Earth Works of the Ancient World

By Mythopia/ Simon E. Davies

Earthworks are man made structures, which alter the structure and level of natural landscape. They are typically made from piles of artificially placed rock, or sculptured from soil. They are many different types of Earthworks around the world, often built with a ritualistic or strategic purpose.

One of the most famous landmarks in the world to feature earth works is Avebury in England, where 3 massive earth structures sit closely to one another:

Silbury Hill is a prehistoric monument constructed from chalk, and layered with soil. It is the tallest man made mound in Europe, but historians aren’t exactly sure what it was used for. Some suggestion it was used as a effigy to a mother goddess (representing pregnancy and birth), while others suggest it is an observatory of the stars, or as a sundial to measure the movement of the seasons.

Avebury Henge is an oval shaped ditch which typically marks a sacred monument within. They are often used for ritualistic purposes, and in the case of Avebury, the monuments are vast. The henge contains three stone circles. Some historians believe it acted as an Axis Mundi (centre of the cosmos), where people could commune with both ancestors, and nature deities.

West Kennet barrow is a collective tomb which contains the bones of tribal ancestors. The barrow is connected to Avebury henge via an avenue of stones, suggesting these monuments were connected by a theme of birth, life and death.

Europe is full of earth works which were mainly built between the Neolithic era and the Iron Age.

Maiden Castle is a hill fort, possibly constructed by a Celtic tribe during the Iron Age. Its huge multiple ramparts once protected hundreds of residents. When it was first built, the gleaming white chalk ramparts would have towered over the surrounding landscape.

The Royal Mounds of Gamla Uppsala are part of an important religious centre in Sweden, dedicated to the Norse gods Thor, Odin and Freyr. Folklore suggests these mounds belonged to the Norse gods. However, historians believe that these mounds held the remains of three Ynglinga kings, who belonged to an early Scandinavian dynasty.

The Leeberg Hill Grave is a tumulus (burial mound) which is believed to have been erected by the Hallstatt culture. It is the largest hill grave in Central Europe, which helped to deter grave robbers from looting the contents within. It is likely this earthen tomb holds the remains of a powerful chieftain’s, but a serious archaeological dig is yet to be made.

Earth works are not an exclusive feature of Europe, as many other cultures around the world have sculpted the landscape to create monuments and battlements. In North America, a group of people known as the ‘Mound Builders’, constructed various styles of earthen works for religious, ceremonial, and residential purposes.

The Hopewell Mounds in Ohio are a group of 23 tombs constructed by the Hopewell culture. Each mound covers a charnel house, where the cremated remains of the Hopewell people were stored. They also placed artefacts, such as copper figures, projectile points, shells, and pipes in the mounds with their ancestors, which were to be taken with them into the afterlife.

The Hopewell people also sculpted the largest effigy monument in the world, known as Serpent Mound. The effigy follows the curve of the land, with its head approaching a cliff above a stream. The serpent’s body coils back and forth for more than eight hundred feet, and ends in a triple-coiled tail. The serpent head has an open mouth extending around an oval feature that may represent the snake eating an egg. This may symbolise the cycle of life, as the snake shedding its skin is often a signifier of rebirth, and the egg a symbol of birth.

Grave Creek Mound, found in West Virginia, is one of the largest conical-type burial mounds in the United States. The builders of the site, members of the Adena culture, moved more than 60,000 tons of dirt to create it, No small feat for Stone Age architects. Inside the chambers, archaeologists found skeletons, seashells, and a large amount of metal jewellery.

The Etowah Mounds are a prehistoric site which contains the largest Indian mounds in North America. It is home to an early Native Americans people from 1000 CE to 1550 CE. It consists of six earthen mounds, a plaza, village site, borrow pits and defensive ditches. Artefacts from the area show how the natives of this religious centre decorated themselves with shell beads, paint, complicated hairdos, feathers and copper ear ornaments.

The Rock Eagle Effigy Mound is an earthwork built from thousands of pieces of quartzite. The stones have been laid in the mounded shape of a large bird (102 ft long from head to tail, and 120 ft wide from wing tip to wing tip). What prompted the early native people to build these massive effigy mounds is still of a mystery. They obviously hold ceremonial significance and the Rock Eagle seems to have been expanded from a large dome-shaped central mound.

The most prolific type of earth-work found throughout Asia are burial mounds and mausoleums. In Bahrain, Middle East, resides the largest prehistoric cemetery in the world. Amongst its mysterious ancient remains are the thousands of burial mounds that dominate the landscape north of the Island. Spanning the Dilmun era (3rd to 1st millennium BCE) to the Tylos era (200 BCE to 300 CE) the burial mounds are unique in terms of sheer number and concentration.

The largest burial mounds in Asia can be found in China. A vast series of mausoleums can be found stretching across North West China (Xi’an). The most famous of these is a mausoleum made for the great emperor Qin Shi Huang. This mausoleum was constructed over 38 years, ending in 208 BCE. The tomb is situated underneath a 76-meter-tall mound, housing a coffin and burial artefacts. An extensive necropolis surrounds the tomb, including the Terracotta Army, which served as a garrison to the mausoleum.

Further to the east, Japan also went through a phase of building great burial mounds. The largest of these was Emperor Nintoku’s tomb, measuring approximately 486 meters in length. The mound is three-tiered, and surrounded by three moats. In the 5th year of the Meiji Era (1872 CE), a stone coffin at the centre of the burial chamber was excavated, and along with it, swords, fine armor, glass pots, dishes, etc. were discovered.

The last two examples of Earth-Works come from the Polynesians, who sculpted their landscape to form military fortifications.
Maungakiekie (mountain of the kiekie vine) was a fortified settlement of the Maori, known as a Pa. It was sculpted from a volcanic peak in Auckland, New Zealand. A Pā represented the mana and strategic ability of a tribe, as personified by their leaders. The pa was used as a strategic placement to exact tribute from travellers passing from Northland to the rest of the North Island through the rich isthmus. The volcanic soil on the cone was highly fertile, and the inhabitants terraced the slopes extensively.

Finally, in a distant island in the Pacific, Rapa Iti also showcases an impressive Pa. The island was first settled by Rapa-speaking Polynesians during the 13th century CE. It is believed that the depletion of natural resources on the island resulted in warfare, and the inhabitants sculpted fortified settlements (“pa”) on peaks and cliff tops. Morongo Uta is considered that the oldest of these, which was developed around 1450 CE.

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