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  • By Compass, Chain, and LevelEarly Efforts at Surveying and Mapping the Mounds
  • Terry A. Barnhart (bio)

The prehistoric Indian mounds and enclosures of the eastern United States have been the subject of earnest scientific inquiry since their rediscovery by Euro-Americans in the last quarter of the eighteenth century. Both the geometric and nonlinear structures denote an indigenous cultural landscape that has rapidly receded from that day to this. The comparative study of these remains was in its infancy and only incrementally gained momentum throughout the nineteenth century. Archaeology at the time was neither an organized body of knowledge nor a profession. It was a discipline in the making and altogether an avocational pursuit until the last quarter of the nineteenth century. Given the scientific and cultural distance that separates us from those early fieldworkers, there is a compelling question: What value could those early archaeological surveys and maps possibly have in the era of electronic measurement, laser range finders, three-dimensional imaging, digital levels, global positioning technology, field computers, specialized surveying software, and new ways of seeing archaeological sites both above and below ground through remote geophysical sensing and other emerging technologies? The answer is [End Page 5] very little in terms of the more accurate surveying and mapping methods of the present day when all things are equal. But quite a lot when the early surveys and descriptions are all we have of archaeological sites subsequently destroyed or greatly defaced in their configurations—when all things are not equal.1

The greater precision provided by contemporary surveying methods and remote-sensing technology make archaeologists less dependent than in the past on survey maps dating to the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The revolutionary shift from the magnetic bearings of the vernier compass, the distances marked by the surveyor's chain, and measurements derived solely from the optical-mechanical instruments of an earlier era to the electronic measurements of today does not necessarily mean that earlier attempts to survey, describe, and map the mounds are beneath serious consideration. The descriptive and documentary aspects of the fieldwork conducted by the early archaeological investigators are baseline references to be either corrected or verified in whole or part. Interrogating early published accounts of earthen mounds and enclosures, conducted under largely uncontrolled conditions, is necessary and no matter for complaint. The early archaeological surveyors aimed at precision as do contemporary practitioners of the art. There are numerous reasons, however, why historic archaeological surveys often fall short of the mark. Problems relating to early efforts at surveying and mapping the mounds are both numerous and telling in their own way of an incipient field of research that was still a work in progress. Early efforts at surveying and mapping the mounds, nonetheless, hold a central place in the history of American archaeology. And in some instances those records are relevant in contemporary practice too.2

Capt. Jonathan Heart of the 1st American Regiment (later Major Heart) has the distinction of being the first investigator to formally survey, describe, and map the elaborate complex of mounds and enclosures located at present-day Marietta, Ohio. Heart's well-known plan of those earthworks appeared in the first volume of the Columbian Magazine, published in Philadelphia in May 1787. The editors of the Columbian Magazine—Thomas Seddon, William [End Page 6] Spotswood, Charles Cist, and James Trenchard—were exponents of cultural nationalism. They were in search of native grounds in order to instill a national identity and culture in the years immediately following the Revolution. What subject could be more original or inspiring to literary imaginations and nationalistic sentiments than the little-known antiquities of the Western Country? The novel idea of American antiquities to cultural nationalists was positively irresistible (at first blush a seemingly delightful contradiction—ancient places in a new republic). Heart's account of the antiquities at the Muskingum was sure to find a place.3

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Capt. Jonathan Heart's "Plan of the Remains of Some Ancient Works on the Muskingum." Heart's map originally appeared the Columbian Magazine, published in Philadelphia in May 1787. It is the first published plan of a prehistoric site in...


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