward Putnam’s involvement with the Serpent Mound began with a visit in 1883. As he approached it, he later wrote, “the most singular sensation of awe and admiration overwhelmed me… for here before me was the mysterious work of an unknown people, whose seemingly most sacred place we had invaded.” After a second visit to the Serpent Mound in 1885, Putnam began raising money to buy and preserve it. Two years later the Peabody Museum purchased the mound for study and preservation. Putnam was aided in his efforts by Alice Cunningham Fletcher, who obtained the assistance of “several of Boston’s noble and earnest women.” Her unique social position as a female anthropologist evidently enabled her to recruit other women of means, and a plaque placed near the mound in 1902 noted that “the Land included in the Park was secured by subscription obtained by ladies of Boston.”

Over three summers in the late 1880s, Putnam excavated a village and cemetery site near the mound, and cut cross-sections through the egg and the Serpent Mound itself. His excavations led him to two conclusions. First, the mound was probably quite old, as none of the black topsoil that covered the area could be found with or under it. Second, it was well-planned and built to last.

In some places, particularly at the western end of the oval, and where the serpent approached the steeper portions of the hill, the base was made with stones, as if to prevent its being washed away by heavy rains. In other places clay, often mixed with ashes, was used in making these outlines; and it is evident that the whole structure was most carefully planned, and thoroughly build of lasting material.

Writing in the popular magazine The Century, Putnam described the Serpent Mound as evidence not only for serpent worship in the region, but for an ancient global religion.

That such a work, so carefully designed, and constructed under such difficulties along this narrow ridge terminating in the high rough cliff, was planned and built under some powerful influence, we can but believe. And what other than a religious motive can be conceived? Have we not here the evidence of the former existence of that ancient faith, which, rising probably in the East, ages before historic time, held millions of people under its terrible sway; and, spreading over Asia, Africa, and Europe, has not yet been wholly supplanted, in India and Africa, by later faiths?

This interest in the commonality of serpent worship across cultures and continents was common among scholars of the mounds going back to Squier and Davis, who wrote that “the serpent, separate or in combination with the circle, egg or globe, has been a predominant symbol among many primitive nations.” Randall devoted a substantial portion of his 1905 book to a survey of the literature on effigies and global serpent worship, and an anonymous 1906 review, perhaps written by Wright and certainly in keeping with his interests, focused on this aspect of Randall’s work. The reviewer suggested that the similarity of the Ohio Serpent Mound and others in England and Wisconsin testify to the universality of serpent worship and “would seem to be another argument for the common brotherhood of man.”

The anonymous review was published in Records of the Past, an archaeology journal that also published articles on the mounds. Records was founded in 1902 by the Episcopalian minister Henry Mason Baum, who also practiced biblical archaeology and edited the American Church Review. The membership of his Records of the Past Exploration Society “included institutional professionals, degreed academics, respected church leaders like Baum, and other interested people of means, most with some field experience in archaeology.” The Society was based in Washington, where Baum lobbied Congress for legislation like the American Antiquities Act of 1906 to protect archaeological sites. Wright’s son Frederick Bennett Wright served as assistant editor of Records of the Past, and G. F. Wright became editor himself upon Baum’s resignation in 1906.

The story of Ohio archaeology around the turn of the century is thus not one of straightforward professionalization or hegemony. The dominant institutions and scientists of the east played a role, but often collaborated with local societies and scholars. The line between enthusiast and professional was blurry in a day when respected archaeologists like Putnam had not been educated as specialists, allowing a midwestern amateur like Wright to edit a national publication. The Ohio State Archaeological and Historical Society also retained legitimacy even as it shared interests with more prestigious institutions like the Peabody Museum.

In 1894 Randall suggested to Putnam that the Ohio Society take over the Serpent Mound because, as he later wrote, it “received slight care and attention, owing to the fact that the proprietor, the Peabody Museum, was so far distant that its officers could not give it the proper attention.” Although Putnam didn’t act on the matter until 1899—when he met with the Society’s curator while visiting Columbus for a meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science and decided to support Randall’s proposal—Harvard transferred the property to the Ohio Society for “perpetual care” in 1900.

Works Cited

  • W. K. Moorehead, “A Detailed Account of Mound Opening,” Ohio Archaeological and Historical Quarterly 2 (1889): 534–540.
  • William J. Morison, “George Frederick Wright: In Defense of Darwinism and Fundamentalism 1838–1921,” Ph.D. dissertation, Vanderbilt University, 1971.
  • Ohio Claims the First Presidential Center,” Ohio Histore-news, November 2008.
  • F. W. Putnam, “The Serpent Mound of Ohio,” The Century 39 (April 1890): 871–888.
  • E. O. Randall, The Serpent Mound, Adams County, Ohio: Mystery of the Mound and History of the Serpent, second edition (Columbus: Ohio State Archaeological and Historical Society, 1907).
  • Thomas J. Rieder, “Artifacts and Antiquarians: The Historical Society in Nineteenth-Century Ohio,” Preview 5 (1996): 14–17.
  • Hal Rothman, Preserving Different Pasts: The American National Monuments (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1989).
  • “The Serpent Mound, Adams County, Ohio,” Records of the Past 5 (1906): 119–128.
  • Robert Silverberg, Mound Builders of Ancient America: The Archaeology of a Myth (Greenwich, Conn.: New York Graphic Society, 1968).
  • G. Frederick Wright, Story of My Life and Work (Oberlin, Ohio: Bibliotheca Sacra, 1916).