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People of the Mounds: Ohio’s Hopewell Culture
by Bradley T. Leper
We know the Hopewell principally from their mounds. Archaeologists have excavated scores of Hopewell mounds in search of knowledge about these ancient people. Many of these mounds were places of burial and, as a result, we know quite a lot about the Hopewell “way of death.” But the burials and the construction of mounds may only represent the climactic events in a series of activities performed at these special sites.
Before the mounds were built, the Hopewell erected large wooden structures on the site. Some of these structures probably were charnel houses, places where the Hopewell dead were prepared for burial or cremation. Others could have been council houses, places of worship, or all of these things. They may have been used over and over again, as layer upon layer of colored clays and sands sometimes are found covering the floors. Each layer may represent the ritualized ending of one phase of activity and the beginning of another. Often, clay basins were built into the upper most floors and some of these served as crematories.
Once they had fulfilled their role in Hopewell society, whatever that role may have been, the wooden structures were burned to the ground, or carefully taken down. Then these places of ceremony and burial were covered with mounds of earth, some of which were quite large such as those at sites like Seip, Harness, and, the largest, Mound 25 at the Hopewell Mound Group. Mound 25, actually three conjoined mounds, was 500 feet long, 180 feet wide, and 30 feet high when mapped by Squier and Davis in the 1840s.
Sometimes the Hopewell would perform this cycle of activities many times in the same general area. The resulting clusters of anywhere from two to a dozen or more mounds might be enclosed by an elliptical or rounded rectangular earthen wall. At Mound City there are at least 23 mounds of varying shapes and sizes surrounded by the walls of an enclosure.
The people buried in the mounds include males and females, young and old. The Hopewell often cremated their dead, but extended burials in prepared tombs are also common. They often clothed or wrapped the bodies in fine textiles. Sometimes they would bury an array of ornaments and objects of ritual with the dead.
The skeletons uncovered by archaeological excavations into Hopewell mounds show us that, in life, these people were healthy and robust. Infant mortality probably was high by today’s standards, but many Hopewellians lived to a ripe old age. The elderly likely held a special place in Hopewell societies. They represented “living archives” of lore on all aspects of the natural and supernatural worlds. Although the Hopewell probably had leaders of some considerable power and influence there is no evidence, such as consistent patterns in burial practices, that their leaders inherited political power after the manner of kings or pharaohs.
The most spectacular offerings frequently were not associated with a particular burial and may, therefore, represent some other ritual activity. Such offerings might include large numbers of copper earspools, copper axes and adzes, plaques of copper or mica cut into various abstract designs or representational forms, animal effigy pipes often carved from Ohio pipestone or other works shaped from various materials brought from the ends of the Hopewell world. These exotic materials included the raw copper and silver from the Lake Superior area; mica, quartz crystal and chlorite from the southern Appalachians; pearls, fossil shark teeth, alligator teeth, conch shells and sea turtle shells from the Gulf Coast; obsidian from the Rocky Mountains; and meteoric iron from various sources. Some archaeologists think these exotic commodities represent a far flung network of trade. But very little material from Ohio, such as tools shaped from Flint Ridge flint, is found at the other end of the so-called Hopewell interaction sphere. Perhaps the trade involved deer skins or other things which have left no traces in the soil for archaeologists to unearth. Perhaps it was not trade at all. Exotic raw materials may have been brought to Ohio by people on pilgrimages or by Ohio Hopewell who collected the materials while on extended quests to far off lands.
The Hopewell people frequently enclosed places of special importance with earthen walls built in diverse shapes and sizes. Squier and Davis originally classified these into two broad categories: works of defense and sacred enclosures. Archaeologists still recognize the basic distinction between hilltop enclosures, with walls that follow the edges of bluff tops, and geometric earthworks which are usually built on broad, flat river terraces. But they no longer interpret most of the hilltop enclosures as defensive works, even though many still bear the name of “fort”. The Fort Ancient site, for example, has more than three miles of embankments with more than 60 passages allowing entry into the enclosure. Ditches, or moats, were dug inside the walls, rather than outside where we might expect to find defensive features. These facts indicate many of the hilltop enclosures were never intended to serve as forts.
The walls of Hopewell enclosures generally were not used to cover burials. Only at the Turner Group of earthworks near Cincinnati and at Mound City have archaeologists recovered burials beneath the walls of an enclosure. Burial mounds occasionally are enclosed by circular or elliptical embankments, but many, perhaps most, of the earthworks were not used for mortuary ceremonialism.
The gigantic earthen enclosures of the Hopewell are among the most compelling and mysterious architectural remains of ancient America. Embankments of earth built in the shape of simple geometric figures or following the contours of a hilltop are the tantalizing vestiges of a sacred landscape molded from Ohio’s soils nearly 20 centuries ago. Most of these earthworks appear to represent places of social, political and religious significance . But it is difficult, if not impossible, to translate this abstract geometry into sure knowledge about the activities and beliefs of the prehistoric builders. Important clues to the function of the earthworks may still lie buried beneath our feet, or may wheel across the sky above our heads.
Ray Hively, a physicist, and Robert Horn, a philosopher, together recently determined the circular enclosures connected to octagons, at Newark and Chillicothe, record in the alignment of their walls the rising and setting points of the moon through an 18.6 year long cycle. Some scholars argue such alignments are coincidental and the Hopewell were not astronomers. But it should not be surprising these people were aware of the cyclical nature of the apparent motions of the moon and sun, nor that they attached importance to these phenomena. Indeed, we should move beyond the question of whether or not the alignments are intentional or accidental. The important question now is, were the earthworks used as instruments for making astronomical observations or, do the astronomically significant alignments of the walls fulfill a strictly symbolic function? In either case, Hopewellian monumental architecture serves to bring the celestial choreography down to earth.
An unexpected precision underlies Hopewellian geometry. Squier and Davis noted a remarkable correspondence between the form and dimensions of earthworks located many miles apart. For example, the circles connected to the octagonal enclosures at both Newark and the High Bank Works in Chillicothe were the same size as the inner of two concentric circles which once graced Circleville. The outer circle at Circleville was the same diameter as Newark’s Great Circle.
There are other important connections between the Hopewell earthworks at Newark and Chillicothe. The Scioto Valley north and south of the modern city of Chillicothe has the largest number and greatest diversity of earthworks built in North America. The Newark Works are the single largest complex of joined geometric earthen enclosures ever built. Octagon State Memorial in Newark and the High Bank Works in Chillicothe are the only two circular enclosures joined to octagons built by the Hopewell and the main axis of these two sites are oriented precisely perpendicular to each other, even though they are more than 50 miles apart.
There is some evidence to suggest the connections between ancient Newark and Chillicothe were formalized in a prehistoric roadway of long, straight parallel walls. Caleb Atwater, one of Ohio’s first archaeologists, suggested in 1820 that the parallel walls which ran southwestward from Newark’s octagon might extend thirty miles or more. In 1862 James and Charles Salisbury, early residents of Newark, traced these walls six miles “over fertile fields, through tangled swamps and across streams, still keeping their undeviating course.” They did not follow the road to its end, but noted the walls headed in the direction of Chillicothe.
If the Hopewell truly built such a long, straight “roadway” they would not have been the only culture in the Americas to do so; but they would have been among the first. The Anasazi of Chaco Canyon and the Maya of the Yucatan built the most famous networks of long, straight roads more than a century after the Hopewell. The roads of the Maya were ceremonial highways and pilgrimage routes connecting one special place with another. It is often inappropriate to draw analogies between cultures so widely separated in space and time, but perhaps Hopewellian Newark and Chillicothe were great religious centers like Mecca, Santiago de Compostela, or the Vatican. Pilgrims from across eastern North America may have come to these places bearing offerings of rare and precious items; perhaps they left with a spiritual recompense – an oracular message or a religious inspiration. This would provide one of many possible explanations for the presence of large quantities of copper, mica and other exotic materials in Ohio’s mounds and the relative absence of material goods from Ohio in sites at the periphery of Hopewellian influence.