Bradley T. Lepper

Abstract

Serpent Mound (33AD1) is one of the most recognizable icons of American archaeology, yet there is ongoing debate over its age. Without an understanding of its antiquity, and thus its cultural context, it is difficult to address the broader question of what it might have meant to its builders. Various attempts to obtain radiocarbon dates for Serpent Mound have yielded more or less inconclusive results. A panel of Mississippian pictographs in Picture Cave in Missouri includes three motifs that are strikingly similar to the three principal components of Serpent Mound. Radiocarbon dates for the Picture Cave pictographs are contemporaneous with dates from Serpent Mound. When considered in the light of Dhegiha Siouan traditions, these pictographs offer insights into the original purpose and meaning of Serpent Mound. The general relevance of this iconography for the Late Prehistoric Ohio valley is affirmed by a fragment of an effigy pipe depicting a humanoid in association with a snake, which was found in Morgan County, Ohio. Serpent Mound was built during a period of severe droughts in the Mississippi valley, which resulted in Mississippian refugees migrating to the Ohio valley. I suggest that these refugees, or a local Fort Ancient community they influenced, created Serpent Mound as a means of calling upon the Great Serpent, Lord of the Beneath World, to maintain favorable environmental conditions in the Ohio valley.

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