Mound Builders: The "Elephant" Mound

The “elephant” mound has been plowed under, no longer a testament. However, there is credible witness testimony, of which this article is one.

Authored by Henry W. Henshaw, writing for the Smithsonian Institutions - Bureau of Ethnology, the article “Animal Carvings from Mounds of the Mississippi Valley” intrigues.

All images are from the original article.
— Orly

THE "ELEPHANT" MOUND.

By far the most important of the animal mounds, from the nature of the deductions it has given rise to, is the so-called "Elephant Mound," of Wisconsin.

By its discovery and description the interesting question was raised as to the contemporaneousness of the Mound-Builder and the mastodon, an interest which is likely to be further enhanced by the more recent bringing to light in Iowa of two pipes carved in the semblance of the same animal, as well as a tablet showing two figures asserted by some archæologists to have been intended for the same animal.

Although both the mound and pipes have been referred in turn to the peccary, the tapir, and the armadillo, it is safe to exclude these animals from consideration. It is indeed perhaps more likely that the ancient inhabitants of the Upper Mississippi Valley were autoptically acquainted with the mastodon than with either of the above-named animals, owing to their southern habitat.

Referring to the possibility that the mastodon was known to the Mound-Builders, it is impossible to fix with any degree of precision the time of its disappearance from among living animals. Mastodon bones have been exhumed from peat beds in this country at a depth which, so far as is proved by the rate of deposition, implies that the animal may have been alive within five hundred years. The extinction of the mastodon, geologically speaking, was certainly a very recent event, and, as an antiquity of upwards of a thousand or more years has been assigned to some of the mounds, it is entirely within the possibilities that this animal was living at the time these were thrown up, granting even that the time of their erection has been overestimated. It must be admitted, therefore, that there are no inherent absurdities in the belief that the Mound-Builders were acquainted with the mastodon. Granting that they may have been acquainted with the animal, the question arises, what proof is there that they actually were? The answer to this question made by certain archæologists is—the Elephant Mound, of Wisconsin.

Fig. 1 — The Elephant Mound, Grant County, Wisconsin.

Fig. 1 — The Elephant Mound, Grant County, Wisconsin.

 

Recalling the fact that among the animal mounds many nondescript shapes occur which cannot be identified at all, and as many others which have been called after the animals they appear to most nearly resemble, carry out their peculiarities only in the most vague and general way, it is a little difficult to understand the confidence with which this effigy has been asserted to represent the mastodon; for the mound (a copy of which as figured in the Smithsonian Annual Report for 1872 is here given) can by no means be said to closely represent the shape, proportions, and peculiarities of the animal whose name it bears. In fact, it is true of this, as of so many other of the effigies, the identity of which must be guessed, that the resemblance is of the most vague and general kind, the figure simulating the elephant no more closely than any one of a score or more mounds in Wisconsin, except in one important particular, viz, the head has a prolongation or snout-like appendage, which is its chief, in fact its only real, elephantine character. If this appendage is too long for the snout of any other known animal, it is certainly too short for the trunk of a mastodon. Still, so far as this one character goes, it is doubtless true that it is more suggestive of the mastodon than of any other animal. No hint is afforded of tusks, ears, or tail, and were it not for the snout the animal effigy might readily be called a bear, it nearly resembling in its general make-up many of the so-called bear mounds figured by Squier and Davis from this same county in Wisconsin. The latter, too, are of the same gigantic size and proportions.

If it can safely be assumed that an animal effigy without tusks, without ears, and without a tail was really intended to represent a mastodon, it would be stretching imagination but a step farther to call all the large-bodied, heavy-limbed animal effigies hitherto named bears, mastodons, attributing the lack of trunks, as well as ears, tusks, and tails, to inattention to slight details on the part of the mound artist.

It is true that one bit of good, positive proof is worth many of a negative character. But here the one positive resemblance, the trunk of the supposed elephant, falls far short of an exact imitation, and, as the other features necessary to a good likeness of a mastodon are wholly wanting, is not this an instance where the negative proof should be held sufficient to largely outweigh the positive?

In connection with this question the fact should not be overlooked that, among the great number of animal effigies in Wisconsin and elsewhere, this is the only one which even thus remotely suggests the mastodon. As the Mound Builders were in the habit of repeating the same animal form again and again, not only in the same but in widely distant localities, why, if this was really intended for a mastodon, are there no others like it? It cannot be doubted that the size and extraordinary features of this monster among mammals would have prevented it being overlooked by the Mound-Builders when so many animals of inferior interest engaged their attention. The fact that the mound is a nondescript, with no others resembling it, certainly lessens the probability that it was an intentional representation of the mastodon, and increases the likelihood that its slight resemblance was accidental; a slide of earth from the head, for instance, might readily be interpreted by the modern artist as a trunk, and thus the head be made to assume a shape in his sketch not intended by the original maker. As is well known, no task is more difficult for the artist than to transfer to paper an exact copy of such a subject. Especially hard is it for the artist to avoid unconsciously magnifying or toning down peculiarities according to his own conceptions of what was originally intended, when, as is often the case, time and the elements have combined to render shape and outlines obscure. Archæologic treatises are full of warning lessons of this kind, and the interpretations given to ancient works of art by the erring pencil of the modern artist are responsible for many an ingenious theory which the original would never have suggested. It may well be that future investigations will show that the one peculiarity which distinguishes the so-called Elephant Mound from its fellows is really susceptible of a much more commonplace explanation than has hitherto been given it.

Even if such explanation be not forthcoming, the "Elephant Mound" of Wisconsin should be supplemented by a very considerable amount of corroborative testimony before being accepted as proof positive of the acquaintance of the Mound-Builders with the mastodon.

As regards likeness to the mastodon, the pipes before alluded to, copies of which as given in Barber's articles on Mound Pipes in American Naturalist for April, 1882, Figs. 2 and 3, are here presented, while not entirely above criticism, are much nearer what they have been supposed to be than the mound just mentioned.

Fig. 2 - Elephant Pipe, Iowa

Fig. 2 - Elephant Pipe, Iowa

Of the two, figure 2 is certainly the most natural in appearance, but, if the pipes are intentional imitations of any animal, neither can be regarded as having been intended for any other than the mastodon. Yet, as pointed out by Barber and others, it is certainly surprising that if intended for mastodons no attempt was made to indicate the tusks, which with the trunk constitute the most marked external peculiarities of all the elephant kind. The tusks, too, as affording that most important product in primitive industries, ivory, would naturally be the one peculiarity of all others which the ancient artist would have relied upon to fix the identity of the animal. It is also remarkable that in neither of these pipes is the tail indicated, although a glance at the other sculptures will show that in the full-length figures this member is invariably shown. In respect to these omissions, the pipes from Iowa are strikingly suggestive of the Elephant Mound of Wisconsin, with the peculiarities of which the sculptor, whether ancient or modern, might almost be supposed to have been acquainted. It certainly must be looked upon as a curious coincidence that carvings found at a point so remote from the Elephant Mound, and presumably the work of other hands, should so closely copy the imperfections of that mound.

Fig. 3 - Elephant Pipe, Iowa

Fig. 3 - Elephant Pipe, Iowa

In considering the evidence afforded by these pipes of a knowledge of the mastodon on the part of the Mound-Builders, it should be borne in mind that their authenticity as specimens of the Mound-Builders' art has been called seriously in question. Possibly the fact that the same person was instrumental in bringing to light both the pipes has had largely to do with the suspicion, especially when it was remembered that although explorers have been remarkably active in the same region, it has fallen to the good fortune of no one else to find anything conveying the most distant suggestion of the mastodon. As the manner of discovery of such relics always forms an important part of their history, the following account of the pipes as communicated to Mr. Barber by Mr. W. H. Pratt, president of the Davenport Academy (American Naturalist for April, 1882, pp. 275, 276), is here subjoined:

The first elephant pipe, which we obtained a little more than a year ago, was found some six years before by an illiterate German farmer named Peter Mare, while planting corn on a farm in the mound region, Louisa County, Iowa. He did not care whether it was elephant or kangaroo; to him it was a curious 'Indian stone,' and nothing more, and he kept it and smoked it. In 1878 he removed to Kansas, and when he left he gave the pipe to his brother-in-law, a farm laborer, who also smoked it. Mr. Gass happened to hear of it, as he is always inquiring about such things, hunted up the man and borrowed the pipe to take photographs and casts from it. He could not buy it. The man said his brother-in-law gave it to him and as it was a curious thing—he wanted to keep it. We were, however, unfortunate, or fortunate, enough to break it; that spoiled it for him and that was his chance to make some money out of it. He could have claimed any amount, and we would, as in duty bound, have raised it for him, but he was satisfied with three or four dollars. During the first week in April, this month, Rev. Ad. Blumer, another German Lutheran minister, now of Genesee, Illinois, having formerly resided in Louisa County, went down there in company with Mr. Gass to open a few mounds, Mr. Blumer being well acquainted there. They carefully explored ten of them, and found nothing but ashes and decayed bones in any, except one. In that one was a layer of red, hard-burned clay, about five feet across and thirteen inches in thickness at the center, which rested upon a bed of ashes one foot in depth in the middle, the ashes resting upon the natural undisturbed clay. In the ashes, near the bottom of the layer, they found a part of a broken carved stone pipe, representing some bird; a very small beautifully formed copper 'axe,' and this last elephant pipe (Fig. 3). This pipe was first discovered by Mr. Blumer, and by him, at our earnest solicitation, turned over to the Academy.

It will be seen from the above that the same gentleman was instrumental in bringing to light the two specimens constituting the present supply of elephant pipes.

The remarkable archæologic instinct which has guided the finder of these pipes has led him to even more important discoveries. By the aid of his divining rod he has succeeded in unearthing some of the most remarkable inscribed tablets which have thus far rewarded the diligent search of the mound explorer. It is not necessary to speak in detail of these here, or of the various theories to which they have given rise and support, including that of phonetic writing, further than to call attention to the fact that by a curious coincidence one of the tablets contains, among a number of familiar animals, figures which suggest in a rude way the mastodon again, which animal indeed some archæologists have confidently asserted them to be. The resemblance they bear to that animal is, however, by no means as close as exhibited by the pipe carvings; they are therefore not reproduced here. Both figures differ from the pipes in having tails; both lack trunks, and also tusks.

Archæologists must certainly deem it unfortunate that outside of the Wisconsin mound the only evidence of the co-existence of the Mound-Builder and the mastodon should reach the scientific world through the agency of one individual. So derived, each succeeding carving of the mastodon, be it more or less accurate, instead of being accepted by archæologists as cumulative evidence tending to establish the genuineness of the sculptured testimony showing that the Mound-Builder and mastodon were coeval, will be viewed with ever increasing suspicion.

This part of the subject should not be concluded without allusion to a certain class of evidence, which, although of a negative sort, must be accorded very great weight in considering this much vexed question. It may be asked why if the Mound-Builders and the mastodon were contemporaneous, have no traces of the ivory tusks ever been exhumed from the mounds? No material is so perfectly adapted for the purposes of carving, an art to which we have seen the Mound-Builders were much addicted, as ivory, both from its beauty and the ease with which it is worked, to say nothing of the other manifold uses to which it is put, both by primitive and civilized man. The mastodon affords an abundant supply of this highly prized substance, not a particle of which has ever been exhumed from the mounds either in the shape of implements or carving. Yet the exceedingly close texture of ivory enables it to successfully resist the destroying influences of time for very long periods—very long indeed as compared with certain articles which commonly reward the search of the mound explorer.

Among the articles of a perishable nature that have been exhumed from the mounds are large numbers of shell ornaments, which are by no means very durable, as well as the perforated teeth of various animals; sections of deers' horns have also been found, as well as ornaments made of the claws of animals, a still more perishable material. The list also includes the bones of the muskrat and turtle, as of other animals, not only in their natural shape, but carved into the form of implements of small size, as awls, etc. Human bones, too, in abundance, have been exhumed in a sufficiently well preserved state to afford a basis for various theories and speculations.

But of the mastodon, with which these dead Mound-Builders are supposed to have been acquainted, not a palpable trace remains. The tale of its existence is told by a single mound in Wisconsin, which the most ardent supporter of the mastodon theory must acknowledge to be far from a facsimile, and two carvings and an inscribed tablet, the three latter the finds of a single explorer.

Bearing in mind the many attempts at archæological frauds that recent years have brought to light, archæologists have a right to demand that objects which afford a basis for such important deductions as the coeval life of the Mound-Builder and the mastodon, should be above the slightest suspicion not only in respect to their resemblances, but as regards the circumstances of discovery. If they are not above suspicion, the science of archæology can better afford to wait for further and more certain evidence than to commit itself to theories which may prove stumbling-blocks to truth until that indefinite time when future investigations shall show their illusory nature.

FINIS

Source: Henry W. Henshaw, Animal Carvings from Mounds of the Mississippi Valley, Smithsonian Institution - Bureau of Ethnology

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