The Ohio Snake Art That's Been Mid-Slither For A Millennium

Apr 17, 2014
Originally published on April 17, 2014 8:06 pm

In new installment of the Spring Break series, Noah Adams visits the Serpent Mound in southern Ohio. It's not a burial site; it's a massive, grass-covered effigy of a snake, created a thousand years ago.

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On a grassy ridge in southern Ohio you can walk beside a thousand-year-old work of art - a mound of Earth that rises from the ground and uncoils like a magnificent snake. We're talking about the Serpent Mound.

NPR'S Noah Adams went to see it on a trip that's part of our Spring Break series.

NOAH ADAMS, BYLINE: The Serpent Mound sounds a little sinister. You can see a bit of it when you get out of your car. But maybe we should do what all Americans like to do first, go straight to the museum gift shop.

It's a turkey call. The Native Americans might have used something like this, it's made from a piece of cane. Tim Goodwin demonstrated the turkey call for us. He is the Serpent Mound Park manager, showing us some of the Indian instruments that he sells. Lots of flutes and flutes can be difficult to play.

TIM GOODWIN: I'll try - there. They have all sorts of drums. We have types actually made from wood.


ADAMS: Walk out to Serpent Mound itself, there's a steel tower there that you can climb and get the first good look at the whole thing. Yeah, you get to the top, you're a bit out of breath but you can finally see the serpent, the mound just slithering away. The mound is three feet high covered with grass. The curves lead out from a coiled tail to the head of the snake at the edge of a cliff. If it were stretched out straight, it would extend more than 1,300 feet. When I first heard about the Serpent Mound, I had the wrong idea.

BRAD LEPPER: It's not a burial mound.

ADAMS: I asked an archeologist, Brad Lepper, to join me here. He says no remains have been found. This is a gigantic sculpture.

LEPPER: It's the largest sculpture of an animal, an effigy mound, in the world.

ADAMS: In a way, it's a work of art.

LEPPER: It is absolutely a work of art, a work of landscape art.

ADAMS: Brad Lepper's current thinking, American Indians known as the Fort Ancient people built the Serpent Mound a thousand years ago. They used sharpened sticks and clamshell hoes and carried the dirt in baskets. Snakes were a symbol in Fort Ancient art. A great serpent ruled the underworld.

LEPPER: My experiences here go well beyond my science.

ADAMS: This archeologist has been visiting the Serpent Mound since he was a kid.

LEPPER: It always felt and still feels like I'm coming to a church.

ADAMS: I also talked with a naturalist, Nancy Stranahan, who agrees. You're quiet when you walk here, hearing the wind, the birds, sensing the energy of a resting spirit. And she can identify the snake. It must be a hognose.

NANCY STRANAHAN: This snake is identical. There's only one snake in Ohio that coils its tail. That's the hognose. I think they chose this snake for maybe one of a couple reasons. It's beautiful. It shows symmetry. A coiled tail is like a snail shell, you know. The other is, if you scare it, it opens up its mouth and looks like a puff adder. It's very frightening.

REGGIE UPTON: It's actually interesting to look at things that you normally don't like learn in school.

ADAMS: Reggie Upton, 17 years old, has a week off from high school in northern Indiana. This morning, he's been walking the Serpent Mound with his dad, Joe Upton, who's organized quite a father and son trip.

JOE UPTON: Saturday, we got up and went to the NFL Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio, went to the Cleveland game, saw the Indians play, went to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame after that, drove to the evening game in Pittsburgh, and then we went to D.C. for the cherry blossoms, back to Marietta for some history lessons there, and now we're in Serpent Mound this morning.

ADAMS: Joe Upton and his son Reggie on spring break at the Serpent Mound Park. It's in southern Ohio, Adams County, close to the Ohio River. Noah Adams, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.