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Archaeotrek—Alternate Perceptions Magazine, January 2017

The Burial Mounds and Woodland Traditions of Canada

by: Jason Jarrell and Sarah Farmer

(This article is dedicated to the First Nations people of Canada.)

While the burial mounds and earthworks of the Adena and Hopewell Cultures are usually associated with the Ohio River Valley, there are lesser-known—but equally as fantastic—manifestations of these ancient cultures in other regions. One of these areas is maritime Canada.

The Augustine Mound: Ancestral Ties in New Brunswick

In 1972, two-term Chief Joseph Augustine of the Metepenagiag (Red Bank) Mi'kmaq Nation took radical measures to halt the destruction of an ancient mound in Northumberland by a gravel operation. As a young boy, Joseph frequently visited the mound with his father, who told him stories of ancient ancestors dancing near the structure while the two shared tea. Unlike the corporate destroyers, Joseph understood that tradition, rather than hurried surveys, was the best guide to the ancient past, and in order to preserve history, he decided to obtain evidence of the site’s archaeological significance himself. Digging into the tumulus, Joseph retrieved artifacts of stone and copper, as well as samples of textiles. These materials were presented to the Department of Anthropology of Saint Thomas University in Fredericton, New Brunswick, and Dr. Chris Turnbull, the Provincial Archaeologist of New Brunswick. Thanks to Joseph Augustine’s efforts, a unique collaboration began in 1975, when people of the Mi'kmaq Nation worked alongside New Brunswick University students and archaeologists to excavate the mound. Among the team was Mr. Augustine himself and two of his children, Howard and Madeline.

Excavations revealed that the mound contained primary and secondary burials of at least 13 individuals, including partly articulated and cremated remains. The 11 feet in diameter tumulus was found to cover between 9 and 11 burial pits. Artifacts retrieved include blocked-end tubular pipes, shell beads, shell pendants, stone gorgets, and thousands of rolled copper beads and other copper objects, as well as red ocher. Copper artifacts in the mound preserved portions of baskets, matting and fabrics. The copper assemblage from the tumulus includes a projectile point 95.12 mm in length featuring bladed edges, a straight stem and flat base. The point was found still attached to a portion of the haft. A copper crescent 1mm thick was also found. Twenty of the copper beads were cone shaped. A 50.4 mm long copper “rod” or awl (possibly a pin for a garment) was found in the primary tomb. Radiocarbon dating placed the Augustine Mound to between 2950 +/- 75 BP and 2330 +/- 110 BP. Remarkably, the mound has been attributed to the Adena Culture, usually associated with the Ohio Valley and typically identified by the same diagnostic artifacts found at the Augustine site. The dating for the mound would place it early in the conventional timeline of Adena. In 1988, Chief Joseph Augustine was given the Provincial Minister’s Award for Heritage for his efforts to preserve ancient history, which also included the discovery of the Oxbow site near the Augustine Mound. He left the realm of mortals to join the great ancestors on January 14th, 1995.

Panpipe Masters of The Le Vesconte Mound

Also located in Northumberland, six miles east of Campbellford, overlooking the Trent River, the Le Vesconte Mound (120 +/-50 A.D.) has been attributed to a mingling of the great Hopewell tradition with the local Point Peninsula cultural spectrum. The mound measured forty-by-thirty-by-four feet, and yielded the remains of at least 61 individuals. Among the many fascinating artifacts excavated from the mound were objects of silver, including three panpipe covers. An adult female 45-60 years of age was found to be buried with a further three copper and one silver panpipe covers. The remaining panpipes from the tumulus were buried with children. Copper from two of the covers was subsequently traced by optical emission spectroscopy to Ontoganong County, Michigan. Due to these finds and others from nearby sites, it has been suggested that the Hopewell/Point Peninsula tradition in Ontario included regular gatherings of panpipers, perhaps in a ceremonial fashion. Could the passing of the seasons and celestial events have been commemorated with special songs? Perhaps great oral epics were told to the sound of melodic music. The panpipes with the children and the older female at Le Vesconte may have been offerings from other regional musicians who honored the talents of the deceased. Panpipes have also been found at other Hopewell sites, including 11 from the Hopewell type-site in Ohio and one from mound 4 at the New Castle works in Indiana. Panpipes also appear in the direct predecessors of Hopewell. In Ohio, a copper panpipe cover was found in Connett Mound 6 at the Wolf Plains Adena site in the Hocking Valley. Another panpipe was found with a bundle burial at the Logan Site, a Late Archaic Glacial Kame burial ground in Logan County, Ohio.

The Great Serpent of Rice Lake

The Great Serpent Mound in Adams County Ohio may be one of the most famous archaeological sites in the world, but there is a less known, similar effigy at Rice Lake in Peterborough County, Ontario. The undulating Serpent Mound itself measures 194 in length and 25 feet in width at the base, reaching a maximum height of 5 or 6 feet. The Serpent is accompanied by 8 circular or oval Middle Woodland burial mounds ranging between one foot two inches and 4.5 feet in height and between 23 and 48 feet in diameter. Since the late 1800s it has been thought that one of these mounds represents an egg near the head of the serpent—a design similar to that of the Adams County effigy. Excavations have revealed that the Rice Lake Serpent contains at least 25 burials. 12 of these individuals were found in sub-mound burial pits, with prestigious goods, such as copper, shell, and silver beads, mandibles of timber wolf, bird, and bear, beak of loon, a limestone animal effigy, and a massive double-bitted adze 30 cm long, 55 mm in both width and height, and weighing 1.79 kg.

A further 13 burials were placed in the mound as it was built up. Grave goods found with three of the burials in the body of the Serpent include disc shell beads, a painted turtle carapace, a second fragmented turtle carapace, bone fish hook, skull of a mink, beak of loon, and copper foil beads. Of the accompanying mounds, two were found to cover sub-surface burial pits containing the remains of many individuals with no grave goods. One of the pits contained at least 18 and another 29 skeletons. It has been suggested that the people buried beneath the serpent previous to mound construction may have represented the lineage of local tribal or ceremonial leadership, while the burials in the body of the serpent and beneath the nearby mounds were communal rituals occurring regularly throughout the year, as regional bands periodically brought their recently dead to the great effigy for burial. An 1897 dig into the “egg” mound revealed two flexed human skeletons within two feet of the surface, an isolated human skull, wolf teeth, a cremation, and a human skeleton at the base of the mound. Also at mound base was a stone circle about 3 feet in diameter. Radiocarbon dates for the Serpent Mound span 128-302 A.D., and a nearby shell midden has been dated to 58 B.C., indicating that site use overlaps the Middle Woodland Period of the Ohio River Valley.

Cultural features of Woodland cultures regularly appear outside of the Ohio Valley in North America. This phenomenon is often attributed to such concepts as interregional trade or travelers who returned home with various vibrant cultural elements from abroad. However, as the sites described here from Ontario demonstrate, some extra-peripheral manifestations of Adena and Hopewell feature extraordinary expressions of the ceremonial and material cultures, as well as considerable time depth. It may be that the key to increasing our understanding of these extraordinary prehistoric cultures is to reconsider the sheer level of social sophistication and interaction at work nearly two thousand years ago. There is a powerful lesson to be learned from the story of Mi'kmaq elder Joseph Augustine. Since the late 1800s, Native American traditions and oral histories have been largely disregarded as irrelevant in the pursuit of archaeological knowledge. Yet in this instance, a First Nation tradition identified the location of a previously unrecognized Adena burial mound. How many other incredible facts could be gleaned if the wisdom keepers of the First Nations were taken seriously?

--Allegheny Mounds.com


Richard B Johnston, The Archaeology of the Serpent Mound Site, Royal Ontario Museum, Ontario, 1968

Walter Kenyon, Mounds of Sacred Earth: Burial Mounds of Ontario, Royal Ontario Museum, Toronto, 1986

Alan McMillan and Eldon Yellowhorn, First Peoples in Canada, D & M Publishers, 2009.

Tricia L. Jarratt, The Augustine Mound Copper Sub-Assemblage: Beyond the Bead, Master of Arts Degree Dissertation, University of New Brunswick, 2013.

Christopher Carr and Troy D Case (Ed.), Gathering Hopewell: Society, Ritual, and Ritual Interaction, Springer Science & Business Media, 2006.


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