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Ancient Monuments of the Mississippi Valley

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Library of Congress image used as the frontispiece for the 150th Anniversary re-issue of Squier and Davis' Ancient Monuments of the Mississippi Valley
Library of Congress image used as the frontispiece for the 150th Anniversary re-issue of Squier and Davis' Ancient Monuments of the Mississippi Valley

Ancient Monuments of the Mississippi Valley (full title Ancient Monuments of the Mississippi Valley: Comprising the Results of Extensive Original Surveys and Explorations) (1848) by the Americans Ephraim George Squier and Edwin Hamilton Davis is a landmark in American scientific research, the study of the prehistoric indigenous mound builders of North America, and the early development of archaeology as a scientific discipline. Published in 1848, it was the Smithsonian Institution's first publication and the first volume in its Contributions to Knowledge series.[1] The book had 306 pages, 48 lithographed maps and plates, and 207 wood engravings.

Davis and Squier

Edwin Davis was born in 1811 in Hillsboro, Ohio, just a few miles from Chillicothe and the many mounds and earthworks of the Scioto River valley. Seeing these features as a young man inspired his deep curiosity about them. At the time, archaeology had not developed as an academic discipline. Davis explored the mounds while a student at Kenyon College and wrote a paper on the subject which he read at his commencement. Daniel Webster, an early member of the American Antiquarian Society, heard the paper and encouraged Davis to continue his research. After graduating from medical college and establishing a practice in Chillicothe, Davis used his free time to continue his explorations. He collected artifacts he discovered in and around the mounds.

Ephraim Squier, ten years younger than Davis, was born in Bethlehem, New York in 1821. By the time he arrived in Chillicothe in 1845 as the editor of the weekly Scioto Gazette newspaper, he had received training in civil engineering, education and journalism. Squier was intrigued by the numerous prehistoric monuments in the surrounding area. His questioning local residents about them failed to provide much insight. With his characteristic ambition, Squier decided to "take the compass and chain in one hand and the mattock and spade in the other" and begin his own research.[2]

When the two men encountered one another, they formed a collaboration based on Davis' knowledge of the Scioto Valley sites and growing collection of artifacts, combined with Squier's knowledge of surveying and writing. Their joint personal interests soon became a formal project.

Project scope

This map of Serpent Mound is one of many in Ancient Monuments surveyed and sketched by Squier and Davis.
This map of Serpent Mound is one of many in Ancient Monuments surveyed and sketched by Squier and Davis.

Ancient Monuments provides descriptions of sites across much of the Eastern United States, as the title indicates. The hundreds of earthworks which Squier and Davis personally surveyed and sketched were located primarily in and around Ross County in southern Ohio. This area includes Serpent Mound, Fort Ancient, Mound City and Seip Earthworks (both now part of Hopewell Culture National Historical Park), and Newark Earthworks. All their Kentucky sites were taken from the manuscripts of the late C. S. Rafinesque. James McBride, John Locke and Charles Whittlesey, among others, contributed additional first-hand reports, but the scope of Squier and Davis' own work was unprecedented.[1]

A major part of Squier and Davis' achievement was their classification of sites according to apparent function, such as burial grounds, effigies, fortifications, and building foundations. They sometimes were limited by their preconceptions about the cultures which they described. Their observation and descriptive skills often exceeded the quality of the records they made regarding excavation methods and recovery techniques.[1]

Contributions to knowledge

Ancient Monuments was edited by the physicist Joseph Henry, the first Secretary of the Smithsonian, who wanted a worthy initial volume for the Institution's Contributions to Knowledge series. Henry knew that the first book's reception would be important for both the Smithsonian and for American science. His choosing a book devoted to the mound builders was risky, as their origin, history and identity were then the subject of much debate and literature but little scientific investigation. In addition, the subject touched on issues of race, religion, and the still raw tensions between Native Americans and ethnic European settlers.

Knowing that both anthropology and archaeology were relatively new fields of study, Henry sought to minimize Squier and Davis' speculation about the origins and purposes of the works they had surveyed and sketched. He emphasized the scientific presentation of their findings. The work clearly communicates the view—commonly held at the time—that the earthworks had been created by a race separate from and superior to contemporary Native American populations. When the book was published, Squier and Davis' work immediately became a milestone in a still-developing field. Established then as a primary source on the subject of the mound builders, it retains that position because of the breadth of its coverage.


A 150th anniversary paperback edition of Ancient Monuments of the Mississippi Valley was published by the Smithsonian in 1998. The extensive introduction was written by David J. Meltzer, professor of anthropology at Southern Methodist University.


  • Ephraim G. Squier, Edwin H. Davis, David J. Meltzer (Editor). (Paperback Re-issue, 1998). Ancient Monuments of the Mississippi Valley (Classics in Smithsonian Anthropology). Smithsonian Books. ISBN 1-56098-898-3
  • Bruce G. Trigger (1990). A History of Archaeological Thought. Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0-521-33818-2
  • Charles Boewe (2004). C.S. Rafinesque and Ohio Valley Archaeology. Center for Ancient American Studies. ISSN 1531-2097
  • A Brief History of the Hopewell Culture. Hopewell Culture NHP: Administrative History.


  1. ^ a b c "Ancient Monuments of the Mississippi Valley". World Digital Library. 1848. Retrieved 2013-07-29.
  2. ^ Squier, Davis, Meltzer, Introduction, p.6.
This page was last edited on 23 February 2019, at 23:51
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