Florida Serpent Mound Represents Serpens Constellation

Artist's interpretation of Ortona Indian Mounds site in Florida.

Around 250 AD a village was constructed in the Lake Okeechobee area of south Florida that was unlike any other village created in the Americas. The site is known today as the Ortona Indian Mounds site. It featured a network of manmade canals, ponds, and numerous earthworks in a variety of shapes. Many of these shapes are suggestive of astronomical features. One earthwork constructed in the form of a serpent appears to represent the constellation Serpens Caput. If confirmed, this earthwork would be the earliest serpent mound in the Americas and the only earthwork in the world to represent a constellation.

North America’s First Serpent Mound

Ohio’s Serpent Mound is undoubtedly the most famous ancient Native American earthwork. Although academics debate the original date of construction, most believe it was built around 1070 AD[i]. Yet Florida’s serpent mound at the Ortona Mounds site was built over 750 years earlier.

Florida’s serpent mound was first depicted on a map in 1930 drawn by an amateur archaeologist named Montague Tallant.[ii]Tallant excavated at the site in search of artifacts for his collection now housed at the South Florida Museum in Bradenton, Florida.

Tallant’s map shows a zig-zagging earthwork composed of three linear segments ending in a V-shaped head-like structure giving the appearance of a serpent with an open mouth. A round, two feet tall mound interrupts the first two linear segments where they adjoin. A U-shaped, 5 ½ feet tall burial mound is shown just beyond the serpent’s head. It is here that Tallant excavated and found numerous artifacts, destroying the mound in the process. This U-shaped feature does not show up on future maps. Finally, there is a 10 feet tall, unconnected mound labeled “ridge” forming a right angle with the serpent design.

A 1949 aerial photograph of the Ortona Mounds site fails to reveal the serpent mound although it does show the linear “ridge” which archaeologists have designated Mound B.[iii]

A 1950 map of the Ortona Mounds site also failed to show the serpent mound but did show Mound B.[iv] The serpent mound appears next on a map for an interpretative display for the 1989 opening of the Ortona Indian Mounds Park.

This map introduced new features to the design. Instead of three long linear segments it shows a fourth short segment extending from the head. The third segment is also shorter than on Tallant’s map. It appears Tallant simply merged the third and fourth segments together in his design.

The above design also removed the circular mound at the joint between the first and second linear segments. Yet it added a circular mound in the mouth of the snake suggestive of a snake eating an egg similar to the Ohio Serpent Mound. Tallant did not show this feature on his map. Either Tallant overlooked this feature or it could be a remnant of the U-shaped burial mound destroyed by his artifact excavations. This map also shows a more expansive plan of the site including a crescent-shaped mound with a small circular mound inside the crescent.

Another depiction of the serpent mound was also created for the public interpretative panels for the opening of the Ortona Indian Mounds Park. This was an artist’s depiction of the site from an aerial view.

Artist's interpretation of Ortona Indian Mounds site in Florida.

This artist brings back the small circular mound between the first and second linear segments of the serpent yet removes the fourth short segment added in the previous map returning the serpent design to its original three linear segments. S/he also includes the small circular mound in the mouth of the snake. Whether Tallant missed this mound or this is simply a remnant of his U-shaped burial mound is unknown. Mound B is also depicted as is the crescent mound with associated round mound.

The artist created another render of this scene, this time from a lower angle in front of the crescent mound. Mound B can be seen in the middle ground with the serpent mound in the background. This time the artist used four linear segments to depict the serpent and appears to also include the circular mound between the first and second segments. S/he also included the circular mound in the snake’s mouth but no sign of the U-shaped burial mound.

The next map of the Ortona Indian Mounds site was produced by professional archaeologists in 1991.[v] It showed the serpent mound as having four linear segments with the small round mound as a joint between the first and second segments. The small round mound within the serpent’s mouth is not depicted. Mound B and the crescent mound are both shown but this time the small circular mound within the crescent is depicted as a linear mound.

In 2000, the same archaeologists published an updated map of the site in The Florida Anthropologist.[vi] This time it again showed the serpent with four segments yet the first segment was shown as no longer in existence having been destroyed most likely for road fill. Likewise Mound B was shown as no longer in existence, a likely victim of the same sand mining operation. The circular mound between segment one and two was shown but no small mound in the mouth of the snake was shown. In fact, the mouth was now shown as a crescent mound instead of linear mounds. It also designated the serpent mound as GL 36. The crescent mound with inner circular mound was shown as partially still in existence inside the Ortona Cemetery.

Finally, I visited the site in March 2020 and noticed the interpretative display had a new map of the site. (See detail below.) The serpent mound was again represented with four linear segments and a crescent-shaped mouth but no circular mound within the mouth. Mound B and the crescent mound (Mound K) were both shown.

The Constellation Serpens Caput

The serpent mound looks suspiciously like the constellation Serpens Caput. Interestingly, this constellation is often drawn with both three segments and four segments (two neck segments) just as the Ortona Serpent Mound has been. The constellation is also often shown with a central star in its “mouth,” the red star named Gudja. Other times it is not shown with this central star just like some depictions of the Ortona Serpent Mound.

The brightest star in Serpens Caput is a red giant named Unukalhai and is located precisely where the circular mound is located within the Ortona Serpent Mound between the first and second linear segments. This star is often called the “heart of the serpent” because of its red color and central location.

There is even a right angle extension from the tail of Serpens Caput that matches the location of the linear Mound B perfectly.

 serpens constellation  
Notice the wide mouth with central star.Notice the two neck segments.Notice the three segments and small “mouth.”
   

The first thing I noticed were the starmaps featuring the Serpens constellation seemed reversed from the Ortona Serpent Mound. A quick Google search revealed that starmaps are, indeed, reversed. As several astronomy websites noted regarding this reversal:

“…the sky map shows the sky as you look away from Earth. Geographic maps show the Earth from above looking down. Hence, the East-West switch on the sky maps.”[vii]

“Unlike standard maps, which are designed to be placed ‘on the ground’ and orient to the cardinal directions, think of a star map as being held overhead. If you faced south, held the map so that north (on the page) was ‘up’, and held the star map over your head, then the stars would line up to what you’re seeing. For awhile, ‘in ancient times’, some astrocartographers would draw the maps so that east was east and west was west. All the constellations were backwards.”[viii]

Thus the solution is simple: reverse the star map and the angles of the Serpens constellation should match up to what the ancient Native American skywatchers built on the ground at the Ortona site.

   
   

Once reversed the star maps of Serpens leave no doubt that the Ortona Serpent Mound was a representation of this constellation. This process also brought into question whether Mound B was meant to represent the part of the constellation that forms a right angle to the main body of the serpent. Once the star maps were reversed this right angle extension was on the opposite side from where it should be. Thus either the Native American engineers who built the earthwork accidentally transposed the location or Mound B is not meant to be part of the serpent.

The Ortona Serpent Mound is aligned on an east-west axis with its head in the west. I decided to next use my astronomy software, Stellarium, to see what the western sky looked like in 250 AD from this location. Interestingly, in July 250 AD the constellation Serpens could be seen setting due west from the Ortona Mounds site.

In other words, if you were standing atop the Ortona Serpent Mound looking in the direction its head was facing you would have witnessed the constellation Serpens setting directly in front of you. The constellation appeared directly overhead at 9:00 PM and by 3:00 AM it had completely slipped below the horizon. (Below you can see Serpens still above the western horizon at 44 minutes after midnight on July 19, 250AD.)

In the above screenshot one can also see the constellation Corona Borealis, a U-shaped constellation just above the head of Serpens. Could the U-shaped burial mound featured on the Montague Tallant map, and later destroyed by him, be a representation of this constellation? Did the belief systems of this culture believe that this was the place where souls went after they died?

Throughout history and across cultures, snakes have been symbols of rebirth because they annually shed their skin. Is this why the burial mound was placed directly at the head of the Ortona Serpent Mound? And were important religious rituals performed on the circular star mound that represented the earthly version of Unukalhai, the red “heart of the serpent” and brightest star in the sky serpent?

Interestingly, two annual meteor showers take place in this constellation. The Kappa Serpentids meteor shower takes place between April 1-7 every year and appears to emanate from the red star, Gudja, in the head of the serpent. A second meteor shower, the Phi Serpentids, takes place between April 12-19 every year. In April 2020 the Phi Serpentids shower had an unexpected flare up with a higher number of meteors seen per hour than usual. An even greater flare up is predicted for April 2027 and April 2032.[ix]

Meteor showers occur when Earth collides with dust left behind from a comet. Scientists have yet to determine which comet is the parent body of this dust trail. In Mesoamerican cultures the souls of the dead were believed to go to the stars and falling stars were seen as the souls of the dead returning to earth. Did the builders of the Ortona Serpent Mound hold similar beliefs and thus built their earthen serpent, a symbol of rebirth, in the shape of the constellation Serpens because they saw meteors emanating from it each Spring, the time of earthly rebirth, and thus believed these were the souls of the dead being reborn and returning to Earth?

Conclusion

The native inhabitants of the Ortona Indian Mounds site constructed one of the most unique sites in the world. The Serpent Mound was clearly constructed in the shape of the Serpensconstellation making it the only such construction in the world. The fact a burial mound was also part of this complex suggests this mound had spiritual associations. These spiritual associations were likely associated with rebirth since snakes were a symbol of rebirth in many cultures. The fact that a meteor shower is associated with this constellation each Spring, a time of rebirth for nature, suggests they held similar views to others in the Americas which associated meteors with the souls of the dead being reborn and returning to earth. Undoubtedly important burial rituals took place on this serpent mound before the body was interred in the burial mound.

Could some of these rituals include the use of an indigenous pyrotechnic as described by early European witnesses of such rituals in South and North Carolina between the 1500-1700s meant to fool onlookers into believing the soul had departed the corpse on its journey to the stars[x]:

“Another fraud of the priests is as follows: When the chief is at death’s door and about to give up his soul they send away all witnesses, and then surrounding his bed they perform some secret jugglery which makes him appear to vomit sparks and ashes. It looks like sparks jumping from a bright fire, or those sulphured papers, which people throw into the air to amuse themselves. These sparks, rushing through the air and quickly disappearing, look like those shooting stars which people call leaping wild goats. The moment the dying man expires a cloud of those sparks shoots up 3 cubits high with a noise and quickly vanishes. They hail this flame as the dead man’s soul, bidding it a last farewell and accompanying its flight with their wailing, tears, and funereal cries, absolutely convinced that it has taken its flight to heaven. Lamenting and weeping they escort the body to the tomb.” (1526)

“After the tomb was covered, I noticed something which passes imagination, and which I should not believe, had I not seen it with my own eyes. From the tomb arose a little flaming fire, like a big candle-light, which went up straight in the air, and noiselessly, went straight over the cabin of the deceased widow, and thence further across a big swamp above 1 mile broad, until it finally vanished from sight in the woods.” (1700)

The Ortona Serpent Mound is a truly unique construction for humanity and the Ortona Indian Mounds park needs to be better preserved and interpreted for the public so it can be fully appreciated for generations to come.

Sources Cited:

[i]Fletcher, Robert V.; Cameron, Terry L.; Lepper, Bradley T.; Wymer, Dee Anne; Pickard, William (1996). “Serpent Mound: A Fort Ancient Icon?” Midcontinental Journal of Archaeology. 21 (1): 105–143.<https://www.jstor.org/stable/20708387>.

[ii]Carr, Robert S.; Dickel, David.; Masson, Marilyn (1995). “Archaeological Investigations at the Ortona Earthworks and Mounds.” The Florida Anthropologist. 48 (4): 234. <https://ufdc.ufl.edu/UF00027829/00041/11>

[iii]Carr, Robert S.; Dickel, David.; Masson, Marilyn (1995). “Archaeological Investigations at the Ortona Earthworks and Mounds.” The Florida Anthropologist. 48 (4): 241. < https://ufdc.ufl.edu/UF00027829/00041/18>.

[iv]Carr, Robert S.; Dickel, David.; Masson, Marilyn (1995). “Archaeological Investigations at the Ortona Earthworks and Mounds.” The Florida Anthropologist. 48 (4): 235. <https://ufdc.ufl.edu/UF00027829/00041/12>.

[v]Carr, Robert S.; Dickel, David.; Masson, Marilyn (1995). “Archaeological Investigations at the Ortona Earthworks and Mounds.” The Florida Anthropologist. 48 (4): 228. <https://ufdc.ufl.edu/UF00027829/00041/5>.

[vi]Carr, Robert S.; Dickel, David.; Masson, Marilyn (1995). “Archaeological Investigations at the Ortona Earthworks and Mounds.” The Florida Anthropologist. 48 (4): 229. <https://ufdc.ufl.edu/UF00027829/00041/6>.

[vii]“How to read star charts.” OrionBearAstronomy.com <https://orionbearastronomy.com/2019/02/04/how-to-read-star-charts/>

[viii]“Why are star charts backward?” CloudyNights.com <https://www.cloudynights.com/topic/10312-why-are-star-charts-backwards/>

[ix]“Phi Serpentid Meteor Shower.” Electronic Telegram No. 4756. SetiInstitute. <https://www.seti.org/unusual-activity-phi-serpentid-meteor-shower>

[x]Daniels, Gary C. “Evidence of Fireworks in Ancient America?” LostWorlds.org. July 3, 2012. <https://lostworlds.org/evidence-fireworks-ancient-america/>.

Gary C. Daniels

Gary C. Daniels

Gary C. Daniels is an award-winning, Emmy-nominated television, video and multimedia writer and producer. He has a M.A. degree in Communications from Georgia State University in Atlanta, a B.F.A. degree in TV Production from the Savannah College of Art and Design and an A.A. degree in Art from the College of Coastal Georgia. He has appeared on the Travel Channel, Discovery Channel, Science Channel and History Channel. His History Channel appearance became the highest-rated episode in the network's history. He has a passion for Native American history and art. He is the founder and publisher of LostWorlds.org.