Mounds Below: Stars Above

27 May
May 27, 2015
published by Ohio Archaeologist, Vol. 65, No. 1, Winter 2015

The great geometric earthworks of Ohio have fascinated students of the ancient past ever since their discovery by the American colonists in the late 1700’s. The use of different geometric forms in various combinations and the realization that they used a standard unit of length and that many were oriented to lunar rises and sets, as well as some solar events, bears witness to the level of astronomical knowledge of the ancient builders. A number of the earthworks used similar designs, and this attests to a common core of expressions and associated meanings.

The Hopewell have been called geometers, engineers, mathematicians, astronomers and even magicians; and all such people would have been essential to design, build and utilize their magnificent earthwork creations. One wonders if there was a gifted few or even just one unusual personage responsible for their creation. Whatever the case, their geometries were carefully calculated and the different parts were placed strategically to serve some kind of purpose of utmost importance. But just what were the earthworks to their designers and builders? Just what purposes were they designed to fulfill?

The earthworks were so huge that even today observers on the ground have difficulty in ascertaining their layouts – this was probably the case ages ago for the common Hopewell people as well. They were meant by the Hopewellian phratry to fit into the cosmos and to be seen and appreciated from far above and even from celestial heights. They were designed specifically to serve religious beliefs and practices.

The Circleville Work (Figure 1) incorporates some of the standard design elements seen in many other southern Ohio earthwork complexes:  a circle joined to a square having eight openings with interior platform mounds on the inside at each opening. The Newark and High Banks Circleoctagon combinations (Figure 1) are of the same elemental design. The 2011 article on the Circleville Earthwork (Anderson, 2011) included speculation on what the mounds in the squares and octagons might have represented: “different clans or constellations or divinities or were they game courts.”

Figure 1. The four Ohio earthworks possessing an axis of symmetry are shown here. All contain a circular part with a diameter of 1,054 feet that is connected either to a square or octagon with each containing eightopenings holding a small mound just inside the interior of the work. The Hopeton circle/square Work has a circle of 1,054 feet in diameter, like the other three works, but the square part does not contain the usual interior mounds. The Circleville Earthwork is unique in holding both a circular part of 1,054 feet in diameter concentric with a larger circle/ditch combination 1,200 feet in diameter.

In his book, Mysteries of the Hopewell Romain (Romain, 2000), speculated on the meanings of the different parts of the Hopewell geometric earthworks and surmises that the square and octagonal parts represented the sky and the circular parts represented the earth or the beneath world. These are reasonable conclusions based on the evidences he lists. But just what did the shapes (squares and octagons) represent; or what meaning(s) did they have for their builders and users? And in particular, what was the purpose or meaning of the eight interior mounds in those squares and octagons?

My inclination, after much thinking, is that the eight interior mounds in the squares and octagons could have represented the stars of a constellation. A major constellation possessing eight stars is Orion – a large and very prominent constellation visible in the winter sky (Figure 2). This constellation figured prominently in many past civilizations’ legends and religions. The great Egyptian pyramids at Giza are aligned identically to that of the three bright stars in the center of Orion and the three great pyramids at Teotihuacan in Mexico are also aligned exactly that way.

Figure 2. The Orion Constellation is the most prominent one in the winter sky. It is most often depicted holding eight stars. It was interpreted by the ancients as outlining a hunter and the three bright blue stars arranged in a row near the center of the constellation was his belt and the string of stars descending from the belt was interpreted as his sword. One of the stars” in his sword is actually a nebula, the “Orion nebula”, consisting of the glowing gaseous remnants of an exploded star (inset). This nebula is visible to the naked eye as a fuzzy patch and was considered by the Mississippian peoples as the portal through which departed souls passed through to get onto the Milky Way; the Pathway of souls.
Figure 3. The engraved side of a late Adena tablet (the Low Tablet) found in Parkersburg, West Virginia, in 1943 by the late Mr. Ed Low. This tablet shows heavy use and depicts four stylized raptorial birds, two above and two below, as well two human faces, one above and one below. This tablet shows eight indentations across its face. There is a dividing line between the upper and lower sides, and it is thought that one side represents the underworld and the other the upper, or sky, world. The dividing line is then the surface of the earth.

When I started ruminating about this practice of the Hopewells to incorporate eight mounds and eight openings in their squares and octagons, it was apparent that it was important to them for some big reason. My mind went to an earlier people who built mounds and simpler earthworks: the Adena people. Did they have any use for or reverence for the quantity of eight? Examination of their probable earthwork complexes (e.g. Junction, Blackwater, Steel) reveals nine, seven, and eleven small earthworks in each, respectively, so no evidence here of the strict use of eight components. However, the number of stars assigned to any constellation is subject to which stars are to be included, and the Orion Constellation and vicinity have many choices of stars to include or exclude. But examination of the engraved tablets used by the late Adena peoples reveals a strict use of eight entities. For example, the Low Tablet from Parkersburg, West Virginia, incorporates eight bold indentions (Figure 3) at the critical joint locations on the four stylized birds used in its design; and the Lakin A, Wilmington, and Waverly tablets all have eight indentations as well.

The leap from small Adena tablets to the giant Hopewell earthworks appears to be a huge one – it is in terms of size but maybe not in meanings. The tablets are a window into the belief system of the Adena people, and several possess two parts separated by a dividing line. It is thought that one side represents the underworld and the other side the upper world with the dividing line being the world between; our earthly world (Penney, 1980). The great Hopewell works at Circleville and Newark and High Banks are conjoined ones with all having a large circle measuring 1,054 feet in diameter joined to the adjoining square or octagon (possessing the eight interior mounds and openings) by a short avenue. Are the great earthworks essentially giant Adena-like tablets written large upon the landscape with the circles representing the underworld and the squares and octagons representing the upper world? Could it be that the Adena tablets and the giant Hopewell earthworks symbolize the same religious concepts and that they are identified with the Orion constellation?

The use of stylized bird motifs on the Adena tablets was of great importance to their religion and this could project right into the Hopewell belief system. Was the Orion constellation representative of a bird to these people? Orion was identified as outlining a great hunter for the ancient Greeks – it could have represented a birdlike figure to the ancient mound builders of Ohio. Birds were important to the Hopewell people, for bird motifs were frequently used in their smoking pipe designs and in copper and mica cutouts (Figures 4 and 5 and 6). The Circleville earthwork possessed a gravel crescent pavement adjoining the central burial mound in the center of its great circle that could well have been a bird effigy.

Figure 4. An Ohio Hopewell boat stone in the form of avian raptor. Other Hopewell boat stones and many platform pipes represented raptorial birds as well as songbirds and ravens
Figure 5. A copper cutout of a falcon. Found at Mound City.
Figure 6. A beautiful mica cutout representing an eagle claw. Found at the Hopewell site.

The Circleville earthwork possessed, to our present knowledge, no earthen avenues or auxiliary works other than two exterior mounds. However, there could have been wooden posts outlining avenues and such, but this possibility will probably never be uncovered. The Newark and High Bank works included extensive systems of earthen avenues and smaller circular earthworks, and these extra features must have had great meanings and so they must be considered in any interpretations of these earthwork sites.

A recent visit to the Moundville Site near Tuscaloosa, Alabama, inspired new insights gathered from the information presented at the museum there. The Moundville site was second in size and importance only to Cahokia among the major Mississippian sites in the eastern United States. It lies on a high bluff above Alabama’s Black Warrior River and contains at least 23 large platform mounds and extensive village areas. It is managed by the University of Alabama, located about 15 miles to the north in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. A recently remodeled museum lies on the site, and its displays do a great job of interpreting the really impressive array of artifacts excavated at this one site. Many of the artifacts are unique and their designs allow considerable interpretation of the religious concepts that drove these Mississippian people to create such a large and important site. The site was contemporaneous with Cahokia and reached its peak of power about 1200 to 1300 A.D.

The religious faith of Moundville is written on one of the museum’s displays as follows:

“Archaeological and ethnographic evidence strongly suggests that the Moundville people held strong religious convictions and were greatly concerned with properly preparing for life after death. These people viewed the world as multileveled, consisting of an above (or celestial realm), an earthly plain, and a beneath (or underworld). Within this cosmic model, the earth and everything on and in it is thought to be alive. Both the above and beneath realms were inhabited by supernaturals, heroes, and the masters of the different animals.

Humans were thought to have several souls. Upon death, at least one would pass through a portal, or starry gateway, entering the “Path of Souls.” Today, we know this path as the heavenly Milky Way. The rising soul traveled across the starry path, eventually reaching the “Realm of the Dead.”  This realm’s supernatural ruler could transform into either a great horned serpent or an underwater panther. Families from all over the Moundville chiefdom brought and buried their dead here because they believed that Moundville was the appropriate place for the spirit to start its journey along the Path of Souls. Thus, over time Moundville became, in the minds of its people, not only the symbolic gateway to the Realm of the Dead but also the materialized image of that sacred domain on earth.”

One of the Museum’s most significant artifacts is the Rattlesnake Disk (Figure 7) and the interpretation of its imagery goes as follows:

“Carved on the palette’s surface are two rattlesnake-like creatures that are tied together by knots surrounding a “hand and eye” symbol. The hand and eye is a prominent Moundville motif and is thought to represent a part of the constellation that we identify as Orion. As a group, the knotted serpents and the hand and eye are believed to be a representation of the night sky. The serpents are the ropes that join the earth and sky. In the palm of the hand is the portal, or doorway through which the spirits of the dead can ascend the “Path of Souls,” or the Milky Way, in their extended journey to the “Realm of the Dead.”

Recent studies of other palettes reveal that they were ritual objects kept wrapped in sacred bundles. Functionally, the palettes were used as altar stones on which other bundled objects were placed for ritual use as well as for the preparation of ointments and paints that adorned ritual participants.”

In yet another display concerning the pottery excavated at Moundville, we have some more interpretation of their beliefs:


Specialized pottery vessels associated with mortuary activity at Moundville are distinguished by the symbolic art engraved on their surfaces. Moundville’s Hemphill Engraved style ceramics, for example, carry specific types of symbols and motifs. Archaeologists and other scholars have grouped these “icons” into six categories, or themes: Winged Serpent, Crested Bird, Celestia/ Raptor, Trophy, Center Symbols and Bands, and the Hand and Eye. All of these themes are linked to episodes in the journey along the Path of Souls.

Recent research illustrates that the winged serpent and the hand and eye themes are linked to the constellations we know as Scorpio and Orion, respectively. Another category recognized by scholars, the center symbol and bands theme, may also represent a specific celestial location. The hand and eye theme may have once symbolized the rank and/or person of Moundville’s Paramount Chief. The different crested bird or raptor themes appear to correspond to Native American stories of great birds that lived on the Path of Souls dangerously encountered by spirits of the deceased as they journeyed southward and westward towards the Realm of the Dead”

These interpretations of the Mississippian religious beliefs have been formulated by a number of archaeologists {the Mississippian Iconographic Workshop) who meet regularly to synthesize the religious concepts coming from the study of Mississippian art objects, the ethnological record for the eastern woodlands, and the concepts even practiced by present-day American Indians. This corpus of beliefs is termed the Southeast Ceremonial Complex or SECC. These beliefs and the iconography associated with them are described and beautifully pictured in the book, Hero, Hawk, and Open Hand, published in 2004 by The Art Institute of Chicago in association with Yale University Press.

Before proceeding further, more must be written about the central cosmology prevalent among the eastern woodland tribes. It is condensed in some of the Mississippian shell gorgets, and several are described by Lankford {Lankford, 2004) for the Cox Mound gorget style from eastern Tennessee. These gorgets depict the earth as a round disc floating on the primordial waters. In its center is a small cross, representing the four logs of a sacred fire with the logs extended in the cardinal directions. Around this central design lies a sun circle and further out lies a looped square representing a ceremonial ground common for the Muskogee {Creek) people but it further represents the earth. Projecting out from each of the four sides of the looped square are the heads of crested woodpeckers with large round eyes and these represent the four winds at each of the cardinal directions. This depiction of the cosmos is a variant of a common understanding, and this is that the earth is a disc floating on water or held up in water by underworld creatures such as turtles or serpents.

The underworld was dominated by the underwater panther, Piasa, and this creature appeared in two forms: the Piasa of the underworld and the winged and/or horned serpent of the upper world. This creature was feared and revered by the native Americans. It was believed that the shamans and conjurers traveled west and onto the pathway of souls {Milky Way) and onto the realm of the dead where they received special knowledge and powers from the winged serpent. They would return to earth with special powers and gifts. This important creature was represented in the sky by the constellation Scorpius {Figure 8) that appears just above the southern horizon during the warm months.This constellation is prominent and contains a giant red star, Antares, at its heart or eye location. The winged and/or horned serpent {figures 9 and 10), represented in the night sky by the constellation Scorpius, was feared by the eastern tribes and the Pawnees would not tell their myths while this constellation was visible for fear it would overhear them and take offense and punish them by sending serpents and other antagonists into their villages! But other native American people looked upon Scorpio as a more benign or even helpful deity. To the Sumo people of Central America {Alexander, 1916) it represented a kindly woman, “mother Scorpion”, who helped the traveling souls upon their journey along the heavenly pathway of souls.

The part of the Milky Way visible in northern latitudes during the summer months rises out of the south. It is split into two starry paths that join together at the star Deneb in the Constellation Cygnus, the "Swan". The dark area between the two paths is caused by heavy galactic dust zone that obscures the literally millions of stars behind it. Deneb is the bright star near the top of this dark area.

The part of the Milky Way visible in northern latitudes during the summer months rises out of the south. It is split into two starry paths that join together at the star Deneb in the Constellation Cygnus, the “Swan”. The dark area between the two paths is caused by heavy galactic dust zone that obscures the literally millions of stars behind it. Deneb is the bright star near the top of this dark area.

The Mississippians’ belief that the Milky Way was the starry pathway of souls was extremely important to them. We do not notice the Milky way, our galaxy, very often today because of the light pollution present in our modern world, but the ancient peoples saw it prominently in their very dark skies and it was natural that they would place on it importance in all kinds of ways. They noticed the split in the Milky Way (left) that we know today is formed by a heavy dust band that obscures the central stars, but for the ancients there were two starry pathways for the souls of the dead to follow. What path the souls followed was determined by encounters with great birds, an old woman, or celestial dogs.

At the core of their belief system was the constellation Orion, that we know as the hunter with his sword hanging from the great belt formed by three very bright stars in the central area. The Mississippians interpreted it as a large hand with the three “belt” stars forming the base of the open palm. This constellation holds a planetary nebula in the part we in the west interpret as Orion’s sword, and this. nebula appears to the naked eye as a blurry star. This nebula, for the Mississippians, formed the portal for the souls to pass through on their way to the Milky Way; the starry pathway of the souls. Upon death, the souls would head west to the edge of the earth’s disc and would leap through this portal onto the starry path, but success was dependent on leaving from a certain hallowed place (e.g. Moundville) at a propitious time when the constellation was near the horizon and near the Milky, Way. If the leap was miscalculated, the souls would not make it onto the starry pathway and they would obviously fall into oblivion. So success for the departed depended on (1) help from the religious leaders, i.e. the proper ceremonies, (2) departure from a sacred and consecrated location on earth, (3) proper timing to take advantage of the celestial opportunities, and (4) personal preparation in the form of food, weapons, proper accoutrements and knowledge.

Two other major celestial bodies were also of utmost importance to the Mississippians, and they were the moon and the sun.

The moon was the lodge of a female deity who operated in both the middle world (earth’s surface) and the Underworld (Reilly Ill, 2004). This deity appeared to be less threatening than the others and was probably even helpful to humanity at times.

The sun played a creative and life-supporting role to the Mississippians and was probably the main deity in their worship. It was certainly the major deity for the Mississippian Natchez people of the lower Mississippi valley who were still in existence when the French and Spanish established New Orleans. This tribe even believed their chiefs descended directly from the solar deity and they were called Suns.

But can these beliefs of the Mississippian people, who existed from about 900 to 1500 AD., be applied to the early woodland and middle woodland peoples of ancient Ohio? After all, the Mississippian era came at least 450 years after the Hopewell era ended and fully 1,000 to 2,000 years after the Adena era. Reilly (Reilly, 2004) flatly writes that the Mississippian Art and Ceremonial Complex or MACC (his term for the SECC) developed in AD. 900-1100 out of the art of the earlier Hopewell Interaction Sphere. The one thing of importance that comes out of the SECC studies is the fact that these basic religious tenets are very old in the eastern woodlands: the concept of the underworld, the middle world and the upper or sky world and the creatures that inhabit these worlds such as the winged serpent, birds, underwater panthers, etc. It is possible these religious concepts go very far back and even into the archaic periods and perhaps even further back in time.

The Hopewell practice of building large earthworks and creating art works ends about 450 A.O. in Ohio and even earlier in Illinois. It is not known how long the Middle Woodland practices lasted in the south and southeast, but they probably ended there around 450 A. D. too. If the Hopewell art influence extended into the Mississippian world that began around 900 AD., the mechanism for it is not known. Of course there could have been a corpus of beliefs and iconography and perhaps even art objects from Hopewell times retained by a small corps of religious practitioners for hundreds of years. The Christian monasteries of the dark ages come to mind here. So the basic core beliefs prevalent in the eastern woodlands, already very old, could have been maintained by one or several groups over the hundreds of years between the Hopewell explosion and the Mississippian efflorescence.

But what does change over the course of time are the expressions of basic long-held religious core beliefs. The Mississippians built great complexes of palisaded settlements containing large truncated mounds, open plazas, and henges; and practiced within these complexes were their complex and impressive rituals concerning fertility, the timing of the seasons, birth and death and the treatment of those deceased to insure their proper burial and the start of their spirit journeys along the pathway of souls and onto the realm of the dead. Such journeys had to begin with the proper rituals and from the proper place and practiced by the proper people. These people were extremely religious and their material accomplishments and artistic corpus reinforce this statement.

But coming back to ancient Ohio and its Hopewell and Adena Mound builders; did they watch the stars and planets and did they believe the Milky Way to be a pathway for the souls of the dead to follow to the land of the dead? Were the Scorpio and Orion constellations important to them and were their religious concepts somehow expressed in a way or ways that we can interpret to some degree? Can we apply any of the interpretations from the SECC studies to the Hopewell and Adena peoples?

Mississippian pot

Hand and eye decorated Mississippian pot from near Mobile, Alabama. Photo copied with permission from George Lankford.

I hypothesized earlier in this article that the Orion Constellation might have been important to the Hopewell people and that the eight interior mounds in their square and octagonal earthworks might have represented the eight major stars in that constellation and that the constellation might have represented a great bird figure to them. We find from the SECC studies that the Orion Constellation represented an open hand rather than a hunter or great bird. This open hand was represented on pottery and ritual discs as the “hand and eye” symbol (right). Now what evidence can be mustered to tie these same concepts to the older Hopewell belief system? We do have strong evidence in the form of the Hopewell mica and copper objects in the form of severed hands. These beautiful objects came largely from the mounds at Mound City and those at the Hopewell earthwork (Figures 13 and 14). They were obviously important religious symbols for the Hopewell people. Featured also among the Hopewell art objects were the representations of raptorial birds and claws. In fact, bird motifs were more prevalent with the Hopewell and Adena peoples than they were with the Mississippians and this could indicate a stronger place of birds in their belief system. Could the hand objects have symbolized the Orion Constellation and the birds creatures to be encountered by traveling souls along the starry path of the Milky Way? Or were the birds more friendly creatures that carried the souls through the portal and onto the starry path? The Orion constellation could have comprised a duality of bird and hand. I do think the Orion Constellation was important to the Hopewells and further evidence for this will be presented later.


Figure 13- Mica hand cutout excavated at the Hopewell Site from Mound 25. This hand and the mica eagle claw shown in Figure 6 were found together with the same extended burial.

Figure 14. Copper hand representations excavated from the Mound City Group, Chillicothe, Ohio. One of these hands holds five copper buttons, or rivets, that the archaeologist W. C. Mills (Mills, 1922) thought were placed there to plug thin places in the 1/16th inch hammered copper. These buttons could have been deliberately placed there: three are in a row possibly representing the three stars in Orion’s belt. This constellation was represented as an open hand in Mississippian iconography and this well could have been the case for the Hopewells as well.



And what about the Constellation Scorpio that represented the winged and/or horned serpent – the Piasa in celestial form – for the Mississippian people? Could it have been important to the Hopewells too? Two rattlesnake tablets wrapped in precious sheet copper (Figure 15) came from the Hopewell Earthwork site and they possessed feathers or plumes on the side of their heads (Squier and Davis, 1847). Did they represent the winged serpent/underwater panther and were they then identified with the Scorpio Constellation? It is entirely possible. A mica snake cutout was excavated from the Turner Mound Group and it could well have been accoutered with feathers in ancient times – feathers that decayed away long ago. Also the bizarre creature with animal and serpent features and long horns excavated at Turner (Figure 16) probably represents the underwater panther. The Hopewells certainly then possessed emblems of the underwater panther/winged serpent and it could well have been represented to them by the Scorpio Constellation.

Figure 15. Rattlesnake tablet found at the Hopewell Site. It possessed plumes carved into the sandstone near the head that probably represented feathers. This was a representation of the plumed serpent – the celestial form of the underwater Panther or Piasa.

Figure 16. This strange apparition was excavated at the Turner Hopewell Site near Cincinnati, Ohio. It has both serpent and animal features along with horns. It no doubt represented the underwater panther.

Figure 17. These stars made of copper were excavated with a burial in Mound number 7 at Mound City, Ohio, They serve to emphasize that the Ohio Hopewell people considered stars, and probably constellations, as important celestial entities. There were over a dozen such stars found together with this one burial.

Another set of copper artifacts excavated from the mounds at Mound City were actual star forms (Figure 17). There are three exhibited in the Mound City museum. These comprise even further evidence for the importance of stars and constellations in the Hopewellian cosmological view. The religious art objects for both the Mississippians and Hopewells bear many similarities that probably indicate similar religious beliefs. But the Ohio Hopewell people expressed their religious beliefs in an even more spectacular way: they built those mysterious and monumental earthworks! Can the study of them allow us to discover even more of their religious beliefs?

Two earthwork complexes require very close study; and they are the Newark and High Bank works located in Newark and Chillicothe, Ohio, respectively. Both complexes contain combinations of circles 1,054 feet in diameter conjoined to equilateral octagons by short walled avenues. The octagons have openings at each vertex and a small mound lies just inside of each opening. Each combination has an axis of symmetry and the axes for the two are close to 90 degrees apart: the axis for the Newark combination has an azimuth of 52 degrees from true north and the High Bank has one at 140 degrees. Hively and Horn (1982, 1984) discovered through careful survey that the Newark axis lines up with the major 18.6 year lunar standstill and that this event is also indicated by a line-ofsight at the High Bank Earthwork, but it is not along its axis of symmetry. Its axis has no known event to mark, e.g. lunar or solar rises or sets. These discoveries have resulted in a heavy emphasis on the moon and sun events in relation to these earthworks. Hively and Horn (1984) commented on this and stated that stellar events were not pursued because these events change greatly over the hundreds of years since Hopewell times, and further complicating this for them was the lack of firm radiocarbon dates for either earthwork.

The Newark and High Bank Earthwork complexes consist of many elements other than just the circle/octagon combinations including walled avenues, small circles, and mounds; and these features must be considered in any interpretation of their meaning and uses. Both the Newark and High Bank Earthworks contain strange sets of walled avenues: at Newark they extend from the great circle northward to the Wright square with the large oval burial mound work beyond and at High Bank they extend from the circle/octagon southwest towards the set of circular earthworks along the high bank above the Scioto River bottoms. The walls in these avenues are not parallel to one another as found in many other earthworks, but they are instead splayed to one another with the wide ends at the great circle at Newark and at the circle/octagon at High Banks. Even stranger yet, each set contains a hitch, or sharp jog, near the center of each.

I posit that these splayed earthen avenue sets symbolized the Milky Way. In the northern hemisphere the part of the Milky Way visible during the summer months is divided (Figure 11) and this divide is splayed and eventually ends at the star Deneb, a part of the Cygnus (the Swan) constellation. About half way along this divided starry path there is a hitch, or sharp jog in its trace. I believe that the splayed walled avenues connecting the two major parts of each earthwork complex copy the Milky Way almost exactly. To illustrate this, the Milky Way is superimposed upon the splayed avenue sets of the Newark earthwork in Figures 18 and 19 and upon splayed avenue of the High Bank Earthwork in Figure 20. At High Bank, the splayed avenue (Milky Way) extends from the circle/octagon combination to the southeast to the ~et of circular works lying above the Scioto River bottoms. These circular works could represent the realm of the dead while the circle/octagon represents the cosmos (below earth, earth, and heavens).

Figure 18. The splayed avenue between the Newark Great Circle and the Wright Square. Here the Great Circle represents the Earth and the Wright Square the Heavens. With the Milky Way overlay between them.

Figure 19. The Newark Earthworks with the divided section of the Milky Way (translucent film) superimposed on its two major splayed earthen avenue sets. The image of the Milky Way presented in Figure 11 was used to create this trace. The fit is good for the avenue leading out from the Great Circle to the Wright square. Note that the Milky Way trace superimposed on the splayed pathways between the circle/octagon and the Wright square and burial mound oval had to be reversed, i.e. positioned as would be seen from above the Milky Way, and this could be interpreted as the look from a god’s eye-point.

Figure 20. The Highbank Earthwork with the divided section of the Milky Way superimposed on its splayed earthen avenue that leads from the circle/octagon to the remote circular works located to the southwest. The fit here is good. We have the advantage of having photographic time exposure images of the Milky Way, while the Hopewells had only their vision to rely upon. Only the divided part of the Milky Way is represented: it extends much farther in both directions.

The High Bank Earthwork also includes a reference to the Orion Constellation in the form of three closely spaced mounds stretching across the walled avenue leading from the Circle/Octagon to the earthworks along the river terrace to the southwest. These three mounds · must represent the three blue giant stars that form what we know as the belt of the hunter in the Constellation Orion an.d what the ancient ones thought formed the base of the palm of a hand. Unlike the Newark earthwork complex, the High Bank works do not possess a burial mound area, though the large Harness burial Mound lies not too far to the south.

The combination of three stars (mounds) in a row is in plain sight in the square earthworks containing eight mounds, but one has to look for it. Each side has three openings, one in the center and one at each of the corners, and inside each opening lies a small mound. This makes an arrangement of three mounds in a row for each side of the square and this combination amounts to four threesomes in each earthwork. Here we have further confirmation that these squares and octagons represent Orion in two ways: (1) there is a total of eight mounds (stars) within each earthwork, and (2) the three stars of the Constellation’s belt are cleverly represented for a total of four times in each earthwork. Could the openings represent portals for the souls of the dead – a multifaceted emulation of the portal (the Orion Nebula) below the three stars in Orion’s belt? The Newark and High Bank octagons can be considered inflated squares and both, of course, hold three openings and three interior mounds inside those openings: in other words, a slightly “bowed” line of three mounds inside each side. The octagons can be considered squares distorted to accommodate celestial sight-lines.

Figure 21. The Snake Den Group located at the highest point in Pickaway County, Ohio, near the village of Ringold. The three large mounds in this group are arranged in a straight line and are probably emblematic of the three stars in the belt of the Orion Constellation. The small square enclosure at the eastern end of the line of mounds was originally thought to be a small circle but recent magnetic surveys by Dr. Jarrod Burks established its form and location. This map was copied from one kindly provided by Dr. Burks.

Other earthwork sites in Ohio use the Orion star triplet in their designs. The Snake Den Group earthwork and mound complex (Figure 21) on the highest elevation in Pickaway County incorporates three mounds arranged in a straight line just like the three central stars in Orion. Other examples of three in Ohio Hopewell are the great mound 25 at the Hopewell site which was a combination of three very large conjoined mounds, the tripartite works common around Chillicothe, Ohio, and even the three burial concentrations in such mounds as Seip and Hopewell itself (Greber and Ruhl, 2000).

The splayed avenue at Newark holds particular meanings, in that it extends from the great circle/ditch work to the Wright square, with its eight openings each guarded by an interior mound, and perhaps even further beyond the square to the great oval earthwork containing the many burial mounds. The great circle with its water-filled ditch would represent the disc of the earth floating upon the primordial sea and the splayed walled avenue the Milky Way, pathway of souls, leading into and probably through the Wright square or Orion Constellation and then onto the mound area, the realm of the dead. There are three great circle/ditch works in Ohio and they all share a diameter of about 1,200 feet and all contain mounds in their centers containing crematory basins: they are the Newark, Circleville and Shriver works located, respectively, in the Newark, Circleville, and Chillicothe areas of Ohio. They all very likely represent the earth surrounded by water: the Shriver and Circleville works all were known to have held water in wet seasons and the same was probably also true for the Newark Circle.

Another representation of the Milky Way could have existed at Newark by the two walled avenues leading eastward out from the circle/octagon area and onto the areas of the Wright square and ovate burial mound area. They are splayed but do not have a hitch along the path as does the other Newark splayed pathway.

If the Newark and High Banks Earthworks were cosmograms representing the Milky Way (Path of Souls) and the earth and the realm of the dead, one can envision the ceremonies that must have occurred at these sites at auspicious times on the Hopewell calendar! Parades of solemn marchers carrying the remains of the dead along the earthen avenues (path of the Milky Way) to the sounds of chants and music from drums, flutes, panpipes and rattles: an enactment of the souls of the dead journeying along the pathway of souls in preparation for the real thing. As it is today, funerals are of great importance to the survivors as well as insuring the proper preparation for the departed. They must have been hair-raising and inspirational events of extreme importance to the participants.

Much has been made, and appropriately so, of the alignment of the axis of symmetry for the circle/octagon part of the Newark earthwork complex to the maximum northern moonrise that occurs every 18.6 years. This line-of-sight bears 51.8 degrees from true north. This phenomenon of the 18.6 year moonrise maximum is termed in astronomic circles as the 18.6 year lunar standstill. The moon will stay at the maximum north rise for several evenings and will not stray far from it for several years on either side of these dates. With this event the moon makes both a maximum northern rise and a maximum southerly set and it travels further down on its path across the heavens. This brings up an interesting fact and coincidence: Lunar occultations of several stars also occur at 19 year intervals and this interval is the same as experienced by the moon. The 18.6 year lunar standstill signals, then, a flurry of rare occultation and conjunction events. Most importantly, it will occult or come near the red star Antares at the eye of the constellation Scorpio – the celestial representation of the winged serpent! This could have well been the major implication of the maximum northern moonrise sighting at Newark rather than the measurement per se. In other words, the Newark circle/octagon observatory had the sole purpose of alerting the Hopewells to when the moon would occult Antares and much of the Scorpio constellation stars. Think of the implication here – the eye and other parts of the feared and revered winged serpent would be covered by the Lunar Deity around the time of the 18.6 year Lunar standstill. What would this have meant to the Hopewell? Each occultation could have lasted at least an hour or slightly more and these occultation events happen instantly – the star suddenly is swallowed up by the moon and is just as instantly emitted from the moon’s other side.

The last lunar standstill occurred around October 22, 2005. The occultations of the major stars Antares, Spica, Pollux, and the Pleiades began in earnest starting early that same year and continued on into 2006. The Scorpius constellation appears in the southern sky in April and disappears in September and so is not visible in the northern hemisphere in the winter months. However its red eye star, Antares, is visible in all months except November and December. While it was visible in warm seasons of 2005 and 2006, Scorpius experienced many lunar intrusions and many near approaches and three actual occultations of Antares, its large red eye star: the year 2005 near approaches to Antares occurred on April 26, June 20, and August 14; and the three occultations occurred on March 3 at 7 AM, May 24 at 4 AM and on July 18 at midnight. In all these cases of near approaches and occultations, the moon violated Scorpius space.

The Lunar intrusions into Scorpius space continued into the year 2006, although there were no occultations of Antares. The near approaches occurred on January 25, February 21 , March 21, April 17, July 8, September 1 , and October 25. An occultation of Antares was seen in the eastern United States at 11 PM on June 7, 2009. There have been no more near approaches or occultations of Antares over the last 6 years and none in the years from 2002 to March of 2005. So the 18.6 year Lunar standstill does indeed herald a flurry of Lunar intrusions into the Scorpio Constellation space as well as some dramatic occultations of its eye star, Antares.

Another set of stars experiencing near misses and occultations in the 2005 through 2006 period was the Pleiades – a tight set of seven very bright stars visible to the naked eye. Occultations visible from Ohio occurred January 10, April 1, July 20, and October 10, all in 2006, and near misses occurred almost every month in the 2005 – 2006 period. Two other bright stars also involved were Spica and Regulus.

Figure 22. A view of the star Antares, and part of its host Scorpius Constellation rising out of the south-southeast on the main axis of the High Bank Earthwork. This giant red star is at the eye of the Constellation Scorpius which probably represented to the Hopewells the winged or horned Serpent, the celestial form of the underwater panther or Piasa. The Scorpius Constellation’s tail portion lies across the Milky Way, partly visible to the left of Antares, and the pair of bright blue stars in the lower left are at the tail end of the “scorpion”. The rest of the Constellation lies below the horizon. The sky is not to scale in this representation and is larger than reality – it is meant to convey the impression of a stellar rise at the Highbank Earthwork. Antares rises at about 125 degrees from true north and reaches the 140 degree position a short time later: for example, Antares will lie at the 140 degree position at 22:25 on May 1st of this year at 12 Degrees and 18 minutes above the horizon. Such rises will be checked in the field as the opportunity arises. The Squier and Davis map of the earthwork was used for this illustration.

It is inconceivable that the axis of the High Bank circle/octagon does not point to some important celestial entity or event as auspicious as the lunar standstill alignment event at the Newark circle/octagon work. The High Bank circle/octagon axis points to the south at 140 degrees from true north. Here the orientation of the High Bank circle/octagon combination could take on new meaning: its axis of symmetry points to the southern horizon where the Scorpio Constellation resides. Could its axis align to the rises of Antares and its host constellation Scorpio? Antares rises at 125 degrees from true north and sets at 235 degrees, so it is visible along the 140 degree High Bank axis just after rising (Figure 22). The Newark and High Bank Earthwork alignments then formed a powerful and complementary astronomical system useful for predicting significant astronomical events that impinged directly on their religious beliefs and practices. These cosmological phenomena must have figured heavily in their ceremonial calendar of events.

The best time of the year to view the Maximum 18.6 year moonrise at Newark is during the last quarter of the standstill year (Knapp, 1998). The fall and winter seasons are also the only times to view the Orion Constellation. The Newark Earthwork was best utilized, for at least some ceremonies, in the fall and winter. Hively and Horn (1984) determined that the maximum southerly moonrise azimuth is indicated by one of the sight-lines at the High Bank Earthwork – this event occurs in the summer. Given the highly likely association between the High Bank Earthwork and the summer appearance of the Scorpio constellation, and the fall and winter uses of the Newark earthwork, the two earthwork complexes must have been complementary in usage. As Knapp (1998) emphasizes, the Great Hopewell Road, proposed by Lepper (Lepper, 2005) that probably connected Newark with High Bank, reinforces the probable complementary use of these two great earthworks by the Hopewells almost 2,000 years ago.

The Orion Constellation was interpreted in the SECC studies as the portal to the Milky Way Pathway of Souls, but a case can also be made for the Scorpio Constellation serving in just such a role. The Orion Constellation does not lie across any portion of the Milky Way but instead lies to one side of the part of the Milky Way visible in the winter months. This part is not divided as is the part visible in the summer months. The Scorpio Constellation lies low on the southern horizon and directly across the lower part of the divided Milky Way visible in the summer. It was located in the prime zone where departed souls would have to enter the Milky Way Pathway of Souls. This part of the Milky Way is the one very likely depicted by the splayed pathways at Newark and High Banks. So the plot thickens when we consider the roles of the Orion and Scorpius constellations. Romain (Lepper, 2014) related that the proposed Great Hopewell Road leading from Newark to the High Bank Earthyvork area at the 100 AD summer solstice paralleled the path of the Milky Way. I propose that it not only paralleled the Milky Way, but in fact actually represented it – the Newark and High Bank Works were then at the opposite ends of the Milky Way and accordingly at the opposite seasons of Winter and Summer. The Great Hopewell Road could have then been a symbolic pathway for the Hopewells to traverse as the seasons changed and each earthwork took on its seasonal usage.

The importance of the divide in the southern part of the Milky Way and some of the stars in that region becomes apparent from the beliefs of the Pawnee and the Cherokee (Hager, 1906): “The souls of the dead are received by a star at the northern end of the Milky Way, where it bifurcates, and he directs the warriors upon the dim and difficult arm, women and those who died of old age the brighter and easier path. The souls then journey southwards. At the end of the celestial pathway they are received by the spirit star, and there they make their home.”Hager takes the “spirit Star” to be Antares (Alpha Scorpii). The star at the bifurcation point of the Milky Way has to be Deneb, part of the Cygnus Constellation. If this all applied to the Hopewells, then the path southward would start through the Orion Nebula at Newark and end 90 miles away at the High Bank Earthwork associated with the Constellation Scorpio and its red giant star Antares.

If these two earthworks were such important cosmograms, how did they fit into the use of the other Ohio earthworks surrounding them? The whole Hopewell ceremonial universe could have incorporated all the earthworks in the rituals necessary to safely start the Hopewell souls on their starry journey to the realm of the dead. We have one such earthwork, High Bank, among the scrum of works around Chillicothe and the other at Newark in an entirely integrated system there. The Circleville earthwork, with its square and Circle combination, could have been another important cosmogram serving its area of Ohio. Its axis is aligned with the minimum moon set (Romain, 1991, 2000). There could have been henges and avenues marked by wooden posts in some cases that have been overlooked by archaeologists, i.e. in place of earthern walls. All of this means that the circle/octagon works at Newark and Chillicothe served a calendrical and alerting purpose and that they were integrated into the whole network of earthworks and religious events in these two areas.

Given the arguments presented in this article for the importance of stellar entities in the Hopewell religious belief system and for the use of the earthworks to emulate stellar entities and to measure stellar alignments, it is incumbent that the stars be considered in any attempts to explain what the earthworks were and what they were used for.

Radiocarbon dates would be useful for determining precise stellar alignments, but they are not really absolutely necessary for determining important stellar associations with the earthworks. For even in the case of the maximum 18.6 year Lunar standstill alignment at Newark, it was not necessary for the Hopewells to actually know the precise date for it – they only needed to know that the standstill was upon them and they would determine this when the moon neared the standstill and that would have lasted over a period of several years, including the year just preceding the standstill event.


The great Hopewell earthworks of Ohio were giant cosmograms reflecting the religious beliefs of their builders. They were used to measure and predict celestial events and to host important religious pageantries and rituals. Their geometries and arrangements were precise. It was the Hopewells’ effort to control and be part of the cosmos: to measure the celestial cycles and to use such measurements to plan and perform their sacred rituals. In this effort, they made the earthworks important components of that cosmos and concordantly the Hopewell peoples.

The heavens were of great importance to the Hopewell people and this included the stars and constellations and not just the moon and sun. The periodic cycles of the moon measured by alignments in earthwork and possible wooden henge systems were used to predict other celestial events such as lunar occultations of either the stars in certain constellations or of parts of these constellations. Such occultation events would have had important meanings to the Hopewell people.

The Hopewell belief system and its associated art and iconography were likely emulated in later times by the Mississippian peoples as evidenced by the SECC. What mechanism allowed this transfer to take place over a 450 year time span is not understood at this time. Many of the interpretations gained from the SECC studies can be applied to the earlier Ohio Hopewell belief system.

The Milky Way was important to the Hopewells, as it was to the Mississippian peoples, for it was the visual pathway for departed souls to follow to the land of the dead. As described in the text, the High Bank and Newark Works incorporated the Milky Way into their designs and provided a way for the Hopewell people to emulate, in the earthly world, the journey of their souls or the souls of their departed tribal members.

Two salient constellations, Orion and Scorpius, figured prominently in their religious beliefs: (1) Orion was present in the winter months and provided the portal through which departed souls began their journey onto and along the Milky Way pathway for souls onto the land of the dead, and it could have represented a hand or an avian entity to the Hopewell people, and (2) Scorpio was the celestial manifestation of the underwater panther in the winged and/or horned serpent version and it was and is critically juxtaposed across the Milky Way in the southern sky during the summer months. This seasonality for Orion and Scorpio probably figured importantly in Hopewell mythological and theological thinking.

The circle/octagon and circle/square earthworks, with their axes of symmetry and their lunar and solar alignments, were incorporated into the whole pantheon of earthworks to serve as celestial calendars. In other words, they were used to mark celestial events that figured strongly in their religious beliefs and associated pageantry. The use of the surrounding earthworks is not known, but many incorporated large burial mounds and were probably representational of the land of the dead. Earthworks of this sort were, for example, Seip, Hopewell, Harness and parts of Newark and Circleville.

The earthworks themselves probably covered wooden post patterns and many of the works probably hold undiscovered henges and avenues outlined by posts. In fact, once the henges reached their useful ends, they were probably commemorated by removing the posts and burying their traces with soil to form the earthworks we know today. In other words, they were buried much as were human remains.

Raptorial birds figured prominently in Hopewell and Adena iconography and were certainly important creatures in their religious beliefs. The later Mississippians believed birds were dangerous antagonists met along the pathway of souls, but this might not have been so for the Middle and early woodland peoples where birds could have been aids for the departed souls on their journeys to the land of the dead. Warfare and the belief system supporting it were important to the Mississippians, but probably not to the Hopewells or Adenas so far as can be determined from the archaeological record. In other words, the Hopewell/Adena spiritual world was probably more benign than was the warfaredominated Mississippian way.

The Hopewell and Adena bird and hand icons, made from stone, copper and mica, probably represented the entities of the underwater panther/winged serpent and the portal to the pathway of souls as celestially represented by the Scorpio and Orion constellations, respectively.

The large circle/ditch earthworks were very likely representative of the earth as they were circular and flat and were surrounded by water (in the ditches) and this was directly reflective of the eastern woodland belief that the earth was a flat disc floating on the primordial ocean. It is interesting that these large 1 ,200 foot diameter circles all held mounds in their centers, while the other circles of 1054 foot diameters and always conjoined to octagons or squares did not hold mounds. The latter probably represented the underworld. The octagons and squares incorporating eight mounds at their openings probably represented the sky world; and in particular the Orion constellation and/or an avian entity.

The Newark and Chillicothe areas must have been centers of religious activity serving all, or nearly all of eastern North America.


Wading into the spiritual realms of ancient peoples is trepidatious business and must be highly speculative, but nothing ventured, nothing gained. This study led me down new and intriguing paths and certainly opened my eyes to many possibilities for interpreting the great earthworks of Ohio. The interpretations coming out of the SECC studies do allow some basis for many of my interpretations and applications onto Hopewell practices. I hope this discussion opens new avenues of thinking on the interpretation of the ancient Hopewell world and their earthwork constructions. The stars were important entities to them and have to be considered in any studies of their religious beliefs. The earthworks were the monumental stages for the pageantries so important to fulfilling those beliefs. Those pageants must have been something to experience.


Special thanks go to my wife, Cynthia, and my daughters, Cheryl and Lorene, for reviewing the article and making valuable suggestions for improving the understanding and readability of it.

Thanks go to Dr. Richard Sutton, avid astronomy enthusiast, for valuable insights into the celestial world.

Katherine Abbott, my Photoshop consultant, provided information necessary for the completion of this article. Her help is greatly appreciated.

Discussions with John Pazmino of the New York Skies Association were valuable in many ways.

Mr. Eugene Futato, Senior Archaeologist, Office of Archaeological Research of the University of Alabama, provided valuable insights and leads to the SECC corpus of beliefs.

The interpretations of Mississippian art and religious beliefs established by the Mississippian Iconographic Workshop, chaired by Dr. Kent Reilley Ill and with important contributions by Dr. George Lankford, were invaluable.


Alexander, H. B.
1916 Latin American Mythology, Cooper Square Publishers, New York, N.Y., p. 185

Anderson, Jerrel C.
2011 “The Circleville Earthwork and Hopewell”, Ohio Archaeologist, Journal of the Archaeological Society of Ohio, Volume 61, No. 1, pages 18-29.

Greber, N’omi B. and Ruhl, Katherine C. 2000 The Hopewell Site, A Contemporary Analysis Based on the Work of Charles Willoughby, originally published in 1989 by Westview Press, Boulder, San Francisco, London, reprinted and revised by Eastern National.

Hager, S.
1906 “Cherokee Star-Lore” in Festschrift Boas, p. 363; H. B. Alexander, “North American Mythology”, page. 117.

Hively, R. and Horn, R
1982 “Geometry and Astronomy in 1984 “Hopewellian Geometry and Astronomy at High Bank”, Archaeoastronomy,
No. 7, S85-99.

Lankford, George E.
2004 “World on a String: Some Cosmological Components of the Southeastern Ceremonial Complex”, Hero, Hawk and Open Hand, The Art Institute of Chicago in association with Yale University Press, New Haven, Connecticut and London, England, pages 207-217.

Lepper, Bradley
2014 “The Newark Earthworks”, lecture for the Athens Historical Society Ohio Archaeology Month lecture Series, October 29. 2005 Ohio Archaeology, Orange Frazer Press, Wilmington, Ohio, pages 128 and 164.

Knapp, Joe
1998 “Hopewell Lunar Astronomy: the Octagon Earthworks”

Mills, William C.
Prehistoric Ohio”, 1922 Certain Mounds and Village Sites in Ohio, Vol. 3, Part 4, Exploration of the Mound City Group, F. J. Heer Printing/Co., Columbus, Ohio. Archaeoastronomy, No. 4, S2-20.

Penney, David W.
1980 “The Adena Tablets: A Study of Art Prehistory”, Midcontinental Journal of Archaeology, Volume 5, Number 1, pages 3-38.

Reilly Ill, Kent F.
2004 “People of Earth, People of Sky: Visualizing the Sacred in Native American Art of the Mississippian Period”, Hero, Hawk and Open Hand, The Art Institute of Chicago in association with Yale University Press, New Haven Connecticut and London, England, pages 125-137.

Romain, William F.
1991 “Possible Astronomical Alignments at Hopewell Sites in Ohio”, Ohio Archaeologist, Volume 41, No. 3, pages 4-16.
2000 Mysteries of the Hopewell, the University of Akron Press, Akron, Ohio.

Jerry Anderson has contributed an exhaustive study of the Circleville earthworks – Vol 61- Ohio Archaeologist. He is a dedicated non-professional and it was through his efforts and perseverance that the Anderson Earthworks in Ross County was made known. Jerry discovered remnants of this unknown Hopewell construction by examining aerial photographs from the early part of the 1900s. In recent years others claimed to have known about these lost works but the claims were spurious.

2 replies
  1. Ross Hamilton says:

    Really like Jerry Anderson’s Circleville paper-it could be the very best ever produced. Also really have enjoyed reading this mounds-and-star article. Romain has made the effort to correlate Scorpius with Serpent Mound, but Anderson’s approach may make good sense as well without the reversal technique as admitted by Dr. Romain. Admittedly, both Scorpius and Orion are good places to start in efforts to match or correlate the ancient enclosure, non-burial, and often geometric works of the Ohio Valley, but if one or two are reliably correlations, wouldn’t many of the others be as well? What would it take to extend our eyes into the celestial world–cutting our attentions from the horizon? Good work here Jerry, please keep it up.

  2. Jerrel Anderson says:

    Mr. Hamilton;

    Thank you for your kind remarks.

    I tried to photograph the rise of Antares along the axis of the Highbank work, but the effort was foiled by a light cloud bank (only in the crucial southern direction) and the bright city light pollution from the great metropolis of Richmondale! I set up my camera at the northern section of the circle, and in doing so came to more fully appreciate the enormity of these earthworks. This circle measures at a diameter of 1,050 feet; the standard size of this type of circle. This earthwork is now planted in native prairie and it was quite a slog to hike from one side of the circle to the other side through the milkweed and grasses. I will attempt it again whenever the weather is right and Antares and its host constellation, Scorpio, are at their maximum height on the southern horizon.

    A friend of mine, who is an astronomy buff, suggested that alignments between certain star rises (or sets) could be used to date the earthwork by back- calculating when that alignment was best. The maximum moonrise at Newark, for example, is in perfect alignment with the axis of the circle-octagon axis in Hopewell times of 200 – 450 A.D. It is now off axis just slightly.

    I will be submitting an article soon on earthworks lying between Chillicothe and Circleville, Ohio. There have been a number of new discoveries in that area of Ohio.

    Jerry Anderson


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