Adena burial mounds and inter-Hamlet visibility: A GIS approach

Adena burial mounds and inter-Hamlet visibility: A GIS approach

Waldron, John


Adena mounds in the Hocking River valley, southeastern Ohio, were subjected to spatial analysis using Geographic Information Systems (GIS) technology. A study of viewsheds of 42 mounds, conspicuously built upon terraces and, especially, ridgetops in the vicinity of The Plains, indicates high intervisibility of these structures. This in turn suggests enhanced intervisibility of the hamlets located near them. This intervisibility is interpreted minimally as having increased the sense of mutual awareness of dispersed hamlet communities in the context of Adena tribal formation. Further, we speculate that increased visibility could have facilitated some form of indirect communication between hamlets over considerable distances.


One of the central research topics in contemporary anthropological archaeology is the emergence and increasing permanence of settled communities, a development often accompanied by greater economic dependence on collected or cultivated grains. For many years this topic has drawn the attention of archaeologists in the mid-Ohio valley, one of the major regions of the midcontinent that witnessed this process of cultural transformation, beginning in the Early Woodland period (ca. 500-100 B.C.; Brose 1979; Brown 1986; Smith 1992). During that period, small nomadic bands became increasingly sedentary and in the process created a distinct set of tribal institutions. Much of the archaeological research in the mid-Ohio valley is devoted to identifying the pattern of changes in the material residue of these societies and comparing it with patterns identified in other areas of the world.

By ca. 500 B.C. in the mid-Ohio valley, the establishment of more permanent hamlets was occasionally accompanied by the construction of relatively small burial mounds, typically, but not exclusively, on ridgetops overlooking the hamlets or in proximity to them. This was especially true for the Hocking valley of southeastern Ohio (Figure 1), where a reported 200-plus mounds had been built by this date (Black 1979). By ca. A.D. 1, a cluster of conical mounds and circular earthworks was constructed in The Plains locality, a relatively isolated terrace in the Hocking valley. This cluster represents what might be considered an initial form of “ceremonial center” (Figure 2). The societies responsible for constructing the mounds and earthworks are collectively termed “Adena”; in fact, the excavation of the Coon Mound in The Plains (Greenman 1932) provided much of the data on which definition of that archaeological culture was based.

In this paper we test a very specific hypothesis: did the placement of early Adena mounds increase inter-hamlet visibility? As a corollary, we ask whether the later construction of the cluster of mounds in The Plains served to expand the regional visibility of the hamlets within the watershed of the southern Hocking valley. Both questions relate to the role of enhanced visibility and possible communication among dispersed hamlet populations in tribal formation. Based on a Geographic Information System (GIS) analysis of mounds within the Hocking valley, we confirm that mound construction increased local and regional visibility of the valley’s inhabitants, and we consider this heightened visibility part of the process of the emergence and expansion of tribal institutions.

The Hocking Valley

The study region selected for testing the intervisibility of Adena hamlets is the central portion of the Hocking valley drainage basin (Figures 1 and 3). The Hocking valley was chosen on the basis of the availability and suitability of archaeological data as well as the area’s rugged topography, which lends itself to a consideration of the challenges posed by the terrain to intervisibility among small, settled communities. As the entire valley was too large to incorporate into a single study at this time, a sample of the region, the area mapped by the USGS 7.5′ Athens, Jacksonville, Nelsonville, and The Plains quadrangles (1:24,000 scale) was used. These maps also served as base maps for the GIS database.

The study area is located in portions of Athens, Hocking, and Morgan counties, a region of rounded hills and deep, narrow, V-shaped valleys (Sturgeon et al. 1958). The region lies within the Kanawha section of the Appalachian Plateaus province (Fenneman 1938). In this region, older Illinoian terraces rise 59 to 89 ft (18-27.1 m) above the river, while the younger Wisconsinan terraces are present in two levels, that reach an average of 20 and 33 ft (6.1 and 10.1 m), respectively, above the river (Murphy 1989:23).

The northern part of the study area is rugged, with steep slopes, while the southern half has a more rolling topography, wider ridgetops, and fewer steep hillsides. The area also contains preglacial terraces, which are remnants of the Teays River drainage system, Illinoian outwash terraces (e.g., The Plains), and Wisconsinan lake terraces (Lucht et al. 1985:2-3).

The indigenous vegetation of the study area was a combination of beech forest, mixed oak forest, and mixed mesophytic forest. Beech forest was found in the valleys and consisted mostly of beech, sugar maple, red and white oak, and white ash, with smaller inclusions of basswood, shagbark hickory, and black cherry (Kenney 1993). Terrace zones were dominated by an oak and hickory association, with chestnut and other hardwoods evident in the upland ridgetop zone (Wymer and Abrams n.d.).

The Adena in the Hocking Valley

There has long been discussion as to the identity of “the Adena” as well as debate concerning the usefulness and even validity of this category (Brown 1992; Hays 1994; Seeman 1986; Swartz 1971). It is sufficient to state that the hamlet populations living within the Hocking valley buried some of their dead in mounds, accompanied by specific rituals, funerary traits shared by similar populations dispersed throughout a significant portion of the mid-Ohio valley. If a shared and learned cultural pattern of grieving for and burying the deceased is accepted as justifiably distinguishing “cultural identity,” then, in lieu of the authentic name of that population, “Adena” heuristically serves to identify those societies.

It is important to stress, however, that despite the sharing of funerary traits, there is actually considerable geographic and chronologic variability within the Adena archaeological culture. For example, the earliest Adena mounds in Kentucky appear to have been built at a distance from residential hamlets, serving as boundary markers between hamlets (Clay 1991; Niquette 1992). By contrast, the earliest mounds in the Hocking valley are situated near habitation sites, as exemplified by the the Boudinot Mound and the Boudinot #4 habitation site (Abrams 1989,1992a; see Figure 4). Perhaps more importantly, the chronology of change and stability is quite diverse in the mid-Ohio valley. For example, by A.D. 1, societies living along the Scioto and Muskingum rivers had transformed their funerary patterns to such a degree beyond their “Adena” predecessors that archaeologists classify them distinctly, as “Hopewell.” By contrast, contemporary societies in the Hocking valley modified some of the traditions of their ancestors by constructing larger, clustered mounds, but otherwise experienced less cultural change than groups in neighboring river valleys. Such differences almost certainly reflect ecological and economic variability (Brose 1979; Clay 1991; Greber 1991; Maslowski and Seeman 1992). Because we wish to convey a sense of cultural continuity despite such changes, we employ the terms “Early Woodland Adena” (500-100 B.C.) and “Middle Woodland Adena” (100 B.C.-A.D. 250) to categorically frame the process of societal transformation in the Hocking valley.

In general, Early Woodland Adena populations in the valley resided in semipermanent, dispersed settlements supported by hunting/gathering supplemented by horticulture (Clay 1992). This view is consistent with data recovered from the Boudinot habitation site in the Hocking valley (Abrams 1989). The population of that hamlet included about 15-20 people, whose diet consisted primarily of wild resources. Some grains (Chenopodium, sumpweed, and maygrass) were utilized, but presumably gardening and/or intensified collecting of wild grains played a modest role in the economy of the group (Wymer and Abrams n.d.). One or more small, ridgetop mounds were built by the inhabitants of dispersed hamlets such as Boudinot #4 (Figure 4).

Railey (1991:57) has stated that a high carrying capacity in the Eastern Woodlands allowed for low-mobility economic strategies at an early stage of pre-agricultural development. Furthermore, the seasonality of resource availability fostered scheduled harvests and storage, or a “delayed-return” procurement strategy (Railey 1991:57). Because of these factors, it is possible to project that by the Early Woodland period, increased sedentism, with residential sites occupied for six to eight months a year, may have been a viable option, a model confirmed for the Hocking valley (Abrams 1989).

As Mulholland (1988:145-146) observed, foragers exploit a multiresource territory, which requires access to a large geographic range. He added that this range should encompass a variety of biotic zones and that resource exploitation should be most intensified in riparian and coastal zones, where clusters of nutritionally important resources occur. Access to such clustered resources, and their defense, may be factors in the shift to sedentism. Mixed hunting/gathering/horticultural economies in the context of semisedentism are well documented in the ethnographic literature (Griffin 1989; Rosman and Rubel 1989; Sponsel 1989; Vickers 1989).

As a result of increased sedentism and population growth, horticultural experimentation is likely to occur. In general, there was a definite shift in subsistence during the Early to Middle Woodland Adena transition. This shift was toward increased horticultural activity, though cultivation did not supplant hunting and gathering. Furthermore, while in some regions it appears as though settlement remained dispersed during the Early Woodland period and became aggregated during the Middle Woodland period (Railey 1991 ), settlement in the Hocking valley and the mid-Ohio valley in general appears to have remained dispersed during both periods (Pacheco 1996).

The Middle Woodland Adena people in the Hocking valley further transformed the traditions of their ancestors in the realm of political and ceremonial activities. Increased ceremonial activity is recognized archaeologically by the elaboration of mound construction and the diversity and quantity of grave goods, as well by exotic artifacts and symbols of political authority. The ceremonial cluster of earthworks in The Plains was built at this time and a heterarchic structure of political authority may have been expanded (Abrams and Sugar 1997; Ehrenreich et al. 1995), following Clay’s (1991) insight that new forms of sociopolitical organization may be the critical dimension in defining “Adena.”

This brief summary of Adena culture history in the Hocking valley underscores that Adena archaeology is the study of the emergence and expansion of an articulated set of varied, instituted behaviors that collectively characterize tribal societies. One of the key attributes of tribal societies is an expanded set of mechanisms that enhance a sense of spatial boundedness, or territoriality, in some form, as well as intercommunity integration (Service 1962:102). The present hypothesis is that the Early Woodland Adena ridgetop mounds and the Middle Woodland Adena mounds in The Plains served as mechanisms for greater inter-hamlet visibility within this heavily dissected environment.

The Analytic Use of Mounds

Binford (1981:6) proposed that “To understand the past we must understand places.” The places in the Adena universe of interest for this study are earthworks. There are two types of indigenous earthworks in the study area: conical mounds and enclosures (sometimes referred to as “sacred circles”). The former are the focus of the research reported in this article.

There are several theoretical and empirical studies in archaeology that postulate a middle-range linkage between burial monuments and territoriality (Charles 1985; Renfrew 1973; Saxe 1970). It is here assumed that Adena mounds can be interpreted as territorial markers useful analytically for approximating social corporateness, demographics, and land use decision-making strategies. Of importance, however, is that when the term “territory” is used in association with small, semisedentary groups with a mixed economy, such as the Adena, it refers to a core area of domestic activity-the hamlet and contiguous activity areasrather than a strictly bounded area to which access by outside groups is regulated. A territory exists, nevertheless, because “to speak of a territory rather than just of the space occupied by a human group implies adjustment to and modification of the physical environment by the group” (Harris 1978:187).

Finally, we assume that rivers served as a primary means of communication, transportation, and resource access for Adena groups. One could predict that large earthwork centers, whose construction and use involved cooperation between hamlets, would be positioned on the main river in the watershed so as not to favor one of the tributary-based hamlets.

GIS in Archaeology

A Geographic Information System (GIS) can be defined as a computer-based system for the input, analysis, management, and output of georeferenced spatial data (Jensen 1996). The analysis of geographic information, known as spatial analysis or spatial statistics, is critical to understanding georeferenced phenomena for both scholarly and applied pursuits. GIS is a key contributor in producing more accurate and reliable analyses than were possible in the past. In particular, GIS can be utilized to delineate spatial patterns and to determine spatial relatedness.

GIS has proven particularly useful in archaeological pursuits. Use of GIS provides archaeologists with more efficient access to known site information and to tools for regional data management, management of remotely sensed data, environmental analyses, simulation, and predictive modeling (Kvamme 1989). Kvamme (1989:28) states that utilizing GIS for “predictive archaeological location modeling, with its vast data, computational, and cartographic needs, has thus far been the predominant application of GIS in archaeology.”

The utility of GIS derives from its ability to perform advanced analyses of spatial phenomena. The most evident spatial features in the prehistoric Midwestern cultural landscape are burial mounds. We recognize that the internalized, mental processes that prompted the creation and use of mounds in the area may never be captured. However, with the GIS technology supplementing field data, descriptive behavioral and functional patterns regarding mounds can be expanded.

There are two basic types of geographic information systems: vector-based and raster-based. There are advantages and disadvantages associated with each. Vector-based GIS uses points, lines, arcs, and polygons to represent spatial phenomena. The main drawback to this type of system is that archaeologists may become too comfortable with creating “false boundaries” in areas where transitions between features are gradual. Raster-based GIS, which we use in the present analyses, relies on a grid system to determine location. The grid consists of cells, or pixels, of equal size, each containing a numeric value corresponding to a certain physical feature. The size of the raster cell determines the resolution and locational accuracy of the features being studied. An advantage to using raster GIS is that cells can be easily compared. One problem is that features usually do not conform to a grid.

O’Brien (1990) warns that problems arising from survey analyses, measurement, and scale are of general concern when applying GIS. These problems, and others, are inherent in archaeological research. Our primary scalar problem was that by focusing on too large an area (i.e., beyond the limits of the Hocking valley), we would be confronted with too much variation (Abrams 1992; Niquette 1992; Seeman 1992; Waldron 1996). Therefore, we decided to restrict our analysis to a specific subregion.


The goal of our analysis was to construct a location model that would allow us to offer observations concerning inter-hamlet visibility based on the established viewsheds of mounds. Mound locations were first referenced to UTM coordinates within the GIS environment. Intervisibility analyses then determined what part of the landscape would be visible from a central point at a given height and distance, leading to a definition of that point’s viewshed. In our raster-based GIS program, viewsheds were calculated using an algorithm to determine the visible region based on elevation, viewer height, and specified distance.

Intervisibility measures whether one point can be seen from another. To determine whether intervisibility exists, we examined the elevation of the point of viewing in relation to elevations of the surrounding area and calculated which areas would not be viewable based on the fact that they are blocked by areas of higher elevation. When other points were overlaid, we then determined which sites were visible from the viewing point and, conversely, which points could see the viewer. Considering the mathematical calculations involved, one can clearly see the utility of GIS in such an undertaking. This information simply cannot be processed by looking at topographic maps.

In this study of mounds, two viewshed analyses were performed. The first was based on a sample of 42 mounds (Figure 3), and excluded mounds in The Plains. All 42 mounds are relatively small and are associated with hamlets which, based on the current chronological data, are Early Woodland (Murphy 1989). This sample was obtained from Ohio Archaeological Inventory forms available to the junior author as well as from Peters’ (1947) map of mounds in the area. This sample of 42 is roughly 67 percent of the recorded mounds on the four quadrangle maps representing the study area. The greatest distance between any two nearest mounds is 2.1 miles (3.4 km) and the shortest distance between any two nearest mounds is .11 miles (175 m). Of the 42 mounds, only three were built on the floodplain and the remainder are located on upper terraces or ridgetops. The elevation of the floodplain is roughly 650 ft asl (198 m asl). The average elevation of the mounds located in zones above the floodplain is 892 ft asl (272 m asl). This analysis assumed a viewer or generalized mound height of 9.8 ft (3 m) and a view radius of 6.2 miles (10 km). All areas in view of any mound were then delineated.

The second viewshed analysis supplemented the first and examined visibility from the mean center of The Plains (UTM 403006 E and 4359738 N, Zone 17). This viewshed analysis was conducted to determine whether mounds in our original sample of 42 are visible from the earthwork complex in The Plains, testing to some degree whether the larger Middle Woodland mounds built in The Plains fit into this network of intervisible hamlets.

Two assumptions were made in these viewshed studies. The first is that all of the Early Woodland mounds in our sample were part of an active territory (as defined above) at the same time. Unfortunately, we lack a large suite of radiocarbon dates to support this assumption. However, we do find that Adena habitation sites occupied only until ca. 100 B.C., such as the Boudinot site, are associated with one or more ridgetop burial mounds. Presumably as small hamlets continued to be established throughout the Early Woodland period in this area, additional mounds were constructed within each hamlet’s territory.

The second assumption is that the area of the forest immediately adjacent to mounds must have been cleared for mounds to be visible. The seasonal dropping of leaves would have enhanced visibility, but we assume that, both for construction and maintenance, some small area surrounding each mound must have been cleared, a scheduled activity that could easily have been part of the ritual cycle of each hamlet population. Intervisibility did not require the clearing of huge tracts of forest.

Results and Discussion

The direct result of our analysis of the 42 small mounds is that each is visible from at least one other mound in the sample (Figure 3), a function of building mounds in elevated locations. This means that mounds constructed by one hamlet were conspicuous to other hamlets in the vicinity, which, in our opinion, may have contributed to a growing sense of territoriality.

Speculating beyond the issue of visibility, we offer the observation that the hamlet populations could potentially have communicated in some fashion with one another using intervisible mounds. From Figure 3, we see that hamlets as distant as 20 miles (32 km) from each other could have been in indirect “contact” through the visual connectivity of mounds. We have no evidence as to the information that may have been transmitted or the means of communication that might have been involved. However, inter-hamlet communication, through some signaling mechanism, is a characteristic of ethnographically observed tribal societies.

The result of our second analysis is that the complex of earthworks in The Plains is visible from numerous small mounds in proximity to that precinct (Figure 3). This fact reinforces the inference that hamlet populations were increasing their sense of spatial visibility and territoriality on various levels through the Woodland period. All of the excavations in The Plains indicate that this cluster of large mounds served as a ceremonial precinct for a larger region. For example, the labor expended in the construction of the mounds in this ceremonial center was significantly higher than that needed to erect the smaller ridgetop mounds (Abrams and Sugar 1997). This energy differential indicates that construction of those later mounds required the participation of individuals from multiple hamlets. Although the spatial centrality of The Plains remains to be demonstrated, we suggest here that its creation may have enhanced the political identity of the larger “territory” vis-a-vis other emerging territorial entities outside the Hocking valley.


This article offers a Geographic Information System analysis of burial mounds in the Hocking River valley, southeastern Ohio. Classified as “Adena,” these mounds were examined from the perspective of their intervisibility.

The earliest mounds were built on ridgetops in association with small hamlets. The presence of the mounds increased the visibility of the associated hamlets from the next nearest mounds. In fact, the corridor of visibility between mounds extended for many miles, suggesting the possibility of some form of communication utilizing the mounds, thereby expanding regional connectivity in the context of the area’s evolving tribal societies.

It was further determined that the “ceremonial center,” or cluster of earthen mounds and circles built ca. A.D. 1 in The Plains, became part of this visibility network, such that an individual standing atop the tallest mound there could be linked visually to dispersed hamlets in different segments of the Hocking drainage. Visibility must be considered a factor in explaining the specific placement of this center within the Hocking valley during the centuries of “Adena” tribal growth.


We would like to thank Dr. James K. Lein of the Ohio University Department of Geography for introducing the senior author to GIS and granting access to the equipment that made this research possible. We also thank the Graphics Lab at Ohio University for producing the figures. William Green, Joe Alan Artz, AnnCorinne Freter, and two anonymous reviewers added clarity and substance to the paper. The authors, however, assume all responsibility for errors contained therein.


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John Waldron

Department of Geography Texas AtM University College Station, TX 77801

Elliot M. Abrams Department of Sociology/Anthropology Lindley Hall Ohio University Athens, OH 45701-2979

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