What is it about the so-called “long” nineteenth century (broadly defined—1789-1914 in Europe or 1776-1917 in the U.S.) that is so endlessly fascinating to fringe history folk? So much of what America Unearthed investigates comes directly from material published during these years, from the “mystery” of the Newport Tower (1839) to the Stone of Destiny (1861) to “Aztec” pyramids in Wisconsin (1837/1900) to the Grand Canyon “Egyptian” tomb (1909) to tonight’s investigation into the alleged connection between the Serpent Mound of Ohio and—let’s not mince words—a glacial deposit mistaken for an artificial mound in Scotland in 1871, a claim first published in April 1890.
Sure, it was the height of bizarre ideas about history: the myth of the lost white race of the Mound Builders, the search for the Lost Tribes of Israel in America, the search for Atlantis and the Phoenicians everywhere in the world, Root Races, Lemuria, and the White Master Race. But why did those ideas persist even after mainstream history had long since discarded them as uninformed speculation tempered by fluid prejudice? Medieval fringe history—the claims of the fictitious Sir John Mandeville, for example—finds few advocates, and early modern fringe history—Hy-Brasil, for example—tends to exist as a subset of Victorian ideas about it. The Zeno Narrative is a great example: written in the 1500s, all of the discussion about it focuses on claims made for its alleged connection to Henry Sinclair in 1783 and 1875.
Practically, this is probably the case because Congress froze the public domain in 1923 with the Sonny Bono Copyright Term Extension Act of 1998, enacted as a result of lobbying by the Walt Disney Company, a co-owner of H2. This means that Victorian material is free to use, but later ideas require hefty licensing payments to their authors. This impoverishment of the public domain produces a sad state of affairs where it is simply cost-prohibitive to work with more recent material unless you have a lot of money.
On the other hand, there is still a sense that the Victorians (broadly defined; pre-war Edwardians are close enough) were the last adults, the serious, sober people who were the last to participate in the vanished, romantic, gilded high culture of the pre-World War I era. As we mark one hundred years since the Great War, we can see just how vast a sea-change there was between 1914 and 1918, and especially after 1945, when the old Western aristocratic high culture was all but obliterated. Lytton Strachey may struck wildly at the Victorians, but the failures of their successors—the Depression, World War II, etc.—seems to have locked the people of 1776-1917 into the role of the Great Men, a semi-mythical race of demigods who form our fantasies (Jane Austen romances) and our nightmares (Gothic horror). I am always struck by the fact that not far from my house, wealthy people fight to squat in the carriage houses beside crumbling Victorian mansions, turning them into “romantic” luxury homes while the mansions themselves are subdivided into apartments, torn down, or left to rot. It’s symbolic of the way our culture—for myriad reasons—has mythologized the Revolutionary Era and the Victorian Era the way the Greeks thought of the Bronze Age as the Age of Heroes.
But enough of that. You’re interested in the specific moldy Victorian idea we’re trying to pump new blood into tonight.
This episode of America Unearthed examines serpent mounds in Ohio and Scotland. The Ohio mound is well-known, and indeed is among the most famous effigy mounds in the world. It is attributed to the Fort Ancient culture on the strength of 1991 radiocarbon dating that places its origins around 1120 CE, though some favor an origin with the Adena culture from the first centuries BCE. No Adena artifacts have been found at the mound. The Scottish mound, located at Loch Nell (Lochnell) on the west coast, is incredibly obscure. I can vouchsafe that it does in fact exist, but just what it is was for a long time a matter of dispute. Archaeologists, as we shall see, have determined it is a natural glacial deposit.
The question of a connection between serpent mounds traces its origins back to ancient and not-so-ancient ideas about serpent worship. To understand that, however, requires a bit of background on the idea of biblical inerrancy. Since before the time of the Church Fathers, Jews and, later, Christians recognized that the pagans had myths parallel to Biblical stories, particularly the close resemblance between the Flood stories of Babylon (known from Berosus and Macrobius long before the decipherment of cuneiform) and that of Genesis. The longstanding Judeo-Christian reading was that the pagans had a corrupt version of biblical truth, absorbed stories ignorantly from the Jews, or had been deceived by demons who distorted divine truth to masquerade as gods themselves (e.g. Flavius Josephus, Against Apion 1.23; Eusebius, Praep. Evang. 9.1; Augustine, City of God 7.33 and 8.23-4, etc.).
By the time of the Spanish Conquest, when Europeans encountered the indigenous religions of the Americas, they unabashedly declared that the Devil had come to these people and made a parody of Christianity for them to follow. The diabolic remained the language used to describe American indigenous religions for a couple of centuries, until the missionary work of conversion had done its job.
In the eighteenth century, Jacob Bryant brought this trend to its scientific height, producing an elaborate multi-volume work called The New System or Analysis of Ancient Mythology (1774-1776) in which he employed Enlightenment rationalism to ancient myth by attempting to reduce all of the pagan mythology to history. This had been a popular pastime, indulged in by the likes of Isaac Newton and the Abbé Banier, but Bryant went further, declaring that all ancient myths were corruptions of the narrative of Genesis, which he took for reliable history. In so doing, he declared Noah’s Ark the original of most myths about boats and that the pagan gods were distortions of various biblical figures. Ham, for example, became the Egyptian sun god Amon, who in turn gave rise to the Aryan solar cults, largely because Ham’s descendants settled the known world but were rebellious and impious.
In vol. 1 of the New System Bryant declared that “The symbolical worship of the serpent was, in the first ages, very extensive; and was introduced into all the mysteries, wherever celebrated.” In the second volume, he went further. Using Hyginus as evidence, he claimed to have proven that the Greek and Latin words for serpent, draco, originally referred to an enclosure, “formed of earth, and esteemed of old oracular,” so that a dragon was symbolic of a sacred mound. He got this from Fabula 140: “Python, son of Earth, was a huge dragon. Before Apollo, he used to be in the habit of giving oracular responses on Mount Parnassus” (my trans.). For Bryant, this meant that Python, the large snake, was some sort of building where oracles gave readings since obviously giant snakes didn’t exist. His warrant here is his claim that draco was a corruption of Tarchon, the Etruscan culture hero and eponymous founder of the Tarquin dynasty. Tarchon, he thought, corrupted into Trachon and then Draco. Bryant contended that the temples of Tarchon included serpent gods, and “When the Greeks understood that in these temples people worshipped a serpent Deity, they concluded that Trachon was a serpent: and hence came the name of Draco to be appropriated to such an animal.”
This, then, is the origin of the idea that serpent mounds have a connection to one another and to the divine. “All these histories relate to sacred inclosures; and to the worship of the serpent, and rites of fire, which were practised within them. Such an inclosure was by the Greeks styled τεμενος, and the mound or high place ταφος and τυμβος; which had often a tower upon it, esteemed a sanctuary and asylum.”
But Bryant, who was simply rationalizing anything and everything through false etymologies and wishful thinking, focused heavily on post-Noachian history, and so he chose to read the serpent as a corruption of references to towers and enclosures built by the sons of Noah. We can therefore take leave of Bryant here, but not before mentioning two small, unrelated points of interest:
First, Bryant also concluded that the Nephilim—those famous ancient astronaut fallen angels—had their home base in Thessaly because the mother of Phrixus and Helle, Nephele, was obviously a corruption of the Nephilim, whom he decided were the ancestors of the Greeks!
Second, Bryant introduced in his Observations on the Plain of Troy (1795) the idea that the Trojan War was a myth and that Troy never existed. Although he was roundly criticized by his contemporaries, the widespread popularity of his books as fonts of scholarly learning gave rise to the Troy-as-myth idea so skilfully exploited by Heinrich Schliemann in crafting his heroic triumph over a nonexistent orthodoxy still celebrated by fringe historians today.
More important to the study of serpent-shaped mounds was the British divine John Bathurst Deane, grandfather of P. G. Wodehouse. He agreed with Bryant in reducing all of world mythology to corruptions of Genesis. However, he differed from Bryant in that he preferred to read mythology as corruptions of the Eden story—the ancient history that Noah’s children would have known as they sailed on the Ark—rather than of Noachian history, which to Noah’s kids was simply their own lives. He expounded on this in an 1833 tract called The Worship of the Serpent. Thus, for Deane, serpents were all corruptions of the first and worst of all serpents, the tempter from the Garden of Eden. For Deane, this serpent was “far from allegorical” and an actual creature, subject of hatred by the faithful and worship by the ignorant:
The worship of the serpent may be traced in almost every religion through ancient Asia, Europe, Africa, and America. The progress of the sacred serpent from Paradise to Peru is one of the most remarkable phenomena in mythological history; and to be accounted for only upon the supposition that a corrupted tradition of the serpent in Paradise had been handed down from generation to generation. But how an object of abhorrence could have been exalted into an object of veneration, must be referred to the subtilty of the arch enemy himself, whose constant endeavour has been rather to corrupt than obliterate the true faith, that, in the perpetual conflict between truth and error, the mind of man might be more surely confounded and debased.
In a chapter devoted to serpent worship in the Americas, Deane connects the serpent of Eden to various Central and South American snake gods and asserted that the Egyptians brought serpent worship, along with Isis worship, to Peru. However, Deane said that he had no reliable information about North America above the Rio Grande and therefore could not speak to serpent worship there, though he suspected it.
You’ll recognize Deane’s claims, of course. This imaginary universal cult of serpent worship inspired Helena Blavatsky’s Brotherhood of the Serpent in The Secret Doctrine (1888), which inspired Peter Tompkins to declare them ancient astronauts in Mysteries of the Pyramids (1987). This became the slightly different version of the same aliens called the Brotherhood of the Snake in William Bramley’s Gods of Eden (1989). These find echo, not coincidentally, in David Icke’s Reptilians, which literalize the imaginary serpent cult with an assist from V and Robert E. Howard.
Deane’s book, however, also served as the basis for a popular tract believed to have been written by the Rev. Hargrave Jennings in 1889 called Ophiolatreia: Serpent Worship, a miscellany published anonymously and composed of lengthy excerpts, many from Deane, strung together with a thin tissue of connecting text. I won’t mince words: Jennings differed from Deane in that he believed all global serpent worship was connected not to the Bible but to penis worship because snakes look like penises, the most important and essential element of fertility: “Ophiolatreia, the worship of the Serpent, is of Phallic origin.” (How’s that for your “sacred feminine”?)
Along with his Old World examples, Jennings included the mounds of the Midwest, which he linked to Mexico and the Aztecs—thematically rather than archaeologically. He described the Serpent Mound at great length, but instead of declaring it an Old World construction, he instead related it to other effigy mounds of the vicinity, such as the lesser-known Alligator Effigy Mound of Granville, Ohio (which is more likely to be an underwater panther, a figure from Native mythology) and mounds of other animal shapes in Illinois, Iowa, and Wisconsin.
However, instead of reaching the obvious conclusion that the Serpent Mound was simply one of many different animal-shaped mounds, he instead works it into a global penis-worship cult:
Upon the basis, therefore, of the identity which we have observed in the elementary religious conceptions of the Old and New World, and the striking uniformity in their symbolical systems, we feel justified in ascribing to the emblematic Serpent and Egg of Ohio a significance radically the same with that which was assigned to the analogous compound symbol among the primitive nations of the East. This conclusion is further sustained by the character of some of the religious structures of the old continent, in which we find the symbolic serpent and the egg or circle represented on a most gigantic scale. Analogy could probably furnish no more decisive sanction, unless by exhibiting other structures, in which not only a general correspondence, but an absolute identity should exist. Such an identity it would be unreasonable to look for, even in the works of the same people, constructed in accordance with a common design.
In short, Jennings felt that the Ohio mound, being similar to Old World constructions in general shape, proved some sort of ancient religious connection. For him, that was all about penis worship. While Jennings did not relate the Ohio mound specifically to Loch Nell’s serpent mound, he did relate it to the megaliths at Avebury, near Stonehenge, which formed a circle with two parallel wavy lines leading up to it. Deane had seen it as a symbolic serpent, and so too did Jennings. Jennings also made mention of serpent carvings on Scottish stones.
The next year, however, one of the Victorian period’s most famous archaeologists linked the Ohio Serpent Mound to the Loch Nell mound. His name was Frederic Ward Putnam, and it is to the remarkable efforts of the “Father of American Archaeology” that we owe the preservation of the Ohio Serpent Mound; but before we look at his claim we need to review the controversy over the Serpent Mound of Scotland.
The Loch Nell mound was discovered in 1871 and first described in a magazine article by Miss C. F. Gordon Cummings in Good News in 1872. It was thereafter the subject of some dispute as to its origins. Various writers declared it a snake, a dragon, or a lizard; Cummings favored the lizard interpretation, though she speculated whether the mound could have been inspired by fossil dinosaurs or a global cult of prehistoric serpent worship. She also noted that another investigator wondered whether it had been built by Egyptian serpent-worshipers on the strength of British-Israel claims associated with the Stone of Destiny that held that some Egyptians had traveled to ancient Scotland!
John Stuart of the Society of Antiquaries examined the site and found reports of its shape gravely exaggerated in a note published in the Society’s Proceedings of March 13, 1876:
When at Oban last autumn, […] I took an opportunity, at the same time, of inspecting a gravel hillock on the shore of Lochnell, which has of late attained some notoriety from the wild fancies of amateur archaeologists, who, out of a natural eskar, have invented a “serpent mound,” and adapted it to theories of serpent worship, neither of which ever had existence beyond the imaginations of sundry writers who have celebrated them both in prose and verse.
On the other hand, Nature received a letter from a correspondent who declared it artificial in their issue of July 10, 1879:
I walked over yesterday from here to examine this for myself. I started with some feelings of doubt as to whether it was not one of those fantastic shapes naturally assumed by igneous rocks, seen through the spectacles of an antiquarian enthusiast. I came away quite satisfied that it is an artificial shape, designedly given, and deliberately intended to represent a snake. It partly closes the entrance of a singular little rock amphitheatre with a waterfall at the head (the north end of it), the Loch being to the southward. There is a raised plateau to the northward of the serpent, nearly square. The ground is apparently a rubble of gravel, stones, and dirt, such as is found in moraines. The head of the snake had been opened, and showed a quantity of stones with some indication of a square chamber in the middle.
On the strength of such claims, James Forlong included the Loch Nell serpent mound as an example of serpent or phallic worship in his Faiths of Man (1906), a massive encyclopedia of religion still reprinted today.
Robert Angus Smith, writing in 1885, reported that as soon as investigators got to the site in 1871, they found none of the stones said to mark the spine of the snake. Whatever artificial mound there was had eroded heavily, and Smith was unable to see a difference between the serpent mound and any of the other mounds surrounding the lake.
F. W. Putnam, of Harvard’s Peabody Museum, approached the problem in 1890, writing in The Century magazine. He wrote that he found it beyond coincidental that Old World and New World people could all adopt a symbol of a snake swallowing an egg—as though such events were unprecedented in nature. He suggested that serpent worship traveled from Asia, across the Pacific Islands, and thus to the Americas. He did not, however, visit the Scottish site himself (though he had personally investigated the mound in Ohio) and instead relied upon the 1872 popular magazine article discussed above for his information, an article eighteen years out of date when he wrote. Based on this, and the illustration from it that he reproduced for his own article, he asked:
Is there not something more than mere coincidence in the resemblances between the Loch Nell and the Ohio serpent, to say nothing of the topography of their respective situations? Each has the head pointing west, and each terminates with a circular inclosure, containing an altar, from which, looking along the most prominent portion of the serpent, the rising sun may be seen. If the serpent of Scotland is the symbol of an ancient faith, surely that of Ohio is the same.
He concluded, based on this evidence, that the mound builders had come from serpent-worshiping people in central Asia, “the land, more than any other, that we have reason to consider as the original home of the brachycephali, one of the early peoples of America,” whose representatives also spread their serpent faith westward, influencing Europe and thus the Celts. Putnam was referring to an obsolete idea that different skull shapes among Native burials represented different migrations of people to America.
This, as I understand it, is the foundation for the claim of a connection between the two mounds. Given that Putnam was using material already outdated in 1890 and was appealing to migration theories that went out of fashion over the next few decades, especially after the discovery of the Clovis culture and the recognition that the Americas were peopled much earlier than the historic period, his article fell into obscurity until fringe writers started rifling through Victorian literature for new, weird claims.
However, based on Putnam’s work, in 1910 Theosophy adopted both mounds as evidence of the “universality of the Secret Doctrine” of Helena Blavatsky, who preached the serpent as a wisdom symbol and such mounds as evidence of ancient Initiates into the cult of the Ascended Masters, whom we know today as ancient astronauts.
George Herbert Cooper repeated Putnam’s claims in Ancient Britain: The Cradle of Civilization (1921), which was as cranky as its title implies (one of his major sources was Ignatius Donnelly), but he adjusted the claim to make both mounds into reflections of “the ancient sky divinity worship which includes the solar system as well as the visible constellations.” He assumed both represented an unrecorded constellation drawn from a cherry-picked set of stars typically assigned to the area around Perseus, and included charts showing the Ohio mound alongside the constellation. Graham Hancock would be proud. Other researchers have tried to connect the mound to Draco.
Cooper then decided that this represented a transmission from prehistoric Britain to primeval America of a sky-serpent cult and that this was related to the serpent of Eden. I could do an entire article on nothing but Cooper’s bizarre Atlantis-Stonehenge-numerology-Berosus claims.
It seems that it was once again ex-Neo Nazi Frank Joseph who popularized the link between the alleged serpent mound in Britain to the Serpent Mound in Ohio for modern fringe history audiences. Writing in The Destruction of Atlantis (1987; new edition 2002), Joseph closely paraphrased Putnam, including quoting the same sources Putnam had himself quoted. He attributed the Ohio Serpent Mound to an attempt to memorialize a meteor strike (the land beneath the mound had been hit almost 300 million years ago, but nothing would have been visible at the time of construction) and suggested that the Scottish mound was similarly an attempt to record a volcanic event. Apparently Native people somehow sensed the lingering magical or magnetic power of the meteor. Because Joseph’s book was a hardcover release from a major publisher (Simon & Schuster), it reached an outsized audience compared to other fringe history books—indeed Joseph later claimed that the book made enough money to fund eight years of research.
Writing in 2007, Andrew Collins, best known today for being on Ancient Aliens, picked up on Joseph’s work and lamented that another, recently-discovered serpent-shaped mound in Britain made from piles of stones was to be buried under a highway: “These [piles] form a series of linked opposing curves, creating a zigzagging mosaic pathway that bears striking similarities to a similar mound structure in Ohio, USA.” Collins insinuated that the British government was intentionally hiding the Bronze Age structure with its plans to encase it in concrete for future generations, to prevent students of “earth mysteries” from accessing it.
For Andrew Collins, however, the existence of the serpent mound is never in doubt but its connection to Ohio is somewhat more tenuous: “Regarding the comparisons with Ohio’s own Serpent Mound, located in Serpent Mound Park, Adams County, the matter becomes that much more tricky, even though the similarities between the two are striking to say the least.” An archaeologist, Keith Ray, told Collins that there was no connection between British mound (presumably one under the highway) and American mounds, separated in time by thousands of years, but Collins does not care: “Despite this the similaries (sic) cannot be overlooked, and should be examined without prejudice.”
Unprejudiced modern investigation would seem to confirm the Victorian doubters’ views. The so-called Serpent Mound was in fact a curving deposit of stony debris left behind by a retreating glacier, according to Audrey Shore Henshall’s Chambered Tombs of Scotland, vol. 2 (1972) as well as Graham Ritchie, writing in The Archaeology of Argyll (1997), and about half a dozen other geological and archaeological sources I checked. There is a genuine prehistoric cairn, or burial mound of stones, located at the head of the glacial deposit, called an esker or kaim, but the snake-shape itself is natural. In this view, the stone cairn near this curving deposit may have been intentionally placed to represent the head of a serpent on a natural feature. Or it could have been placed there coincidentally. Its natural status is confirmed by the presence of a similar, though less perfect, serpentine esker four miles to the east on a farm in Glenlonan, and a smaller one at Lochmelford.
However, the U.S. Department of the Interior reported to UNESCO in its application for World Heritage status for the Ohio Serpent Mound that it was comparable to a manmade Loch Nell Serpent Mound! They appeared to be basing their claims, once again, on Putnam, whose research seems to underlie the Serpent Mound application. An idea, no matter how wrong, never dies.
So, with the exception of the unnamed Nature correspondent, we can see that claims for Loch Nell having a serpent mound fall into two categories: those who base their claims on an 1872 popular magazine article (or Putnam’s summary of the same) and see it as artificial, and those who did firsthand research at the site and declared it a natural formation.
Hiss! Hiss! We open with a claim that there are mounds located worldwide that are “linked” by symbolism across oceans—a claim given in the on-screen text that is utterly false. There is no demonstrable connection between cultures across time and space that suggests any direct connection from one mound to another, a claim already specious when Ignatius Donnelly made it in Atlantis: The Antediluvian World (1882).
After the credits, we go to Oban, Scotland where Wolter “investigates” the alleged Serpent Mound, long known as a glacial deposit. Wolter asserts that he was on vacation in Scotland with a camera crew when Alan Butler asked him to come view the Loch Nell Serpent Mound. Disclosure: Regular readers will recall that Butler and his writing partner, Christopher Knight, threatened to have me criminally investigated for reviewing one of their books, and A+E Networks threatened to sue me on behalf of Scott Wolter over claims Wolter owned the letter X with a hook on it.
Butler shows Wolter the 1872 romantic drawing of the Scottish site given above and suggests that it is an accurate representation of the mound. Butler asserts that the mound was covered in stone, but the archaeologists who investigated the site failed to find evidence of this as early as 1876. Butler betrays not a moment’s doubt that this glacial deposit was in fact a Bronze Age construction designed for ritual sacrifice. No evidence of human sacrifice has been found in connection with the serpent mound; what was found was some evidence of high status burial in the small cairn, typical of other cairns. Wolter, to his credit, recognizes that this is an esker, a natural formation. But he then lets this pass right on by to talk about serpent lore—without explaining why we should believe that the esker was seen as a serpent by the Scots of the Bronze Age. Seriously, the area is lousy with cairns. What makes him think this one was placed here for serpentine reasons?
In trying to tie back to past episodes Wolter asserts that there is “some truth” to the legend that a sea-serpent inhabits Rock Lake, which he “links” to the Aztecs despite having failed to prove the existence of an Aztec connection last week. He further misuses the word “archaeoastronomy” to refer to ancient people’s astronomical knowledge, and he insinuates a connection among the non-existence (modern) lake monster and the Scottish snake. This is part of a concerted effort to attribute Mesoamerican and Native American culture back to prehistoric Europeans, as we shall see.
Despite having already declared Loch Nell a natural deposit just seconds ago, he then says it was “intentionally” built to align to the sun. To prove this, he uses a phone app that has clearly provided its services for promotional consideration since the show becomes a commercial for the app I won’t name. Wolter asserts, without evidence, that the site he had already declared natural is somehow “probably” aligned to the sun, the moon, the stars, etc. just like Stonehenge, El Castillo, and the Washington Monument. He and Butler seem giddy at the idea of human sacrifice and “pagan rituals,” though Wolter concedes again that the esker was a natural feature.
I am frankly confused: If not for the fact that I strongly suspect he is reenacting Frederic Putnam’s 1890 article, I can’t fathom why he is pretending that this natural formation is somehow an astronomically aligned semi-artificial construction. There is no evidence that the glacial deposit has been significantly altered in orientation since its deposit. The only unnatural feature is the Bronze Age burial beside it, and we have no way of knowing what those people thought of the mound. There is no clear evidence of serpent worship in the area, or in Scotland in general, from the era, let alone connections to the global serpent cult of John Bathurst Deane or the global penis cult of Hargrave Jennings or James Forlong.
After the first commercial, we have a written recap followed by an oral recap repeating the claim that Wolter travels on vacation with a camera crew. We then travel to Ohio, but oddly enough the show seems to assume that the viewers already know about the Serpent Mound of Ohio, having mentioned it a few times so far without ever naming what it is.
Wolter meets with Ross Hamilton, a fringe author who thinks there is a secret code in the Serpent Mound meant to signal someone “from above.” He was called out last year by Indian Country as part of the “crazy theories” that threaten the mound. Hamilton asserts that the mound was built around 2000 BCE or earlier and claims that carbon dating places it at least in the 300s BCE, while the Adena maintained the site in the early centuries BCE. However, this does not match archaeological evidence, which dated the site based on charcoal found in mound to 1120 CE (plus or minus 70 years). Hamilton is referring to 2011 radiocarbon tests on charcoal that did not come from a secure context and may represent an Adena occupation from before the mound was built, as Brad Lepper discussed last year.
Hamilton believes that the Serpent Mound is part of a zodiac-inspired set of earth magic alignments in mound sites across the Midwest. There is no clear alignment to Draco as Wolter and Hamilton claim; indeed, there is no evidence that Draco existed as a constellation in 2000 BCE for any imaginary mound builders to imitate. Western constellations evolved around 500 BCE in Babylon. The Serpent Mound may well have had astronomical alignments; this is not controversial. What is controversial is claiming that the Native Americans of 1000 CE were not capable of discovering this on their own. Wolter wants to know if the Scots had “knowledge transfer” to Ohio, a diffusion of knowledge from Europe to America. Why shouldn’t it go the other way? Why didn’t the Native Americans give the snake to Scotland, especially since Hamilton’s fanciful dating of 2000 BCE or more proposed an older date for the Serpent Mound of Ohio than the fake one in Scotland? Surely that is equally likely, unless there is some reason that Native Americans should be in tutelage to Europeans.
Hamilton brings up the idea that the mound represents the Eden serpent and thus points to the Garden of Eden here in America—but of course.
After the break we get more recap before Hamilton tells us that the Cherokee believed the U.S. had once been a garden, which Hamilton identifies as the Garden of Eden. Wolter, thankfully, doesn’t buy that the Serpent Mound was Eden. Hamilton, though, directs Wolter to Iowa to view more effigy mounds, which are smaller and of many different animals. This would, of course, make the serpent seem less special if taken at face value. But we will not do that, of course. So, we’re off to Iowa, where Wolter continues what he calls his quest to find the true Mound Builders. He meets with James Scherz, who is not what the show claims him to be. He is not a historian of any kind, as they pretend, at least no more than I am. Wolter fails to disclose that Scherz worked with him on Holy Grail in America in 2009, and that Scherz is a fringe theorist who accepts the Burrows Cave artifacts as genuine pieces of ancient European art. Indeed, he coauthored Richard Burrows’ 1992 book on the cave. Scherz is a civil engineer, not an archaeologist, and as professor he taught plumbing. He has a vested interest in promoting European visitation to America because he owns a collection of Burrows Cave artifacts whose value depends on acceptance of prehistoric trans-Atlantic contact.
Scherz claims that the effigy mounds of Iowa at Effigy Mounds National Monument are connected to Ohio, and Wolter then asks if all are connected back to Scotland. No one stops to think that if Native people made mounds in shapes other than serpents, then maybe the one particular serpent in Ohio is not directly inspired by Scotland.
After the break we get another on-screen recap followed by an oral recap for those who don’t like to read. Wolter tells us that if “pagan worshipers” from Scotland came to America, it would “open a whole new chapter of American history.” I am frankly flabbergasted that Wolter and Scherz attempt to link the Mississippians to Quetzalcoatl, the feathered serpent, and thus to Aztalan and global serpent worship. Native Americans used feathered serpent imagery, likely derived in some way from Mexico (probably diffusion of ideas rather than direct contact), but there is no evidence of sustained trade or shared culture with Mexico. Only one Mesoamerican object has ever been found at a Mississippian mound site, a single obsidian scraper. This idea is instead warmed-over John Bathurst Deane and unsupported by archaeology. I am disturbed that the upshot of this “investigation” seems to be the implication that all Native American cultures—including the Aztecs, supposedly celebrated last week—are derivatives of European culture via global serpent worship centered in Europe. This is Deane via Putnam again, not facts. I wish Putnam never speculated on global serpent-worship. It would have saved us much heartache.
Wolter travels to Cahokia, the Mississippians greatest mound city, and I am becoming increasingly disturbed. I promised myself I would try to hold back on accusing this show of outright cultural appropriation of Native American culture, but what am I to do when Wolter is all but explicitly claiming that the Bronze Age inhabitants of Scotland gave the Aztecs and the Mississippians—indeed all Native Americans—their culture and their religion?
At Cahokia Wolter plans to search the mound city for effigy mounds even though a better use of resources would be to look for, I don’t know, some kind of Scottish artifacts back at the Serpent Mound, or any sort of evidence of a connection between Scotland and America in 2000 BCE.
This is exactly what so infuriates archaeologists about pseudo-archaeology. It takes a nearly-meaningless coincidence: a snake-shaped mound from 1120 CE (or 312 BCE or whatever) looks vaguely similar to a naturally-occurring glacial deposit used by Scottish people for a burial in 2000 BCE, and on this minor coincidence is proposed a global serpent-worshiping cult that both exults the prowess of Europeans as world-bestriding powerbrokers and also denigrates Native Americans as mere adjuncts to Europe, in awe of the strange white men from over the sea, so impressed that they surrendered their entire culture and faith to European models.
Here’s a news flash: Snakes are found in America and Europe. You don’t need a conspiracy of pagans or penis-worshipers to explain the prevalence of serpents.
After the last break, we get still more of the same on-screen and oral recaps, this time with a dash of David Childress (“I have to wonder…”) thrown in just for fun. Wolter flies over Cahokia to scan it for effigy mounds. He laughably compares Monk’s Mound, the largest at Cahokia, to “the Pyramid of Giza,” apparently unaware that there are three major pyramids and many minor ones at Giza. Wolter purposely ignores the well-established cultural chronology of America’s mound building cultures, from Poverty Point at the dawn of mound building to the Mississippians at its apex, and instead babbles about “connections” as though archaeologists have not been investigating the succession of American cultures for the past two centuries. By obscuring this cultural sequence, Wolter can make claims for mysterious “connections” independent of the actual people who lived in, on, and around these mounds.
Wolter finds no effigy mounds in Cahokia, and instead delivers one of his now-standard rants in which he states his belief in trans-oceanic contact while mainstream experts look on in vague disgust.
In sum: Wolter thinks symbols of serpents represent a connection across the Atlantic despite the lack of archaeological evidence, and he doesn’t care that none of his investigations turned up any solid proof of a connection.
This season’s through-line however seems clear: Native Americans are not the true force behind the American mounds. The Mound Builder myth lives, despite Cyrus Thomas putting it to rest in 1894.
According to H2’s published schedule, tonight’s America Unearthed was the first of three consecutive episodes searching for the hidden history of white (well, whitish) people. This episode starts off slowly, invoking the nineteenth century myth of the Mound Builders in order to look for a nebulous “connection” between America’s mound builders and Europe. Next week, the show asks explicitly if a Lost Tribe of Jews built Ohio’s mounds. In the third act of the trilogy, Wolter will investigate whether white European people had already colonized North America before Native Americans ever set foot on the continent. I can hardly wait. It’s like they’re tempting me to make the case for out-and-out racism. Seriously: What does America Unearthed have against Native Americans’ ability to come up with their own religions, their own architecture, and their own culture?
Note: This post was updated on 1/26 to include information from Brad Lepper on recent radiocarbon work at the Serpent Mound in Ohio.
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.
Enter your email below to subscribe to my newsletter for updates on my latest projects, blog posts, and activities, and subscribe to Culture & Curiosities, my Substack newsletter.
Terms & Conditions
Please read all applicable terms and conditions before posting a comment on this blog. Posting a comment constitutes your agreement to abide by the terms and conditions linked herein.