The Adena Mounds

About 1000 B.C. we can mark the beginning of a new period for man in North America. This period, which lasted until about 700 A.D., is called the Woodland Period. It is during this time that a new culture emerged and made significant settlements in what is now known as West Virginia. These people are known to us today by the general term of the Mound Builders. They were so named for their practice of creating earthen burial mounds and other earthworks. The Mound Builders lived over a wide range from the Atlantic, the Midwest and the Ohio Valley to the Mississippi Valley. The term "mound builders" refers to several cultures that span a period of about 20 centuries.

The first group of people to develop this unique way of life were the Adena people. From about 1000 B.C. to approximately 1 A.D. A later group of Mound Builders, the Hopewell, lived from about 1 A.D. to 700 A.D. and represented a greater refinement over the earlier Adena culture. Other cultures extended the Mound Builders to about 1300 A.D.


The Adena built mounds generally ranging in size from 20 to 300 feet in diameter. The Adena lived in a wide area including much of present day Ohio, Indiana, West Virginia, Kentucky and parts of Pennsylvania and New York. They had well-organized societies since the construction of the mounds took a great deal of effort.

The labor of many people must have been required since the Adena had not yet developed more sophisticated means of construction. The large amounts of earth had to be moved by the basket-load. Perhaps for this reason, the mounds were often used more than once. We find in many mounds there are multiple burials at different levels. Over a period of time, the mounds gradually increased in size.

A majority of the people were cremated after death, placed in small log tombs and covered with earth. More important people were often buried in the flesh and laid to rest with a variety of artifacts such as flints, beads, pipes, and mica and copper ornaments.

The largest of these sites is the Grave Creek Mound. This site is of the late Adena Period and was built in successive stages over a period of 100 years or more. We do not know why the Adena chose to build this particular mound on such a huge scale compared to other burial mounds in the area.


The Adena people were extensive traders as evidenced by the types of material found in the mounds they constructed. Copper from the western Great Lakes region, mica from the Carolinas and shells from the Gulf of Mexico, all attest to the economic activity. In addition, the culture also practiced agriculture, hunting and fishing.

A typical Adena house was built in a circular form from 15 to 45 feet in diameter. The walls were made of paired posts tilted outward, joined to other wood to form a conical-shaped roof. The roof was covered with bark and the walls may have been bark, wickerwork or some combination.

By about 500 B.C., the Adena culture began to slowly give way to a more sophisticated culture, the Hopewell. Although little remains of their villages, the Adena left great monuments to mark their passing, and one of the greatest of these is the Grave Creek Mound.


Grave Creek Mound is probably the most famous of the Adena burial mounds, and certainly one of the most impressive. Not only is it the largest Adena mound, but it is the largest conical type of any of the mound builder structures.

In 1838, road engineers measured the height of the mound at 69 feet and the diameter at the base as 295 feet. Originally a moat of about 40 feet in width and five feet in depth with one causeway encircled the mound.

Construction of the mound took place in successive stages from about 250-150 B.C., as indicated by the multiple burials at different levels within the structure. The building of the mound and moat must have been a massive undertaking, since the total effort required the movement of over 60,000 tons of earth.

Further information about the Adena people can be found at the Grave Creek Mound State Park in Moundsville, West Virginia, 304/843-1410.


Grave Creek Mound State Park, Moundsville, West Virginia