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Alternate Perceptions Magazine, January 2019

Oracles of the Adena Mound Builders: An Interpretation of an Unusual Type of Early Woodland Burial

by: Jason Jarrell and Sarah Farmer

As the earliest culture to raise large burial mounds and monumental landscapes in the Ohio River Valley, the prehistoric Adena mound builders were active between roughly 1000 BC and 300 AD. In around the first century BC some Adena communities evolved into Ohio Hopewell, while others continued their own culture for several centuries. For decades, the slightly younger—yet more spectacular—Ohio Hopewell Culture has received the lion’s share of archaeological studies, and experts have begun to identify the social or religious roles represented by the exotic artifacts found with Hopewellian burials (Carr & Case 2006). This same technique should be applied in modern Adena studies, which have become increasingly rare. In this article we discuss the possibility that a certain magico-religious role in Adena societies may have gone unnoticed despite being represented by a recurring pattern at several Adena mounds. Such a recurring phenomenon is noteworthy especially in regards to Adena, since the culture is known for its remarkable diversity.

The Adena people constructed burial mounds in Ohio, Indiana, West Virginia, Kentucky, and Pennsylvania that range from a few to nearly 70 feet in height (Jarrell & Farmer 2017). Artifacts found with the Adena dead include copper bracelets, beads, rings, daggers, gorgets, and headdresses, as well as shell, flint and slate objects and red ocher. The Adena also built earthworks other than burial mounds that are considered “ritual” or “ceremonial” sites in the academic literature. The most common are circular banks of earth, which usually feature an interior ditch or “moat”, with a single causeway entryway. The circles are typically around 200 feet in diameter, although some are much larger. Interestingly, the Adena and Hopewell are now understood to have used a common measurement unit in the construction of their earthworks, even though Hopewell structures are far more elaborate (Romain 2015). Adena-like cultures are also well known from outside the Ohio Valley, including areas of New Brunswick, New York State, New England, and the East Coast. An “Adena interaction sphere” of related concepts relative to both material culture and religion connected these manifestations. For some time the core of Adena has been identified as the “cult of the dead” evident from discoveries in the ancient mounds (Dragoo 1963).

Adena Shamans

Adena ritual leaders were individuals who filled the roles of traditional shamans (Carr & Case 2006). Cross culturally, shamans obtain knowledge and power from other realities via altered states of consciousness, and then apply what they have learned to serve their local communities as social leaders fulfilling multiple roles (Carr & Case 2006:181). Adena shamans adorned themselves with costumes and paraphernalia made from the power parts of the wolf, wildcat, and bear, and several burials have been found which included masks or mouth inserts made from animal jaws (Webb & Baby 1957). Thus, Adena shamans are believed to have engaged in totemic, human to animal transformation (Romain 2009:39-54). Romain (2018:12) suggests that in merging with the spirits of animals such as wolves, Adena shamans may have obtained the ability to move between worlds in order to acquire knowledge needed by the local community. The wolf, wildcat, and bear as emphasized in Adena could have been powerful Manitou or spirit entities, animal symbolic forms of characters from cosmology and origin myths, spirit guides, or combinations thereof. Mytho-histories of historic Native American tribes in the northeast typically connect important culture heroes or Manitou with specific animals.

The altered states and “animal transformations” of Adena shamans were likely facilitated by the smoking or consumption of plants with psychoactive properties. Among the most widespread Adena artifacts are diagnostic tubular and blocked-end tubular smoking pipes. By around 50 BC the Ohio Hopewell had developed effigy platform pipes, engraved with representations of animals, humans, and abstract creatures, which could represent spirit guides or powerful Manitou. The tobacco that the Adena and Hopewell are believed to have smoked in their ancient pipes is Nicotiana rustica, which contains nicotine concentrations exceeding that of any other known tobacco (in excess of 18%). Nicotiana rustica is powerful enough to cause hallucinogenic effects equivalent to those of psychoactive alkaloids such as ibogaine and harmaline (Rafferty 2006:456).

By the contact era, Nicotiana rustica had become the most widely used tobacco by Native Americans, who utilized the psychoactive effects to communicate with the spirit world (Rafferty 2008:282-283). Chemical traces of nicotine believed to have come from smoking this plant have been detected in Adena tubular smoking pipes from burial mounds in West Virginia and Pennsylvania, as well as the Adena-Middlesex Boucher burial site in Vermont (Rafferty 2008; Rafferty et al 2012). At least by Hopewell times, the Ohio Valley mound builders were also inducing altered states with mushrooms, as evidenced by a copper covered wooden rod with an effigy of an Amanita muscaria mushroom at the end found in Mound 7 of the Mound City group in Ross County, Ohio. Psychoactive constituents of Amanita muscaria include ibotenic acid and muscimol.

As a concept, “shamanism” is associated with magical religious practitioners in Siberia, northern Eurasia, Greenland, and America, usually in hunter-gatherer and pastoral societies. While the classic model of shamanism may open many avenues of insight and interpretation into ancient cultures such as Adena and Hopewell, it also harbors certain inherent limitations in that societies naturally expand and diversify spiritual practices as they grow. Cultures like Adena could yield evidence of certain ritual or social roles, which go unnoticed; due to being outside the criteria that experts search for while pursuing evidence of traditionally understood hunter-gatherer shamans. In archaeological studies, each new idea should be married to suggestions, so that new possibilities may emerge. New possibilities must be introduced for any form of scientific inquiry to progress. What follows may be considered one possible interpretation of a recurring type of burial found in Adena mounds, which has gone without substantial remark for decades.

Archaeological Discoveries

It should always be recalled that Adena ritual programs sometimes included gatherings at sizeable burial mounds and earthworks. As group activities, there is every reason to assume that many rites carried out in these sacred precincts were the work of more than one person. Interestingly, some Adena shamans have been found to share their tombs with another individual who likely served as a type of female assistant. The following review describes instances from burial mounds in four states where the remains of such individuals have been found.

At the Dover Mound in Mason County, Kentucky, William S. Webb discovered the remains of an Adena shaman in Burial 9 (Webb 1959). Two large mica sheets had been placed beneath the skull, 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 last of red ocher. Webb felt the pigments to have been originally 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, and these articles together were considered the costume of a “puma man” shaman. Directly above the shaman was the skeleton of a young female around 20 years old, placed in the same tomb but with no artifacts:

“Under these circumstances, one may speculate about the presence of the second individual in the grave. This young woman may have been a daughter or a ‘magician’s assistant’ who died at the same time as the shaman, but one can imagine that she was sacrificed, willingly or not, to accompany him into the world of spirits.” (Webb 1959:19)

Another double burial resembling Webb’s shaman with “magician’s assistant” was uncovered at the Johnson-Thompson Mound in Troy Township, Athens County, Ohio (Sutton 1966). A subsurface tomb beneath the Johnson-Thompson mound contained a male burial extended beside of a stonewall. A group of artifacts had been placed near the center of the wall, consisting of Flint Ridge spear points, deer bone awls, one quadriconcave gorget, one bone atlatl handle, and three sets of the upper jaws and teeth of wolves (Sutton 1966). Two deer jaws and another Adena spear point were found at the feet of the burial. Excavator Ernest Sutton (1966:83) considered this individual “of great importance—perhaps a shaman.” The tomb also contained the extended skeleton of a female placed 21 inches away from the shaman. Like the Dover mound burial, no artifacts were found with this female. Still another shamanic double burial was encountered at the Sayler Park mound in Cincinnati, where a pit tomb contained the remains of a male buried with three flint blades, red ocher, and a bone sucking tube along with the remains of a female interred with no artifacts (Starr 1958:37).

At the Mathies Mine Mound in Washington County, Pennsylvania, the major tomb contained the remains of two individuals (Tanner et al. 2012). Burial 1 was a male with traces of red ocher near the skull and a chert spall in the jaws, as well as a deposit of broken artifacts under the left elbow consisting of 1 quartzite pebble, 1 mussel shell, 1 duck tarsometarsus, 1 bone spatula, a deer bone fragment, 2 bases of Adena points, and pieces of a broken tubular smoking pipe (Tanner et al:10). This pipe is among those which have tested positive for traces of nicotine. Directly 11 inches above Burial 1 were the badly preserved remains of Burial 2, an extended individual of unknown sex buried with no artifacts. As noted by Tanner et al., “The time difference between the two burials remains uncertain; however, it seems likely that Burial 2 was interred relatively shortly after Burial 1 from an archaeological perspective” (Tanner et al:12-13). Even though sex was not determined, the presence of a second skeleton with no artifacts placed directly above the remains of a probable shaman in the central tomb of the Mathies Mine Mound is very similar to the situation at the Dover Mound described earlier.

Our final example of an Adena shaman interred with some type of “assistant” comes from one of the largest Early Woodland monuments: the Grave Creek Mound in Marshall County, West Virginia. Grave Creek Mound was once between 62 and 65 feet high, and 240 feet in diameter. The mound was built up in two “phases” or construction episodes. According to E. Thomas Hemmings (1984:39), the construction of the Grave Creek Mound was triggered sometime in the third century BC by the death of a powerful male Adena priest who was buried in a large log tomb built into a natural knoll beneath the mound, along with a female accomplice. The priest was buried with 650 shell beads and an expanded center bar gorget 6 inches in length, while the female was found with no artifacts whatsoever (Norona 1962).

The burials mentioned here suggest some type of recurring funerary practice of interring females with no artifacts in the same tombs as Adena shamans. It is likely that more instances of this pattern have simply never been documented or are unknown. An untold number of Adena mounds were destroyed with little to no documentation by pioneers, farmers, Smithsonian agents, and 20th century archaeologists. Examination of the chronological positions of the mounds mentioned in this study for which reliable radiocarbon dates are available reveals that the practice of placing relic-impoverished burials in the tombs of shamans was a recurring or long lasting practice spanning the Early (500—200 BC) to Late (200 BC—300 AD) Adena phases:

Mathies Mine Mound: 360—272 BC (Tanner et al. 2012)

Grave Creek Mound: 200 BC (Hemmings 1984)

Sayler Park Mound: 141 AD (Maslowski et al. 1995)


What connection did the female assistant burials have to the shamans themselves? Carr and Case (Carr & Case 2006:201) point out that shamans have the ability to see into hidden realms of reality, perceiving other worlds as well as “spiritual representations of diseases within ill physical bodies, ghosts, other spirits, and lies in a dishonest person.” They furthermore suggest that some of the raw materials from which exotic Hopewell objects were fabricated “mimic the shaman’s power to see within, through, and beyond” (Carr & Case 2006:201). Perhaps the female accomplices interred with the Adena shamans were seers in their own right, possessing a sense or ability that allowed them to “view” certain spiritual aspects underlying reality not directly accessible by most people. These abilities would be invaluable in healing, curing and other engagements, including exchange and alliance building with outsiders. Still another possible interpretation has parallels with some of the most famous mystics of antiquity: the Oracles.

The Greek Oracles were considered the direct voices of the gods, and by the end of the seventh century BC; the Pythia at Delphi was the most powerful woman in the ancient world (Scott 2014). The Pythia was believed to be possessed by the god Apollo himself, who inspired her famous prophecies. Researchers have found evidence that an intoxicating gas called ethylene may have escaped a crevice in the earth at Delphi, which the Oracle breathed while seated on a tripod (Broad 2007). The resulting altered state of consciousness would have been an aspect of union with Apollo. If correct, then this theory essentially means that the Pythia herself was a shamanic practitioner placed in an institutionalized setting. It has been theorized that the utterances of the Oracle at Delphi needed to be interpreted by the priests themselves, which would have given them exceptional power over the fate of the ancient world.

The females buried with Adena shamans could have served as ancient American oracles through which specific supernatural entities (Manitou) or the souls of dead ancestors communicated with the realm of man. These roles are by no means mutually exclusive and could have blended in Adena society as a type of Oracle-medium. The abilities of the Adena oracles would have been facilitated by the use of the same psychoactive substances employed by the shamans with whom they were closely associated. By Hopewell times, large deposits of ritual artifacts made from exotic materials including mica, copper, spiritually charged stone, meteoric iron, obsidian, and shell were being buried in the mounds of southern Ohio and Indiana. Romain (2009) suggests that these large caches were reciprocal offerings made to the spirit beings inhabiting the realms bordering our reality. The offerings could have been made to the Above Realm Thunderbirds and the Great Serpents of the Beneath Realm in exchange for favorable outcomes in hunting, gardening, warfare, weather, healing, and the processes of life and death (Romain 2009:161).

Serving on a more local level, the hypothetical female oracles of the Adena mounds might have “received” insights regarding the ritual or sacrificial demands of the Manitou or the needs of the spirits of the deceased in their journey to the land of the dead. Such knowledge would be critical in the organization of ritual activities. The altered states of the oracle would likely have been induced in a ritual manner by the shaman himself, who could have applied symbolism relevant to the interacting Manitou or the preserved relics of dead ancestors with whom communion was desired. Hopewell mounds frequently contain burials of individual skulls either in isolated contexts or in the tombs of other burials. Perhaps the Adena and Hopewell people preserved relics of their own ancestors with who they wished to maintain communication after death by way of the powers of the Oracle-mediums.

There is also a vast range of female Manitou among the historic Indian tribes. The Sioux goddess Whope is the daughter of the solar deity (Wi) and the consort of the spirit of the South Wind (Jordan 2005:348). It was she who gave the sacred pipe, the smoking of which enables communion with the Great Spirit (Wakan Tanka). The historic Shawnee considered the earth to be a living female being sometimes called “Earth Person”, who was mentioned in prayers of the historic Bread Dance (Howard 1981:179). The Iroquois Sky Woman Ataensic (“ancient body”) was banished from the Above Realm in primordial times and took refuge on the back of a great turtle. Her activities subsequently triggered the Earth Diver myth and the genesis of the island earth itself. Since historically known Manitou such as the Thunderbirds and Great Serpents are acknowledged in ancient Adena and Hopewell iconography, it naturally follows that some female spirit beings may also derive from more ancient forms. Such ancient Manitou may have had special connections to the female assistants of Adena magicians.

The fact that the relic impoverished female burials were found in the same tombs as the Adena shamans does not establish human sacrifice. Many Adena and Hopewell mounds include tombs, which could have been left open or reopened for an unknown length of time. Several are even known to feature passageways leading to important tombs, as found in the Coon and North Benton Mounds in Ohio and the Grave Creek Mound in West Virginia (Jarrell & Farmer 2017). To share experiences and visions of the Manitou and different worlds, the shaman and the oracle would have been considered connected on a transcendent level, and for a culture as focused on the cult of the dead as Adena, such ties would have practically demanded that they be buried together.

Jason and Sarah are the authors of Ages of the Giants: A Cultural History of the Tall Ones in Prehistoric America, available now on LuLu.com.

Visit their website: paradigmcollision.com


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Donald Tanner, William Tippins, Robert Laidig, and Mark McConaughy, “Excavations at the Mathies Mine Mound (36WH29), Washington County, Pennsylvania”, Pennsylvania Archaeologist 82 (1), 2012, pp. 1-24.

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