Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Moundsville's Mound and Penitentiary

Old penitentiary as seen from top of mound
MOUNDSVILLE, W.VA., IN MY ESTIMATION, ranks as ideal among the traditional working-class cities of the northeast U.S. Its 10,000 residents, many who speak Pittsburgh English, hold dear their sports teams and dearer their traditions. Though a rust-belt city, the 'Ville on the Ohio River hasn't suffered the economic decimation to which similar cities have fallen.

Much of what I know of Moundsville, I've learned since being drawn there by two of its best-known landmarks -- Grave Creek Mound and the old W.Va. State Penitentiary. Two more eerie monuments would be difficult to otherwise find in such proximity. In many respects it's hard to believe such an energetic community could be associated with death and earthly perdition.

The mound itself has little association with the dark aspects of human existence. If anything, its builders were motivated by honor and their respect for the death of forebears. Construction required that members of the prehistoric community who lived here spend more than 100 years raising the mound to its present height of nearly 70 feet. From about 250 to 150 BC, they carried more than 60,000 tons of earth to the site.

Looking northward from compass monument atop mound
The "Mammoth Mound," as it was also sometimes called, and the complex surrounding it was far larger than that which exists today. Though still recognized as the largest mound of its kind, erosion over the past two thousand years may have helped lower its height. And much of the original burial site was destroyed as the town was established. A 40-foot-wide moat encircled the mound and a series of earthworks extended outward.

According to Delf Norona, founder of the W.Va. Archaeological Society, early European observers reported that the mound had been surrounded by other mounds and mysterious ridges of earth "sometimes arranged in squares, sometimes in octagons or circles, broken passageways and looking very much like medieval fortifications and connected with each other by roads..."

Earthworks as they may have appeared
The ancient "city of the dead" at Moundsville must have inspired awe. Based on earlier observations, Norona mapped the locations of earthworks that extended northward from the mound. Pictured at left, his diagram shows the mound as the smaller circle toward the bottom of the map and a large octagonal earthwork to the north beyond Second Street and across from the entrance to present-day Moundsville Junior High School. Norona's map, models of the mound, and cases of artifacts are on display at the Delf Norona Museum, part of the Grave Creek Mound Archaeological Complex, which is open to guests year round. The $3.1-million W.Va. Archaeology Center was also opened at the complex in 2008, providing scholars a research center through which to explore the region's prehistory.

When I'm sitting atop the mound -- as I'm now keen to do of an evening -- I invariably try to imagine what prisoners housed among the gothic walls of the penitentiary across the avenue must have thought about the earthwork. When one has all the time in the world to spend in the consideration of such things, what does one make of a monument to timelessness? In the minds of the mound's builders, time and timelessness were certainly considerations. Would their mound last until the end of time? Would the prisoner with too much time on his hands more than 2,000 years later take time to consider this?

Castellated western entrance to old penitentiary
I suppose it might be worth asking the ghosts who reportedly haunt the penitentiary. What are their opinions about the mound? Thousand of prisoners lived and died in the infamous W.Va. State Penitentiary between 1876 and 1995. The building has become a part of American pop culture and is featured in the novel "The Night of the Hunter" and in the 1955 film by that name and in the book and movie "Fool's Parade."

Today the prison functions as both a tourist attraction and a training facility. I've not personally toured the spooky old edifice, though plenty of ghost hunters have spent hours on location there, filming paranormal investigation programs for television. Most recently, the Discovery Channel's "Ghost Lab" program toured the building. For more information on exploring the penitentiary, visit the West Virginia Penitentiary site, which also includes a compendium of ghostly videos and visitors' tales.

Grave Creek Mound from north
For more information on visiting Moundsville and surrounding Marshall County, I find the Marshall County Tourism site invaluable.

You'll find plenty more information on the culture of the prehistoric peoples in North America who built mounds at Wikipedia's Mound Builders article and more information on prehistoric sites in West Virginia at the W.Va. encyclopedia at WVExp.com.