October 2008 Issue
Take a driving tour of Ohio’s Native American earthworks to see why they are under consideration for United Nations World Heritage status.
Even when we walk in wonder along the entire length of the snake at Serpent Mound, it’s difficult for 21st-century people to imagine the grandeur of these ceremonial and religious sites for the prehistoric Native Americans who once hunted and gathered on the land we now call Ohio.
Maybe Paul Gardner of the Archaeological Conservancy in Columbus can help put things in perspective. “If Julius Caesar had an embassy in North America, it would have been in Chillicothe,” he’s famously said. “That was the ceremonial and political center of North America at the time.”
Now, these giant monumental earthworks may be getting a higher profile on the international scene. The Hopewell Ceremonial Earthworks and Serpent Mound are among three Ohio nominations to make the Department of Interior’s final list of 14 U.S. cultural and natural areas to be considered for World Heritage status, the most for any state. The third nominee is the Dayton Aviation Sites.
From this tentative list, the Department of Interior will nominate two sites per year to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) between 2009 and 2018. The U.S. now has 20 World Heritage Sites — but none in Ohio.
“The Hopewell Ceremonial Earthworks and Serpent Mound are unique in the world,” says Dean Alexander, superintendent of the Hopewell Culture National Historical Park in Chillicothe. “They’re representative of the rich cultural heritage of Ohio’s early Native Americans.”
While we’ll have to wait for the World Heritage verdict, we can visit these remarkable spots today.
“Earthworks of Southern Ohio: Ancient Monuments of the Eastern Woodlands” is a new driving tour from the Ohio Historical Society (OHS) and Ohio Valley Regional Development Commission. It focuses on three of the most sophisticated mound-building cultures in Ohio: the Adena (600 B.C –100 A.D.), the Hopewell (100 B.C.– 400 A.D) and the Fort Ancient (1000 A.D.–1650 A.D).
The tour features 10 sites that experts consider to be among the most significant American Indian earthworks in the United States. The following are some of the don’t-miss stops.
Hopewell Culture National Historic Park in Chillicothe encompasses three parts of the Hopewell UNESCO nominee: Mound City Group, Hopewell Mound Group and Seip Earthworks, as well as High Bank Works and Hopeton Earthworks, inaccessible except for occasional ranger-led programs.
Mound City, the recommended first stop on the driving tour, contains one of the largest concentrations of Hopewell burial mounds ever discovered. The display in the visitors’ center, along with maps and park staff, can help bring the Hopewell culture to life.
The site encompasses roughly 15 acres and is surrounded by more than 2,000 feet of earthwork walls. The enclosure, with at least 23 mounds, has entrances on its east and west sides; archaeologists surmise these gateways were important for ceremonial processions. All the walls and mounds have been reconstructed.
The Native Americans erected a large wooden building about 2,000 years ago, and excavations have uncovered the original post locations. In the 1840s, two Chillicothians, Ephraim Squier and Edwin Davis, excavated this area, and their work on Hopewell sites was the first publication of the Smithsonian Institution in 1848. They found about 200 effigy pipes, but their techniques destroyed much original material. You can see Davis’ pipe collection at the British Museum.
In 1917, the military took over Mound City Group site for Camp Sherman training center, erecting a new building every 20 minutes. Future president Dwight Eisenhower was stationed here in 1917. The camp was razed in 1920, and William C. Mills and Henry C. Shetrone from the Ohio State Archaeological and Historical Society oversaw excavations for two years. They found a “splendor of mica” from the Blue Ridge Mountains that the native peoples had transported more than 120 miles.
“These people were amazing,” Alexander says. “They had copper from Lake Superior, obsidian from the Yellowstone Basin in Wyoming and mica from the Blue Ridge Mountains.
“And you have to think of building with 2,000-year-old technology. They had stone implements, shells, wicker baskets and digging sticks, moving hundreds of thousands of cubic yards of dirt to make these monuments. Through the whole process, they started to develop geometric precision, repeating patterns over and over in exact replicas.”
In the Mound City museum, Alexander recommends looking for the copper and silver ear spools that went into pierced lobes, remnants of ceremonial headwear and copper cut-outs of bird effigies, perhaps the Carolina parakeet that was indigenous 2,000 years ago. While the Hopewell culture didn’t use bows and arrows, they crafted large projectile points that were probably part of ceremonial spears.
“Don’t miss the copper effigy headpiece of the bear head and jaw,” recommends Brad Lepper, curator of archaeology at OHS. “When a person wore it, the jaw opened and closed.”
The Hopewell Mound Group, within Hopewell Culture National Historic Park, was one of the largest and most complex earthwork systems ever created by the Hopewell culture. The 300-acre group is the type site, the archaeological model, for the Hopewell culture, a sophisticated people with contacts from the Atlantic Ocean to the Rocky Mountains.
It’s named for the farmer, Mordecai Cloud Hopewell, who owned the land during the first excavation in 1891–1892. The work yielded fine artwork, pottery that suggested large-scale food preparation and the remains of a 2,000-year-old wall.
Mound 25, one of the largest Hopewell mounds ever built, turned out to be a treasure trove: shells from the Gulf Coast, copper from the Lake Superior region and obsidian from Wyoming, more than a 3,000-mile round trip. As the driving tour points out, there were no horses in North America then. How did they obtain all these important elements for their “monumentalizing of the natural world”?
“Archaeologists can tell you what they did, but not always why they did it,” Alexander says. That applies to the hundreds of objects, many purposely broken, buried at Mound City, Hopewell Mound Group and Seip Mound. “It’s a common practice that lasted for hundreds of years. When the ceremonial life of the site was through, they built the mound.” We have our own modern practices, such as putting up headstones and monumenting mass graves.”
Artifacts from Hopewell Mound, what Lepper calls “a national treasure,” are on display at OHS.
Seip Mound near Bainbridge, built for burials, is one of the few pieces left of what was once a major Hopewell earthwork complex covering 121 acres. Farming and erosion have degraded the surrounding earthworks, leaving this central mound: 30 feet high, 130 feet wide and 240 feet long.
“This is your opportunity to see a large Hopewell mound with its original dimensions,” Alexander said. It’s second in size to Mound 25 at Hopewell Mound Group, which is twice as long. “You can also walk all the way around the mound, and you can take a trail across the earthworks to Paint Creek.”
See It, Hear It
“Earthworks of Southern Ohio: Ancient Monuments of the Eastern Woodlands” tours are available for download by individual podcasts for a specific site or all 10 sites together. This self-guided interpretative tour includes directions, maps and historical and archaeological site information.
Audio tours are available for download at $.99 per site or $7 for all.Video tours are available for download at $1.99 per site or $15 for all. In addition, the entire tour can be purchased on CD for $12.95 and on DVD for $18.95. Visit www.ohiohistorytours.org
or contact Ohio Historical Society at 614/297-2300 or 800/686-6124.
“Earthworks of Southern Ohio” is a collaborative project between the Ohio Historical Society and Ohio Valley Regional Development Commission. Additional partners include Adams County Travel & Visitors Bureau, Highland County Convention & Visitors Bureau, Mills James Productions, National Park Service, Ohio Department of Development-Governor’s Office of Appalachia, Pike County Convention & Visitors Bureau, Portsmouth Area Convention & Visitors Bureau and Ross-Chillicothe Convention & Visitors Bureau.
Located near Peebles in Adams County, the Serpent Mound is the largest known ancient serpent effigy in the world. The central questions remain: Why was it constructed and what does it mean?
The uncoiling serpent, a powerful symbol of the Underworld for the Woodlands people, is nearly a quarter mile long, and visitors can walk along a footpath surrounding the serpent. Travelers come from all over the world to see it, especially during the summer solstice when its head is aligned to sunset. Its coils point to the winter solstice sunrise and the equinox sunrise.
To stop plowing and looting in the late 1800s, archaeologist Frederic Ward Putnam purchased and excavated the site for Harvard University. He dated the work to the Adena period, 800 B.C.–100 A.D. Serpent Mound became the first archaeological preserve in the U.S., then Harvard gave it to the Ohio Historical Society in 1900.
OHS excavations in 1991 radiocarbon dated wood charcoal found in the walls to 1000–1200 A.D., when the Fort Ancient culture lived in the region.
“Take the side trail to the Brush Creek valley, and walk until you see the beautiful bedrock ledge that looks like a serpent,” Lepper recommends. “The effigy on the earth above may have been an elaboration of what people thought was in the stone.” Try to let your imagination drift back a millennium, synching up with the Fort Ancient worldview.
When You Go ...
Mound City Group Visitor Center, Chillicothe, 740/774-1126. www.nps.gov/hocu/. Two miles north of the intersection of U.S. Rte. 35 and St. Rte. 104. The Visitor Center has a 17-minute film and a museum with artifacts from the Mound City Group (the park curates 167,000 objects and archival items).
Hopewell Culture National Historical Park, 16062 St. Rte. 104, Chillicothe, 740/774-1120.www.nps.gov/hocu/. The Hopewell Mound Group is limited to interpretive signs and restrooms. This is a burial site, and there is no walking on the mounds.
A new trail leads to the upper terrace, “where you can see a 2,000-year-old wall and ditch,” park superintendent Dean Alexander says. “You can get a good sense of what the entire earthwork looked like, and how large it was.”
Cyclists can try out the Tri-County Triangle Trail, which connects Chillicothe and Frankfort on a 14-mile paved section. One mile of the trail runs through the Hopewell Mound Group. A self-guided trail of the mounds winds through the group; this is a burial site and there is no walking on the mounds. Another trail traces the perimeter of the earthworks. The Ohio Historical Society maintains a trail to the Central Mound at Seip Earthworks.
, 614/297-2630 or 800-686-1535. www.ohiohistory.org
. Fourteen miles southwest of Chillicothe and two miles east of Bainbridge, on U.S. Rte. 50 in Ross County. The park is limited to interpretive signs and restrooms.
3850 St. Rte. 73, Peebles, 937/587-2796 or 800/752-2757. www.ohiohistory.org
. Six miles north of St. Rte. 32 and 20 miles south of Bainbridge in Adams County. The museum contains exhibits on the effigy mound and local geology.