Earth, water, sky: The view from Marietta Earthworks

I am not personally a Native American and cannot speak with a “native voice” regarding deeply held traditions that have been conveyed through time largely in oral form. As an archaeologist, my focus of study is on “material culture”; that is, the objects (artifacts) and deposits (like mounds) left behind by ancient human activity. Many of these objects and physical remains emanate from religious activity and presumably can tell us something about beliefs and ritual practices. But deciphering these material clues about spiritual principles is another matter, particularly when the observer is, like myself, viewing the evidence through non-native eyes.

One example of the separation between meaning and material form is presented by a group of engraved tablets found in a few Ohio River valley mounds. The designs on these tablets appear to be stylized depictions of raptorial birds (including hawks, falcons, and turkey vultures) and human-like faces. Does this imagery represent the shaman’s experience of transformation into the consciousness of another creature? Are these raptorial birds associated with the metamorphosis of deceased bodies back into living beings or the transit of a soul or spirit from the earth to the sky realm? These are among the proposed meanings behind the tablets and their designs, but we cannot assert any of these interpretations with certainty.

Given these difficulties of interpretation, I prefer to keep my comments to images and functions that can be directly observed from the objects and constructions left behind, supplemented with information about beliefs expressed historically and in present times by Native Americans. It can also be problematic, however, to extrapolate from present-day convictions into the distant past.

The groups who built the mounds of the mid-Ohio valley lived in the region from approximately 800 B.C. to 400 A.D. Archaeologists have labeled them with the non-native terms “Adena” and “Hopewell.” When Europeans and Americans entered the region, they encountered thousands of mounds and earthworks that stimulated speculation about what ancient civilization could have erected these substantial constructions. The Phoenicians, a lost Tribe of Israel, and even the Welsh were among the suggested originators of the mounds. It is indicative of the prejudices of those times that Native Americans were often the last group considered as the source of these creations. Indeed, it was a convenient pretense for the new settlers to believe that the historic Native Americans had no ancient claim on the land.

Archaeological investigations have focused on the mound and earthwork sites, and these sites are the source for much of what we know about the Adena and Hopewell cultures. Two fundamental characteristics of these sites are that they were places where selected individuals were buried and places where special objects were deposited. The objects were not typical of day-to-day living and were often made of exotic materials like copper, mica, and marine shell.

The earthworks in our region – complex layouts of mounds, earthen walls, and wooden architecture – were also not places where large populations lived year-round. All evidence suggests that these locations were spaces set aside from day-to-day existence, places where Native Americans gathered periodically for social and religious events that probably included feasting, dancing, communing with ancestors, and connecting to worlds beyond the earthly realm. Indeed, the earthworks delineated spaces that we should probably view as “sacred.”

One conceptualization of the universe reported to be common among many Native American groups divides the cosmos into three existential realms: a watery underworld, an upper world in the sky, and the earthly world balanced in between. It may be that we can see this three-tiered cosmic order in the earthworks as well. Using the Marietta site as an example, the mounded layout is first connected to the land by sighting certain elements to prominent hilltops and the river channel. Additionally, with the Muskingum River and two tributary streams virtually encircling the site, the earthworks may be surrounded by and floating in the cosmic underworld waters. Finally, positions on the earthwork layout form alignments pointing to important celestial events, including the winter and summer solstice sunrises and sunsets. Thus, the sacred space of the earthwork interconnects the worlds of earth, water, and sky.

All said, however, we are left with the realization that we will never know in a “scientific” way exactly what ancient people thought and believed.

Wesley Clarke, a Registered Professional Archaeologist, is currently working at The Castle in Marietta.

Mid Ohio Valley Interfaith seeks to cultivate a welcoming and inclusive community whose members are knowledgeable and appreciative of diverse faith traditions and their cultural contexts.

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Holidays of March from multifaithcalendar.org:

¯ 2 – Orthodox Christianity: The Great Lent, starts seven-week fasting period before Easter.

¯ 6 – Christianity: World Day of Prayer.

¯ 10 – Judaism: Purim, celebrates victory over oppression as related in Book of Esther.

¯ 10-12 – Hinduism: Holi, welcomes spring.

¯ 14 – Sikhism: New Year’s Day.

¯ 17-23 – Buddhism: Higan-e, honors ancestors and Buddha; Shinto: Higan-a, honors ancestors.

¯ 20 – Baha’i: Naw-Ruz (New Year), celebrates end of 19-day fast.

¯ 21 – Zoroastrianism: Now Ruz (New Year).

¯ 21 – Islam: Laylat al Mi’raj, commemorates ascension of the Prophet to heaven.


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