And Their Burial Tablets
By Ida Jane Gallagher
Imagine the amazement of early Colonial explorers when they crossed
the Appalachian Mountains and discovered hundreds of conical mounds
and geometric earthworks in the upper Ohio River and Kanawha River
valleys. Who built these mounds? Why?
Criel Mound, South Charleston, West Virginia
The Adena Moundbuilders
The Adena people built conical mounds for
the burial of their honored dead. The Ohio River
and its tributaries were the main areas they
occupied between 1000 B. C. and 400 A. D. The
later Hopewell and Mississippian people also
built mounds for their dead and for sun worship.
The Adena were named for the Chillicothe,
Ohio, estate of Governor Thomas Worthington
where archaeologists excavated a mound in 1901.
The Adena mound contained an elite burial and
distinctive artifacts that identify the Adena.
The Adena pipe (above (left) shows a squat male figure with a goitered neck and
stylized hair. He wears ear spools and a loin cloth that is feathered in back. A replica
of an Adena shaman wearing a wolf headdress (right) holds the Adena pipe. Some
archaeologists speculated that the Adena may have migrated from Mexico because
they carved similar designs on tablets and both groups erected mounds over burial
tombs. Other archaeologists maintain that Adena burial practices evolved from
earlier native people living in the Midwest or Northeast. Burials of Adena elite
people contained decorative objects, copper bracelets, mica, pipes, seed pearls, and
tablets incised with cultural symbols and a few tablets with ancient writing.
The Gaithskill Tablet
(left) is an example of
a figural tablet.
Hands, serpents,
birds, and sun circles
were some of the
symbols carved on
tablets. Dating of
mound burials can be
estimated by the
sophistication of
tablet designs.
The turtle tablet
(right) represents
an Adena cultural
Grave Creek Mound, Moundsville, West Virginia
The Grave Creek Mound is on a plateau above the Ohio River. Early explorers
said that earthen circles, squares, octagons, and walls accompanied the mounds.
Mounds and earthworks extended 10-12 miles along the Ohio River in the Grave
Creek Mound vicinity. Their construction was an enormous project, and workers
carried dirt one bucket at a time to build them. What motivated them to do this?
This so called “Mammoth Mound” was located on the Tomlinson farm. In 1838
owner Jesse Tomlinson permitted the mound excavation. His nephew, Abelard
Tomlinson, assisted by Abelard’s brother-in-law, Thomas Biggs, was in charge of the
excavation. Local residents helped.
Grave Creek Mound Excavation
Tomlinson and his crew
started by digging a tunnel
into the mound starting about
four feet above ground level
and then sinking a shaft from
the top of the mound intended
to intersect with the tunnel.
The tunnel ended when the
men struck an 8 x 12 foot log
tomb. The grave had been dug
seven to eight feet below the
floor of the house of the
deceased. The house was
burned down after one male
and one female were buried
beneath its floor.
The men abandoned digging down from the top of the mound fearful that the shaft
would collapse. They probed upward from the lower tomb until they struck stone and
guessed it was an upper tomb. This proved to be true when they dug a second tunnel 34
feet above ground level and struck an 18 x 8 foot log tomb filled with rotten wood,
stones, earth, one large and badly decayed skeleton, and many artifacts.
Artifacts Found in the Upper Tomb
Excavator Peter B. Catlett reported
that the skeleton measured 7’4” when
the bones were wired together. He
stated, “I took the lower jawbone and
put it over my chin, and it did not
touch my face, and I was at that time a
man who weighed 181.” Some Adena
people were very large. They had
round heads that were flattened in
back. The Hopewell moundbuilders
had long heads and slender bodies
indicating that they were a different
physical type.
The upper tomb burial was dated at about 100 B. C. The grave goods
consisted of 1,700 disk shell beads, 500 marginella shell beads strung in a
necklace(source: Florida or West Indes), a gorget, five copper bracelets (source:
Lake Superior copper), mica, and a small inscribed sandstone tablet called the
Grave Creek Tablet. This curious tablet became the source of great controversy.
Grave Creek Tablet
The Grave Creek Tablet is a 1 ½ x 2 inch grayish sandstone tablet. (Plaster
replica below.) It was the source of a great debate due to three lines of inscribed
alphabetic characters on one side. The hieroglyphic sign beneath the letters
resembles a cross with elongated arms and the profile of a bird’s head on the end of
the right arm and a dot under the left arm. The Grave Creek Tablet was considered to
be an authentic artifact by the men participating in the mound excavation. The
mysterious letters were puzzling, so the Smithsonian Institution made copies of the
tablet and sent them abroad to foreign translators. Some of the characters were not
copied accurately, so decipherments and translations varied.
Distinguished ethnologist, Henry
R. Schoolcraft personally examined
the tablet, which he believed was
authentic. He found that characters on
the tablet resembled similar characters
in numerous foreign writing systems.
The disparity of early decipherments
and translations in different foreign
languages caused some people to
question the tablet’s authenticity. It
was translated satisfactorily in 1972.
Eyewitness Accounts of the Grave Creek Tablet Excavation
Dr. James W. Clemens, a respected physician, wrote the earliest known account of
the discovery of the Grave Creek Tablet. He was present at the excavation as he had agreed
to write a report on skulls found in the mound for Dr. S. G. Morton, who was compiling a
book about ancient skulls. Clemens reported, “In this vault a large skeleton was found,
with a necklace of perforated shells, two copper bracelets, and a curiously inscribed or
hieroglyphic stone, the characters of which are distinctly traced in parallel lines…The
stone is now in my possession and I have had an exact facsimile of it taken.” Morton’s
book made no reference to the inscribed tablet as his work was devoted to skulls, and this
omission bred serious controversy. (See Ephriam Squier controversy on following page.)
Abelard Tomlinson, who was in charge of the excavation, was accused of fraudulently
producing the Grave Creek Tablet. This was impossible due to the sequence of events
leading to its correct decipherment. Tomlinson recalled, “I was carefully removing the
dirt, which was mostly of decayed timber, when I uncovered the inscribed stone. The
inscription being up, it took my attention. I examined it; found it to be the work of the
ancients; I then placed it with the other relics.
Peter B. Catlett helped with the excavation. He said, “I am the one that found it first.
It was not in its original bed when first found, it was taken out of the stone arch in a
wheelbarrow and emptied outside…As for anyone placing the inscribed stone there,
(planting it) it could not have been done.” Catlett must have seen the Grave Creek Tablet
in the wheelbarrow after Tomlinson removed it from the debris in the upper vault.
James E. Wharton, Wheeling newspaper editor, stated, “In the forenoon they struck
the center of the vault…Among the dirt was brought out the inscribed stone and picked
up by one of us from the loose dirt. (Catlett?) A fraud was impossible.”
The Controversy Over the Tablet’s Authenticity
Archaeologists became embroiled in the controversy and many rejected the Grave
Creek Tablet as a fake. They did not accept the theory that early Iberians had been in
Adena territory. Their argument that the tablet was one of a kind has been disproven.
Dr. Barry Fell made the first sensible decipherment of the Grave Creek Tablet
in Southwest Iberic. David Diringer’s 1968 recovery of ancient Iberic vowel values
enabled Fell to make his 1972 translation of the funerary inscription:
“Tumulus in honor of Tadach. His wife caused this engraved tile to be inscribed.”
(Note: Southwest Iberic reads from right to left.)
Fell’s Translation of the Grave Creek Tablet, reading right to left
Additional Southwest Iberic Tablets
The text of the Blaine Wilson
Tablet parallels and shares some of
the vocabulary of the Grave Creek
Tablet. Dr. Barry Fell translated the
Southwest Iberic funerary
inscription to read:
“The memorial of Teth. This tile
(His) brother caused to be made.”
Consider what these inscriptions
imply. Did Iberian scribes reach West
Virginia by 100 B.C.? Did they
inscribe the tablets or teach Adena
scribes their alphabet and language?
School children Blaine Wilson and his sister found the Blaine Wilson Tablet beside
the stump of a tree near Triplett Creek in Braxton County, West Virginia, in 1931. They
took the inscribed tablet to their school teacher, who brought it to the attention of
Mrs. Innis C. Davis, director of the West Virginia Department of Archives where it was
stored. The 4 1/8 x 3 3/16 inch tablet is micaceous sandstone. Its three rows of
Southwest Iberic script are curvilinear rather than rectilinear like the Grave Creek
Tablet. A similar elongated arm cross is beneath the inscription.
The Ohio County Tablet, West Virginia
Donal Buchanan, a noted
decipherer of Southwest Iberic,
translated the funerary
message on the Ohio County
“This was set up for Lydia,
wife, Jacob engraved it.”
An elongated cross with a
head on the end of the right
arm and a dot beneath the left
arm is below the last line of the
16 character inscription. The
tablet measures I ¾ by
1 ½ inches.
Robert C. Dunnell found the Ohio County Tablet in 1956 when he was a teenager. It
was in a small archaeological site that became a rock quarry. D€unnell took the tablet to
archaeologist Delf Norona who worked for the Grave Creek Mound Museum. Norona said
the tablet was planted to legitimize other finds. His original opinion that the Grave Creek
Tablet was authentic changed because other archaeologists were calling it a fake.
Fortunately, Sam Shaw, editor of the Moundsville Daily Echo newspaper ,photographed
the tablet and interviewed Dunnell and Norona. The tablet is lost.
The Morristown Tablet
The Morristown Tablet was found
near Morristown, Tennessee. Dr. Paul
Cheesman brought it to the attention of
epigraphic scholars in 1981.
It’s inscription is comparable to the
message on the Grave Creek Tablet.
Donal Buchanan found that all of the
symbols on the Morristown Tablet could
be equated with those on the Grave Creek
Tablet, which led to his conclusion that
the funerary inscription must be a
funerary formula. He suggested that the
name “Tadach” either is not a personal
name or there were two people named
Tadach who were buried in different
areas. Did someone made a copy of the
Grave Creek Tablet? What do you think?
An elongated arm cross with a bird’s
head on the right end and a dot beneath
the left arm is beneath the inscription.
The Genesee Tablet
William Johnson found the Genesee Tablet
in the Genesee River bed near Belfast, New
York in 1975. High water and erosion often
change the river’s course. Epigrapher Donald
Eckler spotted the tablet in Dana Klein’s
collection and forwarded a photograph of it to
Dr. Barry Fell.
The Genesee Tablet is dense granular rock
measuring 2 x 3 inches. Dr. Fell deciphered the
two lines of Iberic script noting that the tablet
is a trader’s token. He translated the tablet in
Arabic-related Iberian to say:
“Confirmation. I have pledged to pay in
full.” Was this an early IOU?
The Genesee River was part of a water route used by Amerindian trading parties. The
discovery of the Genesee Tablet on a known trading route suggests that native people led
foreign traders to America’s interior by following the waterways and the Indian paths that
connected them. The St. Lawrence River and Great Lakes provided access to America’s
heartland from the Atlantic Ocean. The Susquehanna River empties into Chesapeake Bay, and
the Ohio and other tributaries flow into the Mississippi River that terminates in the Gulf of
Mexico. Would this explain how Iberians reached Adena territory? Did they have boats capable
of crossing the Atlantic Ocean? What trade items would Iberian people want?
Burial mounds have been constructed world-wide. One example is
King Midas’ Tomb. It is similar in construction to Adena mounds. The
Phrygian elite of Turkey were buried in log tombs that were hilled-over with
clay, rocks, and dirt. The legendary King Midas – everything he touched
supposedly turned to gold - died about 696 B. C. Many burial mounds are
near his tomb at the confluence of the Porsuk and Sakarya Rivers. Why
would burial mounds be similar in construction world-wide?

America’s Adena Moundbuilders