Monday, November 15, 2010

Indian Mounds and Beavers

I've just completed an inspection of the major southeastern Indian mounds and took another look at the Newark, Ohio, earthworks supplementing a tour I took of the Ohio Indian mounds two years ago. These mounds were all built before contact with Europeans and when I looked at them I tried to sense any influence beavers might have had in inspiring and informing their construction.

I want to figure out, as best I can, what relationship beavers had with North Americans before the influx of Europeans and the fur trade between North America and Europe. My working hypothesis is that beavers were unimportant to Indians before the fur trade, as befits an interesting but uncharismatic small mammal.

Of course, I was only able to approach these sights as a tourist with map and on-site brochures in hand, followed by a tour of attendant museums when possible. After I saw the Newark earthworks, I bought the catalog of the recent Field Museum show on pre-contact Indian art, Hero, Hawk, and Open Hand. Although all these mounds were probably central to the ceremonies of those who built them, there are few tourist sites less ceremonial than these. Cut green grass covers all, and there is no statuary or stonework, no piles of bare dirt, which was the principal building material for the mounds. One can climb the mounds but trees usually obscure the view. I imagine that the Indians who built them and lived with them when they had meaning would be thoroughly dispirited at seeing them today. They remain interesting but not magical, and bleed none of the sweat that must have gone into the building them.

Yet I when I first walked around the earthworks in Newark, Ohio, I was thoroughly entranced, though not with the spirit of the ancient Indians. I was entranced with the spirit of beavers! For the past 16 years, I've watched the slow evolution of beaver ponds, lodges, dams, canals.

What I saw at Newark was a perfectly circular embankment save for a wide opening facing toward the river that ran through the middle of the town a half mile away.

In the center of the embankment were two small rounded mounds that presented the same silhouette as a beaver lodge but nothing more, no logs, rocks, mud, the materials beavers use to make their lodges. So I suppose what gave me a sense of the spirit of beavers was the proportions, the empondment of space, to coin a word, with a central focus.

The proportions were not perfect. The central mounds were dwarfed by the embankment and beaver lodges generally dominate the flats created by beavers with their dams and canals.

The next mounds I visited at Chillicothe, Ohio, requited my yearning for a dominating central focus. The central mound dwarfed the surrounding embankment.

I saw two other mound complexes on that first trip, a very large isolated mound, and earthworks shaped like a serpent placed up on a high hill looking down at a river, not on a flat like that other mounds.

I didn't take the two photos above. It was raining the day I visited.

There is a museum at the Chillicothe site dedicated to the Hopewell Indians who made the mounds and their art and artifacts. There was a three inch long stone pipe shaped like a beaver,

and that was the only evidence that the Indians had any non-utilitarian interest in the animal that inspired my enchantment with the mounds. All Indian cultures seemed to use the beaver's giant incisors as a cutting tool.

The didactic displays at the museum made clear that the mound-making culture flourished because growing corn fostered a large sedentary population. Here were farmers who were not dependent on animals for food, nor was there evidence that they needed them for clothing, though, to be sure, deer antlers and hides as well as bear claws and robes fascinated them.

It seems to me that it does not necessarily follow that if the beaver inspired the Hopewell Indians to build mounds that they would then deify beavers or exalt them in their art and artifacts. Unlike bears, serpents and large birds of prey, beavers are not terrifying. They change the landscape but not by any magical means; nothing is plainer than how they go about their business.

One doesn't need a high priest to explain the beavers' ways to man. However, there is another problem with my thesis. Where there was a mound building culture, in the Mississippi and Ohio river valleys, there were beavers, but farther to the north around the Great Lakes and the St. Lawrence River valley, where I live, beavers dominated the landscape far more and there the Indians were not great mound builders. Farther to the north, there was less dependence on corn, and, since it is more a land of lakes, less inundation by flooding rivers.

One can't visit the mounds without getting a sense that one convenience of having them was as a place of refuge during a flood. A friend lived in a dorm near one in Marietta, Ohio, and when there was a flood inundating parts of the campus, the 40 foot high Indian mound remained high and dry. Perhaps not enough room for a crowd but room enough to keep a king or his buried bones dry.

Beavers provide an on-going demonstration of how to find a dry berth as they managed their controlled floods that let them expand their foraging of trees for the bark food and building materials.

More problematical to my beaver-sense of the mounds, was the obvious ceremonial importance of them, especially when I read about the mounds farther south in Georgia, Alabama, and Mississippi. The art I saw associated with the Hopewell Indians reminded me of Aztec and Mayan art. How could beavers compete with the advanced civilizations radiating up from the cradle of corn culture in Mexico whose large stone ceremonial structures dominating their plazas still remain?

In early November we got an invitation to spend some time in Birmingham, Alabama, and I know that modern city was not far from three ancient ones. Of course, the only remnants of those cites were the mounds. At first blush I thought there might be some good mounds in Eastern Tennessee that we could see on our way, but the dams built on the Tennessee River flooded several of them. On our way to the Etowah Mounds in northwestern Georgia my wife insisted that we look at the New Echota Cherokee Capital State Historic Site nearby. There we saw a recreation of the Cherokee capital on the eve of that tribes expulsion in 1830s. There were no mounds between the few rude buildings made of wooden planks but there was a short nature trail which I walked on a damp cool morning and I saw beaver work in some small ponds.

A sign explained that New Echota was one of the lowest points in that neck of Georgia and that just a few months before the whole area had been flooded. Indeed, a visitor to the Cherokee capital in the 1830s reported a flood and that residents went from building to building in boats.

This prologue to my seeing the Etowah Mounds probably disposed me to sense beavers once again as I crossed a bridge over a deep moat and approached the tall mounds.

We reached the mounds just as a field trip of elementary school kids were leaving it. That brought home the massive scale of these mounds

and even though there was a sizable river flowing not far from the two smaller mounds, the mounds were high enough and square enough not to remind me of beaver lodges. There was a good small museum with many of the artifacts found in the mounds, no stone beavers. There were statues that once again reminded me of Mexican art.

A few days later we took a day trip from Birmingham to the Moundville a few miles south of Tuscaloosa and there we saw mounds not quite as high as the principal one at Etowah but there were more of them.

Atop the highest mound looking at several smaller mounds, I had to rather stretch my imagination to see any analogue to the beaver ponds I tour back on a large island in the St. Lawrence River: a beaver lodge sharing a pond with several smaller muskrat lodges?

It was easy to see the point the archaeologists studying this area are making: this was a religious center for a mighty chiefdom to which thousands of people paid homage. Then it became a necropolis.

I was about to put aside my nonsense about beavers influencing mound building, when I saw a plaque describing a structure the archaeologists think was built on large rectangular mound no more than three feet high that stretched out beside the tallest moundt. They found evidence of a large lodge built around wooden posts with a rounded shape,

which, of course, reminded me a beaver lodge.

However, these mounds are situated in a loop of the Black Warrior River which seemed to have cut a pretty good canyon suggesting that the area was not that prone to flooding.

Beavers here would have bank lodges fashioned with logs shielding burrows into the river bank.

The museum at the site was very good with some prime examples of Mississippian Indian art. Those pieces were bit off to the side and the center of museum catered to the imagination of younger visitors with dioramas of Indian ceremonies. Although none of the archaeological notes I read mentioned costumes of fur, the dioramas made lush use of them.

Fortunately, the mannikin Indians were in climate controlled cases and didn't have to sweat the heat of central Alabama burdened with furs. I saw a bear, raccoons, bobcats, various mustelids along with deer hides, but no beaver fur. Then that beaver chord of mine was touched again.

One of the major motifs of Mississippian and Hopewell art in general and Moundville art especially is the open hand motif. Archaeologist think it is based on pattern of stars in the constellation we call Orion which signified the earthly portal that was the entrance to the underworld. It struck me that an open hand is shaped a bit like a beaver's paddle tail. Then on one vase I noticed that there was cross hatching on the arm of a hand, not unlike the cross hatching on a beavers tail.

That said I could also see that there was liberal crosshatching on representations of reptiles and birds, symbols explicitly used by these people. I probably had no business thinking of beavers as having anything to do with it.

At the Moundville visitors center a short film noted that no Mexican artifacts or trade goods had been found in the mound complex. I reserved my intuitive judgment on that until I got to the Emerald Mounds a few hundred miles closer to Mexico not far from the Mississippi River. I had expected to see the mounds on the same bluff overlooking the river that some of mansions of Natchez, Mississippi, are built,

but instead I found them several miles east just off a winding road through some gentle hills. Emerald Mound doesn't look like a beaver lodge at all.

It is more like a football field elevated some 60 feet with two pyramidal mounds for end zones one larger than the other.

I had no sense of beavers here. Thanks to the woods around the mounds I couldn't even tell where the mighty river was much less the nearest. Archaeologists think the mound is an expansion of a natural hill. The Indians buried a hill so to speak letting it form the core of their ceremonial mounds. All the other mounds I had seen had been built from scratch allowing easy burials throughout the mound.

I found that I climbed a pedestal from which I could see nothing, and I didn't have any sense of containment. Something is missing from Emerald Mound and when I tried to let my imagination add to it, I didn't get any sense of beavers. Here were mounds on hills commanding, I guessed, an extensive plain given over to fields of corn. Yes, I can take photos of beaver ponds showing the rounded lodge in a commanding position, but usually the true perspective puts the lodge at the lowest point in a valley, a refuge not a lookout.

Here one could get a sense of the stages of growth and domination. This was not a case of taking some tips from beavers to escape floods, but a celebration of the growth of corn and power. What was I doing when I walked up these mounds but growing and feeling bigger, perhaps too big?

Beavers live inside their lodges. A beaver only walks up to build its lodge or dam. It finds its center when it floats in the magnificent pond it builds. It only climbs the trees it cuts after the tree crashes to the ground. Emerald Mound was the negation of a beaver centric world.

As we headed home I had one more errant theory to test. Looking at photos of mounds, I got the impression that the mounds farther north were more rounded. The Natchez Trace Parkway goes all the way to Nashville (with no stoplights nor billboards) and passes several areas with Indian Mounds. The Trace follows old Indian trails that white pioneers also used as a road south. Of course, white pioneers built all their major cities along rivers. Jackson, Mississippi, is the only large city along the trace until you get to Nashville. As we approached Nashville we kept going down and down and down some more, which impressed on us that the Trace follows a series of hills and high plateaus. It reminded me more of the way otters travel, not beavers. Otters like to claim the high ground and then negotiate a passage from there. I could see why Indians and early pioneers, fearful of ambushes, would do the same.

When we did see some mounds in northern Mississippi, they were indeed rounded like beaver lodges, and as southern Indian mounds go, they were small. One small group had no ceremonial sense about it.

One group that we had to speed by at dusk had several mounds on a flat of which someone could make some sense. There were probably more beavers in these hills then along the bluffs overlooking the Mississippi River. A gift shop made that point by having a beaver pelt among others on display. I also wonder if the dirt closer to the alluvial plains to the south is finer necessitating mounds with a flat top, while dirt in the foothills holds its shape?

I could begin making my own mythology: rounded burial mounds were modeled on the beaver an animal that built mounds and, farther to the north, largely lived in their mounds until the spring until the emerged in the spring as if new born.... Except even in the very cold area I live in, I often see beavers out in the winter. And if the Indians thought beavers had some purchase with the underworld, they have left absolutely no hint of it in their art and artifacts.

We returned home through Ohio and stopped once again at Newark to see the earthworks there. I wanted to see, if after seeing the bigger southern mounds, I still got a sense of beavers when I saw the smaller Ohio mounds. Plus we had a better guide to the earthworks and we realized we had only seen half of them. An essay in the Field Museum catalogue of Hopewell Indian art made a convincing case that the Newark earthworks were oriented as an astronomical observatory highlighting important seasonal full moons.

The earthworks we saw two years ago, the large circle with two mounds in the middle, weren't used in support of that argument. A local young man texting in the front seat of his car while his three kids fought in the back told us how to get to the golf course where the rest of the earthworks are. We found the course open and only a few plaques as guides, but we were enchanted.

Was the mound with a tee on top of it originally flat topped or did the golf course designer do that?

That the golf course encompasses the Indian earthworks probably helps preserve them and the Ohio Historical Society now owns the land which it leases to the golf club. The historical society periodically closes the course and gives tours. In the great circle earthwork in the other part of town, the surrounding embankment is greater than the two mounds in the middle. Here all the mounds were bigger than the surrounding embankment which was about half the size of the great circle embankment.

Even without an overview, that is, just standing on top of one embankment, one can get a sense of a grand design, of vistas opening up in various direction with parallel walls of embankment guiding ones view and presumably ceremonial processions.

Beaver ponds are often built in a series of terraces following a stream. Beavers build canals that radiate from the pond allowing easier access to and transport of cut logs and branches. Beavers dredge these canals building up their banks. When drought dries up a pond, one can easily see, amidst a chaos of tree trunks, the channels and canals the beavers used when the pond was full. The beavers seem to have no concern for the heavens when fashioning this network, except to bring tall trees down to their level.

It would seem to make sense to have a lodge on the north shore so that it could be warmed by the morning sun in the winter, but I often see lodges in the shade on the south shore, lodges made by beaver families that struck me over the years as being rather sagacious survivors.

So it makes no sense crediting beavers for inspiring an observatory, but there were only two mammals here a thousand years ago making mounds with earth, humans and beavers. That said, we did notice that moles like to burrow their tunnels around some mounds. In Alabama we saw not a few ant hills on the plaza below the mounds. The leveling of the ground with loose soil probably attracted those animals.

By the end of my tour, I found myself missing the mystery and confusion of beavers ponds created by the chaos of beaver-cut trees. At this time of year especially beaver lodges themselves seem alive as beavers prepared them for the winter by loading on mud and logs. Beavers create a level of water which both reflects all above and supports another world below.

The Mound Builders leveled the ground and built mounds to dominate that ground. A beaver pond is too organic to have been the model for these magnificent ceremonial grounds of the Indians. So my working hypothesis that beavers were unimportant to Indians before the fur trade still holds despite my crazy desire to see the beavers' influence on everything grandly done in the days before they were sacrificed for European fashions.