Notes: This entry contains some of the information also present in the primary AOM article. It is used here in a completely different context and for others purposes.
This entry originally appeared on the paradigm collision.com blog.
During the research for Ages of the Giants: A Cultural History of the Tall Ones in Prehistoric America (Serpent Mound Books and Press, 2017), Sarah Farmer and I reviewed hundreds of archaeological documents detailing the excavations of Adena and Hopewell mounds by antiquarians and archaeologists in the 19th and 20th centuries. Many of these reports can be linked to newspaper and historical accounts of the discovery of very large skeletal remains from the same sites. As this entry will demonstrate, some of the primary reports do confirm that large skeletons were found, while others debunk the claims of the press and other secondary sources.
Large Adena skeletons from Charleston, W.V.
In 1883 and 1884, P.W. Norris of the Smithsonian investigated 50 Adena mounds and 10 earthwork enclosures, located on both sides of the Kanawha River at Charleston, West Virginia. On November 20th, 1883, The New York Times reported the following details from Norris' excavations:
"Prof. Norris, the ethnologist, who has been examining the mounds in this section of West Virginia for several months, the other day opened the big mound on Col. B. H. Smith’s farm, six or eight miles below here. This is the largest mound in the valley and proved a rich store-house...It was evidently the burial place of a noted chief, who had been interred with unusual honors. At the bottom they found the bones of a human, being measuring 7 feet in length and 19 inches across the shoulders."
The mound in question is known as the Great Smith Mound, and measured around 35 feet in height, formerly located in modern Dunbar, W.V. According to the actual report filed by the Smithsonian (1), Norris found an elaborate timber vault within the Smith Mound. The structure was 13 feet long and 12 feet wide, reaching as high as 9 feet with a sloping roof (1). Six burials were discovered in the vault. The first of these was “a very large human skeleton” with two copper bracelets on the left wrist, placed in a bark coffin against the southern wall (2). The following description of the next burial discovered comes from the official Smithsonian document:
"Nineteen feet from the top…in the remains of a bark coffin, a skeleton, measuring 7 ½ feet in length and 19 inches across the shoulders, was discovered. It lay on the bottom of the vault stretched horizontally on the back…Each wrist was encircled by six heavy copper bracelets…" (1)
The actual field journal of P.W. Norris includes the following entry for the same burial:
"At 19 feet and the bottom of this debris we find together with the fragments of a rotten bark coffin, a gigantic human skeleton 7 feet 6 inches in length..." (2)
(In the list of discoveries from this mound that Norris included in his field diary, this skeleton is referred to as "human skeleton, gigantic" (2).)
In this instance, not only do the primary sources confirm the discovery of the large skeleton mentioned by the Times, but the stature is measured as 5 or 6 inches greater than reported by the newspaper. Norris actually found large skeletons in many of the Adena mounds at Charleston. For example, his report records the following discovery from Mound 11 of the group, which was incorporated into a large hilltop earthwork at Spring Hill:
"In the center, 3 feet below the surface, was a vault 8 feet long and 3 feet wide. In the bottom of this, among the decayed fragments of bark wrappings, lay a skeleton fully 7 feet long, extended at full length on the back, head west. Lying in a circle immediately above the hips were fifty-two perforated shell disks…"(1)
Methods of Measurement
It has been suggested that Smithsonian agents in the late 1800s did not know the proper method to measure skeletal remains, and merely estimated the size of the skeletons they discovered in the ancient mounds. This theory has it that the remains were "pressed out of shape" by the pressure of the earth and therefore only appeared to reach between 7 and 8 feet in length. However, the documentation of the Smithsonian reveals that the agents of the Bureau of Ethnology did determine stature by long bone measurements. For example, an 1894 Bureau of Ethnology report records the following discovery from a stone burial mound east of Ripley in Brown County, Ohio:
"Lying directly upon this rock floor, with head east, was an extended skeleton badly broken by the weight of the material above. Only a few fragments of the skull could be obtained; enough to show that it was a full half inch in thickness…The femora were still solid enough to allow the dirt to be scraped away with a knife. They measured 22½ inches in length…Besides many small decayed pieces of bones, there were found one other femur of a size to correspond with those of the skeleton, and three femora of ordinary size."(1, Pp. 452-453)
Depending upon the ratio used for measurement, the femurs from the mound indicate a stature of between 6.6 and 7 feet in height for the large individual. Importantly, this mound is also described by Gerald Fowke (another employee of the Smithsonian) in Archaeological History of Ohio: The Mound Builders and later Indians (1902):
"Four miles east of Ripley, large flat slabs, set on edge, enclosed a circle fifteen feet in diameter. Within this, lying on the yellow clay subsoil, was a closely fitted pavement of similar slabs. An extended skeleton lay at the center, with head east; it measured fully seven feet in length. There were many fragments of bones pertaining to other bodies; among them a fragment of a child’s skull, a femur corresponding in size to that of the skeleton, and three femora of ordinary size lying side by side…The circle was filled to the level of the ordinary surface with stone of various sizes lying promiscuously. Probably they had been supported by timbers…" (Pp. 402-403)
The Etowah Skeleton
The Smithsonian sources also verify large remains reported by the press from Mississippian (1000--1700 A.D.) burial mounds. On October 10th, 1885 the Sacramento Daily Record Union
ran the following story about the National Museum's work at the famous Etowah Mounds in Georgia:
"A large Indian mound near the town of Cartersville, Georgia, has recently been opened and examined by a committee of scientists sent out from the Smithsonian Institution. At some depth from the surface, a kind of vault was found in which was found the skeleton of a giant measuring 7 feet 2 inches. His hair was coarse and jet black, and hung to the waist, the brow being ornamented with a copper crown. The skeleton was remarkably well preserved. Near it were also found the bodies of several children of various sizes, the remains being covered with beads made of bone of some kind. Upon removing these, the bodies were seen to be enclosed in a net of straw and reeds, and beneath this was a covering of the skin of some animal. On the stones which covered the vault were carved inscriptions, and these, when deciphered, will doubtless lift the veil that now shrouds the history of a race of giants, that at one time it is supposed, inhabited the American continent. The relics have been carefully packed and forwarded to the Smithsonian, and they are said to be the most interesting collection ever found in the United States."
The large skeleton from Etowah Mounds is verified by the Smithsonian report (1), which also offers clarification for several other details. The mounds were explored by Bureau agent (and relation of Cyrus Thomas, head of the Bureau of Ethnology) John Rogan. In the lower layer of Mound C, several stone cist tombs were uncovered:
"Grave a, a stone sepulcher, 2½ feet wide, 8 feet long, and 2 feet deep, was formed by placing steatite slabs on edge at the sides and ends, and others across the top. The bottom consisted simply of earth hardened by fire. It contained the remains of a single skeleton, lying on its back, with the head east. The frame was heavy and about 7 feet long. The head rested on a thin copper plate ornamented with impressed figures; but the skull was crushed and the plate injured by fallen slabs. Under the copper were the remains of a skin of some kind, and under this coarse matting, apparently of split cane…At the left of the feet were two clay vessels, one a water bottle and the other a very small vase. On the right of the feet were some mussel and sea shells and immediately under the feet two conch shells…partially filled with small shell beads. Around each ankle was a strand of similar beads. The bones and most of the shells were so far decomposed that they could not be saved." (1, Pp 302-303)
In this case, the “copper crown” reported by the press was actually several copper fragments found at the head of a burial in Grave f. Indeed, the copper had preserved portions of the hair, which Rogan saved and sent to the Smithsonian (1,p. 303). The “inscribed stones” were probably a misreporting of a carved marble bust recovered by Rogan from a small mound at the site (1,p. 306). What is interesting is that in the case of the Etowah Mounds, the large remains mentioned in the media were legitimately found, while other details from the site became confused. In fact, several newspapers at the time even recorded this discovery as being from the wrong State.
More Ohio Valley Mounds
Returning to the Ohio Valley, press reports surfaced in 1897 describing a gigantic skeleton found by Clarence Loveberry near Chillicothe, Ohio. From the May 31st, 1897 issue of the Daily Public Ledger:
“Ten skeletons were found in two mounds by Dr. Loveberry, curator of the Ohio state university museum, one that of a giant fully eight feet tall.”
In May of 1897, Clarence Loveberry did indeed excavate two mounds on the Briggs farm, four miles north of Chillicothe, in Union township. The following passage is Loveberry's description of a burial from one of the mounds, republished by the Ohio State Archaeological and Historical Society in 1899:
"Five feet deep, in the central part of the structure we found a fourth skeleton. The bones were the largest I ever removed from a mound. All joints were exceedingly massive and the muscular attachments were wonderfully developed. Badly decayed as it was, the longer bones were sound enough for me to make these observations." (3)
Although Loveberry’s report does not give the specific length of the skeleton, the details certainly suggest that large remains were found. Similarly vague documentation exists for other Ohio Valley mounds, including the Pollock's Hill Mound, once located in Union Township in Washington County, Pennsylvania. An Adena stone mound, Pollock's Hill was badly looted before professional excavation by George Fisher in 1932. Several press stories from the time period mention a particularly large skeleton found at the site, such as the following from the September 15th, 1932 edition of The Daily Republican:
"One of the most interesting reports that will go into the archives is that on the body of a giant, seven feet five inches tall. This titan was found on the fifth level of the clay mound where the bodies were sandwiched between 11 layers of sandstone."
George Fisher himself never filed an official report on the Pollock's Hill Mound. However, after considerable research we discovered that another archaeologist named Donald Cadzow did publish a report adapted straight from Fisher's field notes in The Pennsylvania Archaeologist in January of 1933 (4). Cadzow's report offers the following comments regarding burial 39 from the mound:
“As the bones were in poor condition, it was impossible to obtain exact measurements. Their size, however, indicated a very large heavy person, much larger than the other burials in the mound.” (4, p. 5)
Cadzow notes that two feet south of large burial 39 was burial 45, stating that a “large piece of flint was found in situ between the teeth of the upper and lower jaws” (4, p. 16). These details can be cross referenced with passages in the September 13th, 1932 edition of the Pittsburgh Press, which describes a tour that George Fisher gave to reporters around the Pollock's Hill site. According to the Press, George Fisher “walked slowly and calmly about the clay mound explaining the ‘rebirth of a hardy race’”, and evidently showed reporters burial 45, with “a piece of flint” between “her huge teeth”. The next skeleton described by the Pittsburgh Press would almost certainly have been Cadzow’s large burial 39, (which as stated above, was only two feet north of burial 45): “The giant’s skeleton measured 89 inches from the top of the skull to the flanges of the feet. It was covered with small stones, lay on the back, and measured 26 inches across the chest.”
Some Large Remains and Bronze or Copper Objects Debunked
While verification is frequently found in the primary sources, there are other routinely reprinted press stories of large skeletons from burial mounds that are actually debunked. For example, on September 3rd, 1930 the Binghampton Press ran a story on the excavation of the Beech Bottom mound in Brooke County, W.V., reporting the central burial as "the skeleton, which was that of a man about eight feet in height", and also mentioning the discovery of "copper and bronze coins having undeciphered inscriptions." In fact, the femur measurements for this burial as given in the complete version of the official excavation report (5) indicate a stature range of 5’ 11” to 6’ 3”, if we use height estimates such as the regression formula of Trotter and Gleser (6) and absolute ratios like those of Feldesman, et al. (7) The "coins" reported from the mound are obviously explained by the numerous copper beads mentioned in the official report.
The misreporting of large remains associated with bronze or copper armor seems to have been a common occurrence. Variations of the following story appeared in numerous press articles and magazines in the 1890s, describing a burial uncovered during the excavations at the famous Hopewell Mound group in Ohio:
"...the excavators found near the center of the mound, at a depth of 14 feet, the massive skeleton of a man encased in copper armor. The head was covered by an oval-shaped copper cap; the jaws had copper moldings; the arms were dressed in copper, while copper plates covered the chest and stomach, and on each side of the head on protruding sticks were wooden antlers ornamented with copper." (8)
The burial in this story is number 248 from Hopewell Mound 25. The following description is from the official report by Warren K. Moorehead, who explored the Hopewell Farm Mounds in 1891 and 1892 in pursuit of artifacts to display at the World's Fair:
"The skeleton which was badly decayed, was 5 feet, 11 inches long. Associated with it were some very remarkable objects...A copper plate lay on the breast, and another on the abdomen, while a third lay under the hips...Cut, sawed and split bears' teeth covered the chest and abdomen, and several spool-shaped ornaments and buttons of copper were found among the ribs...The head had been decorated with a remarkable head-dress of wood and copper...The mass of copper in the centre was originally in the form of a semi-circle reaching from the lower jaw to the crown of the head...The antler-shaped ornaments were made of wood encased in sheets of copper, one-sixteenth of an inch thick."(9, p.107)
Copper plates, beads, gorgets, earspools, and headdresses are all well known finds from many Hopewell sites, and the collective deposit at Hopewell Mound 25 obviously resulted in the misreport of "copper armor". These facts, along with a stature of 5 ft 11 inches for the skeleton, should obviously discount the use of this account as evidence of "copper armored giants". Alternately, there are several instances recorded in Ages of the Giants when reports of copper or bronze armor are debunked, but the large remains reported from the same sites are actually verified.
Another interesting aspect of the press reports is that some of them erroneously report the discovery large skeletons at sites where large remains actually might have been found on other occasions. Several press stories have been regularly reprinted in recent years which describe the discovery of skeletons measuring between 7 and 8 feet in length during the 1838 excavation of the Grave Creek Mound in Marshall County, West Virginia. There were at least three skeletons found during the excavation, two in a timber vault at the base of the mound and one in an upper vault.
The records of antiquarians who observed the bones from the 1838 excavations at Grave Creek actually indicate that the skeletons were of normal size (10). In August 1843, Henry Schoolcraft visited a museum that had been built inside the mound, where one of the skeletons from the lower vault had been wired together and placed behind a wire screen. Schoolcraft describes the skeleton as “overstretched in the process so as to measure six feet; it should be about five feet eight inches” (10, p. 23). There is a source which describes the upper vault burial as “a large skeleton” which was “in a state of extreme decay”; while Schoolcraft describes the same remains as “so much decayed, that no attempt has been made to arrange them”(10, p. 32).
While the upper vault burial could have been the source of some of the stories of large remains, the evidence clearly indicates that the claims of the 7-8 ft. skeletons from the 1838 dig are erroneous. However, as explained in Ages of the Giants, there were many poorly documented discoveries made within the Grave Creek Mound both before and after the better known 1838 excavations, which some historical sources suggest were skeletons of very large size (11).
The examples provided here are just a few of the sites that can be cross referenced with primary archaeological data and historical sources. Many discoveries of large remains can be verified, while some of the often-reprinted press stories are exposed as exaggerations or misrepresentations. The purpose for bringing attention to this situation is to point out that this field of inquiry can only be expanded with actual research that allows the data to speak for itself.
1.12th Annual Report of the Bureau of Ethnology to the Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, ed. Cyrus Thomas, Washington, 1894.
2.P.W. Norris Mound Excavations, Smithsonian Manuscript 2400.
3. Presented by Warren K Moorehead in “Report of Field Work”, Ohio Archaeological and Historical Publications, Vol. 7, Columbus, 1899.
4. Donald Cadzow, “Mr. George Fisher’s Discoveries in Western Pennsylvania”, Pennsylvania Archaeologist, 3 (3), 1933.
5.Charles Bache and Linton Satterthwaite, Jr., “Exploration of an Indian Mound at Beech Bottom, West Virginia”, University of Pennsylvania, Museum Journal, Vol. 21, pp. 132-187.
6.Mildred Trotter and Goldine C. Gleser, “A Re-evaluation of Estimation of Stature Based on Measurements of Stature Taken During Life and of Long Bones After Death”, American Journal of Physical Anthropology 16, 1958, pp. 79-123.
7.M.R. Feldesman, J.G. Kleckner, and J.K. Lundy, “The femur-stature ratio and estimates of stature in mid- to late-Pleistocene fossil hominids”, American Journal of Physical Anthropology 83, 1990, pp. 359-372.
8. Reproduced here from The Dental Register Volume 46.
9. Warren K. Moorehead, The Hopewell Mound Group of Ohio, Field Museum of Natural History, Chicago, 1922.
10.Accounts are reproduced by Delf Norona in “Skeletal Material From the Grave Creek Mounds”, West Virginia Archeologist, Vol. 6, 1953, pp. 7-39.
11. Ages of the Giants, Chapter 9.
Edited 4 time(s). Last edit at 06-Mar-18 18:25 by Jason Jarrell.