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The Socio-Political Structure of Adena Societies

Jason Jarrell and Sarah Farmer

Since the early research in the 19th century, the issue of the social structure of the Adena mound building culture of the Ohio Valley (1000 B.C.—300 A.D.) has been at the center of considerable debate. More often than not the waxing and waning of trends in archaeological studies have affected the subject, as the consensus of what represents acceptable speculation and what does not continually changes with the discovery of more and more archaeological data. This essay will deal with several possibilities suggested by modern research concerning the socio-political structures of some Adena groups.

To begin with, there is a popular misconception (sensationalized by the internet) that the Tall Ones represent a superior class or ruling elite who dominated the masses during ancient times in the Ohio River Valley. To this we would point out that in the case of the Adena Culture, the large and powerfully built remains have been found in both artifact rich tombs emphasizing the individual, as well as in communal graves with little or no personalized artifacts or adornments. For example, Burial 40 from the Dover Mound in Mason County, Kentucky was a 25-30 year old male 7 feet in stature, buried in a communal log and bark tomb along with three other individuals (1). Burial 9 from Dover Mound was a 30-40 year old male 5 ft 5 inches tall, buried with exotic paraphernalia:

Beneath the skull were two large mica sheets, and on each side of the jaw were two parts of the jaw of a puma. Metal artifacts with the burial include two copper bracelets on the left arm, a copper spiral ring on the left hand, and a triangular copper pendant at the left shoulder. A series of mica crescents were placed at the feet of the burial, along with three separate lumps of pigment—one white, another orange-brown, and the third of red ocher. Webb felt that the pigments had originally been deposited in containers. He interpreted the puma jaws to be parts of a mask and the mica crescents to have originally been decorations attached to a leather cloak or cape, the whole being the costume of a “puma man” shaman. (2)

Therefore, at the Dover Mound, the larger Adena male received less emphasis in the burial program than the proposed shaman, who was of regular height. In contrast to this example, a male skeleton measuring 7 feet in height found by Don Dragoo at the Cresap Mound in Marshall County, West Virginia (3) was buried with a plethora of exotic goods:

This large skeleton (burial #54) was found in a pit 8.2 feet long, 6.15 feet wide, and 3.3 feet deep, which had been covered by logs overlaid with a layer of bark, and then the whole covered by a small primary mound. The pit tomb had been lined with bark, and the body buried with turtle carapaces, mussel shells, bone awls, stemmed blades, deer scapula and antler awls, worked bone, a rectangular mudstone tablet, a deposit of red ocher (near the right shoulder), worked hematite, and a section of a broken blade, among other artifacts. A string of 43 conch shell and bone beads was found around the neck, along with a string of 31 marginella shell beads. 10 large conch shell beads were found at the pelvic area, and a bracelet of 12 marginella shell beads around the right wrist. (2)

As these and other examples documented in Ages of the Giants demonstrate, the evidence suggests that during the Late Archaic and Woodland periods in the northeast and the Ohio River Valley, the Tall Ones were part of the general population “at large”, and do not seem to have enjoyed generational or guaranteed access to status positions in the cultural continuum.

One of the earliest investigations of Adena social structure was that of William S. Webb, who concluded that Adena was a chiefly society with a top-down system of control. Webb had reached this conclusion based upon the fact that many excavated Adena mounds were found to cover the former locations of timber circles, which he interpreted to be the traces of the houses of chiefs whose deaths triggered the mound building event. However, these pre-mound timber circles are now understood to represent ritual spaces used for an unknown length of time before the construction of the burial mounds which signaled the final phase of site use (4). The concept of Adena chiefdoms has been jettisoned in recent times due to the lack of clearly defined authority symbols and concentrations of artifacts within the mounds (5). Also, the usual criteria archaeologists look for in societies, which facilitate the rise of chiefdoms (such as large scale agriculture), are not evidenced during Adena times (6).

It is possible that the vast range and diversity of the Adena culture has contributed to the challenge of defining socio-political programs. Fortunately, the work of several archaeologists in recent times has contributed significantly to our understanding of how these ancient societies may have been organized, and what types of roles—if any—actual “elite” individuals may have assumed. Research by Henry and Barrier (7) suggests that the offices of ritual and politico-economic leaders within Adena societies were heterarchical in nature. Leadership roles in heterarchical societies are temporary and situational, and are assumed when required to meet specific occasions. Following the resolution of the circumstances, which require the assumption of leadership roles, heterarchical societies revert back to the non-hierarchical model (8).

An example of a heterarchical role in Adena societies would be the ritual specialist or shaman, who may assume some level of authority to oversee mortuary rituals, rites of passage, the selection of a new ritual space, or the layout of new earthworks complexes. Outside of these types of specialized functions, such an individual would not exercise continual authority over the local community. However, the ritual specialist would still be interred upon death with paraphernalia symbolic of his or her social role—like the “puma man” at the Dover Mound. In this instance, the exotic grave goods with the burial do not reflect continually enforced power over the local community, but rather the social role or service of the deceased. Using the Wright Mound from Kentucky as an example, Henry and Barrier (7) theorize that multiple Adena communities engaged in a heterarchical coalition that regularly met to inter their dead at the site. At the Wright Mound, 22 individuals were chosen for unique mortuary treatment because they possessed and exercised distinct skills or knowledge during life, which were reflected in the symbolism of their social roles.

While there is a general absence of evidence for a powerful elite at many Adena sites, there are nonetheless some regional manifestations of the culture, which seem to have become hierarchical in nature. According to social anthropologist Carole Crumley, governmental heterarchies can sometimes shift to become actualized hierarchies (8). In addition, Henry and Barrier acknowledge that heterarchical coalitions like the Adena communities that built the Wright Mound can transform into either egalitarian or hierarchical societies (7).

One regional manifestation of the Adena Culture, which would appear to have become an actualized hierarchy, existed in the Upper Ohio Valley region of northern West Virginia between roughly 500 and 100 B.C. Known as the Cresap Phase, Upper Ohio Valley Adena has been interpreted as a ranked society of lineages or clans ruled by individuals of inherited status (9). Archaeologist Mark A. McConaughy suggests that elites of the Cresap Adena maintained power by manipulating the burgeoning interaction sphere and trade networks of the first millennium B.C. (9) Supporting McConaughy’s interpretation is the fact that many Cresap Phase mounds were built over the tombs of only 1 or 2 individuals, as opposed to Adena mounds from other areas of the Ohio Valley which held the remains of many individuals from multiple communities.

One site, which has yielded strong evidence of elitism in Cresap Phase societies, is the Beech Bottom Mound, located on the Ohio River in Brooke County, West Virginia. Charles Bache and Linton Satterthwaite, Jr. excavated Beech Bottom Mound in July and August of 1930 (10). Beneath the body of the mound, the excavators uncovered a central pit tomb 3.5 meters long by 1.3 meters wide, and 1.4 meters in depth. The tomb was lined with bark, which extended up the sides and onto the ground surface surrounding the pit. Within the tomb was the extended skeleton of an adult male, lavishly furnished with grave goods:

Across the face and neck were 3 or 4 strings of discoidal shell beads and 1 string of tubular shell beads. A stemmed blade and flaking tool were placed nearby. Strings of copper and shell beads covered most of the remainder of the body. Sheets of beads were also found in the tomb, and a tubular pipe and a broken stemmed blade were found between the femurs of the skeleton. Among other artifacts with this burial were a beaver incisor, eagle claw, rodent jaws, one broken bone knife, one sharpening stone, celts, graphite, yellow ocher, and 32 identifiable broken tubular smoking pipes. (2)

According to McConaughy, the 32 tubular smoking pipes buried with this individual could indicate that Beech Bottom Mound was constructed for an overseer of the trade and manufacture of pipes in the region (9, p. 5). He also points out that only 9 other tubular pipes are currently known from the total of 109 burials excavated from Cresap Phase mounds.

Some regional Adena manifestations have left behind archaeological evidence of the shift from heterarchy towards more hierarchical structures. In the Hocking Valley of Ohio, the oldest Adena mounds were small tumuli constructed by dispersed hamlets or communities, each made up of between 20 and 40 individuals. Communities nucleated in the vicinity of the mounds, which were constructed on ridge tops as possible territorial markers (11). However, between roughly 200 B.C and 300 A.D., Adena communities in the Hocking Valley assembled together to inter their dead and engage in other forms of ritual practice at a single large ritual landscape located at Wolf’s Plains, a few miles northwest of Athens, Ohio. The Wolf’s Plains group consists of at least 22 burial mounds and 9 circular ritual earthworks. It has been estimated that some of the larger mounds at the Plains required as much as 100 times the human energy expenditure as the smaller and earlier dispersed ridge top mounds (12). At the Armitage Mound, the earliest phase of mound construction included the burial of a 50-60 year old adult male, surrounded by 15 cremations wrapped in bark. It has been suggested that the cremations were the dead of multiple Hocking Adena communities, which were transported to the mound for reburial (11, p. 227). Such discoveries have lead archaeologists to suggest that the Plains served as a site where Late Adena groups assembled together to express a broad sociopolitical identity.

Some of the mounds on the Plains have been found to contain elaborate burials of possible high-ranking individuals. In 1930, Emerson Greenman (13) excavated the Coon Mound, uncovering a central log tomb 15 feet long and 12 feet by 8 inches in width. The walls of the tomb were lined with clay and bark, and at the center was the extended skeleton of a 25-35 year old male, with a copper bracelet on each wrist and 250 shell beads around the forehead and neck. Surrounding the log tomb was a circle of gravel and clay, which opened to a passage on the eastern side. The passage consisted of a corridor 3-4 feet in height, formed by two parallel lines of posts and a roofing of logs. Greenman felt that the passage might have been left open for some time after the mound was built over the central tomb (13, p. 404). The construction of such a sophisticated tomb for a single individual would certainly suggest some level of status recognition.

The contrasts and similarities of Adena communities from Kentucky, West Virginia, and Ohio discussed in this article reflect Carole Crumley’s observation that heterarchies can shift to become actual hierarchies—and even back again (8). This state of flux could account for the diverse manifestations and interpretations of Adena leadership. While formulated in the architecture of the heterarchical model, Adena communities in various regions gradually shifted along the scale between heterarchy and hierarchy. Some groups may have remained largely egalitarian for several generations, while others fell under the influence of elites who manipulated their positions in the social continuum to obtain—and maintain—lasting prestige.

In many ways the heterarchy/hierarchy dichotomy of Adena societies reflects the situation in America and the greater western world today, as roles which were once determined by skill and knowledge are increasingly absorbed and monopolized by state institutions and corporate industries (i.e., the “healer” is replaced by the “medical industry”, the “trade leader” is replaced by the corporation, etc.). Perhaps it is time for us to acknowledge that ancient North Americans were as sophisticated as we are today. We may find that they faced many of the same socio-political debates that are occurring in modern times.




1. William S. Webb, The Dover Mound, University of Kentucky Press, 1959.
2. Jason Jarrell and Sarah Farmer, Ages of the Giants: A Cultural History of the Tall Ones in Prehistoric America, Serpent Mound Books and Press, 2017.
3. Don W. Dragoo, Mounds for the Dead: An Analysis of the Adena Culture, Annals of the Carnegie Museum, Vol. 37, 1963.
4. Matthew P. Purtill, Jeremy A. Norr, and Jonathan B. Frodge, “Open-Air ‘Adena’ Paired-Post Ritual Features in the Middle Ohio Valley: A New Interpretation”, in Midcontinental Journal of Archaeology 39 (1), 2014, pp. 59-82.
5. Robert C. Mainfort, Jr., “Adena Chiefdoms? Evidence from the Wright Mound”, in Midcontinental Journal of Archaeology, Vol. 14, No. 2, 1989, pp. 164-178.
6. Berle R. Clay, “Chiefs, Big Men, or What? Economy, Settlement Patterns, and their Bearing on Adena Political Models”, in Cultural Variability in Context: Woodland Settlements of the Mid-Ohio Valley, ed. Mark F. Seeman, Kent State University Press, Kent, Ohio, 1992, pp. 77-80.
7. E. R. Henry and C. R. Barrier, "The Organization of Dissonance in Adena-Hopewell Societies of Eastern North America," World Archaeology, 48 (1), 2016, pp. 87-109.
8. Carole L. Crumley, “Heterarchy and the Analysis of Complex Societies”, in Archeological Papers of the American Anthropological Association 6, 1995, pp. 1–5.
9. Mark A. McConaughy, “Early Woodland Mortuary Practices in Western Pennsylvania”, West Virginia Archeologist, 1990, 42 (2), pp. 1-10.
10. 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.
11. Elliot M. Abrams & Mary F. Le Rouge, “Political Complexity and Mound Construction among the Early and Late Adena of the Hocking Valley, Ohio” in Transitions: Archaic and Early Woodland Research in the Ohio Country, ed. Martha P. Otto & Brian G. Redmond‬, Ohio University Press, Athens, 2008, pp.‬ 214-231.
12. Elliot M. Abrams, “Woodland Settlement Patterns in the Southern Hocking River Valley, Southeastern Ohio”, in Cultural Variability in Context: Woodland Settlements of the Mid-Ohio Valley, ed. Mark F. Seeman, Kent State University Press, Kent, Ohio, 1992, pp. 19-23.
13. Emerson Greenman, “Excavation of the Coon Mound and an Analysis of the Adena Culture”, Ohio State Archaeological and Historical Quarterly, Vol. 41, 1932, pp. 366-523.

Edited 3 time(s). Last edit at 06-Mar-18 18:13 by Jason Jarrell.

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The Socio-Political Structure of Adena Societies 2705 Jason Jarrell 05-Mar-18 17:37
Re: The Socio-Political Structure of Adena Societies 465 Susan Doris 06-Mar-18 06:01
Re: The Socio-Political Structure of Adena Societies 516 drdavidanderson 06-Mar-18 10:15
Re: The Socio-Political Structure of Adena Societies 503 Susan Doris 06-Mar-18 12:48
Re: The Socio-Political Structure of Adena Societies 463 Aine 07-Mar-18 03:44
Re: The Socio-Political Structure of Adena Societies 472 Jason Jarrell 07-Mar-18 04:12
Re: The Socio-Political Structure of Adena Societies 473 Aine 07-Mar-18 04:36
Re: The Socio-Political Structure of Adena Societies 464 Jason Jarrell 07-Mar-18 05:09
Re: The Socio-Political Structure of Adena Societies 449 Aine 07-Mar-18 13:40
Re: The Socio-Political Structure of Adena Societies 461 Jason Jarrell 07-Mar-18 18:26
Re: The Socio-Political Structure of Adena Societies 451 Aine 07-Mar-18 21:41
Re: The Socio-Political Structure of Adena Societies 501 Jason Jarrell 08-Mar-18 00:18
Re: The Socio-Political Structure of Adena Societies 470 Aine 08-Mar-18 22:52
Re: The Socio-Political Structure of Adena Societies 482 Aine 07-Mar-18 03:46
Re: The Socio-Political Structure of Adena Societies 460 Susan Doris 07-Mar-18 05:59
Re: The Socio-Political Structure of Adena Societies 474 Jason Jarrell 07-Mar-18 07:55
Re: The Socio-Political Structure of Adena Societies 449 Aine 07-Mar-18 13:18
Re: The Socio-Political Structure of Adena Societies 455 Susan Doris 07-Mar-18 14:39
Re: The Socio-Political Structure of Adena Societies 474 SkinwalkerScrooge 09-Mar-18 19:51
Re: The Socio-Political Structure of Adena Societies 459 Susan Doris 10-Mar-18 06:03
Re: The Socio-Political Structure of Adena Societies 475 drdavidanderson 10-Mar-18 07:52
Re: The Socio-Political Structure of Adena Societies 445 Susan Doris 10-Mar-18 08:40
Re: The Socio-Political Structure of Adena Societies 444 SkinwalkerScrooge 10-Mar-18 09:09
Re: The Socio-Political Structure of Adena Societies 467 Aine 10-Mar-18 13:49
Re: The Socio-Political Structure of Adena Societies 443 Jason Jarrell 10-Mar-18 21:04
Re: The Socio-Political Structure of Adena Societies 446 Aine 10-Mar-18 13:31
Re: The Socio-Political Structure of Adena Societies 443 Aine 10-Mar-18 13:16
Re: The Socio-Political Structure of Adena Societies 840 SkinwalkerScrooge 11-Mar-18 05:46

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