H2 has released the topic for the February 2 episode of America Unearthed, and it’s more of the same: Wolter will be trying to connect the mound builders to the Lost Tribes of Israel via the Bat Creek Stone. But one aspect of the show intrigues me because I’ve never heard of it. The show’s promotional material describes Wolter as looking for a mound shaped like a “Hanukkah Menorah” along the Little Miami River near Milford, Ohio, a formation supposedly made up of nine parallel earthen barrows and an oil-lamp-shaped mound beside them. This, it says, is evidence of the Lost Tribes and intrigued Thomas Jefferson. I’d never seen these mounds, and with good reason: They don’t apparently exist, and it would certainly be interesting if America Unearthed found geological evidence to confirm their existence and their shape. Since that kind of work costs money, I won’t be holding my breath.
The claim that the Ohio earthwork looks like a “Hanukkah Menorah” is best known from J. Huston McCulloch’s article “The Hanukkah Mound” from Ancient American magazine issue 14 (1996), though it originated eight years earlier in a newspaper story. This would be the same Ancient American magazine that used to be run by convicted pedophile ex-Neo-Nazi Frank Joseph and is still owned by Mormon hyper-diffusionist Wayne May. It’s also the same magazine that allowed Harry Hubbard to “guest-edit” (reportedly for a cash payment) an issue devoted to Burrows Cave and which also published Scott Wolter’s first investigation into the Bat Creek Stone a couple of years ago. America Unearthed takes a suspicious number of topics from Ancient American’s pages.
Anyway, McCulloch named the mound the “Hanukkiah Mound,” referring to a technical term for a Hanukkah menorah, but Ancient American’s erstwhile editor didn’t recognize the difference and labeled it the “Hanukkah” mound by mistake. McCulloch states this himself.
Technical glitches aside, the arguments for the mounds are strange and confusing.
McCulloch learned of the earthworks from Squier and Davis’s 1848 Smithsonian survey of Mississippi valley earthworks, in which they provide an image of a strangely shaped geometric earthwork. The two men, who believed in a lost race of mound builders, did not survey this site themselves, nor did they provide an exact geographic location for it. It was located somewhere between Fayetteville and Madisonville. They based their image on an 1823 map drawn by Lt. Col. Isaac Roberdeau, a civil engineer who had served as an assistant to Pierre L’Enfant in laying out Washington, D.C., but knew it from a reproduction in a later French book that they had not apparently read (they mangled the author’s name and several details). Roberdeau was interested in astronomy and advocated for astronomical research with various presidents; he and John Q. Adams observed the sun’s passage over the meridian in Washington, D.C. on November 19, 1825, as recorded in Adams’s diary. (Funny how America Unearthed neglects such clear examples of actual astronomy in Washington.)
Since Roberdeau served in Washington, D.C. for most of the time after 1820, the map must have been based on observations made sometime before 1823, or else was not by Roberdeau. McCulloch now believes it was drawn in Washington, and we’ll return to the question of when anon. The same earthwork was previously depicted on page 195 of Hugh Williamson’s Observations on the Climate in Different Parts of America (1811), from an 1803 survey by William Lytle, a friend of Andrew Jackson who was later the surveyor-general of the Northwest Territory. Williamson dutifully notes that the shape of the northernmost wall of the “fort” was determined by the shape of the Little Miami River, which it bordered.
Note: Lytle’s map has been lost, and McCulloch believes it was drawn by William Lytle’s father, the Revolutionary War officer also named William. However, this Lytle died before 1800, which seems to exclude him from drawing a map in 1803, if McCulloch’s date is correct.
Since Squier and Davis based their work on the so-called Roberdeau map, and the Roberdeau map is quite similar to what we can determine of the underlying Lytle map (meaning it may have been redrawn from it), it’s quite possible that no one other than Lytle, or someone in his employ, ever actually viewed the earthwork. McCulloch himself notes that the Roberdeau map contains unusual inaccuracies that are difficult to reconcile with Roberdeau’s surveying skill, as well as measurements that differ by as much as 50% from previous maps. In 1996 he dismissed some of these as artistic license on the part of the draftsman, but I wonder if it wasn’t an attempt to redraw the Lytle map against more recent geographical information. (The shape of the rounded wall differs between the two maps, for example.) McCulloch all but confirms this in an online article where he reports that Frank Otto proposed in 2006 that the Roberdeau map was drawn in Washington from written field notes which were misunderstood (the number 9 in measurements misread as a 2, for example). It’s not much of a stretch to suggest that the Roberdeau map used recent reports about the geography of Ohio to “correct” the 1803 map, accounting for the continuation of features no later visitor was able to find on the ground.
It doesn’t matter, however, since the existence of the earthworks doesn’t really change the myth of their connection to Jews. But first, we need to clear up Thomas Jefferson’s interest in the menorah mound.
Thomas Jefferson received the 1803 survey maps by William Lytle (produced, almost certainly, for the Northwest Territorial Survey) and was intrigued by Little Miami River earthworks. He requested more information about “those works of Antiquity,” but Anthony F. C. Wallace, writing in Jefferson and the Indians (1999), dutifully forestalls America Unearthed’s speculation by emphasizing that Jefferson’s correspondence makes plain that he considered the earthworks to be the work of Native Americans—not Aztecs or Vikings or Jews—and that this view did not change after he read Williamson’s book. Although Jefferson would confess to being shocked late in life to learn that the mounds of the Midwest were “so numerous,” he never wavered from his view, born of his own firsthand excavation of a burial mound near Monticello and reported in Notes on the State of Virginia, that the mounds were the work of Native Americans.
Cyrus Thomas, the great investigator of the mounds, sent an agent of the Smithsonian’s Bureau of Ethnology to the earthworks to investigate whether the maps on file were accurate. The agent reported back, and in 1894’s Twelfth Annual Report of the Bureau of Ethnology Thomas summarized his findings as stating that one wing of a nearby “fort” in the same area (seen at left in the 1823 map) was “not only imaginary, but, according to the Bureau agent who visited the locality, was made impossible by the topography.” The “Hanukkiah” mound that concerns us Thomas included as “imaginary,” but he did not provide more specific details. Presumably he had direct testimony from his agent that these earthworks did not conform to the 1803 survey, but he did not present this evidence.
McCulloch reads from Thomas’s lack of detail that his criticism is therefore unfounded at best or dishonest at worst.
Sometime after this, the earthwork disappeared, probably plowed under by farmers, like far too many of the prehistoric earthworks of the United States. In 1882, Frederic Putnam of Harvard’s Peabody Museum visited and found many of the earthworks already obliterated due to farming. According to the University of Cincinnati, whatever remains of them was then lost beneath the growing city of Milford. Since neither Putnam nor Thomas’s agent—working for bitterly rival organizations (the Peabody and the Smithsonian respectively)—found traces of the unusual features of the nearby Milford mounds, I’m tempted to conclude that the maps simply built on one another without reference to the facts on the ground. With no particular reason to care about these specific earthworks, and no earthworks remaining to view, they passed into the academic twilight, a half-remembered moment from the past that concerned few. Academics attributed them to the Hopewell culture, dated from 100 BCE to 400 CE, because they were located among other known Hopewell sites and demonstrate typical Hopewell shapes—lines, angles, and curves—albeit in an unusual but not unprecedented combination.
The only truly unusual feature was the nine parallel barrows connected by a crosswise barrow. Their closest analog can be found, in fact, not far away at the other Milford mounds. As you can see from the other earthworks in the above images, the Milford earthworks were thought to have very similar parallel barrows connected by a crossbeam. Sadly, this was the same wing Thomas said his agent found to be imaginary, raising the specter of whether the parallel formation at the “Hanukkah” mound was similarly fictional—or misinterpreted topography. Squier and Davis recorded other parallel mounds in Ohio, in varying numbers, suggesting the “Hanukkah” mound was not unique. Indeed, even Lost Tribes theorists did not suggest a menorah connection in the 1800s.
And so things remained until the 1980s when a Columbus, Ohio man named David Berry looked at the map of the earthworks and speculated that the nine parallel barrows were meant to represent a Jewish menorah. He also thought the Christian chi-rho symbol could be seen in the earthwork’s shape, but this was an artifact of the poor copy of Squier and Davis he used.
At this point we can categorically rule out the Lost Tribes of Israel. The Lost Tribes vanished in the 500s BCE, centuries too early to have anything to do with the Hanukkah menorah, which commemorates an event that occurred c. 165 BCE, when the Jewish Temple was rededicated. The event is described in the two books of the Maccabees as well as in Flavius Josephus’ Antiquities of the Jews (12.7.7). Because Hanukkah is a festival of eight days’ duration, its special menorah has eight branches with a central light. The Lost Tribes would have known only the Temple menorah, which had but six branches and a central light, as described in Exodus 25:31-40. Therefore, the Ohio earthworks cannot be the work of the Lost Tribes; nor, for that matter, might such tribes, had they lived in Ohio, have remained in contact with Israel down to 165 BCE since the Jews would not otherwise have considered them lost and some record would have existed back in the Old World.
So that leaves more recent Jews. I’m frankly at a loss as to why the Jews would come all the way to Ohio to build a monument to a minor Jewish holiday rather than something more closely associated with Yahweh. While Hanukkah is a popular celebration today, it was (and is) not considered one of Judaism’s most important holidays. It would be roughly like Americans colonizing the Moon and setting up a giant earthwork in honor of Labor Day. Obviously, without the actual earthwork we cannot categorically rule out Hellenistic Jews, but no period Jewish artifacts have ever been recovered from the region, nor does the earthwork resemble menorahs in use at the time of its supposed construction (which typically had rounded branches, not rectangular ones).
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Esquire, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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