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Water Serpent Effigy

Two years ago one wet spring weekend, I invited a friend and colleague, Dr. John Pohl, to join me at a meeting with the Green Mountain National Forest archaeologist, Dave Lacy, and others to discuss the prospect of future study of the Smith site and other cairn sites in the vicinity.  At site R7-2, after we had walked the length of the wall-over-the-stream, John Pohl was asked what he thought of it, and he forthrightly said that it reminded him of a water serpent.  John is an expert in pre-Columbian art and archaeology, and is also a consultant to the Moundville Mississippian site in Alabama.  His comment illustrates the gulf between those who have a thorough grounding in American Indian cosmology and religion, and are not afraid to entertain original thoughts about perplexing issues, and those who are trapped in the paradigm that says the Indians had no stone building technology before the arrival of Europeans with their superior knowledge in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.  Most archaeologists in the Northeast view structures of this sort as the crazy design of some misguided colonial farmer, and cannot get beyond this viewpoint.  For instance, since an area north of the Smith site was said to be gold country in the 19th century, one suggested that the culvert was a sluice to separate gold from the dross, similar in construction to the flue of the Ely Copper Mine in Orange County, Vermont (Neudorfer 1980: 52).  

If we can get beyond the mental barrier that says the Indians had no stone building technology, then the connection that Pohl proposed makes eloquent sense.  Snakes or serpents are common to the mythology of many Indian tribes from South and Central America, where it is the feathered serpent.  In North America it is the water serpent.  As the Vastokases have written, “the dwelling places of these great snakes are the insides of hills near lakes, where underground passageways provide access to the water” and the meaning of snakes to the Algonkians was multi-layered.  “They may represent the powers of evil and darkness in their manifestations as fish-tailed or horned monsters, but they can also signify the energy of life and the powers of regeneration; in myths they sometimes function as vehicles of transition for the soul’s journey to the netherworld” (Vastokas & Vastokas 1973:95).   To Barnouw (1977:18) “great horned serpents appear as entrance-way guardians.  The bridge crossing over a river into the land of the souls is a serpent disguised as a log.”  Images of these creatures appear in the Peterborough petroglyphs (Fig. 16) and in a petroglyph at Emden, Maine (Fig. 17), among other places.  Interestingly, the Kennebec River in Maine, in the Algonkian language, means serpent (Brinton 1868: 108).
Fig 16
Fig 16
Fig 17
Fig 17

Serpent-like walls have been found in a number of Mid-Atlantic States.  Brisbin (1976) and Sanders (1991) describe a 191m (626 foot) long serpent effigy above the Big Sandy River in Catlettsburg, Kentucky.  Brisbin (1976:28) described a “large boulder that exhibits evidence for quarrying.  Slabs were removed by drilling a number of holes, broken off, apparently sized by hurling down the hill, laboriously carried back up the mountain, and placed in the serpent design.”  Sanders also describes a half dozen other snake effigies from Georgia to Ohio (1991:278-277).  The ones in Ohio are called the Kern Effigies (Krupp 2000:87).  There are two of them, and the larger one measures 47m long and points toward the northwest.  White (1983), who first discovered these low effigies and wrote about them, concluded that they were aligned with the summer solstice.  Similar stone serpent effigies are found at the Oley Hills site and in Woodstock, New York (Kreisberg 2007).  At the former, a curved wall ends in a wide platform in front of a large boulder (www.neara.org/Muller/stonerows.htm, Fig. 1).  And at the latter, a curved stone wall terminates at a large, square block of metamorphic rock (Fig. 18).  The similarity of the wall and the boulder to a snake is unmistakable.  This area of Overlook Mountain is known for timber rattlesnakes, and so the location of this effigy on a flat terrace makes for a perfect concordance.  Within the borders of Woodstock, another snake effigy has recently been found.
Fig 18
Fig 18

Additional Features

Between the two walls-over-the-streams are a number of stone constructions, many of them impressive and similar morphologically to what we have seen at other sites in Rochester.  Only a handful will be discussed in this report.  Nearest the larger wall-over-the-stream are two stone cairns labeled B and C on the map.  Cairn B is a round cairn that is similar to others found at the Smith site and at other locations in Vermont; it is quite well preserved.  And at point C (Fig. 23) is an impressive cairn on a slanted boulder that has a squared-off niche in the top right corner.  Into the niche the builder placed a white piece of quartz, undoubtedly to emphasize this unusual but natural anomaly of the boulder.  The white color of the quartz stands in marked contrast to the gray cobbles of gneiss in the cluster.   We might compare its placement with other examples of how quartz has been used (see http://www.rock-piles.com/Smith_Farm/index.htm).    
Fig 23
Fig 23
Fig 19
Fig.19

At the northern border of the site is a wall trace (see Fig. 1), meaning that there is little remaining of the wall except for an occasional rock deeply embedded in the soil, and one can sight along several of them to see an alignment.  Eventually by following the boulders to the east, one intersects with a huge glacial erratic, feature D (Fig. 19).  A map of this area (Fig. 20) shows that the large erratic, which is 8m long (26.2 ft.) and 4.3m wide (14.1 ft).  At the left or north corner of the boulder is what Ernie Clifford has called a “grotto” (see Fig. 20), which is a small space created by the placement of some large boulders at an angle in this location.  This is obviously a manmade space, but its purpose is unknown.  

       



 
Fig 20
                    Fig. 20


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