Beasts in the Ground

Ohio's age-old effigy mounds still fascinate today's scientists.

"The Serpent and the Alligator: Ohio's Ancient Effigy Mounds." Happy Days Visitor Center, Cuyahoga Valley National Park, State Route 303, Boston Heights 7:30 p.m. Friday, March 21. $3 to $6; call 800-433-1986.
Because local folks played in the dirt 2,000 years ago, scientists today can do the same. Researchers remain fascinated by the serpent and alligator mounds left behind in Adams and Licking counties. But don't expect to find corpses or buried treasure there, says Brad Lepper, an Ohio Historical Society archaeologist.

"When most people think of Indian mounds, they think of burial mounds," he says. "[These] are not burial mounds." Lepper discusses them in "The Serpent and the Alligator: Ohio's Ancient Effigy Mounds," a program at Cuyahoga Valley National Park. "They are simply gigantic earthen sculptures representing animals," he explains, quickly pointing out their religious connotation.

"The serpent and the alligator are representations of the spirits that people were invoking in those places -- [they're like] altars in churches." Natives most likely left artifacts at these dirt altars to bid farewell to their departed, Lepper says. (Those artifacts, the tribes believed, would help the dead on their journey to the afterlife.) The mounds also doubled as wedding sites or places to give thanks to the gods.

Yet the alligator mound may not be an alligator at all, but an "underwater panther," says Lepper. "It's [definitely] some kind of four-footed, long-tailed, round-headed creature," he says. Scientific "explanation" aside, Lepper says that "it doesn't really look much like an alligator," and that the confusion might have started when Europeans met native Ohioans, who probably described the mound as representing an underwater panther. The Europeans, scratching their heads, came to the conclusion that the undersea monster must be an alligator.

No one's really sure who built the mounds. "The serpent was [found] near a couple of burial mounds that date to [800 B.C. to 100 A.D.]," Lepper explains. After extensive testing of charcoal samples, Lepper and associates dated the serpent to 1120 A.D. and the alligator to 1220 A.D.

Sounds like a lot of work for a pile of dirt.

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