Burial Customs of Southern Ohio

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The origin and age of the earthworks of southern Ohio and the adjoining sections of Kentucky and West Virginia have remained unsolved questions. The works are remarkable for three reasons, namely, their size, number and forms. By their size and number it is quite evident they were erected by a sedentary people, a numerous people who occupied the country for a long period, and by their forms it is shown these same people possessed certain recognized customs and beliefs which caused them to erect the great circles and squares, octagons and other figures, so accurately and skillfully constructed. And so the questions arise, By whom were the vast works raised? and, For what reason was the rich and fertile land abandoned? The first of the many groups of earthworks to be described was that at Marietta, on the Ohio at the mouth of the Muskingum. These were surveyed by Capt. Jonathan Heart, and his map, together with descriptive text, appeared in Vol. I, No. 9, of The Columbian Magazine, published in Philadelphia in May, 1 787. Other accounts were soon printed, to be followed in 1848 by the great work by E. G. Squier and E. 11. Davis, this. being the most interesting and most valuable volume ever published on American antiquities. During latter years many of the sites described at that time have disappeared through the cultivation of the soil; others have become greatly reduced in height and have lost their clearness of outline. Some have been carefully examined and accounts of the discoveries preserved; others have been destroyed and no knowledge of the nature of their contents can be gained. And the losses thus sustained can never be regained. It is gratifying to know that many of the original maps prepared for the work by Squier and Davis are preserved in the Library of Congress, Washington, D. C., and one of the most interesting of these is now reproduced as plate 16, the salve as was engraved and presented as No. 1. Pate III, Ancient Monuments of the Mississippi Valley. The original shows a few details not indicated in the engraved copy. On the plan the group marked B is now known as the Baum works. An ancient village once stood near the right bank of Paint Creek, Ross County, Ohio, just north of the works, surrounding the mound which is shown about midway between the creek and the embankment. The mound was omitted from the engraving. The examination of the village site, made a few years ago, proved of much interest, and the similarity of material recovered from it, and the manner in which the remains of the dead had been deposited, showed clearly the connection between the people of this ancient settlement and those of other towns which once stood in the valleys of the Scioto and the Miami and elsewhere in the adjacent region. The indications of 49 dwellings or other structures were encountered, and scattered over the area of about 2 acres, around and between the houses, were discovered 127 burials and 234 caches-pits of various sizes in which food supplies were stored, and which may have served other purposes as well. The dwellings at this ancient village, as shown by the postholes which outline the floor spaces, were invariably of a circular form, but the largest structure revealed during the exploration of the site was “of oblong construction and measuring upwards of twenty-one feet in length by twelve feet in width inside of the posts. The posts were large, as shown by the postmolds, and consisted of twenty-one set upright in the ground, the smallest being five inches in diameter and the largest nine and one-fourth inches. On the inside seven other posts similar in size to the outer ones were promiscuously placed, presumably for the support of the roof.” A plan of this structure with its accompanying burials on the south and a group of caches and fireplaces on the north is reproduced in figure 16. In many of the caches were traces of the corn, beans, nuts, and other supplies which they once contained. But now the majority when opened are filled with camp refuse, intermingled with various objects of native origin which had probably been accidentally lost rather than having been intentionally deposited. The burials encountered at this site were 30 in number, thus constituting the most extensive group discovered, and of these only 10 were adults. This may be regarded as a typical cluster of graves as ” each family group had their own private burial ground,” and the graves were seldom more than 10 feet from the habitation. “Another form of burial occasionally met with in the family groups was where interment was made in one of the abandoned storehouses (i. e., caches). The head is bent backward and the legs are flexed so that the feet are very near the pelvis, and the whole body made to conform to the size of the pit. During the entire exploration only four skeletons were taken from the bottom of refuse pits.” The caches thus appear to have been used rather as a matter of convenience, probably at some time when it would have been difficult to have prepared the usual form of grave, therefore the extended burial was the custom of the inhabitants of this ancient settlement. The near-by mound, undoubtedly reared by the people whose dwellings lay scattered about it, contained various burials, extended, and placed within inclosures formed of upright posts. The two inclosures, placed one above the other, were indicated by “two series of upright postmolds, averaging 5 inches in diameter, equidistant 10 inches, and forming a perfect circle 36 feet in diameter.” Many other timbers had entered into the construction of the inclosure; traces of fireplaces were visible with a mass of burnt clay separating the two inclosures. The bottom of the lower one had evidently been covered with smaller timbers, and ” all the skeletons discovered were in the area inclosed by these posts. They lay at different depths and in different positions, the favorite or predominant one, at least in the upper portion, being just inside and alongside of the inner circle of palings. The skeletons unearthed were all in a remarkably good state of preservation. None of them could have been intrusively buried.” Sixteen skeletons were discovered, all except one ” lay stretched out at full length,” and the single one” lay partly upon the side, with knees drawn up and head crouched down upon the ribs, as though originally placed in a sitting posture.” Ross County, Ohio, on the east side of the Scioto, this being the left bank of the stream. “The village site proper occupies between 3 and 4 acres of land and entirely surrounds the mound. However, directly south and southeast of the mound, surface indications are richest, for here our examination showed the earth was intermingled with the refuse from their homes to the depth of from 1 foot to 20 inches. Directly to the south and less than one-half mile is what is known as the Cedar Bank Works, which has been described by Squier and Davis.” No traces of a village were discovered nearer the inclosures, and so it appeared reasonable to attribute their origin to those who once occupied the settlement less than one-half mile northward. The entire site was not examined, but ” as the examination progressed it was soon discovered that the inhabitants of this village lived in small clans or family groups. Although only 15 skeletons were unearthed in the examination of this village, there is no doubt but that burials were made along the hillside which surrounds the village on three sides.” Describing the burials discovered near the sites of the dwellings it was said: “The dead were evidently buried in close proximity to the habitat of these people and were similar in every respect to the burials in the Baum village site, along Paint Creek. Each family apparently had their own burial ground, which was in close proximity to the home. No evidence was found that the bodies had been placed upon scaffolds and afterwards reinterred. In the majority of the graves the body was placed at full length,however, a single burial was found in the bottom of a refuse pit.” No cremated remains were discovered outside the mound which stood near the center of the ancient village. The examination of the mound proved of the greatest interest. It “was made up of three separate and distinct sections, as is shown in figure 17. The burials in the first section differed greatly from those in the second and third, which were similar. In the first section the bodies had been cremated and the ashes with the personal belongings had been deposited upon a prepared platform of earth; while in the second and third sections the inhumation of the bodies were in every portion of the mound as well as below the base.”

In the first section, resting upon the platform which measured about 31 by 23 feet, was a great mass of ashes, in places 21- feet in thickness. Much of this may have resulted from the cremation of human bodies, but ” with the ashes were unburned animal bones which had been intermingled with the incinerated human -bones, as well as implements and ornaments made of bone, stone, and shell, which were no doubt the personal property of the deceased. The animals identified as they were removed from these ashes were the black bear, beaver, deer, elk, raccoon, wolf, gray fox, musk rat, ground hog, opossum, and mink. The bones of various birds, such as the wild turkey, great horned owl, trumpeter swan, and wild goose, were also found. Quantities of mussel shells, as well as the bones of the fresh water drum, were also removed.” One of the burials encountered during the exploration of the mound ” was buried three feet below the base line. The skeleton was placed on the right side, facing the east. Near the head was found a per feet piece of pottery,” and near by was a mussel shell which had served as a spoon.

Scattered over the site of the village, surrounding the areas once occupied by the dwellings of the inhabitants, were many caches, more than 100 being discovered, and these were in all details similar to those which abound on the ancient sites in Paint Creek Valley. The entire account of the examination of the mound and surrounding village site, standing on the bank of the Scioto, is of much interest. The descriptions of these two sites, so similar to each other, with the numerous caches now filled with the accumulation of camp refuse, intermingled with objects of native origin, and with the remains of the. dead occupying positions near the traces of the small habitations which once stood surrounded by vast forests, readily suggest the account of the discoveries made on the bank of the James, near Gala, in Botetourt County, Virginia. So alike are the descriptions that all the settlements could justly be attributed to the same people. Again, certain objects found on all are quite similar. The sites on the James and in piedmont Virginia are accepted as marking the positions of towns of Siouan tribes and were probably occupied when Jamestown was settled. The upper Ohio Valley was, according to tradition, the home of Siouan tribes before their migration westward, down the stream to the. Mississippi and beyond. Therefore it is reasonable to regard the two ancient sites already mentioned, one on the bank of Paint Creek, the other bordering on the Scioto, as the remains of Siouan villages peopled generations ago. The Siouan family, now and probably always quite numerous, could have spread over the hills and valleys bordering the Ohio and could have been the builders of the numerous earthworks.

Crania recovered from graves in this region are not to be distinguished from those of the present-day Osage, and certain customs of the latter, as in establishing their camps and enacting their ceremonies, could readily be carried back to the use of great circles and other figures. But with a decided change of habitat, leaving their long occupied towns and entering a new region, and thus probably for several generations becoming nomadic rather than sedentary, and more expert hunters than agriculturists, they no longer erected great works but sought new homes under changed conditions. The cause or causes of this great tribal migration may never be determined. Whether voluntary or enforced may ever remain unsolved, but it is difficult to picture a people abandoning their homes, with the extensive works revealing the results of great labor; unless for some vital reason. The mound which stood near the left bank of the Scioto less than one-half mile north of the Cedar Bank Works revealed two forms of burials. The later was the inhumation of the entire bodies, extended and at different levels, but the earlier proved the practice of cremating the dead and depositing the ashes, together with various objects, on a previously prepared platform of clay. Whether this should be regarded as representing a period of transition or as merely revealing the customs of two or more branches of the tribe may never be determined; nevertheless the most interesting discoveries yet made in the valley of the Scioto have been associated with cremated human remains. A short distance east of the Scioto, about 8 miles south of Chillicothe, in Ross County, Ohio, stood a group of earthworks of characteristic forms, including various mounds. The largest mound of this group measured about 160 feet in length, with a maximum width of 85 feet and a height of 16 feet 3 inches. Various attempts had been made in the past to examine it, but without discovering its true character. However, the final examination proved “the object of the mound was purely mortuary, and the site of the mound a charnel house until it was filled with graves, when the house was destroyed by fire and a mound erected as a monument to the dead. All of the graves in the mound showed a careful preparation for the reception of the remains.” The careful examination of the base of the mound made it possible to gain a very good conception of the nature of the ancient structure which once occupied the site. And to quote at length: ” The site of the. great mound had been properly prepared and its beginning was at the south end of the mound, marked by large posts set in the ground at a depth varying from two and one-half to three feet. The south end of the enclosure was made in the form of a semicircle, and the sides continuing in a straight line north for sixty feet, when the line of posts was turned at right angles to the east wall and running across toward the west side, where an opening was left for an entrance. This enclosure of sixty feet in length measuring from the center of the circle on the south to the row of posts running across the mound at right angles to the outside walls, forty feet in width at the north end, was no doubt the first structure or enclosure for the reception of the dead. The second enclosure was merely a continuation of the outside walls of the first, extending some seventy feet directly to the north.” During the final work a total of 133 burials were encountered, and of these 128 were cremated. “All the burials, whether cremated or uncremated, were placed in a prepared grave and great care and some degree of skill was displayed in their construction. The graves of the cremated were similar to each other so far as the outside construction was concerned, but unlike in the general make up of the inside of the grave. Out of one hundred and twenty-eight graves unearthed, four different types were found, and these were many times duplicated during the explorations. First. The plain elevated platform made of clay and usually elevated from three to six inches above the prepared platform.These plain platforms averaged in length about four feet and in width two and one-half to three feet.

The logs were usually made the exact size of the graves. In a few instances they extended over at one end or the other, and not a single grave was found on the base of this entire mound that did not show the use of logs as an outline for the grave. In many instances the- logs were, put in place upon the platform and plastered over with this clay, and then the inside of the grave was made, Second. The next type of grave was similar to the first and apparently made in the same way, with this difference: the top of the platform was cut out and made in the form of a basin, varying in depth at the center from two to four inches, Third. Elliptical shaped grave. In this form of grave the platform was similar to the other graves, but the timber used in the construction of the outside portion was made of small pieces of logs and the clay plastered over them. This form of grave would vary in depth from four to eight inches, Fourth. The grave made in the form of a parallelogram. This form of grave was found in various portions of the mound and was constructed similar in every respect to the other types, the logs being put in place and plastered over, while the inside was removed to a depth varying from four to twelve inches. For the uncremated similarly prepared platform graves inclosed by logs were made, and the body was placed at full length within the inclosure.” The objects of native origin associated with the cremated remains were many cut, polished, and perforated teeth of the bear, copper ear ornaments, a platform pipe, and other objects of stone. With the extended burial were masses of ashes. ” This individual was placed in the grave at full length, with him were ornaments of copper, such as the ear ornaments, which can be seen at the side of the head, and a great copperplate which is under the loins. The ornaments are similar to those found in the cremated graves. On the right hand side of the body, as it lay in the grave, was placed the incinerated remains of an adult, on the left hand was a human skull, and near the head on the left side of the body, was placed another cremated skeleton; near the knees on the right side of the body, was placed the skeleton of a little child, and near this skeleton were two human jaws, perforated, and which no doubt had been used for ornament.” And so the plausible conclusions were reached ” that this mound must be considered purely as a burial mound; that no altars occurred in the mound; that all burials had prepared graves; that for the most part cremation took place at the charnel house where eight great fire places were found, which were perfectly devoid of ashes except in one, where a small charred piece of human skull was found, thus indicating that these fire places were used for the crematory.” In many cases the remains had probably been cremated in the grave, and there allowed to rest. The prepared graves as described in the preceding account were the “,Altars ” of the earlier writers, and as such were often mentioned. Many, discovered and examined during the latter part of the first half of the last century, were described by Squier and Davis, but unfortunately they seemed to have failed to recognize the true nature of these most unusual resting places for the ashes of the dead. Another ruin of the greatest interest remains to be. mentioned-one which has revealed more clearly than any other certain customs of the ancient inhabitants of the valley of the Scioto. This stood a short distance from the Ohio, some 5 miles north of the present Portsmouth, near the right bank of the Scioto, and was first surveyed by Whittlesey, whose description was incorporated by Squier and Davis in their justly praised volume. It was then regarded as representing an animal of some sort, and was referred to as an Animal Effigy, a mistake, if mistake it really was, which could readily have been made. It later became known as the Tremper Mound, named after the owner of the land upon which it stood. It proved a remarkable work, and to quote from the account of the examination: “The mound marks the site of a sacred structure, wherein its builders cremated their dead, deposited the ashes in communal receptacles, made similar disposition of the personal artifacts of the dead. and observed the intricate ceremonies incident to funereal rites. The builders of the Tremper mound had arrived at a cultural stage where united or communal effort in great part replaced individual endeavor, and in so doing had reached a plane of efficiency probably not equalled by any other people in the stone age period of its development.” In the mound already described, which belonged to a type found in the region, the cremated remains were deposited in individual graves, each of which had been separately prepared. Thus the “graves soon exhausted the available floor space, while in the Tremper mound plan, burial was limited only by the size of the communal depositories, the number of which, moreover, easily could be increased if needed.” The surface of the mound had been cultivated for many years, and this must necessarily have made a great change in its appearance since the survey made by Whittlesey. In 1915 the greatest length of the work was 250 feet, its width 150 feet, with a maximum altitude of 8½ feet. A building of unusual form and of irregular outline once stood here. “The remarkably distinct floor, which in every part of the mound was readily distinguishable from the earth composing the mound itself, greatly facilitated the locating of the rows of postmolds, marking the outline of the structure, as well as of the various rooms and compartments thereof. Approximately six hundred of these postmolds were noted.” A plan of the floor of the ancient structure, with the positions of the fireplaces or crematories, the depositories for the ashes, and the great cache, is reproduced in plate 17, b. The large depository near the northeast corner of the inclosed space, and bearing the number 8 on the floor plan, “was in the form of a parallelogram, ten feet three inches long, and five feet wide, with a central depth of six inches. The bottom measured six feet and six inches long by thirteen inches wide, its surface being perfectly flat and level. The grave was filled with human ashes and charred bone to a depth of a little more than one foot; these ashes however, were very compact, and originally must have been piled high above the rim of the basin. The contents of the depository no doubt represent the remains of hundreds of cremated bodies, indicating the use of the grave for a long period of time.” The richness of the material discovered in the caches proves the importance of the site in prehistoric days. For the sake of comparison it is interesting to be able to present a reproduction of Whittlesey’s plan of this mound and the surrounding embankment. The original, now in the Library of Congress, is shown in plate 17, a. This was engraved and used by Squier and Davis as No. 2, Plate XXIX, in Ancient Monuments of the Mississippi Valley. The irregular work was compared “to the animal shaped mounds of Wisconsin.” Its height was given as from 1 to 8 feet, and “of the form and relative size indicated in the plan.” But, unfortunately, no attempt was made to examine the interior.



MLA Source Citation:

Bushnell, David I. Native Cemeteries and Forms of Burial East of the Mississippi. Smithsonian Institution, Bureau of American Ethnology, Volume 71. Washington: Government Printing Office. 1920. AccessGenealogy.com. Web. 28 August 2014. http://www.accessgenealogy.com/native/burial-customs-of-southern-ohio.htm - Last updated on Jul 31st, 2013


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