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  • The Barrows of History
  • Tony C. Brown (bio)

"Standing before the Miamisburg mound," the painter Barnett Newman asks "what difference if the shape is on a table, a pedestal, or lies immense on a desert?"1 Though he puts the question rhetorically, Newman nevertheless goes on to mark a profound difference between such earthworks ("perhaps the greatest art monuments in the world") and other kinds of artworks and artifacts. A mound, he says, is "nothing that can be shown in a museum"; it is "a work of art that cannot even be seen, so it is something that must be experienced there on the spot."2 Site specific and, offering little to the view, indifferent to institutional display, mounds refuse museological archiving and exhibiting practices. Certainly mounds can be destroyed (most have been) but they cannot, as the economy of the archive demands, be destroyed and preserved at once. A mound of earth cannot be cut from its original context (the act of destruction) and resituated within the new context of the museum archive (the act of preservation), available for study or exhibition: its covering of grass and trees would fall away; it would come apart, lose its shape; it would no longer cut into the wide Midwestern sky.3

One might say that the Miamisburg Mound is itself an archive, that it forms a potential gathering place for various objects, like the bones of the deceased, which would be the archive's content. Yet—and this is crucial—the [End Page 41] mound as such, the mound as a mound, exists only by denying access to whatever it contains. It hides its contents from view such that one cannot tell, looking towards a mound, whether it contains anything more than mere earth. As Ephraim G. Squier and Edwin H. Davis put it in their foundational work, Ancient Monuments of the Mississippi Valley (1848), what a mound holds and so what it holds out for a certain knowledge is only "disclosed by the mattock and the spade."4 Otherwise a mound gives little to notice, especially the classically conical mound like that at Miamisburg. Whereas one can at least organize effigy mounds within a taxonomy of animal types (alligators, bears, birds, "serpents"), what those mounds exhibit—bends and lines, specific and varied characteristics—the conical mound does not (see figs. 1–3). That mound's form appears at best simply characteristic of what it is. A largely blank surface of earth, presenting few if any isolatable features that one could describe, the mound differs from the surrounding landscape only by a certain angle of incline.

The mounds' minimal difference from the landscape may help to explain why the full range of known sixteenth- and seventeenth-century European comment on the earthworks amounts to a passing reference in the chronicles of Hernando de Soto's expedition (1539–1543). In June 1541 the expedition came upon "some very high mounds [cerros], made by hand"; but as with the expedition's discovery of the Mississippi River (which "did not," Mark Twain points out, "excite that amount of curiosity . . . [to] thus move other adventurers to go at once and explore"), its happening upon mounds did not ignite European interest in seeking them out.5 Not until 1750 do we find perhaps the first mention in English of a mound, itself characterized by the earthwork's failure to strike the observer, Thomas Walker, either as awe-inspiring or as an object for further consideration.6 Even when Europeans lived in areas dotted by earthen mounds (as did French traders, for example, in the Nashville area), before the 1770s they gave mounds little consideration.7 As Squier and Davis note, "The fact of the existence, within the valley of the Mississippi river and its tributaries, of many ancient monuments of human labor and skill, seems to have escaped the notice of the adventurers who first made known to the world the extent and fertility of that vast region."8 One might say, then—given that early Europeans appear to have traveled through land laced with mounds without seeing them (or at least without recording having seen anything like them)—that Newman's claim that a mound...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1938-6133
Print ISSN
0360-2370
Pages
pp. 41-65
Launched on MUSE
2008-05-15
Open Access
No
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