When American settlers first crossed the Appalachian Mountains they were amazed to discover that the wilderness beyond contained ancient ruins-large man-made mounds and enclosures, and impressive earthen sculptures, such as a gigantic serpent. Reports trickled back to the eager ears of President Thomas Jefferson and others. However, most did not believe these earthworks had anything to do with Native Americans; rather, given the intense interest in the history of Western Civilization at the time, it became popular to speculate that the ruins had been built by refugees from Greece, Rome, Egypt-or even the lost continent of Atlantis. Since their discovery, the mounds have attracted both scholars and quacks, from the early investigations sponsored by the then new Smithsonian Institution to the visions of the American psychic Edgar Cayce. As Lorett Treese explains in her fascinating history A Serpent's Tale: Discovering America's Ancient Mound Builders, the enigmatic nature of these antiquities fueled both fanciful claims and scientific inquiry. Early on, the earthworks began to fall to agricultural and urban development.Realizing that only careful on-site investigation could reveal the mysteries of the mounds, scholars hastened to document and classify them, giving rise to American archaeology as a discipline.
Research made it possible to separate theMound Builders into three distinct pre-contact Native American cultures. More recently, Mound Builder remains have attracted the practitioners of new disciplines like archaeoastronomy who suggest they may have functioned as calendars. There is no doubt that the abandoned monuments that made the Midwest's Ohio Valley the birthplace of American archaeology have yet to reveal all the knowledge they contain on the daily lives and world views of persons of North American prehistory.
LORETT TREESE served as college archivist at Bryn Mawr College for twenty years, following an earlier career in business, advertising, and public relations. She holds an undergraduate degree from Bryn Mawr and an MA in American history from Villanova University. She is the author of a number of books, including Valley Forge: Making and Remaking a National Symbol, Railroads of Pennsylvania, and The Storm Gathering: The Penn Family and the American Revolution.