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Ancient Fortresses of the Ohio Valley Part 3: Grave Creek Complex; Smoke and Mirrors


In the first installment of this series (AA, Vol 17, Issue 101), I described two ancient fortresses, Merom Bluff and Devil’s Backbone, both in Indiana. In the second installment (Vol 17, Issue 102), I outlined the line of sight communications network that seems to have existed between those two sites and showed specific placements of the towers and hills used. In this installment, we examine the bigger picture, from the headwaters of the Ohio to the Mississippi, but we are not traveling on the rivers, this trip is overland, primarily.

No examination of the fortresses of the Ohio Valley and the network they comprised would be complete without inclusion of the Grave Creek Mound Complex, as it once existed on both sides of the Ohio River near present day Moundsville, West Virginia.

Grave Creek Mound itself is a 66 foot tall conical mound that overlooks a portion of the Ohio River and both the Little Grave Creek and Big Grave Creek drainage basins. It was described as 75 feet tall at the beginning of the 19th century. In addition to the large mound, there were at least fifteen other earthen or earth and stone structures that were part of the greater complex. These were mapped by H. R. Schoolcraft in 1843. According to Schoolcraft, all appear to have been used as signaling places. Although nearly all the “ancillary” earthworks are destroyed or obscured by modern development, the terrain where they were built is easy to recognize from Schoolcraft’s work. They were on both sides of the Ohio and up to several miles north of the big mound on the upland, a couple of them out of sight of the river. The two northernmost of Schoolcraft’s map form a line that runs west southwest to east north east and seem oddly placed in the limited context of the Grave Creek Complex. The tower that was both on the Ohio side of the river and on this line had an earthen and stone , and possibly palisade defensive works around it, as did another tower on the Ohio side on the bluff west of the town where the river bends westward.


In 1838, an archaeological excavation of Grave Creek Mound, led by Jesse and Abelard Tomlinson, uncovered the ruins of two large vaults, one situated directly below the other. The vaults contained several human skeletons and a considerable amount of jewelery and other artifacts. According to Henry Rowe Schoolcraft, who visited the site in 1843, the Grave Creek Stone was discovered in the upper vault, along with seventeen hundred beads, five hundred sea shells, five copper bracelets, and one hundred and fifty plates of mica. The Grave Creek Tablet was “a small flat stone, of an ovate shape, containing an inscription in unknown characters”.

Below is a facsimile of the Grave Creek Tablet.

Grave Creek tablet

I am not an accomplished epigrapher, so I won’t hazard a guess what the message says, only that the “rose” underneath is symbolic of terrain; It’s a crude map describing the “area of regard” for the Grave Creek Complex. I think the crossed lines may represent the line of sight communications network of which Grave Creek Complex was a part. The text may represent that too, but I have no way of knowing. However, later in this article I will show that Grave Creek Mound was connected to other areas and cities within a greater civilization, so the Grave Creek Stone will receive further examination with that in mind.

J Huston McCulloch has assembled a comprehensive and thoughtful history of the Grave Creek Stone. It is available on line in his “Archaeological Outliers” page.

What I can say without hesitation is that the 150 mica plates found in the mound represented more than “grave goods” meant to honor one or more of the people interred there. Mica sheets are very reflective. In fact, they are a very good “specular” (mirror-like) reflector.

mica insulator

In the United States military, by January 1880, Colonel Nelson A. Miles had established a line of heliographs connecting Fort Keogh and Fort Custer, Montana, a distance of 140 miles. Major W. J. Volkman of the US Army, demonstrated in Arizona and New Mexico the possibility of performing communication by heliograph over a range of 200 miles. The network of communication begun by General Miles in 1886, and continued by Lieutenant W. A. Glassford, was perfected in 1889 at ranges of 85, 88, 95, and 125 miles over a rugged and broken country, which was the stronghold of the Apache and other hostile Indian tribes. Speculation based on some of Geronimo’s statements to the press is that Geronimo’s braves could read the heliograph messages and were thus able to avoid troop movements.

Arranged like a heliograph, mica sheets could be used to direct reflected sunlight to send messages over many miles. And the line of sight hypothesis is born out by research done in Ohio, in Portugal, and in Britain. One of the sites in Ohio where this research was conducted is called “The Great Mound”.

great mound butler co oh 2010

The Great Mound is a massive mound in the southwestern part of the U.S. state of Ohio. Located in Section 19 of Madison Township in Butler County, it has a height of 88 feet (27 m) and a circumference of 511 feet (156 m). Its total volume is nearly 825,000 cubic feet (23,400 m3), making it the largest mound in Butler County and one of the largest in southwestern Ohio. Because of the mound’s height and its placement on a ridgeline, an individual at the summit can see for a great distance. In the late nineteenth century, it was theorized that mounds such as the Great Mound were built as observation or watch pointsii, and that the builders maintained the ability to light fires atop the mounds as a method of communicating across wide distances. The potential of these mounds for long-distance communication was demonstrated in 1990 by three groups of volunteers. After climbing the Great Mound, the first group established visual contact with the Hill-Kinder Mound in Franklin (more than 11 miles (18 km) to the northeast), from which point the observers of the second group contacted the third group atop the Miamisburg Mound near Dayton. The road south of the Great Mound is appropriately named “Signal Mound Drive”.
Built by the Adena culture, the Great Mound has been reduced by multiple instances of unofficial diggings. In 1879, locals removed a small portion of the mound’s summit, finding artifacts such as bones and the remnants of fires. Later years saw the destruction of a more significant part of the top; today, only about 75% of the mound is free from disturbances. Nevertheless, the mound is believed to be a significant archaeological site; its size is believed to indicate the stability of the culture that built it and the dedication of its members to commemorating those buried within it. In recognition of its archaeological value, the Great Mound was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1971.

Conical mounds abound through the greater Ohio Valley, the Tennessee Valley, and valleys draining to the Gulf Coast. They are also very similar in form to some famous earthworks in Great Britain. On spring equinox 2011, archeologist Erin Robinson of Bangor University organized an event designed to test a theory regarding Welsh hillforts. Erin’s thesis is designed to explore the possibility of relationships between individual hillforts, in order to give an insight into the development and situation of the enclosures. The experiment was designed to see how easily Iron Age communities could interact from their hilltop homes thousands of years ago. Dozens of volunteers flashed torches to each other from 10 hillforts in North Wales, the Wirral and Cheshire. The furthest link spanned 15 miles, between hills at Burton Point on the Wirral and Cheshire’s Maiden Castle, yet, the signals were received without fault.

Robinson, from Denbighshire’s heather and hillforts project, said the experiment had captured the public’s imagination. “Most of the hill forts across the surrounding landscape can be seen from each other,” she said.


“The experiment was aiming to see if the glowing fires could have been seen across the hills and acted as a communication or warning system.” 




The full article will appear in the upcoming issue of Ancient American Magazine (Issue 103), June 2014.


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