The term “moundbuilder” is often used to describe ancient American cultures now known by archaeologists as the Adena and the Hopewell, 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 “Indian Removal Act.” 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 stratigraphic excavations 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 Grave Creek Mound, in the eponymous 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. 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 can be seen here.
Moundbuilders loved to use exotic materials like copper and mica
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.
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.
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.