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A PORTRAIT OF AN ADENA FEMALE AND WOMEN IN ADENA SOCIETY
Jason Jarrell and Sarah Farmer
The Adena Culture emerged in the Ohio River Valley sometime between 1400 and 800 B.C., and persisted until around 300 A.D. Adena raised earthen mounds ranging from just a few inches to nearly 70 feet high. Within the mounds, the honored dead were buried in sub-mound pits, log tombs, and occasionally elaborate timber structures. The human remains from the mounds were frequently found with artifacts, including copper bracelets, beads, and gorgets, as well shell, flint, and slate objects. The Adena also constructed circular earthen enclosures. These “sacred circles” usually included an interior ditch following the circuit of the earthen wall and one causewayed entryway. These structures are typically considered to have served some ritual or ceremonial purpose. The Adena people lived in dispersed seasonal hamlets and consumed white tailed deer, squash, and gourd. At the Charleston Mound Group in West Virginia and elsewhere, evidence has been found suggesting that the Adena engaged in some level of maize agriculture by the third century B.C. (1)
Since May of 2015, the authors have been working closely with Marcia K. Moore on a project to reveal the living image of the Adena people. For this project, the authors selected a good many photographs of several intact Adena crania, in order to provide a tangible, physical foundation point for the recreations made by Marcia, who then chose which skulls among the photographs she wished to recreate. For the build of the body of the Adena male, references of measurements of skeletons from Adena tombs reaching between 7 and 8 feet in height were also sent. The large remains were discovered and originally measured by Smithsonian agents and 20th century archaeologists. The first publicly available image of the Adena male was released in late 2015 (2), and was picked up and ran by National Geographic in Poland.
For the stunning image of the Adena female, Marcia chose a skull from the Wright Mounds in Kentucky. The dead at the Wright Mounds were considered by anthropologist H.T.E. Hertzberg to exemplify the distinct congenital features of Adena, including large, lower jaws and high-vaulted cranial vaults—enhanced by artificial occipital flattening (3). In their reviews of Adena skeletal material, William S. Webb, Charles Snow, and Don Dragoo noted the characteristics of the powerful people who once dominated the Ohio River Valley. Adena possessed massive and prognathic jaws, pronounced brow ridges, and some of the highest skull vaults noted for any population in the world. Their bones were very thick, featuring marked eminences for musculature. And it was not only the male skeletons that occasionally exhibited extraordinary stature. Some Adena mounds also contained the remains of females exceeding six feet in height (4).
Modern archaeology considers Adena society to have been heterarchical in nature (5). In heterarchical societies, leadership positions activate when needed, but supposedly do not ascribe lasting power to the person or persons chosen to bear the status roles. However, research in some regions of the Ohio Valley has suggested that at least some Adena polities were modeled upon an inherited, generational elitism (6). Whatever the nature of power in the Adena Culture, what is evident in the archaeological record is that influential females were often the ones to wield it. Such evidence can be found at The McKees Rocks Mound, located in Stowe Township, Allegheny County, Pennsylvania. The mound was between 16 and 17 feet high and 85 feet in diameter at the time of excavation in 1896. The McKees Rocks Mound was built up in three periods of construction, possibly spanning hundreds of years, and the final structure contained the remains of between 30 and 40 individuals. The original or primary mound had been built of river sand to a height of between 3 and 4 feet, covering the remains of a single female burial—numbered as burial 26 by excavator Frank Gerodette.
Burial 26 was described by Don Dragoo as “a central burial of an extended adult female of Adena physical type”, interred with a Late Archaic type adze, four deer or elk scapula awls, a copper sheath for an imitation bear canine, 357 columnella shell beads, 153 marginella shell beads, antler and bone flaking tools, and one slate reel-shaped gorget (7). Prolific numbers of shell beads and other prestigious goods are recurring finds in the tombs of individuals thought to hold important social roles in Adena society (6). Furthermore, the tombs of Adena shamans have been found to frequently contain elements of animistic totemism—including masks and other implements made from the parts of wolves, wildcats, and even sharks (8). The copper sheath for the bear canine with Burial 26 may indicate that the regional shamanic tradition emphasized the symbolism of the bear. Further evidence of a regional tradition of bear shamanism was found at the Peters Creek Mound 20 miles south of Pittsburgh, where two more copper sheaths were found, one of which covered a bear canine. The second sheath was found near a worked bear mandible fragment. (7) The primary female from McKees Rocks could have been a spiritual leader or ritual specialist, upon whose death the building of the mound commenced.
Evidence of Adena females with important social roles has also been found in the Hocking Valley of Ohio. Excavations in Connett Mound 3 on the Wolf’s Plains near Athens in the 1980s revealed a central pit tomb at mound center containing the remains of two individuals. One of these was an extended burial of a 16-23 year old female. The bones were stained with red ocher, and surrounded by four strands of copper beads. The beads may have originally been sewn into a garment or cloak. The second burial in the pit was a cremated adult female placed upon two deliberately damaged copper breastplates. Artifacts found with the cremation include a deliberately broken pipestone pipe, 27 bone beads, a worked eagle beak, copper and shell beads, and rectangular copper ornaments that may have once been attached to a leather garment. (9) Some archaeologists believe that Adena and Hopewell shamans used smoking pipes to consume hallucinogenic substances, facilitating communion with dead ancestors or spirit beings. The pipestone pipe, copper ornaments, red ocher, and evidence of possible ritual garments found with the females in Connett Mound 3 suggest that these were two powerful Adena shamans or medicine women.
Different types of prestigious female burials have been found in Adena mounds throughout the Ohio Valley. For example, the following is from a first hand account by A.R. Sines of the excavation of an Adena mound at Charleston, West Virginia in the late 1800s, published in the June 18th, 1961 edition of the Sunday Gazette-Mail: “This small mound stands near the boundary of Sunset Memorial Park…At the bottom of this mound we located the bones of what appeared to be a woman…There had been copper bands around the ankles and wrists and larger pieces of copper on each breast.”
While the average height of Adena females was 5 ft. 2 inches (10), some of the remains that have been discovered exhibit the same extraordinary height and build known for many of the males. According to Frank Gerodette’s field notes, Burial 26 at McKees Rocks mound was 6 feet, 2 inches in height. The following account from Frederick W. Bush’s Centennial Atlas of Athens County Ohio (1905 and 1996) describes a discovery on the Wolf’s Plains in Ohio:
A small mound located on the very top of the hill bordering the eastern part of the Wolf’s Plains and a little northwest of the house now occupied by Mr. J. Taylor, superintendent of the Johnson Coal Mining company’s mine here, was opened by two or three of the citizens in the spring of 1905…At the bottom of the mound and lying on a huge flat stone was a skeleton apparently of a woman…The explorers stated that the bones were remarkably large. The jaw bone would fit over that of the average man of today…The forearm bones were 5 inches larger than those of the average man. Charcoal was found in three different layers.
Marcia’s Adena reconstructions provide visual representations of an ancient people who have fascinated researchers since the days of the early American antiquarians. Her creative works will no doubt reach the public consciousness in interesting ways in the years ahead. She has also created a gallery of Adena people to appear in Ages of the Giants, a book by the present authors to be published in 2017.
Author’s Website: www.alleghenymounds.com
1. Don W. Dragoo, “Adena and the Eastern Burial Cult”, Archaeology of Eastern North America, Vol. 4, 1976, pp. 1-9.
Jason Jarrell and Sarah Farmer, “The Adena Giant Revealed”, Alternative Perceptions Magazine, January 2016.
H.T.E. Hertzberg. “Skeletal Material from the Wright Site, Montgomery County, Kentucky”, in The Wright mounds, sites 6 and 7, Montgomery County, Kentucky, by William S. Webb, University of Kentucky Press, 1940, pp. 83-102.
William S. Webb, The Dover Mound, University of Kentucky Press, 1959.
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.
Mark A. McConaughy, “Early Woodland Mortuary Practices in Western Pennsylvania”, West Virginia Archeologist, 1990, 42 (2), p. 1-10.
Don W Dragoo, Mounds for the Dead: An Analysis of the Adena Culture, Annals of the Carnegie Museum, Vol. 37, 1963.
Jason Jarrell and Sarah Farmer, “Adena Totemism and the Shamans of the Early Woodland Period”, Ancient American Magazine Number 115, June 2017.
Shaune M. Skinner, “Preliminary Results of the 1983 Excavations at the Connett Mounds #3 and #4, The Wolf Plains National Register District, Athens County, Ohio”, Archaeology of Eastern North America, Vol. 13, 1985, pp. 138-152.
William S. Webb and Charles E. Snow, The Adena People, University of Kentucky, Lexington, 1945.