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Mound Builders [Paperback]

Robert Silverberg
2.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (1 customer review)

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Book Description

May 1 1986
In Illinois, the one-hundred-foot Cahokia Mound spreads impressively across sixteen acres, and as many as ten thousand more mounds dot the Ohio River Valley alone. The Mound Builders traces the speculation surrounding these monuments and the scientific excavations which uncovered the history and culture of the ancient Americans who built them.

The mounds were constructed for religious and secular purposes some time between 1000 B.C. and 1000 A.D., and they have prompted curiosity and speculation from very early times. European settlers found them evidence of some ancient and glorious people. Even as eminent an American as Thomas Jefferson joined the controversy, though his conclusions—that the mounds were actually cemeteries of ancient Indians—remained unpopular for nearly a century.

Only in the late 19th century, as Smithsonian Institution investigators developed careful methodologies and reliable records, did the period of scientific investigation of the mounds and their builders begin. Silverberg follows these excavations and then recounts the story they revealed of the origins, development, and demise of the mound builder culture.

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0 of 1 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars A mound of bias Jan. 14 2004
Format:Paperback
In what is advertised as a balanced exposition of the mound controversy that has raged for two centuries, Silverberg comes off with obvious bias, offering some of the most amazing sentences I have ever read. Seeking to demonstrate that the natives were constructing mounds at the time of European discovery, Silverberg describes a painting by a Spanish artist, Jacques Le Moyne, showing Indians mourning at a chief's burial ground.The grave is shown as a mound about three feet high. Here is what Silverberg says in an attempt to turn this into evidence that the Indians built the mounds: "Though the mound shown by Le Moyne was small, it may have been only the core of what was intended as a full-sized mound. If this is so, Le Moyne's painting is the first depiction of an Indian burial mound - made while the mound was still in the early stages of construction."
But that isn't the choicest piece of legerdemain. William Powell caused Congress to place responsibility for the mounds in a new Bureau of Ethnology under Powell's control at the Smithsonian. Powell proceeded to use that position to impose his peculiar notion, that the finding of European artifacts in the mounds, a common occurrence, was evidence that the mounds had been constructed after European settlement and thus proof of native origin. One of his original attacks on the "mound myth" as Silverberg calls any notion of non-native origin, involved having a bird specialist, Henry Henshaw, debunk any notion that the figurine pipes found in the mounds represented anything but native wildlife.
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Amazon.com: 4.4 out of 5 stars  12 reviews
32 of 35 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Brings light to a mysterious subject Sept. 2 2003
By C. Brown - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback
I am fascinated by historical structures and some of the most interesting to me are those made primarily of heaped up soil. Though the building material is basic, the great work involved makes one wonder about the motivation required and the purpose of the builders. In my travels across the midwestern states, I've stopped at many "Indian mounds", most recently at the impressive site of large geometric structures at Newark, Ohio.
At the museum there I discovered Silverberg's book and immediately bought it with the hope of learning about the mounds. I am happy to report that this book is not only highly readable, engaging and revealing but also that it covers the topic more thoroughly than I expected. The author takes us through time both ancient and modern giving an account of the speculations and research that in many cases led people on wild flights of fancy but have ultimately given us a good idea of why the mounds were built, who built them and when. I found out about the different traditions, periods and cultures of the Indians involved with the mounds, such as the Adena and Hopewell people. I learned of the different kinds of mounds and what they did or did not contain, of frauds that distracted investigators and greed that led to pillaging. Thomas Jefferson, Joseph Smith and John Wesley Powell are just a few of the people who were captivated by the mounds and you'll find out why. After the cultural depredations of de Soto through the careless physical destruction of the past 150 years, I'm grateful that anything remains to be seen today. Maps present sites that can be visited. When I finished the book I felt great appreciation for Silverberg's work that so fully satisfied my curiosity while providing such a pleasant read. He not only answered my questions but provided many answers to others I had not even considered.
12 of 13 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars fascinating history July 19 2010
By Gary D. Cope - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback
The first two thirds of the book is devoted not to the mound builders themselves, but to the odyssey of American archeology discovering their existence.

Europeans had known about the mounds since the expeditions of De Soto in the early 1500s and mound building continued in some parts of North America until the early 1700s. However, beginning in the late 18th and continuing through most of the 19th century many Americans came to believe the myth of the mound builders.

These magnificent earthen structures, laden with artifacts of a lost civilization, requiring large, highly organized societies, were the work of a vanished race. The mound builders were Phoenicians or Greeks or the lost tribes of Israel or survivors from Atlantis. It was impossible that they could have been related to the heathen savages that the Europeans were so efficiently exterminating. Many versions of the myths had Native Americans as the villains in the story, destroying the mound builders civilization. It wasn't until the late 1800s that the myth was deflated and archaeologists allowed the mounds themselves to tell their story.

The final third of The Mound Builders tells of the three great mound building cultures in North America; the Adena, Hopewell and Mississippians. The Adena were the first to build mounds, beginning around 1000BC. The Hopewell arrived some 600 years later and the two cultures coexisted for several hundred years. The Mississippian culture was coming into being as the Hopewell disappeared, around 700AD. The culture was in decline long before the arrival of the Europeans.

The mounds of North America have many unsolved mysteries and Mr. Silverberg is careful to present multiple viewpoints regarding current speculations.

Mr. Silverberg mentions my current obsession, Cahokia, only in passing. Although Cahokia was the largest prehistoric city in North American and Monk's Mound dwarfs any other structure of the mound building cultures, much of the archaeological work in Cahokia had not occurred when The Mound Builders was published in 1970.

If you have even a passing interest in North American archeology, The Mound Builders is a good read.
44 of 58 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A Fascinting and Forgotten History June 22 2007
By Wanderer - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback
Note: I made some Mormon reader angry over my negative reviews of books written by Mormons out to prove the Book of Mormon, and that person has been slamming my reviews as soon as they are posted. Oh, well.

Your "helpful" votes are appreciated. Thanks, and note that even Mormons should read this book.

Robert Silverberg tells the fascinating history of the rise and fall of the myth of the Mound Builders in a massively-researched book. Not many people know, for example, that the myth of the Mound Builders was finally laid to rest by the work of the Smithsonian Institution in the 1870s and 1880s under the direction of John Wesley Powell, the Civil War hero and one-armed explorer of the Colorado River (note "Lake Powell).

By 1800, the mystery of the tens of thousands of mounds in the eastern United States called out for a solution, and that solution was not to be found in the Native Americans, who were considered too lazy to have constructed such great works. The mounds had to have been the work of some superior lost white race--notably the ancient Hebrews, but also others.

Prejudice was so strong that few, if any, scholars believed that the Indians, themselves, constructed the mounds (the view from our time). The logic of racial superiority, national pride, religion, and the pocketbook demanded a history in which the Indians killed off an ancient white race of "Mound Builders."

A vast continent lay at the feet of a young nation, and the only thing obstacle to its settlement were the Indians. Silverberg writes with brilliance and humor: "The dream of a lost prehistoric race in the American heartland was profoundly satisfying; and if the vanished ones had been giants, or white men, or Israelites, or Danes, or Toltecs, or giant white Jewish Toltec Vikings, so much the better."

Silverberg sees both "Manuscript Found" (1812) and the Book of Mormon (1830) as expressions of the Mound Builder myth. In about 1812, the Reverend Solomon Spaulding wrote a novel about two races in ancient America. A narrator in the story claimed to have found 28 parchment scrolls, which he translated. The scrolls tell the story of a shipload of Roman Christians who are blown across the ocean to America. Once here they meet the fair-skinned race of Mound Builders.

That civilization is described in detail, including its laws, religion, priests, money system, tools, animals, agricultural products, as well as a magical seer stone possessed by its prophets. Letters are exchanged between leaders (the Book of Mormon has "epistles"), "Censors" are the rulers ("Judges" in the Book of Mormon), and lists of generals are given for armies of tens of thousands. The mound builders also have horses and "mamoons" (mammoths).

The dead from great battles are heaped up in mounds (false explanations for the orderly Indian burial mounds of real history). The white race has continuous wars with a darker-skinned race, but hundreds of years of peace are established by a great teacher ("Bosaka" in "Manuscript Found" and Christ in the Book of Mormon).

This extraordinarily long period of peace ends in a battle near a hill. In a last battle in which the white race is exterminated, there is an incident in which a man is beheaded in a sword fight.

Silverberg is dispassionate about these similarities of plot elements to those of the Book of Mormon. "Neutral observers," he writes, "generally suggest the possibility that both works drew their inspiration from the fund of Mound Builder legends then in circulation, leaving aside the question of possible borrowing by Smith from Spaulding" (p. 96).

Silverberg continues this compelling history by showing that the Mound Builder myth continued independently of its expression in the Book of Mormon (1830). By 1839, the vastly popular play "Behemoth" had audiences transfixed with its portrayal of "Behemoth," rogue mastodon who destroyed the mound builders. Whole armies attack Behemoth, and even forts were of no protection against the raging mastodon!

During the early 1800s, copper Indian ornaments (described as "plates") were found in the mounds, and some of these ornaments were even mistaken for parts of swords. From such errors, the mound builders were soon thought to have had iron and steel. And so the myth grew (Thomas Jefferson was among the few who thought that the Indians themselves constructed the mounds).

Read this book if you would like some perspective on why a book like the Book of Mormon would emerge during the early 1800s. It is a brilliant unraveling of a forgotten part of American history.

See my negative, one-star reviews of books by Mormon authors: "Echoes and Evidences," "By the Hand of Mormon," "Lehi in the Deseret," and others. Click here: Echoes and Evidences of the Book of Mormon By the Hand of Mormon: The American Scripture that Launched a New World Religion Lehi in the Desert, the World of the Jaredites, There Were Jaredites (Collected Works of Hugh Nibley, Vol 5).

Click here for links to the following great book that refutes Mormon claims: Robert Wauchope's tiny volume, "Lost Tribes and Sunken Continents: Myth and Method in the Study of the American Indians." Lost Tribes and Sunken Continents: Myth and Method In the Study of American Indians

Your comments--positive or negative--are appreciated. Thanks.
13 of 16 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars The Mound Builders Sept. 23 2003
By Mark Stickle - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback
I grew up in Newark, Ohio, almost "next door" to the great circle mound in what has become Moundbuilders Park. My cousins lived near the Octagon mound, and we played there often even though, due to its status as a private country club golf course, it was located on PRIVATE PROPERTY. Moundbuilders park was the scene of countless family picnics, and a walk around the big mound was always the high point of the day for a little kid. So the mounds were very much a part of my every day life. Yet I knew very little about them, or about the people who created them.
Last week I ran across a battered paperback edition of Silverberg's book at a local used bookstore. He has woven together a great story, dealing not only with the people who created the mounds, but also with the ways in which European civilization has attempted to understand and interpret them. I was especially interested in his account of the inherent tension between the fascination and mythology surrounding the mounds in 19th century America and the genocidal policies which were being simultaneously pursued against the American Indian. Silverberg lets the facts speak for themselves without falling into the
swamp of political correctness.
In describing the efforts of various 19th century American archeologists and anthropologists to explore and explain the mounds, Silverberg also depicts an intellectual style which is as extinct as the Moundbuilders themselves. Dedicated "amateur" scientists, including politicans such as Jefferson and WH Harrison, made meaningful contributions to the effort to explore and understand the mounds and the culture which produced them.
What contemporary political figure has the intellectual spirit or temperment to make a similar contribution? (The only thing that comes close, I guess, is Al Gore's invention of the Internet.) Sadly, the advancement of learning has been relegated to the professionals and academics. The Renaissance person is no more -- and we are all diminished.
It's beutiful in Ohio in October, and with the "new eyes" provided by Silverberg I'm taking a car trip to explore several of the sites which do remain.
6 of 7 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Good Starting Point for Mound Exploration, For Better or Worse June 24 2009
By G. E. Mantel - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
This is actually a great little book and a handy reference that is much more open-minded than might seem at first glance, despite the suspicions or even objections of some.

Sure, Silverberg obviously feels the heat from the nagging, sagging conspiratorial dogma of the Establishment, or what might simply be called "pre-meditated history"; after all, when pure history is flogged by political poppycock (thinly disguised as "academic") it just ain't "history" anymore, and dishonest folks (ironically, often from the ranks of the "professionally employed") having such tendencies should indeed be banned from the sport.

However, Silverberg nicely covers his own butt by allowing generously for a supposed "exchange of ideology" between outside forces (meaning Mexico, typically) and the Mound Builders, without bowing to the theories of actual human migrations. Since I personally would consider the distinction between the two (ideas and people) to be the finest of lines, it's a tactic I can easily live with as it sure beats the heck out of the likely alternative.

Most impressively and surprisingly slick, Silverberg also takes us through the timeline of modern Mound Builder archeology and the accompanying Schools of Thought, providing pertinent background info for anyone with the slightest interest on this topic who will find it weaved together exceptionally well by the pleasingly straightforward narrative of "The Mound Builders."

BTW, one sure-fire accomplice to the whole Mound Builder story that never gets properly addressed (by Silverberg or anyone else, for that matter) is the ancient copper extraction in the Lake Superior basin that was apparently conducted on a massive, systematic scale from 2500 to 1200 B.C. As there may yet be much to be disclosed about the Mound Builder saga via any future revelations (with Poverty Point in Louisiana possibly holding a key) about this archaic commercial mining, I recommend for some interesting insight the book titled "Ancient Mines of Kitchi-Gummi" by Roger Jewell, as listed at Amazon.com.
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