The last few episodes of Season 8 of The Curse of Oak Island (COOI) have focused on the possibility that there is a serpent mount on Lot 15, and that the team found an ancient Chinese coin on the Island. Let’s start with the Serpent Mound.

Serpent mounds are part of a larger class of effigy mounds found mainly in the Midwestern and Eastern US. They are shaped like animals and were built by indigenous communities between about 3000 and 700 years ago, although dating is often uncertain, and at least some mounds, like The Great Serpent Mound of Ohio, represent several construction episodes over about 1000 years (See Herrmann et al 2014).

There is a well-known serpent mound in Ontario, Canada, which is approximately 2000 years old. The group of mounds at Effigy Mounds National Monument in Iowa are between 1400 and 800 years old. Finding a serpent mound on Oak Island in Nova Scotia would be very interesting, but definitely not shocking. I am not aware that there are other effigy mounds in the Maritimes, but there is a local tradition of monumental construction, including mounds, known as the Maritime Archaic Tradition, although these tend to be older than the Midwestern effigy mounds.

Is there an effigy mound on Lot 15?

Saying that there could be a serpent mound on Lot 15 is not the same as saying that there is. It is very hard to tell these things from TV pictures alone, but there are a few features of the proposed mound that do stand out. First, the sides of the mound are steep and sharp (Figure 1). This is not consistent with older structures, which tend to become rounded and deflated over time.

Figure 1: A very sharp edge on the mound

Second, some sections seem to have a sharp double ridge at the top. This is more consistent with a bulldozer push than with traditional mound building. At least one section looks U-shaped and is lined with boulders (Figure 2). It looks more like the foundation of something not terribly old, than like a traditional mound.

Figure 2: U-shaped, boulder lined section

Much is made by the COOI team of the fact that there is a carbon date of circa 1200 AD from a piece of charcoal recovered from the mound, along with an iron nail. Their interpretation is that this points to a 1200 year old European structure, possibly related to the Knights Templar.

We know that Oak Island has been heavily shaped by colonial, industrial, and searcher activity over the past 200 years. It isn’t surprising, therefore to find a pile of earth and boulders with mixed material in it from different time period. For example, a bulldozer push would mix 800 year old charcoal with 50 year old nails in a single pile with no trouble.

Piling up of earth and boulders for a foundation can even result in inversion, a phenomenon in which the oldest material ends up at the top of the pile, and the youngest material at the bottom.

Just for interest I’ll also note that the u-shaped, boulder lined structure in Figure 2 looks a lot like explosives storage pens I have seen near dam construction sites while out surveying for archaeological sites. We know that there was blasting on the island during some of the 19th century searches.

In other words, as always, there are a number of more likely possibilities to rule out before we conclude that there is a Serpent mound on Oak Island, as cool as it would be. And the effigy mound possibility itself is close infinitely more likely than the Templar mound theory. As always, I look forward to hearing more from the archaeologists working on the island.

The coin

I kept the coin for last, because there honestly is not much to say about it for the moment. The team found a thin disk of copper or copper alloy with a squarish hole in the middle. Sandy Campbell, who owns a coin shop in Nova Scotia and who must know his business, identified it as an ancient Chinese Coin, perhaps more than 1000 years old.

The object is very degraded, almost featureless, and any purely visual, macroscopic identification must be considered very tentative. It is morphologically like some old Chinese coins. That’s pretty much anyone can say at the moment. I would wait for metallurgical information, at the very least, before jumping to any conclusions.

Even if it is an ancient Chinese coin, the analyst provides a very reasonable explanation for its presence on the island, and doesn’t seem surprised. Someone in the 18th or 19th century could have just carried it around as a memento or a curio. So much for the coin.

16 thoughts on “Oak Island archaeology update: A Serpent Mound and an ancient Chinese coin?

  1. Thank you for your insights on the “serpent” mound found on Oak Island. Being a fan of the show and following it for the last eight seasons, this season seems to have made some claims that I have even questioned. At first, I thought that maybe the mound could be Native American but then with the charcoal find and the nail it didn’t seem plausible. However, your insight makes sense of a push from a bulldozer thus capturing all the elements that the crew has found. Makes sense. As for the coin, when I first saw it I said it was Chinese. Anyone who has studied Chinese history should have recognized it.

    I love your column and I’m a fan. Thank you for posting and blogging.


    1. Very glad you enjoy it, and thanks for your feedback. The mound is not necessarily bulldozer push, but it is certainly a possibility among many others. It is even possible that different sections of the mound are the result of different processes.

      The coin could absolutely be Chinese. But I would like something more than a visual identification.


      1. Bulldozer pushes was my first, and only, thought. Looks like clearing of surface rock to prep a lot for further work. Mostly rock, not much soil, low, and seemingly random. Some ways to confirm this – does it appear that the mound was created from pushing in the same general direction, is the land from where the material pushed from relatively flat and surface-rock free, are the ridges near and/or aligned with the lot lines from the 1760’s subdivision of the island, are the trees growing in the ridges similarly aged (the oldest tree growing in the ridge may suggest when the ridges were created), are the ridges near an old homestead on the lot or near a haul road for the lot, and are the trees growing in the cleared area from where the material was pushed an age near the time the homested on the lot was abandoned? Some historical context of the island would inform the identification of the ridges… but the show avoids (purposefully) historical contexts to support its narrative.

        20th century land clearing I say, and would be relatively easy to confirm through a bit of historical research and some application of science. But then the show insists that Oak Island was uninhabited in 1795, despite a well known history of homesteaders on the island well before that, so it might be too much to expect historical context and science to be applied here…


    2. I haven’t heard the theory that the mounds could be the tailings from tunneling and hollowing out a cashe room by whoever. They need to quit trying to find the money-pit. It’s 20th century made by searchers. Rediscovering somebody else’s failed attempts only guarantee you a failed attempt.


      1. The “money pit” is mostly gone – Dunfield dug a crater, centered on the money pit, to about 143 feet (based on the surface elevation at the time). They talked about this very early in the show but don’t talk about it any more. And the deepest shaft on the island at the money pit was dropped to about 180 feet – the farthest they could get in the geology given how permeable it is to subsurface water), so even if we assume there was a “money pit”, it would be hard to believe that there is anything below 180 feet, and unlikely there is much below Dunfield’s 143 feet, if anything. If relatively modern equipment can’t get any farther than 143 feet (open pit) or 180 feet (shaft), it is unreasonable to think that anyone before the 18th century would have done any better on this island. But then applying any kind of logic to the stories/legends of Oak Island would cause any reasonable person to be highly skeptical of the whole thing.

        The only true treasure on the island is the wealth of early European settlement in Nova Scotia. A wealth of history, not riches, and it is being frittered away after 200+ years of treasure hunting.


  2. Question: The Fellowship is pushing the narrative of ‘Europeans” constructing the “Pine Tar Kiln”.

    Question: Wasn’t this type of thing done by indigenous peoples as well for repair of their own canoe’s and rafts? Or waterproofing tasks for cabins and such.


    1. That’s a very good question. I know that tar or pitch was used by indigenous communities, but I don’t know how it was produced. I have never seen or read about a tar kiln from pre-colonial times in North America. Doesn’t mean they didn’t exist. I will do a little bit of searching.


  3. I even think that they’re not quite sure what to make of the serpent mound. I wouldn’t be surprised that more archeologists from Ontario show up next year to have a look. I can see debate over this one going on for a long time.


  4. Could you do a review of some of the carbon dating the “Curse of Oak Island” has recently reported?

    In the latest episode “Digging Their Heels In” a full page of the Beta Analytic laboratory report for a piece of leather recovered from drilling was shown close-up on camera. The report presents two date ranges associated with percentages (probability?) but also two younger ages that looked to be calibrated age or calendar age if I read the TV screen correctly.

    I know enough about carbon dating to know that a little knowledge is a dangerous thing, so I’d really appreciate some insight and explanation.


    1. That is what I am interested in as well. I have lived in Nova Scotia my whole life and have had a cottage just up the coast from Oak Island for 46 years, so for me the history of the area is what is important, not some silly myth of treasure. The South Shore of NS was one of the battlegrounds in NS for a toe hold on N. America – and Oak Island does contain some of that history. The French in the 17th century, the British in the 18th. It is possible that the French were on the island in the 17th century (given poll tax records from the era show them all around Oak Island), we know two men from New York had works on Oak Island prior to the Shoreham Land Grant in the mid 18th century, and we have records of British, German, and other settlers on the island after subdivision in the 1760’s. We know Samuel Ball’s history. This is all recorded, but what we do not know was what life was like for all these people. This treasure hunt has destroyed some of this history, and it is a shame. I am happy to see there are archeologists involved in the show, but question how the show selectively edits their presence and opinions. I also question what the Province allows on the island, for the sake of treasure hunting and the popular fictional show.

      By the way, for those that watch the show, eye bolts in boulders are incredibly common all along the coast of NS (I see one in a rock at Bayswater Beach everytime I go there, just up the coast), rocks of all sizes and shapes are common above and below ground all over NS, there are a number of triangular shaped swamps all around Mahone Bay on islands (often happens when 2 drumlin islands close to each other eventually form land bridges between the 2) including on Frog Island right next door (where I have spent some time), and people tend to build docks and associated haul roads when they live near water – none of these things are proof/indications of treasure, and are simply normal occurrences in this part of the world. I yell at my TV a lot while watching this show…


      1. I stare in astonishment more than I yell, but I know what you mean 🙂

        “What life was like” is one of the things archaeology is about. There is good data coming out of the ground there, and you can see it even through the veil of the show. At some point, there will be full excavation reports from Laird and others that will make for fascinating reading.


  5. I am a novice- so my opinion does not mean much- but whether the “money pit” has been destroyed or already discovered really makes no difference to me- trying to tie what might be a number of cultures that may have been on this island at some point in time over the last ???500 years is just plain interesting. They (some one) are spending a lot of money and we may end up with no clear answers< But the history lessons are invaluable.


  6. I downloaded LIDAR data covering the Oak Island area and prepared contour mapping for analysis. Also applying remote sensing technique to analyze the contour patterns and discernable linears etc. on the island. If interested, please email me. Thank you.


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