The Grave Creek Mound in the Ohio River Valley in West Virginia is one of the largest conical-type burial mounds in the United States, now standing 62 feet (19 m) high and 240 feet (73 m) in diameter. The builders of the site, members of the Adena culture, moved more than 60,000 tons of dirt to create it about 250–150 BC.
Present-day Moundsville has developed around it near the banks of the Ohio River. The first recorded excavation of the mound took place in 1838, and was conducted by local amateurs Abelard Tomlinson and Thomas Biggs. The largest surviving mound among those built by the Adena, this was designated a National Historic Landmark in the mid-20th century.
In 1978 the state opened the Delf Norona Museum at the site. It displays numerous artifacts and interprets the ancient Adena Culture. In 2010, under an agreement with the state, the US Army Corps of Engineers gave nearly 450,000 artifacts to the museum for archival storage. These were recovered in archeological excavations at the site of the Marmet Lock, and represent 10,000 years of indigenous habitation in the area.
Grave Creek Mound is the largest conical type of any of the mound builder structures. Construction of the earthwork mound took place in successive stages from about 250–150 B.C., as indicated by the multiple burials at different levels within the structures. In 1838, road engineers measured its height at 69 feet (21 m) and its base as 295 feet (90 m).
Originally a moat of about 40 feet (12 m) in width and five feet (1.5 m) in depth, with one causeway across it, encircled the mound for defensive purposes. Inside the mound, archaeological researchers have discovered Adena remains and ornaments. In addition, they discovered a small sandstone tablet, the Grave Creek Stone, which modern scholars believe to be a hoax.
MR. TOMLINSON’S LETTER
J. S. Williams, Esq.
Sir – The flats of Grave creek are a large scope of bottom land in Marshall county, Virginia, and on the eastern shore of the Ohio river, which here runs due south. They extend from north to south about four miles, and contain about three thousand acres. Big and Little Grave creeks both empty into the Ohio at these flats, from which they derive their names. The creeks themselves doubtless derived their names from various tumulus or mounds, commonly called Indian graves, which are found on these flats, and especially between the two creeks. Little Grave creek enters the flats at the upper end and runs parallel with the Ohio about three miles, and then turns at right angles and enters the river one mile above the Big creek, which occupies the lower termination of the flats. These creeks are what are called mill- streams, and of course are not navigable. These flats are composed of first and second bottoms. The first bottom is above two hundred yards wide, and runs the whole length of the flats. The great flood of 1832 was about ten feet deep on the first, but lacked from ten to twenty feet of the height of the second bottom, on which all the ancient Indian works and mounds are situated; no signs of them being on the lower land. It may reasonably be inferred that the brow of the second bottom was the bank of the river, when these ancient works were erected. This I believe is not an uncommon circumstance where mounds and ancient works appear near the streams that have first and second bottoms.
The flats were early settled. My grandfather settled on them in 1772, two years before the murder of Logan’s family. It was to these flats that young Cresap pursued the Indians as related by colonel Ebenezer Zane in his affidavit, published in the appendix to Jefferson’s Notes on Virginia. There are many interesting incidents, connected with the settlement of these flats, which I may at another time communicate, from the lips of my father, but as those incidents are not my present subject, I will proceed.
Elizabethtown is about twelve miles below Wheeling, and is situated on the second bottom, near the mouth of Little Grave creek, and at the widest part of the flats; it is the seat of justice for Marshall county.
In the suburbs of Elizabethtown stands what is called the mammoth mound, which with its contents is made the subject of this narrative. This mound is surrounded by various other mounds and ancient works, and in respect to the surrounding localities, the situation, as respects defence, was well chosen, on the brow of the second bottom, and partially encompassed by steeps and ravines. The mammoth mound is sixty-nine feet high. Its circumference at the base is over three hundred yards. It is the frustum of a cone, and has a flat top of fifty feet in diameter. This flat on the top of the mound, until lately, was dish shaped. The depth of the depression in the centre was three feet, and its width forty feet. This depression was doubtless occasioned by the falling in of two vaults, which were originally constructed in the mound, but which afterwards fell in; the earth sinking over them, occasioned the depression on the top.
This mound was discovered by my grandfather soon after he settled the flats, and was covered with as large timbers as any in the surrounding forests, and as close together. The centre of the hollow on the top was occupied by a large beech. This mound was early and much visited. Dates were cut on this beech as early as 1734! It was literally covered with names and dates to the height of ten feet; none of a more remote period than the above, most of them were added after the country began to be settled – mostly from 1770 to 1790. On the very summit of the mound stood a white oak, which seemed to die of old age about fifteen years ago. It stood on the western edge of the dish. We cut it off, and with great care and nicety counted the growths, which evidently showed the tree to have been about five hundred years old when it died. It carried its thickness well for about fifty feet, where it branched into several large limbs. Top and all, it was about seventy feet high, which, added to the height of the mound, might well have been styled, the ancient monarch of the Flats, if not of the forest. A black oak stands now on the east side of the mound, which is as large as the white oak was, but it is situated on the side of the mound, about ten feet lower than the throne of the white oak, to which it may now be proclaimed the rightful heir.
Prompted by curiosity or some other cause, on the 19th of March, 1838, we commenced an excavation in this mound. I wrought at it myself from the commencement to the termination, and what I am about to tell you is from my own personal observation, which, if necessary, could be substantiated by others. We commenced on the north side, and excavated towards the centre. Our horizontal shaft was ten feet high and seven feet wide, and ran on the natural surface of the ground or floor of the mound.
At the distance of one hundred and eleven feet we came to a vault that had been excavated in the natural earth before the mound was commenced. This vault was dug out eight by twelve feet square and seven feet deep. Along each side and the two ends upright timbers were placed, which supported timbers that were thrown across the vault, and formed for a time its ceiling. These timbers were covered over with loose unhewn stone, of the same quality as is common in the neighborhood. These timbers rotted, and the stone tumbled into the vault; the earth of the mound following, quite filled it. the timbers were entirely deranged, but could be traced by the rotten wood, which was in such condition as to be rubbed to pieces between the fingers. This vault was as dry as any tight room; its sides very nearly corresponded with the cardinal points of the compass, and it was lengthwise from north to south.
In this vault were found two human skeletons, one of which had no ornaments or artificial work of any kind about it. The other was surrounded by six hundred and fifty ivory beads, and an ivory ornament about six inches long of this shape, [see figure 8.] It is one and five- eighths inches wide in the middle, and half an inch wide at the ends, with two holes through it of one- eighth of an inch diameter, and shaped as in the drawing. It is flat on one side and oval shaped on the other. The beads resemble button moles, and vary in diameter from three to five-eighths of an inch. In thickness they vary from that of common pasteboard to one-fourth of an inch; the size of the holes through them varying with the diameter of the beads from one-eighth of an inch in the largest. Some of the beads are in a good state of preservation, retaining even the original polish; others, not so favorably situated, are decayed – some crumbled to dust. Above I count only the whole ones left. The large ornament is in a good state of preservation, but is somewhat corroded. The first skeleton we found in the 4th of April, and the second on the 16th, but I shall speak more particularly of these further on.
After searching this vault, we commenced a shaft ten feet in diameter, at the centre of the mound on top, and in the bottom of the depression before spoken of. At the depth of thirty-four or thirty-five feet above the vault at the bottom, we discovered another vault, which occupied the middle space between the bottom and the top. The shaft we continued quite down through the mound to our first excavation.
The second or upper vault was discovered on the 9th of June. It had been constructed in every respect like that at the base of the mound, except that its length lay east and west, or across that at the base, but perpendicularly over it. It was equally filled with earth, rotten wood, stones, &c., by the falling in of the ceiling. The floor of this vault was also sunken by the falling in of the lower one, with the exception of a portion of one end.
In the upper vault was found one skeleton only, but many trinkets, as seventeen hundred ivory beads, five hundred sea shells of the involute species, that were worn as beads, and five copper bracelets that were about the wrist bones of the skeleton. There were also one hundred and fifty pieces of isinglass [mica,] and the stone, a fac simile drawing of which I send you herewith, [see figure 5.] The stone is flat on both sides, and is about three-eights of an inch thick. It has no engraving on it, except on one side, as sent you. There is no appearance of any hole or ear, as if it had been worn as a medal. The drawing is the exact size of it. It is sandstone of a very fine and close grit. The beads found in this vault were like those found in the lower one, as to size, materials, decay, &c. The shells were three-eighths of an inch long and one-fourth of an inch in diameter at the swell or largest part. The bracelets are of pure copper, coated with rust as thick as brown paper. They are an oblong circle. The inner diameter of one is two and one-fourth inches one way, and two and five-eighths the other. They vary in size and thickness: the largest is half an inch thick, and the smallest half that thickness. They were made of round bars bent so that the ends came together, which forms the circle. The five bracelets weigh seventeen ounces. The pieces of isinglass are but little thicker than writing paper, and are generally from one and a-half to two inches square; each piece had two or three holes through it about the size of a knitting needle, most likely for the purpose of sewing or in some way fastening them to the clothing.
The beads were found about the neck and breast bones of the skeletons. The sea shells were in like manner distributed over the neck and breast bones of the skeleton in the upper vault. The bracelets were around the wrist bones. The pieces of isinglass were stewed all over the body. What a gorgeous looking object this monarch must have been! Five bracelets shining on the wrists, seventeen beads, and five hundred sea shells, that we found whole about his breast and neck, besides one hundred and fifty brilliants of mica on all parts of his body! no doubt oft the object of the throng’s admiring gaze. The stone with the characters on it was found about two feet from the skeleton; could it be read, doubtless would tell something of the history of this illustrious dead, interred high above his quite gorgeous companion in the lower story.
The skeleton first found in the lower vault, was found lying on the back, parallel with and close to the west side of the vault. The feet were about the middle of the vault; its body was extended at full length; the left arm was lying along the left side; the right arm as if raised over the head, the bones lying near the right ear and crossed over the crown of the head. The head of this skeleton was toward the south. There were no ornaments found with it. The earth had fallen and covered it over before the ceiling fell, and thus protected it was not much broken. We have it preserved from the inspection of visitors; it is five feet nine inches high; and has a full and perfect set of teeth in a good state of preservation; the head is of a fine intellectual mould; whether male or female cannot be ascertained, as the pelvis was broken. Opinions differ as to the sex; my own is, that it is that of a male.
The second skeleton found in this vault, and which had the trinkets about it, lay on the west side, with the head to the east, or in the same direction as that on the opposite side. The feet of this one were likewise near the centre of the west side. The earth had not crumbled down over it before the ceiling fell, consequently is was much broken, (as was also that in the upper vault.) There is nothing in the remains of any of these skeletons which differs materially from those of common people.
The skeleton in the upper vault lay with its feet against the south side of the vault, and the head towards the north east. It is highly probable that the corpses were all placed in a standing position, and subsequently fell. Those in the lower vault most likely stood on the east and west side, opposite to each other; and the one in the upper vault on the south side.
The mound is composed of the same kind of earth as that around it, being a fine loamy sand, but differs very much in color from that of the natural ground. After penetrating about eight feet with the first or horizontal excavation, blue spots began to appear in the earth of which the mound is composed. On close examination, these spots were found to contain ashes and bits of burnt bones. These spots increased as we approached the centre; at the distance of one hundred and twenty feet within, the spots were so numerous and condensed as to give the earth a clouded appearance, and excited the admiration of all who saw it. Every part of the mound presents the same appearance, except near the surface. I am convinced that the blue spots were occasioned by depositing the remains of bodies consumed by fire. I am also of the opinion that the upper vault was constructed long after the lower one, but for this opinion I do not know that there is any evidence.
We have overlaid the first excavation, from the side to the centre, with brick, and paved the bottom. We excavated the vault in the centre twenty-eight feet in diameter and nine feet high. It is well walled with brick and neatly plastered. The rotunda or shaft in the centre is also walled with brick. The foundation of the rotunda is in the centre of the lower vault, and around this we have made departments for the safe keeping of the relics nearly where they were found; this vault we light with twenty candles, for the accommodation of visitors, many of whom have seen it.
Upon the top of the mound, and directly over the rotunda, we have erected a three-story frame building, which we call an observatory. The lower story is thirty-two feet in diameter, the second story is twenty-six feet, and the upper story ten. This manner of constructing the building accommodates the visitor with a walk quite round on the top of each story, and a good stand for observation on the top. From either of these elevations the visitor has an unobstructed view of the surrounding country and river to a considerable distance. It is our intention to run a winding stairway from the bottom of the mound through the rotunda and observatory to the top. The height of this stairway will be over one hundred feet. The observatory was built in 1837.
In addition to the relics found in the mammoth mound, I have a great number and variety of relics found in the neighborhood; many of them were found with skeletons which were nearly decayed. I have some beads, found about two miles from this great mound, that are evidently a kind of porcelain, and very similar if not identical in substance with artificial teeth set by dentists. I have also an image of stone, found with other relics about eight miles distant; it is in human shape, sitting in a cramped position, the face and eyes projecting upwards; the nose is what is called Roman. On the crown of the head is a knot, in which the hair is concentrated and tied. The head and features particularly is a display of great workmanship and ingenuity: it is eleven inches in height, but if it were straight would be double that height. It is generally believed to have been an idol.
A B Tomlinson
Grave Creek Mound
Description by Meriwether Lewis, 1803
The Journals of Captain Meriwether Lewis and Sergeant John Ordway Kept On The Expedition Of Western Exploration, 1803-1806. Edited With Introduction and Notes by Milo M. Quaife (Madison: The State Historical Society of Wisconsin, 1915), pp. 41-42.
September 10, 1803
The rain ceased about day, the clouds had not dispersed, and looked very much like giving us a repetition of the last evening’s frollic, there was but little fogg and I should have been able to have set out at sunrise, but the Corporal had not yet returned with the bread – I began to fear that he was piqued with the sharp reprimand I gave him the evening before for his negligence & inattention with respect to the bread and had deserted; in this however I was agreably disappointed, about 8 in the morning he came up bring[ing] with him the two men and the bread, they instantly embarked and we set out we passed several very bad riffles this morning and at 11 Oclock six miles below our encampment of last evening I landed on the east side of the [river] and went on shore to view a remarkable artificial mound of earth called by the people in the neighbourhood the Indian grave. This remarkable artificial mound of earth stands on the east bank of the Ohio 12 Miles below Wheeling and about 700 paces from the river, as the land is not cleard the mound is not visible from the river – this mound gives name to two small creek called little and big grave creek which passing about a half a mile on each side of it & fall into ohio about a mile distant from each other the small creek is above, the mound stands on the most elivated ground of a large bottom containing about 4000 acres of land the bottom is bounded from N. E. to S. W. by a high range of hills which seem to discribe a simecircle around it of which the river is the dimater, the hills being more distant from the mound than the river, near the mound to the N. stands a small town lately laid out called Elizabethtown there are but six or seven dwelling houses in it as yet, in this town there are several mounds of the same kind of the large one but not near as large, in various parts of this bottom the traces of old intrenchments are to seen tho’ they are so imperfect that they cannot be traced in such manner as to make any complete figure; for this enquire I had not leasure I shall therefore content myself by giving a discription of the large mound and offering some conjectures with regard to the probable purposes for which they were intended by their founders; who ever they may have been. the mound is nearly a regular cone 310 yards in circumpherence at its base & 65 feet high terminating in a blont point whose diameter is 30 feet, this point is concave being depresed about five feet in the center, arround the base runs a ditch 60 feet in width which is broken or inte[r]sected by a ledge of earth raised as high as the outer bank of the ditch on the N. W. side, this bank is about 30 feet wide and appers to have formed the enterence to fortifyed mound – near the summet of this mound grows a white oak tree whose girth is 13 1/2 feet, from the aged appeance of this tree I think it’s age might resonably [be]calculated at 300 years, the whole mound is covered with large timber, sugar tree, hickery, poplar, red and white oak &c – I was informed that in removing the earth of a part of one of these lesser mounds that stands in the town the skeletons of two men were found and some brass beads were found among the earth near these bones, my informant told me the beads were sent to Mr Peals museum in Philadelphia where he believed they now were.
Grave Creek Mound
Description by Thaddeus Mason Harris, 1803
The Journal Of A Tour Into The Territory Northwest of the Alleghany Mountains; Made in the Spring of the Year 1803, by Thaddeus Mason Harris, reprinted in Travels West of the Alleghanies, by Reuben Gold Thwaites (Cleveland: The Arthur H. Clark Company, 1904), pp. 360-362.
We reached Tomlinson, a small settlement near Grave Creek, to lodge. We propose spending tomorrow here in viewing the surprizing forts and the “Big Mound,” in this vicinity.
Wednesday, June 8 
“Behind me rises huge a reverend pile
Sole on this desert heath, a place of tombs,
Waste, desolate, where Ruin dreary dwells,
Brooding o’er fightless skulls and crumbling bones.”
We went out this morning to examine the antient monuments about Grave Creek. The town of Tomlinson is partly built upon one of the square forts. Several mounds are to be seen. I think there are nine within a mile. Three of them, which stand adjoining each other, are of superior height and magnitude to those which are most commonly to be met with. In digging away the side of one of these, in order to build a stable, many curious stone implements were found; one resembled a syringe; there were, also, a pestle, some copper beads of an oval shape, and several other articles. One of the mounds in Col. Bygg’s garden was excavated in order to make an ice-house. It contained a vast number of human bones, a variety of stone tools, and a kind of stone signet of an oval shape, two inches in length, with a figure in relievo resembling a note of admiration, surrounded by two raised rims. Capt. Wilson, who presented the stone to my companion Mr. Adams, observed that it was exactly the figure of the brand with which the Mexican horses were marked. One of the mounds was surrounded by a regular ditch and parapet, with only one entrance. The tumulus was about twelve feet high, and the parapet five.
The “Big grave,” as it is called, is a most astonishing mound. We measured the perpendicular height, and it was sixty-seven feet and a half. By the measurement of George Millar, Esq. of Wheeling, it is sixty-eight feet. Its sides are quite steep. The diameter of the top is fifty-five feet: but the apex seems to have caved in; for the present summit forms a bason, three or feet in depth. Not having a surveyor’s chain, we could not take the circumference, but judged that its base covered more than half an acre. It is overgrown with large trees on all sides. Near the top is a white oak of three feet diameter; one still larger grows on the eastern side about half way down. The mound sounds hollow. Undoubtedly its contents will be numerous, curious, and calculated to develop in a farther degree the history of the antiquities which abound in this part of our country.
As there are no excavations near the mound, and no hills or banks of earth, we infer that it must have been principally formed of sods skimmed from the surface, or of earth brought from a great distance. The labour of collecting such a prodigious quantity must have been inconceivably great. And when we consider the multitude of workmen, the length of time, and the expense, requisite to form such a stupendous mound; when we reflect upon the spirit of ambition which suggested the idea of this monument, of great but simple magnificence, to the memory of some renowned prince or warrior, we cannot but regret that the name and the glory it was designed to perpetuate are gone – Lost In The Darkness of the Grave!
Grave Creek Mound
Description by Reuben Gold Thwaites, 1894
On the Storied Ohio: An Historical Pilgrimage of a Thousand Miles in a Skiff, from Redstone
to Cairo, by Reuben Gold Thwaites (Chicago: A. C. McClurg & Co., 1903), pp. 64-66.
Near Fishing Creek, Friday, May 11th .
There had been rain during the night, with fierce wind gusts, but during breakfast the atmosphere quieted, and we had a genial, semi-cloudy morning.
Off at 8 o’clock, Pilgrim’s crew were soon exploring Moundsville. There are five thousand people in this old, faded, countrified town. They show you with pride the State Penitentiary of West Virginia, a solemn-looking pile of dark gray stone, with the feeble battlements and towers common to American prison architecture. But the chief feature of the place is the great Indian mound – the “Big Grave” of early chroniclers. This earthwork is one of the largest now remaining in the United States, being sixty- eight feet high and a hundred in diameter at the base, and has for over a century attracted the attention of travelers and archaeologists.
We found it at the end of a straggling street, on the edge of the town, a quarter of a mile back from the river. Around the mound has been left a narrow plat of ground, utilized as a cornfield; and the stout picket fence which encloses it bears peremptory notice that admission is forbidden. However, as the proprietor was not easily accessible, we exercised the privilege of historical pilgrims, and letting ourselves in through the gate, picked our way through rows of corn, and ascended the great cone. It is covered with a heavy growth of white oaks, some of them three feet in diameter, among which the path picturesquely ascends. The summit is fifty-five feet in diameter, and the center somewhat depressed, like a basin. From the middle of this basin a shaft some twenty-five feet in diameter has been sunk by explorers, for a distance of perhaps fifty feet; at one time, a level tunnel connected the bottom of this shaft with the side of the cone, but it has been mostly obliterated. A score of years ago, tunnel and shaft were utilized as the leading attractions of a beer garden – to such base uses may a great historical landmark descend!
Dickens, who apparently wrote the greater part of his American Notes while suffering from dyspepsia, has a note of appreciation for the Big Grave: “…the host of Indians who lie buried in a great mound yonder – so old that mighty oaks and other forest trees have struck their roots into its earth; and so high that it is a hill, even among the hills that Nature planted around it. The very river, as though it shared one’s feelings of compassion for the extinct tribes who lived so pleasantly here, in their blessed ignorance of white existence, hundreds of years ago, steals out of its way to ripple near this mound; and there are few places where the Ohio sparkles more brightly than in the Big Grave Creek.”