North American Indians left few monuments of their civilization. Early European explorers and settlers in North America found no stone cities or defense walls or water systems or monumental structures built by the native Americans. The only exceptions were large earthen mounds obviously built by humans rather than formed by natural forces.
Some of these mounds were shaped like large round hillocks. Others were shaped like truncated pyramids. Still others had the form of animals or birds. Many had large trees growing on top of them, attesting to their great age. Some were made of earth; others were constructed of loose stones. They also varied in size. Some were 40 to 50 feet in diameter and seven or eight feet high. Others, however, were immense. One, near present-day Miamisburg, Ohio, was nearly 80 feet high and contained over 300,000 cubic feet of earth. Another in what is now Illinois was over 100 feet high; its perimeter was over 3500 feet. Its base was almost 200,000 square feet larger than the Great Pyramid at Giza in Egypt.
The prevailing view in the late 18th century and early 19th century was that these mounds could not have been built by the Indians, but had instead been built by the Ten Lost Tribes of Israel or their descendants. (Some people did contend that the American Indians were the descendants of the Ten Lost Tribes, but many others denied that the Indians were even human; they based their argument on the fact that Indians were not mentioned in Genesis and therefore were not descendants of Adam and Eve.)
Among those who opted for the Indians as the mound-builders was Thomas Jefferson, and this view was ultimately demonstrated scientifically by comparing bones found in the mounds with the bone structure of living American Indians.
About one fact there was no doubt, however: The circular mounds, so-called barrows, were used for burials. There were bones everywhere.
But what customs governed the burials was again a matter of debate. Some said the bones were those of men who had fallen in battle. Others said the Indians had a custom, from time to time, of exhuming the bones of their dead and collecting them for reburial in the mounds. Still others argued that each mound was the general burial ground of a particular town nearby. It was said that the aboriginal Indians had a custom that the first person who died in a town was placed erect with earth put about him to cover and support him. When other townspeople died they were supposedly reclined against the first, and so on, until a mound was created.
Thomas Jefferson decided to test these theories. He thus became the first person to explore the Indian barrows scientifically. He chose a barrow located in his home state of Virginia about two miles above the principal fork of the Rivanna River. Jefferson reported on his excavation in Notes on the State of Virginia (1781).
The barrow Jefferson chose was, as he described it, “of a spheroidal form,” about 40 feet in diameter and seven and one half feet high. Jefferson estimated it had originally been 12 feet high but had been reduced by the plough since it had been under cultivation previously for about a dozen years.
At first Jefferson dug “superficially” in several parts of the mound and “came to collections of human bones, at different depths, from six inches to three feet below the surface. These were lying in the utmost confusion, some vertical, some oblique, some horizontal, and directed to every point of the compass, entangled, and held together in clusters by the earth.”
Jefferson was able to identify bones and teeth of children and infants, thus disproving the theory that the mounds were for men who had fallen in battle.
Jefferson then decided to dig a trench through the body of the barrow so that he might “examine its internal structure.” This “perpendicular cut” as he called it “was opened to the former surface of the earth, and was wide enough for a man to walk through and examine its sides.”
Here is Jefferson’s description of the stratigraphy:
“At the bottom, that is, on the level of the circumjacent plain, I found bones; above these a few stones, brought from a cliff a quarter of a mile off, and from the river one-eighth of a mile off; then a large interval of earth, then a stratum of bones, and so on. At the end of the section were four strata of bones plainly distinguishable; at the other, three; the strata in one part not ranging with those in another. The bones nearest the surface were least decayed. No holes were discovered in any of them, as if made with bullets, arrows, or other weapons.”
Jefferson thus concluded that those buried in the mound had not been killed in battle and further that the barrow was not “the common sepulchre of a town, in which the bodies were placed upright, and touching each other.”
Jefferson reasoned that the origin and growth of the barrow derived from “the accustomary collection of bones, and deposition of them together; that the first collection had been deposited on the common surface of the earth, a few stones put over it, and then a covering of earth, that the second had been laid on this, had covered more or less of it in proportion to the number of bones, and was then also covered with earth; and so on.”
This conclusion, he said, was supported by the following considerations:
“1. The number of bones.
“2. Their confused position.
“3. Their being in different strata.
“4. The strata in one part having no correspondence with those in another.
“5. The different states of decay in these strata, which seem to indicate a difference in the time of inhumation.”
Thomas Jefferson thus became the first person, as far as I have been able to discover, who ever excavated stratigraphically. As William Peden, who edited Jefferson’s Notes on the State of Virginia in 1955, stated:
“An amateur archaeologist, among the very earliest on the North American continent, Jefferson anticipated by a century the aims and methods of modern archaeological science.”
North American Indians left few monuments of their civilization. Early European explorers and settlers in North America found no stone cities or defense walls or water systems or monumental structures built by the native Americans. The only exceptions were large earthen mounds obviously built by humans rather than formed by natural forces. Some of these mounds were shaped like large round hillocks. Others were shaped like truncated pyramids. Still others had the form of animals or birds. Many had large trees growing on top of them, attesting to their great age. Some were made of earth; others were constructed […]