Archaeotrek—Alternate Perceptions Magazine, June 2016
The Giants of Doddridge County
by: Jason Jarrell and Sarah Farmer
In summer of 1930, a series of Newspaper articles appeared describing a most sensational discovery: a race of gigantic beings unearthed from two burial mounds in Doddridge County, West Virginia. According to the Clarksburg Daily Exponent for June 15th, 1930, in an article entitled Two Prehistoric Indian Mounds Found Near Morgansville (by Bruce Horton) , the mounds were located on the farm of Benjamin Zahn in Morgansville, 12 miles west of Salem. The article mentions that Professor Ernest Sutton of Salem University carried out excavations.
The article makes remarkable claims regarding the “now vanished race” found buried in the mounds:
“The particular tribe or race which inhabited this section of the state is believed to have been composed of individuals ranging from seven to nine feet in height…”
Of the two mounds, the Exponent article notes that one, being “six feet in height and nearly fifteen feet in diameter” contained a type of megalithic chamber “shaped from large, flat rocks”, which was “carefully and tightly packed with clay”. Within the chamber was one sitting burial, considered to be a chief. The Exponent explains that the second mound was “ten feet high and about sixty feet in diameter”, featuring three burials, one of which was “a man of height, strength and power, measuring seven feet, six inches tall”, buried near the center of the mound and “carefully covered by flat stones”. Another skeleton from the same mound is described as being “hermetically sealed in a case of clay”.
Another article, entitled Salem Professor Discovers Huge Skeletons in Mounds appeared in the Charleston Gazette for June 15th, 1930. According to the Gazette , the mounds contained “what Prof. Ernest Sutton, head of the history department of Salem College, believes is valuable evidence of a race of giants who inhabited this section of West Virginia more than 1000 years ago.” Again four burials are mentioned from the two mounds, measurements “indicating they were from seven to nine feet tall”. The burial sealed in clay is again mentioned, with a measurement given of “seven and a half feet tall”.
In the spring of 2015, the authors undertook an investigation of these discoveries made long ago. To begin with, the press articles all mention that Sutton sent the artifacts from the Zahn Farm mounds to the Smithsonian Institution. In fact, the acquisitions records of the Smithsonian do note the donation of several artifacts from the “Zahn-Maxwell Mound”, including a stemmed point, slate gorget, and a sandstone disk. The disk itself is mentioned in the press articles, noted as featuring several engraved lines on one side. These three artifacts are manually assigned to Ernest Sutton and Oris Stutler in the acquisitions journal at the Smithsonian, with a date of donation of July 9th, 1930. These are without doubt artifacts from the mounds in question and the material can be viewed at the online Smithsonian Collections Search Center.
Sutton himself published a paper detailing the excavations of the mounds in the 10th volume of the West Virginia Archaeologist in 1958. According to Sutton, the two mounds, dubbed Do-1 and Do-2, were located on a steep hill 400 feet above the village of Morgansville. Do-2 was the Zahn-Maxwell Mound, the actual dimensions of which were 10 feet in height and 75 feet in diameter. Sutton documents four extended burials, one of which was encased in a type of baked clay, as well as the presence of red and yellow ocher in some burials.
Sutton refers to Do-1 as the Zahn Mound, measured as 12 feet in diameter and 3 feet high. The report offers extensive details regarding the burial in the stone chamber mentioned in the Newspapers:
“The body had evidently been placed in a sitting position on a large flat rock with the legs extended toward the large mound. Skull, chest, and pelvic bones were in one mass on top of the rock. The leg and foot bones extended beyond the rock in the direction of the larger mound.”
Interestingly, Sutton notes that even though no “artifacts or articles of adornment were found with the skeletal remains”, he and his assistant, Page Lockard, felt that the burial was “very unusual”, and that “the person who had been buried here was of more than average importance.” Page Lockard himself seems to have had great interest in this particular skeleton:
“Mr. Lockard collected the bones and took them home with him.”
Sutton later removed the large stone upon which the skeleton was found, uncovering four cache blades, pipe fragments, a bone awl, flint scraper, black arrowhead, and a bluish gray banner stone broken in two.
Significantly, a comparative study reveals that the Newspaper accounts, published 29 years before Sutton’s own document, were almost perfectly accurate in their details. For example, the Clarksburg Daily Exponent notes that the first evidence of burial in the Zahn-Maxwell mound was “charcoal lumps and some evidence of burnt bone” found in an excavation trench from the east side of the mound. Sutton himself describes the same area containing “dark organic material” and “bits of ashes and charcoal”. The Exponent also mentions that “the entire mound had been covered by loose rocks”, while Sutton states that the “mound was covered with a good protective layer of rock, sandstone, of varying sizes”. The Exponent describes the sandstone disk as 3 inches in diameter, with Sutton’s report giving the same diameter and a thickness of 3/16ths of an inch. The Exponent even accurately describes the artifacts discovered by Sutton beneath the large stone platform in the Zahn Mound:
“…beneath the large rock upon which he (the burial) sat were buried his pipe, banner stone, arrow heads, spear points, and other instruments chipped from flint rocks”
Regarding the body “hermetically sealed”, the Exponent suggests that the body had been “covered and sealed” in clay which was then heated in a process during which were “many different applications of clay and many different bakings”, which mirrors Sutton’s own interpretation that “the body had been encased in the puddled clay and then the clay baked or heated”. The Charleston Gazette mentions that this skeleton, “enclosed in a casting of clay” was the “best preserved” in the mound, “with all the vertebrae and other bones excepting the skull” intact. This matches Sutton’s description of the burial, mentioning that “this was the first complete skeleton found, and that the “skull of this skeleton still remains in the mound”.
The purpose of this digression is to illustrate that in this rare instance, the accuracy of a newspaper account of mound excavations can be discerned by cross reference with the actual work of the excavator. The data presented by the two press articles is of near accuracy in regards to those features also described by Sutton himself, except for some discrepancies in mound size. This is in stark contradiction to the assumptions of critics of giantology who frequently attribute the claims of the press relating to excavations in the 19th and 20th centuries to pure sensationalism.
One crucial element missing from Ernest Sutton’s report are the measurements of skeletons. However, there is evidence between the two newspaper accounts and Sutton’s report that would suggest that the claims of gigantic skeletons were also accurate. Both the Exponent and the Gazette attribute one gigantic frame to the Zahn-Maxwell mound (Do-2). The discrepancy is that the Exponent claims the “seven feet, six inches tall” skeleton was found near the center of the mound, while the Gazette mentions that it was the clay casted skeleton which was “seven and a half feet tall”. Since both articles, and Sutton himself, note that this clay casted burial was the best-preserved skeleton in the mound, we submit that this could have represented one of the two giants supposedly found on site.
The only other skeleton from the site with remains sufficiently intact for measurement, according to Sutton, would be the single burial in the stone chamber from the Zahn Mound (Do-1). Since the press reports unanimously attributed the 7.6 ft tall skeleton to the Zahn-Maxwell Mound (Do-2), it would stand to reason that the single burial from the Zahn Mound (Do-1) was the source for the nine-foot tall skeleton reported by both the Exponent and the Gazette. Could the extraordinary size of this skeleton have been the reason why Page Lockard took it away?
There may be an explanation for why Sutton chose not to include the skeletal measurements in his report. In fact, the absence of measurements could represent validation of the gigantic size of some of the remains. It is important to note that Sutton’s report did not appear until 1958, 29 years after his initial excavations in summer, 1929. The Zahn Mounds were his first mound excavations, and the beginning of a long career as an amateur archeologist, working in West Virginia and Ohio.
As someone working outside of the establishment, Ernest Sutton may have been initially unaware of the policy of secrecy enacted under the authority of Ales Hrdlicka of the Smithsonian, regarding the reporting of gigantic skeletons . As a result of these circumstances, Sutton may have gone public with what he considered to be very important anthropological discoveries in June of 1930, and then avoided the mention of the size of the skeletons in his official report filed almost three decades later. The Gazette article specifically mentions that the information came from Sutton himself, who had made some manner of presentation on the night of June 14th, the day before the article’s publication. The extensive and accurate details contained in the Exponent article may have been due to the reporter attending the same event, which could have been held at Salem University, where Sutton taught History and Geography.
There is evidence of the enforcement of the stigma against reporting gigantic remains in Sutton’s subsequent work. Between September of 1962 and October of 1963, Sutton excavated the Johnson-Thompson mound in Athens County, Ohio. However, several issues prevented the official report from being published until July of 1966 in the Ohio Archaeologist. Several of these issues are outlined in a piece of correspondence between Ernest Sutton and Martha Potter of the Ohio Historical Society, dated March 21st, 1966. Among the questions addressed are Sutton’s methods of determining the height of skeletons:
“I note some question by both you and Dr. Baby regarding my measurement of burials and what formula I use. By examination and checking, I find that the length of the femur bone is approximately one-third of the total length.”
In the letter, Sutton also assures Potter that the “Johnson-Thompson Mound report has been revised in conformity with instructions and is now returned.” This is clear evidence that large “official” organizations were enforcing specific criteria in the publication of archeological data. In relation to this, the specific reference to the measurement of skeletal height in Sutton’s letter would indicate that this subject was among those bounded by these criteria.
(A big thanks to Joshua Magaw for providing Sutton’s personal correspondence for this investigation.)
It is important to note that in relation to the measurements published for the gigantic skeletons from the Zahn Farm mounds, Sutton’s method of determining height would actually have underestimated the size of the buried individuals, since the actual ratio of femur length to overall height is closer to 1/3.5 or even 1/4, according to regression and absolute ratios used by scientists.
A review of the published Johnson-Thompson Mound report in light of this correspondence raises interesting possibilities. The report is embellished with Sutton’s usual attention to detail:
“The mound contained three extended burials and one flexed in the secondary mantle, and one extended and one semi-flexed burial on the mound floor. There were four distinct cremations although the large quantity of bone fragments suggests that the deposits represent more than four individuals.”
Sutton provides meticulous detail regarding the burials, as with these two interments 14 inches below the mound floor:
“They had been placed in a north-south position with heads toward the south. One burial, 5 feet 11 inches long, was that of a male and the other, 5 feet 3 inches long, was that of a female. The distance between the burials was 26 inches. A ridge of undisturbed subsoil separated them.”
However, two burials found in the northeast corner of the mound (burials 3 and 4) are not measured, even though the description offers numerous other details:
“Burial No.3, extended with the head toward north-east, was 35 inches above the mound floor. Burial No.4 with the skull to the south-west, was 27 inches above the mound floor. The skeletal material was in fair condition.”
Sutton notes that these burials were in the extended position. This along with their “fair condition” makes the absence of measurements even more suspect in light of Potter’s earlier inquiries regarding Sutton’s measurement techniques. Does this absent data reflect the alteration of the Johnson-Thompson Mound report to “conform” to the criteria of Potter and Baby as mentioned in Sutton’s letter?
Measurements are also absent from one other flexed and one extended burials from the mound, but this may be due to the fact that these two burials partly overlapped, making precise measurement difficult.
There are apocryphal sources detailing Suttons’ gigantic discoveries at the Zahn Mounds. One such account appears in Mound Builders, Indians, and Pioneers (1956), by William Price. Price wrote many of his entries based on interviews with witnesses. The wording of this passage certainly implies that he gained his information from Sutton himself:
“Mr. Sutton says that he believes the bones he recovered to have belonged to a very large skeleton. This idea corresponds with those gathered from other spots in the state and would lead one to think that a race of people who were larger than average size once lived through this part of the state.”
The authors’ investigation on the ground in Doddridge County revealed that Morgansville, where the Zahn Farm mounds were located, is no longer a town. However, contact was made with a credible source; who for the time being at least, wishes to remain anonymous. According to this source, there was a second excavation of the Zahn-Maxwell mound in 1960, and another gigantic skeleton had been uncovered. As with Page Lockard in 1929, an assistant at the site had stolen the giant. We were given the name of this individual and were told that the information was very sensitive due to the fact that surviving relatives still live in the region. The gigantic skeleton taken from the mound in 1960 was supposedly between 7 and 8 feet long, and had subsequently been “sold to a wealthy western buyer”.
Following this, inquiries were made with Ernest Sutton’s surviving family members and Salem University as to the current location of his materials. The authors were ultimately pointed in the direction of the Doddridge County Historical Society in the county seat of West Union. While reviewing Sutton’s materials, we were surprised to find a notebook in Ernest Sutton’s own handwriting containing none other than the detailed report of a second excavation of mound Do-2 conducted in 1960.
The journal contains excavation notes entered on a semi-daily basis between May 31, 1960 and July of the same year. This time the mound is referred to as the Powel-Fox Mound, due to a change of ownership of the two farms straddled by the tumulus.
In an entry dated July 6th, Sutton notes that a “possible burial area” had been located. This newly discovered tomb was located near those excavated 31 years previously, since the July 7th entry mentions the rediscovery of the 1929 excavation as the mound floor was reached. Interestingly, the remaining pages of the journal, which would have contained the details of the excavation of the tomb, had been torn out and lost. An inventory of finds with the journal mentions that the burial was “semi-flexed, 9 inches from the mound floor”, but unfortunately no measurements are given.
Remarkably, the notebook does contain consistent reference to the individual who was named by our source as taking a gigantic skeleton from the Powel-Fox mound during this second excavation. There is no question that this individual was an assistant in this unpublished second excavation in 1960.
Our inquiries as to the journal’s history turned up the fact that the only person to handle it other than Sutton’s own family and the Society was Edward McMichael, State Archeologist of West Virginia between 1960 and 1967. Had these pages been removed to conceal inconvenient truths?
The investigation of the Doddridge County giants yielded several significant points not only for giantology, but also of the history of archeology in the Ohio Valley.
To begin with, the details of the Newspaper articles associated with these particular finds were remarkably accurate, as noted above. Even the proper stratigraphy of the Zahn Farm Mounds is inherent in the accounts, along with the correct artifacts from the site. This should raise some question as to whether many of the more incredible articles extant regarding giants from mounds may not also contain accurate data. Certainly, all of the press stories utilized by giantologists can no longer simply be written off as Yellow Journalism in the face of comparisons such as these. The authors have found many more such instances to be included in their forthcoming book.
The investigation also provided a rare glimpse into the relationship between skilled amateurs such as Ernest Sutton and large organizations such as the Ohio Historical Society during the mid twentieth century, the most important era for the development of Woodland Archeology. In fact, it was people like Ernest Sutton who pioneered the exploration of the tumuli of the Adena and Hopewell Cultures out of the sheer love of the subject matter, though the establishment today largely downplays this fact. As evidenced by the correspondence between Sutton and the Ohio Historical Society, there was a clear editing and censorship of field reports undertaken at the hands of individuals such as Raymond S Baby and Martha Potter. Sutton’s letter also mentions several artifacts which Baby himself removed from the site and failed to reproduce for the published report. This tendency of Baby’s actually beleaguered Sutton’s work on a regular basis.4
Finally, the history of the Zahn Farm Mounds suggests that for some time, there was an interest in acquiring gigantic skeletons. Our investigation suggested that individuals who joined as assistants to Sutton’s excavations may have looted this single site more than once, during a period spanning over 30 years. According to our source, this practice was well known decades ago in the region. The question emerges as to who would have had such a desire for gigantic remains as to offer monetary reward for them? In relation to this we would point to the fact that after the late 1800s, the names of wealthy families and various philanthropies begin to appear in the reports of mound excavations around the United States, often in connection with gigantic skeletons. In their forthcoming book, the authors will attempt to demonstrate what may have been the true motive for the confiscation of the race of giants from the historical record.
Jason and Sarah’s Website: Alleghenymounds.com