ASHVILLE, Ohio — When Dean Barr was young, working in his uncle’s hilltop hayfield, he wasn’t particularly interested in the brush-covered mounds in the nearby woods — he thought they were just “a pile of dirt and rocks” at the time.
He didn’t know then what he knows now: those mounds are a unique set of earthworks dating back thousands of years.
It wasn’t until decades later that he and his family realized the site was worth protecting.
As new archaeological techniques are developed, more is being discovered about the people who occupied the site in the past, said James Barr, Dean’s brother.
“And the more you learn the more questions you have,” said James Barr, Dean’s brother.
The complex of earthworks, called the Snake Den Mounds Group, is located near Ashville, Ohio, in Pickaway County.
Some 3,000 years ago, people dug rows of pits across the hilltop for reasons that have been lost to time. Around 2,000 years ago, people carried soil and stones up the slope to build mounds and also dug a ditch and embankment enclosure to surround them.
The site was used for burials and cremations, with fires hot enough to melt stone. The earthworks are unusual because they are located on the top of a hill, rather than in a valley or plain like most other earthworks in the state.
They are also special because they’ve remained mostly intact. Many of the earthworks once found in Ohio have already been dug up or smoothed over, ruining the opportunity for further archeological research. That’s why it’s so important to preserve those that remain.
“People are interested in these archaeological sites, but they’ve been disappearing,” Dean Barr said.
Dean and James, along with their wives, children and grandchildren, have been working with local historians and researchers to set up a charitable organization to preserve the earthworks for future research.
They also plan to make the site available to teach school children about the history of the area, Dean said.
The organization, the Snake Den Mounds Preservation Society, was founded last year and is a 501(c)(3) charitable organization. The group is in the process of developing a website, www.snake-den-mounds.com. Information on the group’s activities is also being posted on a Facebook page: Science and Discovery at the Snake Den Mound.
Snakes and treasure
The earthworks got their name from the snakes that hibernate in the mounds. When farmers began clearing the nearby land for cultivation in the early 1800s, several species of snakes were spending winters in the mounds, emerging in the spring to migrate westward, where they plagued the adjacent farms, James Barr said.
Then, around 1815, according to local legends, a local farmer organized a snake eradication project. He put up a high fence around the mounds, then summoned the neighbors to bring clubs and muskets to kill the snakes when they started coming out in the spring. That effort may have reduced the numbers of snakes, but it didn’t eliminate them, James said. According to a family story, his cousin once looked up to see hundreds of snakes hanging from the trees. Snakes still live at the site, but not in great numbers as they once did, he said.
Archaeologists first investigated the Snake Den Mounds in 1897 when the Ohio State Archaeological and Historical Society (a forerunner of the Ohio History Connection) organized a dig. The landowner at the time, Dildine Snyder, gave permission for the study on the condition that he could put a stop to the work at any time. He also required the researchers to give him any gold or silver found during the dig.
The excavations unearthed eight human skeletons and hundreds of artifacts, including paint grinders, hammer stones, pestles and a stone container holding five silver nuggets. The archaeologists also found a stone urn holding cremated human remains.
After the discovery of the silver, Snyder gave the researchers two more days to dig and then insisted they stop, James said.
The Archaeological and Historical Society bought the silver at seven times its market value and it was displayed, along with snake skeletons and other artifacts, at Ohio State’s Orton Hall Museum and later at both the St. Louis and Jamestown World’s Fairs.
In the years that followed, interest in the mounds faded and ownership of the site changed hands several times, Dean Barr said.
In the 1950s, Ernie Barr bought the land, and it was transferred through the family to his nephews, James and Dean, in 2007.
Around that same time, Jarrod Burks, director of archaeological geophysics at Ohio Valley Archaeology, contacted the family about doing research at the site. By then, Dean said, the mounds had become overgrown and the area had accumulated a collection of broken machinery and old tires, as out-of-the-way spots often do. The family, with the help of neighbors and friends, set to work hauling away the junk and cutting back the vegetation.
The Barrs no longer farm the field adjacent to the mounds and have enrolled the 17-acre site in a historic preservation program with the Appalachia Ohio Alliance. They also have another 150 acres of surrounding farmland enrolled in the Ohio Department of Agriculture’s agricultural easement program. The easement will prevent non-farm development on the hillsides next to the earthworks.
“You had to have the whole package so the view wasn’t destroyed.,” Dean said.
On a clear day, the Columbus skyline is visible on the horizon, 30-some miles to the north, he said. Even though the city didn’t exist when the earthworks were made, the builders must have had a similarly spectacular view.
In 2007, Burks resumed exploration of the Snake Den Mounds complex using magnetometer imaging, which can detect variations in soil properties. Al Tonetti, vice president of the Heartland Earthworks Conservancy, has been helping Burks with fieldwork at the site. The instruments allow them to explore the site without disturbing the human remains still thought to be buried there.
The methods used in 1897 to excavate parts of the site were crude by today’s standards, Tonetti said. As it turns out, it was fortunate that the landowner at the time stopped the excavation after the silver nuggets were uncovered, preserving most of the site.
The imaging allowed the archaeologists to map out the site’s outer enclosure, even though the ditch and embankment has mostly flattened out over time. They’ve also mapped another smaller earthen enclosure in the shape of a squircle, a square with rounded corners. The squircle is lined up with three of the mounds, but its purpose is not known, Tonetti said.
Based on the artifacts found in the mounds, their construction has been dated to about 2,000 years ago and some characteristics are similar to other earthworks constructed by Hopewell civilizations. Pit features at the site were dug even earlier, however, Tonetti said.
After Burks and his team identified the pit locations using magnetic imaging, a piece of charcoal from one of the pits was radiocarbon dated to about 900 B.C.E. The relationship between the mound builders and the earlier people who dug the pits remains a mystery. Once word started getting out about the new research at the site, more people started volunteering to help.
Bob Hines, one volunteer, is a local historian, retired from a career in economic research and utility communications. He’s been documenting findings about the Snake Den Mounds for the preservation society and has also written and illustrated a graphic children’s book, “Snake Den Surprise: Unearthing Ancient Secrets.”
Another active member of the preservation group is Dick McClish, a neighbor who got involved after hearing Burks speak. Before retiring, McClish worked as a geologist and spent many years in the Middle East helping find oil. Now, he lends his expertise to analysis of the Snake Den Complex.
One of the mounds shows up as a small circle on topographical maps, McClish said. It rises 1,000 feet above sea level. The complex’s location on a hilltop provides nearly a 360-degree view of the surrounding countryside and he’s convinced that’s why the site was chosen.
“These people living here could have looked out to see what was coming for a vast area,” he said.
Even though there are still many questions about the purposes of the earthworks, they were clearly important to the people who built them. Without modern machinery, moving that much soil and stone took an impressive effort, McClish said. The earthworks remain important to people today, James Barr said. In addition to the archaeological studies, the complex offers lessons in many other disciplines including cartography, geology, astronomy, biology and mathematics. The preservation society’s goal is to keep the site available for research and education.
“When your kids and my kids are gone, their kids can see it how it is,” he said.
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