American Cathedrals: Why We Should Protect (and Visit) Native American Mounds — ‘Sacred centers of their communities, like Notre Dame for the French.’

It was the promise, and miracle, of a Native American burial mound in Appalachia that pulled me off I-70 in 2013 while I was reporting a story in West Virginia for The Wall Street Journal.

Grave Creek Mound, is 69 feet high and 2,200 years old, located in Moundsville, WV, on the left bank of the Ohio river as it snakes from Pittsburgh to Cincinnati. My fascination was instant, and turned into a 2018 documentary feature on the town and its rich history with Dave Bernabo, Moundsville (available on PBS, and to rent or buy here).

I hadn’t known anything about the tens of thousands of mounds left behind by Native American groups– from 7,000 years ago until around the time European colonization of the Americas started in the 15th century.

European immigrants knocked down most of the mounds as they rolled west in the 18th and 19th centuries.

Grave Creek is a survivor. Like a few thousand other sites, including Poverty Point in Louisiana, and Cahokia, near St. Louis, which is on the verge of being declared a National Park.

Although they are much older, Native American mounds are like Europe’s cathedrals, Andrea Keller, a curator at Grave Creek and star of our film, told me after she watched flames tear destroy part of the 12th century Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Paris this spring.

Like cathedrals, mounds were built across a vast region, from Florida to Wisconsin, in all kinds of styles, often shaped like cones, but also sometimes like lizards, bears, birds and alligators. Serpent Mound, in Peebles, OH, is shaped like a 1,330-foot-long snake.

Serpent Mound, Peebles, OH

And like European cathedrals, you can visit mounds as a tourist.

Mounds are a window to America’s deep past– a reminder that civilizations ebb and flow, and a frame to check the American affinity for newness, and nostalgia for the 1950s. Whatever our politics, this is stuff worth thinking about.

As Keller watched Notre Dame burn, she marveled at the Gothic architecture and unfathomable stone craftsmanship: 13,000 oak trees culled in the 12th century to build the roof. Une forêt. Some of those trees, according to the cathedral’s website, were three or four hundred years old; that oak sprouted in the eighth century.

Fire at Notre Dame cathedral in Paris, April 15-16, 2019.

Moundsville’s earthwork is “not as ornate as a European cathedral,” Keller told me. “But the mounds were sacred centers of their communities, like Notre Dame for the French.”

The grandest of all the mound complexes was Cahokia, near present-day St. Louis and built around 1,000 AD. Until the 18th century, it was the largest city north of Mexico, with a population estimated at over 10,000 people. Less than a thousand years ago, it was bigger than London.

Cahokia hosted a busy port that included plazas, blocks of houses, waterways and walking highways patrolled by farmers and traders peddling grains, pot, jewelry and clay figurines. (Charles Mann’s 1491, one of the many books on pre-Columbian civilizations I read as research for Moundsville, includes an excellent description of the site and its context.)

“We’re lucky to have the archaeological treasures right here in our backyard,” said U.S. Rep. Mike Bost, a Republican congressman who sponsored the bill to turn the site into a national park.

The bipartisan support for the idea should give us all hope. In the 19th century, Americans resisted the notion that the mounds were built by Native Americans. They wanted to preserve their myth of an unspoiled Eden. It was the Vikings, the Huns, a lost tribe of Israel, space aliens, or a mythical race of Mound Builders, they said. It took serious scholarship, including a famous excavation by Thomas Jefferson, to debunk the wild theories. In the last century, carbon dating confirmed unequivocally that Native American groups built the mounds, all of them.

Many mounds, like Grave Creek, housed burial vaults, but mounds were also used as homes, trading centers, lookout points and social centers. A complex of 29 platform mounds in Moundville, Alabama, was maintained by the Mississippian culture partly to defend itself against invaders. The 18 mounds at the Toltec site in central Arkansas were used for feasts, a fact deduced by large quantities of unearthed deer bones.

What’s fascinated me most is what mounds reveal about ancient continental trade on footpaths and rivers. “By around 4000 BC, the exchange of non-local materials, among them copper marine shell, steatite, banded slate, and colorful cherts, had taken off,” George Milner writes in The Moundbuilders: Ancient Peoples of Eastern North America:

It is also clear from goods found in the graves of elite persons that moundbuilding centers participated in exchange networks that eventually grew to almost continental proportions. Products from far-off places can be found at many sites, but they tend to be concentrated at the largest centers. Some of the more notable items on a long list that appear to have enjoyed wide circulation include Rocky Mountain stones used to make cutting edges, minerals from the upper reaches of the Mississippi used to make paint pigments, marine shells from Florida, copper from the Great Lakes, stones pipes from the Ohio River valley, and mica from southern Appalachia.

Grave Creek was erected by the Adena people, hunter-gatherers and occasional gardeners of Early Woodland (800 BC-100AD) period who lived in parts of Ohio, West Virginia, Indiana, Kentucky, Western Pennsylvania and New York, and traded with groups as far away as Lake Michigan and he Gulf of Mexico. In one Adena mound, diggers found a piece of the jaw of a barracuda.

In Native Americans Before 1492: Moundbuilding Realms of the Mississippian Woodlands, Lynda N. Shaffer and Thomas Reilly write:

Canoe traffic plied the rivers, and both people and the goods they could carry moved through the woodlands along overland trails. Ceremonial centers knit the various people together in a web of grand dimensions. Throughout the region people buried their illustrious dead with the finest goods available from the Rocky Mountains to the beaches of Florida. Later, after AD400, the bow and arrow became the principal weapon, corn became the mainstay of the diet, and palisaded towns became the centers of ceremony and exchange. Thus were the cultural continuities of the moundbuilding region created, without the aid of bronze, iron, chariots, cavalries, or any beast of burden.

Grave Creek is safe for now. “It can’t burn,” says Keller. “Our biggest challenge is erosion” and farming. Elsewhere, she said, “somebody might have a mound on their property they could just plow it over and over again it would get smaller and smaller until it disappeared.” And some mounds are still being destroyed.

The 1990 Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, signed by President Bush, prohibits illegal trafficking of human remains and cultural items, but doesn’t prevent destruction of mounds on private property– a statute local governments around the country has been debating.

In Ohio, Gary Scherer, a Republican state representative, has worked on legislation requiring a permit before digging into mounds, a response to complaints from archeologists that private developers in Southeastern Ohio have bulldozed mounds. And in Louisiana, which has over 700 sites, property owners who have mounds on their land and agree to keep looters and farmers away are given a certificate from the state.

Jon Erpenbach, a state senator from Wisconsin, has called for increased state protection of native mounds on private property, a move protested by business groups. “The more I learned about mounds, the more I felt a connection to the land when I walk and drive around it,” he told me. “What happened with Notre Dame was tragic. But if a cathedral burns down, you can rebuild it. Once a mound is gone, you can’t replace it.”

John W. Miller

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