By Jason Jarrell & Sarah Farmer
In 1883 and 1884, P.W. Norris of the Smithsonian Institution conducted surveys and excavations of the extensive Adena Earthworks at Charleston, West Virginia. While Cyrus Thomas published accounts of the Charleston Earthworks in the 5th and 12th Annual Reports of the Bureau of Ethnology, the published version contains discrepancies and omissions deviating from the details originally recorded by P.W. Norris. This paper attempts to rectify some details while restoring others altogether.
The Charleston Mound Group
In 1883 and 1884, P.W. Norris of the Bureau of American Ethnology surveyed and excavated 50 Adena mounds and 10 enclosures, located on both sides of the Kanawha River at Charleston in Kanawha County, West Virginia. Norris also documented a series of 50 stone mounds in the bluffs and high places surrounding the Charleston Earthworks ranging from 30 to 90 feet in diameter and 4 to 8 feet high. At least some of the stone mounds contained burials. Like other field agents of the Bureau, Norris recorded his field research in manuscript form (known today as Smithsonian Manuscript 2400), and then sent the material to Cyrus Thomas. Thomas subsequently edited and copied the work for the Fifth and Twelfth Annual Reports of the Bureau of American Ethnology in 1887 and 1894. While Thomas’ accounts of the Charleston Earthworks are an often-cited reference for this mound group, the published versions contain discrepancies and outright omissions from the manuscript of P.W. Norris. What follows are some of the more relevant details and discrepancies, which may be of significance to future research as well as the general understanding of the Adena Culture.
(Mounds will be numbered according to the system used by Cyrus Thomas in the 12th Annual Report of the Bureau of Ethnology.)
The features of the Charleston mound group were not constructed at random. According to Norris, a series of “graded ways” connected several enclosures and mounds on both sides of the Kanawha River. These graded ways are apparent in Norris’ survey map of the works, which appears in the 5th Annual Report, although the descriptions offered in the manuscript are omitted.
The graded ways were not the dual ditched embankments found at Hopewell earthworks in Ohio, but were rather composed of fired stones mixed with clay and ashes, creating elevated pathways varying from 25 to 35 feet wide. Marking the crossroads or “forks” of these ways were stones featuring cup marks. John P Hale, a frequent witness of the Charleston Earthworks and co founder of the West Virginia Antiquarian Society, described these features in The History of the Great Kanawha Valley, Vol. 1:
“There are in this group of works graded roads or streets, with cross roads, the angles were marked by triangular flat stones of two sizes…These stones were marked by small cup shaped excavations on one side.”
Norris himself describes one of the stones as a “triangular totem at the forks of the ways” with a single cup mark on one side and two on the other. The information regarding the graded ways was clearly chosen for omission from the published report, since several pages of the Norris manuscript describing these features have large “x”s across the handwritten notes. Cyrus Thomas may have simply deemed this feature of the earthworks unimportant.
Mounds and Earthworks on the Southern Side of the Kanawha
The Criel Mound Complex
On the south side of the Kanawha, there were two circular enclosures with interior ditches flanking a large conical mound 31-33 feet high and 519 feet in circumference, known as the Criel Mound. According to Norris, Enclosure #1 was 260 feet to the northeast of the mound, while # 2 was 260 feet to the southwest. Both of these enclosures were “666 feet in circuit”. The outer wall of enclosure #1 was still “8 or 9 feet high” at the time of Norris’ survey, while the wall of #2 was described as having once been “equally high”, but had been largely leveled due to cultivation. Enclosure #1 had an opening at the south, while # 2 was open at the north, representing truly impressive samples of the Adena “sacred circle”. From the western edge of Enclosure #1, a graded way 25 feet wide extended 242 feet towards the Kanawha River. Norris learned from locals that a portion this graded way may have once also wrapped around the Criel Mound, but was long destroyed by plowing. The only details offered by Thomas for the enclosures is a measurement of Enclosure #1 at “556 feet in circumference” with an outer wall “2 to 3 feet high”, a significant difference from Norris’ data. In the earlier 5th Annual Report, Thomas had stated, “each enclosure is about 220 feet in diameter”.
Enclosure #1 surrounded a conical mound (Mound #2) found “centrally within it”, described as 40 feet broad and 4 feet high by Norris, and 30 feet in diameter and 3 feet high by Thomas. Both of the enclosures featured mounds near the entryways. The mound at the southern entryway of Enclosure #1 (Mound #3) was measured as 5 feet high with a 50-foot base by Norris, while Thomas gives the dimensions as 25 feet in diameter and 3 feet high. The mound at the northern gateway of Enclosure #2 (Mound #4) is described by Norris as “50 feet broad and 4 high”, while Thomas’ measurements are 28 feet in diameter and 2.5 feet high.
Norris: 50 feet base and 5 feet high.
Thomas: 21 feet in diameter and 2.5 feet high.
Mound #8 (The Wilson Mound):
The Wilson mound was described by Norris as 15 ft high with a depressed center of 10 or 12 feet, surrounded by a circular enclosure with outer wall 5 or 6 feet high and interior ditch, “like other so called sacred enclosures of the open valley”. In the 12th Annual Report, Thomas manages to record this mound as 112 feet in diameter and 9 feet high, within a square enclosure. The survey map in the 5th Annual Report actually shows Norris’ circular enclosure.
Norris: 50 feet at base and 7 feet high.
Thomas: 35 by 40 feet at the base and 4 feet high.
Mounds and Earthworks on the Northern Side of the Kanawha
Norris: 50 feet base and 5 feet high.
Thomas: 50 feet base and 2 feet high.
Norris: 45 feet base and 4 feet high.
Thomas: 35 feet in diameter and 2 feet high.
Norris: 65 feet base and 8 feet high.
Thomas: 65 feet in diameter and 5 feet high.
Norris: 40 feet base and 4 feet high.
Thomas: 30 feet in diameter and 2.5 feet high.
Norris: 75 feet broad and 8 feet high.
Thomas: 65 feet in diameter and 4.5 feet high.
Norris: 60 feet broad and 4 feet high.
Thomas: 30 feet in diameter and 2.5 feet high.
Norris: 44 feet broad and 4 feet high.
Thomas: 35 feet in diameter and 4 feet high.
Mounds 37 and 38: The Old Switcharoo
In the 12th Annual Report, Cyrus Thomas describes Mound 37 as 60 feet at the base and 7 feet high. According to Thomas, this mound was opened and contained “2 feet of soil on top, next 4 feet of hard gray earth, and at the bottom a fire-bed 1 foot thick containing charred bones.” However, Norris actually provided exactly these details for Mound 38. According to Norris, the dimensions of the actual Mound 37 were 50 feet at the base and 4 feet high, and the tumulus was not excavated by the Smithsonian.
This is not the only instance when Thomas confused the measurements and contents of one mound with another in the reports. For example, in the 5th Annual Report, he describes the contents of Mound #7 of the Charleston Group as “a vault about 8 feet long, 3 feet wide, and 3 feet deep. Lying extended on the back in the bottom of this, amid the rotten fragments of a bark coffin, was a decayed human skeleton, fully seven feet long, with head west.” These were actually the contents of Mound #11 of the group, with which they are listed in both the Norris Manuscript and the 12th Annual Report.
Norris No. 6/Thomas F: According to Norris, this was a circular enclosure 175 feet in diameter with “unmistakable traces of an inside ditch”. Thomas gives the diameter as 65 feet.
Norris No. 7/Thomas G: The Norris manuscript describes this parallelogram enclosure as having outer walls mostly reduced to 5 or 6 feet in height by cultivation, while those of the eastern side were still 8 to 10 feet high in some areas from the bottom of the inner ditch. Thomas states that the plowed portions were 2 to 3 feet high and those intact were 4 to 6 feet high from the bottom of the ditch.
Norris No. 9/Thomas I: Norris describes a “circular embankment 660 feet in length”, with outer walls “very steep, 8 or 9 feet high from the bottom of the ditch, which is inside.” According to Thomas, this enclosure was 618 feet in diameter with an outer wall “only about 2 feet high from the ditch inside.”
Norris No. 11/Thomas K: This was a double walled circular enclosure measured by Norris as 990 feet in circumference with the two embankments (separated by a ditch) reaching 4 or 5 feet above the ditch. Thomas measures the diameter of the outer wall at 295 feet and describes the surviving embankment as 1 to 2 feet high.
Graded Ways and Interconnected Earthworks
The Norris Manuscript offers extensive details regarding the interconnected features of the ritual landscape at Charleston. One particularly elaborate graded way 35 feet in width and composed of fire fractured and water worn stones mixed with clay, gravel and ashes proceeded from the southern entrance of Enclosure 7/G and connected mounds 15, 16, 17, 18, as well as shell heaps and circular pits near areas where the ways crossed. Another graded way was recorded in the vicinity of the Great Smith Mound (No.21), and yet another proceeded from the northern gateway of the double walled Enclosure #11 400 feet to Mound 41.
An Adena Ritual Landscape?
Some features of the Charleston Earthworks demonstrate evidence of some underlying design or pattern. In particular, information recorded by Norris for the Criel Mound and Enclosures 1 and 2 (with accompanying smaller mounds) represents a possible instance of a deliberately designed and measured landscape. The graded ways among earthworks on both sides of the Kanawha further suggest this possibility. Although the idea persists that elaborate earthworks with interconnected features were primarily a Hopewell characteristic, this may be due to the poor documentation of features at sites such Charleston, as well as limitations inherent within the 20th century taxonomic system.
It is relatively well known that Hopewellian people sometimes constructed landscapes around earlier Adena mounds and even incorporated them into their own designs, as evident at the earthworks at Marietta, Ohio and the Portsmouth Earthworks in Ohio and Kentucky. The possibility exists that elaborately organized earthworks landscapes were also a trait of the Adena Culture, and the examples noted above may have simply been continuations of designs predating the Hopewell phase.