Archaeology of the Grave Creek Mound: An Adena Axis Mundi and Large Skeletal Remains in Moundsville, West Virginia
by Jason Jarrell and Sarah Farmer
The City of Moundsville is located along the Ohio River in Marshall County, West Virginia. From the time of European settlement in the 1770s, Moundsville was regarded by antiquarians as one of the most significant ancient sites in North America. For it was here that the Adena mound builders and their descendants constructed the largest ceremonial center in the Upper Ohio Valley, including the Grave Creek Mound, several earthworks enclosures, and as many as 47 additional mounds (1, p. 133). There were also stone mounds averaging 4 feet in diameter crowning the hills around Moundsville, variously interpreted as lookouts, cairns or sacred wells (2). The ritual landscape of Moundsville continued across the Ohio River in Belmont County, Ohio, where Henry Schoolcraft surveyed the remains of still another stone mound and described a circular earthen enclosure or henge (3). The Grave Creek Mound is a massive structure, originally between 62 and 65 feet high, and 240 feet in diameter, with a flat top 60 feet in diameter. Surrounding the mound and located directly at the base was a large circular ditch, 40 feet wide and 4-5 feet deep, with a single causeway entrance at the south. (4) The Adena constructed many circular ditches and earthen banks throughout the Ohio Valley, some featuring interior mounds, practices typically interpreted as an expression of cosmological principles.
Grave Creek Mound
The large Grave Creek Mound proved to be an irresistible attraction to early antiquarians and curiosity seekers. In The Natural and Aboriginal History of Tennessee (1823), John Haywood mentioned, “Near Wheeling, in Virginia, on Grave creek, on the lands of Mr. Tomlins, is one mound of a conical form, 75 feet high. In the interior of this mound, human bones were found, of uncommonly large size.” (p. 330) According to Delf Norona, still another early chronicler states that the mound had “been so far opened as to ascertain that it contains many thousands of human skeletons”, some of them “of uncommon large size” (2, p. 15). In 1838, the owner of the mound initiated amateur excavations, beginning with the digging of a tunnel from the north side of the mound, four feet above the ground level. As the tunnel passed through the body of the tumulus, numerous deposits of ashes and bones were encountered, possibly representing human cremations placed in the mound over the course of its construction. (5)
The tunnel eventually reached the “lower vault”, dug 7-8 feet deep into the natural surface, consisting of a rectangular, 8 x 12 feet structure with log supports and a log covering. The tomb contained the remains of two individuals (2, p. 22). One of the skeletons encountered in the chamber was buried with 650 shell beads and an expanded center bar gorget 6 inches in length (1, 2). According to Thomas Townsend, the “inferior maxillary bone, or lower jaw, was large and strong”, while the second skeleton was without artifacts and “the bulk much smaller and more delicate” (6, p. 12). These observations resulted in the first skeleton being labeled male and the second female (2, p. 24). Both burials were extended on the backs, and the smaller skeleton was 5 ft 9 inches in length (5, p. 17). The lower tomb had originally been connected with a timber lined passageway inclined 10-15 degrees from the north side of the mound, leading downward to the tomb (2, p. 20).
Following the discovery of the lower chamber, a shaft was sunk from the top of the mound, and another burial chamber discovered near the top of the primary mound, consisting of a log tomb 18 feet long and 8 feet wide (2, p. 27). The chamber contained a single burial with marginella shell beads, between 66 and 150 rectangular mica fragments, a long diamond shaped limestone gorget, and 5 copper bracelets (3 on one wrist and 2 on the other). The mica pieces were perforated and found so as to suggest that they were attached to a garment or burial shroud. (1, 2) Both the upper and lower chambers were covered with stones, some featuring cup-mark indentations, as found at many Adena sites.
Significantly, when a museum was constructed inside the mound, the lower chamber was expanded to 28 feet in diameter and 9 feet in height, and “10 more skeletons were discovered, all in the sitting posture” (2, p. 30). These were probably burials deposited following the initial construction of the timber tomb, since the vault had been connected to the exterior by the passageway for an unknown length of time. The Museum was eventually abandoned, and the collapse of the central shaft and tunnel uncovered several more features in the mound. In 1859, Will DeHass published a pamphlet through the American Association for the Advancement of Science requesting funding for the excavation of two more burial chambers that had been revealed by the collapse. DeHass discussed these little known discoveries in a letter written to Henry Schoolcraft in 1856:
“Two or perhaps three additional vaults have been discovered, located about midway between the upper and lower chambers. These new vaults appear to occupy positions outside of the shaft made by Messrs. Tomlinson and Biggs…In addition to this discovery; one or more skeletons have been found, on the remains of what might properly be called an altar, or fireplace.” (5, p. 35)
Early diagrams of the mound suggest that it was constructed in two phases, with the two timber tombs built into the primary (oldest) mound layer (2, p. 20). In 1984, E. Thomas Hemmings published the results of new research conducted at Grave Creek Mound between 1975 and 1976 (7). At this time core drilling was used to test 13 sample holes in undisturbed portions of the mound. Charcoal was obtained, and used to generate a radiocarbon date of 200 B.C. for the secondary mantle of the mound, and analysis of the mound fill suggested that the episodes of building for the entire structure were essentially continuous (7, p. 28). It has been suggested that the ornamented male burial from the lower tomb at Grave Creek was a priest chief or shaman interred with a female accomplice, whose death and burial initiated mound construction. After the mound reached close to 30 feet in height, a second highly honored individual was buried in another log tomb built into the summit, with a headdress of mica crescents. Following this the second stage of construction commenced and around 200 B.C., the encircling ditch or moat was excavated, and the fill added to the new layer of the mound. (7, p. 40)
Adena mounds, earthworks circles, and the combination of the two have been interpreted as representing the Axis Mundi (World Tree or Sacred Mountain), upon which the souls of the dead or the spirits of priests could travel between realms. The vicinity of the Grave Creek Mound may have been set aside as an access point to the realm of the dead with the burial of a powerful shaman in the lower tomb. With the passage connecting the exterior to the open lower tomb, another (female) individual somehow connected with the priest may have been subsequently placed in the vault. The burial in the upper vault may very well have been yet another shaman or ritual leader from the local Adena tribe, whose mortal remains were entombed forever in the World Tree.
There are several press stories (regularly reprinted in recent years) describing skeletons 7-8 feet in length, supposedly found during the 1838 excavations of the Grave Creek Mound. Actually, reliable early accounts suggest that the skeletal remains discovered in the lower vault in 1838 were of ordinary size (5, p. 21). In August 1843, Henry Schoolcraft visited the museum inside the mound where he observed a skeleton wired together and placed behind a wire screen. According to Schoolcraft, the skeleton was “overstretched in the process so as to measure six feet; it should be about five feet eight inches” (5, p. 23). This skeleton had been arranged from bones from the lower vault. Dr Clemens described the burial in the upper vault as “a large skeleton” which was “in a state of extreme decay”, while Schoolcraft noted that the bones of the upper vault skeleton were “so much decayed, that no attempt has been made to arrange them” during his visit to the mound (5, p. 32). The upper vault skeleton may have been the source of some of the descriptions of large remains from Grave Creek Mound. The sizes of the 10 additional skeletons from the lower chamber and the other skeletons mentioned by DeHass in 1856 are unknown.
It is also possible that the reports of large skeletons from the Grave Creek Mound may have been reported by individuals who confused them with skeletal remains recovered during digs prior to the 1838 excavations (such as those noted above by Haywood and Norona), or from subsequent little known discoveries. For example, in 1853, Wills DeHass excavated Mound 46Mr19, which was 13 feet high and 240 feet in diameter, located about a mile northeast of the Grave Creek Mound (5, p. 37). The following details of the excavations are from the December 6th, 1853 edition of The New York Times:
“Some two weeks since we assisted in penetrating some distance into one of the large mounds on the flats of Grave Creek…Since that time, that persevering, thorough, and intelligent archaeologist, Mr Willis D Hass, in behalf of the Smithsonian Institute, proceeded to a further exploration of the mound…Above the stones forming the centre of the concavity was found a skeleton in an evidently charred state. One part of the forearm bone, about four inches long and very large, was in the most perfect condition. Close to this skeleton were two copper wristlets…These wristlets from the shape were worn tight to the wrist, and yet were ten inches in circumference, or an inch larger than the largest wrist in the city.”
Moundsville was a ritual area and earthworks center for hundreds of years. As described by the authors in Ages of the Giants (Serpent Mound Books and Press, 2017), the descendants of the Adena continued to build mounds in the vicinity well into the Middle Woodland period and the time of the Hopewell Culture. Today, the Grave Creek Mound stands as a colossal reminder that Moundsville was once a place of sacred earth, where the realm of the living interacted with the realm of the dead.
Jason and Sarah are the authors of Ages of the Giants: A Cultural History of the Tall Ones in Prehistoric America (Serpent Mound Books and Press, 2017).
- Don W Dragoo, Mounds for the Dead: An Analysis of the Adena Culture, Annals of the Carnegie Museum, Vol. 37, 1963.
- Delf Norona, Moundsville’s Mammoth Mound, Moundsville, W.Va., 1962.
- Henry R. Schoolcraft, “Observations Concerning the Grave Creek Mound, in Western Virginia”, Transactions of the American Ethnological Society, Vol. 1, Article 3, 1845.
- Daniel B. Fowler, E. Thomas Hemmings, and Gary R. Wilkins, “Some Recent Additions to Adena Archeology in West Virginia”, Archaeology of Eastern North America, Vol. 4, 1976, pp. 110-121.
- Delf Norona, “Skeletal Material From the Grave Creek Mounds”, West Virginia Archeologist, Vol. 6, 1953, pp. 7-39.
- Thomas Townsend, “Grave Creek Mound”, West Virginia Archeologist Vol. 14, 1962.
- E. Thomas Hemmings, “Investigations at Grave Creek Mound 1975-76: A Sequence for Mound and Moat Construction”, West Virginia Archeologist 36 (2), 1984, pp. 3-45.
*Thanks to Jason Jarrell and Sarah Farmer for allowing us to post this feature. Look for more on the ancient Adena, Hopewell and more in their new book, Ages of the Giants at: http://www.lulu.com/shop/jason-jarrell-and-sarah-farmer/ages-of-the-giants/paperback/product-23436373.html