Serpent Mound

Ohio archaeology has a problem. All around the globe, a movement has been underway to change the imperialist names once given to archaeological sites to names indigenous to the cultures that created those works. This is called “the decolonization of archaeology” in Canada, which includes such names as the Kay-Nah-Chi-Wah-Nung Mounds in Ontario. It’s a sign of basic respect to the peoples of authorship.

Meanwhile, Ohio remains a bastion of unrepentant Anglocentrism, with the important exception of the Adena name, which Thomas Worthington likely borrowed from the Shawnee. But the Adena Mound “type site” – or the model of a particular archaeological culture – was completely destroyed and now lies below Orange Street in Chillicothe.

Just a few miles outside Chillicothe, at the places where tourists are shepherded, are white-man-in-your-face mound sites with the names Hopeton, Story, Campbell, Seip (a German name), Harness, Turner, and for cripes’ sake, Windsor (which is in Indiana near the Ohio line). All were organized under the name of the Confederate veteran of the Civil War and mound looter Mordecai Hopewell, whose Chillicothe farm included a spectacular group of mounds that became the type site for the so-called and misnamed 'Hopewell Culture.' Not all of those property owners looted the mounds on their properties like Mordecai Hopewell did, but most did and those that did lost the right to have their names mark the sites.

That the Anglo-Americans drove the Shawnee and Miami out of the Ohio Valley in a genocidal military campaign should not be advertised in the names we plaster on Native sites.

The renaming of most Ohio mound sites will take time and tribal consultations, since the tribes represent the living descendants of the people who built these mounds. But there is one site that would make a good start on decolonization, and that is Serpent Mound, for no one doubts that the earthwork represents a big snake, whatever else it may be. Serpent Mound is on the list for nomination to the UNESCO World Heritage List.

The most reliable dating of Serpent Mound puts its creation in the 4th century BCE, based on recent radiocarbon dating of artifacts found inside the mound. That puts it squarely as a creation of the Adena civilization, which fortuitously is how the earthwork was identified in the early 20th century. We also know from archaeology, DNA analysis, and historical linguistics, that the Adena were an Algonquian people, directly ancestral to the historic Shawnee and Miami, who never left the middle Ohio Valley until partially driven out by the Dutch-backed Iroquois in the 17th century, and then the Shawnee were expelled from Ohio by whites in 1832. Algonquians are also famous for using snake iconography. The Shawnee word manetoo means both snake and spirit, implying that early Algonquians saw all higher beings as having an “inner snake” – an idea that may do much to explain Serpent Mound.

Therefore, it makes sense to give Serpent Mound a Shawnee name as a start on decolonization. Again, we are lucky because there is no doubt on how to say “big snake” in Shawnee language, that’s because a leader of the Ohio Shawnee was named “Big Snake” in the early 19th century. He reportedly lived during the Shawnee removal from Ohio and died in Kansas around 1830. His name in Shawnee language was Shimanetoo, easily analyzed as shi (big) + manetoo (snake). (I am standardizing the spelling.)

Indeed, his name is a sign of the continuing importance of big snakes in the Adena-Shawnee tradition. Shawnee language is believed to have evolved continuously from Adena language, so it is quite plausible that Serpent Mound’s builders understood the earthwork as Shimanetoo.

Shimanetoo, the 19th century man, married the famous Shawnee chief Black Hoof’s daughter, or, in an alternate account, it was Black Hoof who married Shimanetoo’s daughter. Black Hoof was the principal spokesman for the Ohio Shawnee.

Like the majority of Ohio Shawnee, Shimanetoo fought on the American side in the War of 1812 and fought in the Battle of Thames, in which Tecumseh was killed, but on the opposite side. Few know that there were Shawnee warriors on both sides. Shimanetoo was a signatory to the two treaties in 1814 and 1815 that ended hostilities and guaranteed Shawnee land rights in Ohio – guarantees that were revoked in the 1830s, when the Shawnee were expelled.

He signed the two treaties with different spellings of his name: “Shammonetho, or Snake” and “Shemenetoo, or big snake.” I am suggesting use of the spelling “Shimanetoo” because manetoo is the usual spelling of the Shawnee word for snake, and we are interested in the name, not necessarily the historical figure, due to the divided allegiances of his time. Shi is the common Algonquian prefix meaning big, often extended into gitshi or mishi, and found with French spelling in names like Chicago and Michigan. Ohioans may feel free to ignore the latter.

There are other ways to translate “Big Snake” into Algonquian languages, but Shimanetoo is the simplest and most literal for southern Ohio. We need not drop “Serpent Mound,” but to promulgate Shimanetoo as the alternate name of the site would at least signal a commitment to move from English-only hegemony. And we need not wait for the years of bureaucratic process to accomplish this translation. Ordinary Ohioans can simply start calling the earthwork Shimanetoo as a translation of Serpent Mound.


*Geoffrey Sea is a historian and writer who has long studied the earthworks of Ohio and is an administrator and founder of the Adena Core group on Facebook.