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Extraordinary Adena Mounds and Earthworks at Charleston, West Virginia

Jason Jarrell and Sarah Farmer

Beginning around 200 B.C., some regional Adena groups shifted away from the use of dispersed, local burial mounds scattered throughout river valleys and began to construct large-scale ritual sites, which featured aggregates of mounds and earthwork enclosures. One such site was located on the Kanawha River at Charleston, West Virginia (in modern South Charleston and Dunbar).

When agents of the Smithsonian’s Bureau of Ethnology explored the Charleston site in 1883 and 1884, it consisted of roughly 50 mounds and between 8 and 10 earthwork enclosures. Some of the mounds were massive edifices, while the earthworks ranged from circular to rectangular structures. On the South Charleston side of the Kanawha, P. W. Norris of the Smithsonian excavated a large mound on the Criel farm, which was between 31 and 33 feet high and around 519 feet in circumference. The Criel Mound was flanked by two circular earthwork enclosures, one situated 260 feet northeast of the tumulus, the other 260 feet southwest.

Norris sank a circular shaft from the top of the Criel Mound to the mound floor, where he found the traces of a large timber structure 16 feet in diameter and between 6 and 8 feet high, with bark flooring. On the floor were 11 burials wrapped in bark, 10 of which were placed in a semi-circle around the central 11th figure in the tomb. The central burial was a skeleton “with the skull crushed, but partially preserved by contact with a sheet of copper that probably once formed part of a headdress” (1, p. 416). Shell beads and a spear point were also found with the burial. The Criel family had assigned a man named A.R. Sines to participate in the Smithsonian’s excavations, so that they could be alerted if gold or other treasures were found in the mound. Several local papers have reproduced Sines’ first hand account of the excavation, which includes a description of the central burial from the mound floor. From the June 18th, 1961 edition of the Sunday Gazette-Mail:

"The decayed bones belonged to what was once a most powerful man…The distance from the spot where the heel bone was found to what was left of the skull was six feet, eight and ¾ inches. It was harder to measure the width of the human remains because they were so badly decayed…but it was considerably broader than the largest men of our present race…The teeth were considerably larger than the teeth of any of the present generation. The front part of the skull bone was better preserved than any other part. It was very thick—nearly double the thickness of the human skull today. It was flat and low."

The Sines account also mentions the “copper band” “around the front part of the forehead” of the burial. Following the conclusion of his work at Charleston, P. W. Norris himself made several statements to the press regarding his discoveries. The February 2nd, 1884 edition of The Saint Paul Globe, includes the following description of the central burial from Criel: “The remains of a large sized warrior was found lying flat on his back, with a copper crown covering his head and neck, ornamented with seashell and bone beads.”

On the Dunbar side of the Kanawha, Norris excavated the remarkable Great Smith Mound, which in 1883 measured 35 feet in height and 545 feet in diameter. An intrusive burial in a type of stone structure was found at the top of the mound, which Norris described in his field journal as “the nearly decayed skeleton (less the cranium which certainly had never been placed there) of a very large human being” (2). Tunneling into the mound from the summit, at 12 feet Norris encountered the remains of a black walnut log, which proved to be the ridge pole in the roofing of a large timber-house structure 13 feet in length and 12 feet in width, featuring a sloping roof. The structure stood around 9 feet high, and had been built into the original mound when it was 20 feet high (1, p.427).

Within the timber house Norris found six burials, the first encountered described as “a very large human skeleton” with two copper bracelets on the left arm, interred in a bark coffin (2). The following description of the next burial discovered comes from the Norris field journal:

"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 and 19 in between the [unintelligible] of the shoulders. It is found prostrate upon the back, head easterly, legs extended together naturally. Arms by the sides and upon the wrists of each 6 hammered native copper bracelets…Beneath the cranium I also found 4 similar copper bracelets which had a fine new lance head just long enough to reach across the inside…Upon the breast was found a gorget of hammered native copper…" (2)

In the official Smithsonian report, Cyrus Thomas records this burial as “a skeleton, measuring 7½ feet in length and 19 inches across the shoulders” (1, p. 426). Norris’ comments in The Saint Paul Globe include remarks concerning this burial, which clarify that the measurement of “19 inches” was actually made across the breast, since the weight of several mica artifacts had crushed one of the shoulders.

Besides the gorget, bracelets, and mica, the burial also featured three spear points, a hematite celt, an ax, and one hundred and thirty-two shell beads, which were wrapped around the head, neck and hips. Norris observed that the body had been wrapped in hide and hermetically sealed in clay before being placed in the bark coffin. Four more burials of medium sized adults were found in bark coffins in the corners of the timber tomb. If Norris’ description of the Great Smith Mound is accurate, then the timber structure represents a dramatic elaboration of the log tombs usually found in Adena mounds. A more typical Adena log tomb was found in Mound 22 at Charleston, being 8 feet long, 3 feet wide, and 3 feet deep containing a single skeleton (2).

Some of the Earthwork enclosures at the Charleston Mound Group exhibited traits resembling features from Adena sites in Indiana and the Muskingum Valley in Ohio. Enclosure G in Dunbar consisted of an earth bank in the shape of a parallelogram, 420 feet long and 150 feet wide, featuring an inner ditch running the length of the wall and an opening or entrance at the south. At the time of the Smithsonian survey, the earth wall was still 8-10 feet high above the ditch in some areas (1). The eastern face of the enclosure fronted a small ravine overlooking a stream. An ancient well had been built into this wall, lined with flat angular stones. Norris observed that (presumably during rain), water flowed through the inner ditch, into the well and then down into the ravine. Also found in the eastern wall was a pit 6 feet in diameter and 7 feet deep, with burned clay lining the sides. The pit contained traces of decayed maize, wood, and pottery shards. Still another smaller pit 6 feet north of the larger one contained numerous perforated disc and shell beads.

Several archaeologists have suggested that Woodland enclosures may have incorporated the use of water in a ritualized or mythic context (3). If the Enclosure G parallelogram had been an important ritual site incorporating the ceremonial use of water and the deposition of exotic goods, then it may be significant that six burials in stone cist tombs were found surrounding the site (1). The stone cist burials are very similar to those noted from Fort Ancient culture sites, which post date the Adena occupations at Charleston by well over a millennium. Perhaps the Charleston Mound Group retained its reputation as sacred space long after the end of the Adena Culture.

Evidence of the ritualized use of water was also found at the Spring Hill Enclosure at Charleston, located on a bluff 100 feet above the Kanawha Valley. The Spring Hill enclosure consisted of a semicircular formation composed of a straight embankment fronting the edge of the bluff and a horseshoe shaped wall encompassing around twenty acres, surrounding at least three natural springs (2). The embankments featured alternating exterior and interior ditches, and were lined with boulders on the inside (2). There were two openings to the enclosure, each featuring a conical mound, numbered 10 and 11. Norris made the following discovery in Mound 11:

"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, pp. 418-419)


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. See for example, Robert L. Hall, “Ghosts, Water Barriers, Corn, and Sacred Enclosures in the Eastern Woodlands”, American Antiquity, July 1976.



Edited 1 time(s). Last edit at 15-Mar-18 22:12 by Jason Jarrell.

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Extraordinary Adena Mounds and Earthworks at Charleston, West Virginia 422 Jason Jarrell 15-Mar-18 22:02
Re: Extraordinary Adena Mounds and Earthworks at Charleston, West Virginia 47 Aine 19-Mar-18 21:32
Re: Extraordinary Adena Mounds and Earthworks at Charleston, West Virginia 43 poster72 21-Mar-18 18:54
Re: Extraordinary Adena Mounds and Earthworks at Charleston, West Virginia 85 michael seabrook 23-Mar-18 12:08

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