Three little-known facts about West Virginia's moundbuilders

Three little-known facts about West Virginia's moundbuilders
The Grave Creek Mound rises behind an early visitor center. Photo courtesy Charity Moore.

The term “moundbuilder” is often used to describe two ancient American cultures that are now known by archaeologists as the Adena and the Hopewell. These peoples lived from approximately 500 B.C. to A.D. 500. Their monumental earthworks captured the imaginations of European-American explorers and continue to fascinate us today.


Many such mounds, large and small, remain in West Virginia and can be found in nearly every county in the state. Did you know that the largest conical burial mound in the U.S. is located in West Virginia? Or that the "myth of the moundbuilder" helped create American archaeology?

Here are three facts about moundbuilders in West Virginia that many people don't know.

1. The tallest conical burial mound in the U.S. is in West Virginia

The Grave Creek Mound, in the City of Moundsville, is believed to have been built around 300 B.C. during what archaeologists call the Early Woodland Period. It was originally at least 70 feet tall and, according to one source, may have required its builders to carry three-million baskets of earth.


The Grave Creek Mound was recently explored using non-invasive remote-sensing techniques, which now include drone photography and ground-penetrating radar. According to archaeologist Alexander Corkum, the first time this method was used in the U.S. was during a pioneering survey at Grave Creek. Another archaeological first for West Virginia! Though it was first employed at Stonehenge, the amazing results were modeled by Jamie Davis and can be seen here.

2. The "Moundbuilder Myth" helped create American archaeology

The first European-Americans to explore the continent could hardly believe that “savage” Native Americans were responsible for the amazing mounds and earthworks that they encountered. Instead, they proposed extravagant theories about giants, Aztecs, Viking explorers, and lost Hebrew tribes—conjectures that scientific evidence has since discounted.

As well as having no basis in evidence, these beliefs proved dangerous to Native Americans. In fact, the idea that Native Americans had exterminated a once-powerful race was used by Andrew Jackson to justify racial policies such as the Indian Removal Act. The same pseudo-archaeological beliefs are evident today in ancient alien theories, which continue to discount the amazing accomplishments of native people.

On the Ohio River at Marietta, an illustration from Squier-and-Davis' Ancient Monuments of the Mississippi Valley.
On the Ohio River at Marietta, an illustration from Squier-and-Davis' "Ancient Monuments of the Mississippi Valley."

Fueled by the controversy, early archaeologists, such as Edwin Davis, Cyrus Thomas, Henry Schoolcraft, Ephraim Squier, and Thomas Jefferson, developed scientific techniques that allowed them to conclusively answer questions about the moundbuilders.


Modern American archaeology was born during their stratigraphic excavations and through their detailed measurement of mounds, comparisons between ancient and modern artifacts, and big-picture analysis of all earthworks across the continent, not just in localized settings.

As early as 1894, Cyrus Thomas’s Bureau of Ethnology report disproved the moundbuilder myth once and for all, and archaeologists today still use the 1848 work "Ancient Monuments of the Mississippi Valley," by Edwin Davis and Ephraim Squier.

West Virginia featured prominently in these early works, and its rich archaeological heritage still has much to contribute to American archaeology.

3. Moundbuilders loved to use exotic materials like copper and mica

Artifacts from an Adena mound in Marshall County include mica (top), quartz (bottom left), and copper (bottom right). Courtesy Dept. of Arts, Culture, and History, Grave Creek Mound Archaeological Complex.
Artifacts from an Adena mound in Marshall County include mica (top), quartz (bottom left), and copper (bottom right). Courtesy Dept. of Arts, Culture, and History, Grave Creek Mound Archaeological Complex.

When early archaeologists opened some mounds, they found amazing artwork and rare materials inside. Both the Adena and Hopewell cultures are known for their statuettes, copper jewelry, elaborate pottery, and delicate mica cutouts.


Some of the materials must have been traded over great distances, which indicates they had a sophisticated economy and were connected with cultures across the continent. The high-quality artwork also tells us that their society was “wealthy” enough to support artists and other specialized craftsmen.

Archaeologists don’t fully understand whether the people buried with these grave goods were political leaders, shamans, or both. It's likely that art and exotic materials were both status symbols and had religious meaning. Copper and mica were difficult to acquire, which would have rendered them desirable “luxuries,” but they were also beautiful and reflective, which might have reminded native peoples of the life-giving sun or the mysterious surface of the water.

Woodland Mounds in West Virginia by Darla Spencer
"Woodland Mounds in West Virginia," by Darla Spencer, is available through Amazon.

According to new research by archaeologists at Ball State University, copper was simultaneously desirable for everyday tools and for sacred objects that were “gifts” from supernatural beings, like the underwater panther, depicted in the Panther Petroglyph on display at Tu-Endie-Wei State Park in Point Pleasant.

Want to learn more about the Moundbuilders? Check out this article in the online West Virginia Encyclopedia, or read archaeologist Darla Spencer’s book, “Woodland Mounds in West Virginia.”


See Also

Rare, mysterious diamond found in 1928 in West Virginia

The Punch Jones Diamond, one of the world's largest alluvial diamonds, found in West Virginia.
The Punch Jones Diamond

Diamonds don’t exist naturally in West Virginia, yet one of the largest ever found was discovered accidentally in a horseshoe pit in Monroe County in 1928. Geologists are still at a loss to explain how it got here, though speculation has never died down.

The Punch Jones Diamond—also known as the Horseshoe Diamond—remains the largest alluvial diamond ever discovered in North America and the third largest found on the continent overall. Read the full story.

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