Little-known facts about West Virginia's ancient moundbuilders

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

The term “moundbuilder” is often used to describe ancient American cultures now known by archaeologists as the and the , who 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.


Here are a few facts about West Virginia’s moundbuilders that many people don't know.

The "Moundbuilder Myth" helped create American archaeology

The first European-Americans could not believe that “savage” Native Americans were responsible for the amazing mounds and earthworks they encountered. Instead, they proposed many theories about giants, Aztecs, Viking explorers, and lost Hebrew tribes in 18th- and 19th-century literature.

The idea that Native Americans had exterminated a once-powerful race was used to justify policies such as Andrew Jackson’s “.” The same pseudo-archaeological legacy can be seen in ancient alien theories, which are still often used to appropriate the accomplishments of native people.

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

Modern American archaeology was born during their and through the detailed measurement of mounds, comparisons between ancient and modern artifacts, and the big-picture analysis of all earthworks within a region.


Cyrus Thomas’s Bureau of Ethnology report in 1894 disproved the Moundbuilder Myth, 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.

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

The , in the eponymous city of , is believed to have been built around 300 B.C. during what archaeologists call the . It was originally at least 70 feet tall and, , may have required its builders to carry three-million baskets of earth. It's one of hundreds of mounds in West Virginia, though most others are quite small.

The Grave Creek Mound was recently explored using non-invasive remote-sensing techniques, such as drone photography and ground-penetrating radar. According to archaeologist Alexander Corkum, the pioneering survey at Grave Creek was the first time this method was used in the U.S.—another West Virginia archaeological first!—though it was pioneered at Stonehenge. The amazing results were modeled by Jamie Davis and .

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.

When early archaeologists opened up 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.

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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, is available through .

According to 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 on display at Tu-Endie-Wei State Park in Point Pleasant.

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

See Also

Rare, mysterious diamond found in 1928 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.


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