City Mound Group Contains 23 Burial Mounds
Hopewell Culture National Historical Park, Chillicothe, Ohio
We drove about an hour southeast of us down to a town whose name I’ve read, but never pronounced. Now that I know how to pronounce it, I like the sound of it. It sort of rolls off the tongue, like ‘Prairie du Chien’, except its a very different language.
As you approach Chillicothe from the Dayton area, the landscape changes. And, in fact, you enter a different ecological zone. Instead of the Eastern Corn Belt Plains, with its low rolling plains and preponderance of beech forests, we move into the Western Allegheny Plateau, which has more diverse hardwood forests. There is less agricultural land use as the land is slightly more rugged heading up into the Appalachian Mountains themselves. Yesterday will be our only contact with this region, but it was very obvious that we had changed gears.
I suspect the difference in ecology may also have something to do with the phenomena known as the Hopewell Culture. This Native American culture flourished from about 200 B.C. Until around 700 A.D. and produced a rich store of cultural artifacts that suggests influence or at least trade relationships that pretty much
covered the entire eastern half of the North American continent. That culture appears to have at least its ceremonial center in and around southern Ohio.
These people were mound builders, which means pretty much that their largest outward signs of civilization are little more than piles of dirt. But these piles of dirt can’t be dismissed as some idle creations. In the first place, they have a defined structure with predictable layers of dirt, sand, gravel, and clay that alternate to build durable mounds. More significant, is that there are no indications that these people lived in permanent villages. That anthropological fact is highly significant because most durable structures in human prehistory are developed as part of villages or towns. They are usually lived in as homes with evidence of daily life activities like food preparation or shelter. However, there are no indications that these structures had any practical use, other than as burial sites.
A common arrangement appears to be a group of conical burial mounds surrounded by large dirt walls which act as a boundary around the entire group of mounds. Some of these burial mounds were excavated in earlier days and from these digs they
were able to identify crafted items from very long distances. Seashells from the Gulf, copper from the Lake Superior region, mica from North Carolina, obsidian from Yellowstone, and even a few turquoise objects suggesting trade with the southwest. Either these people explored these far-away regions, or else they had established trade relationships with people who came from there. Either way, it shows a structured relationship far more elaborate than archeologists have seen in societies that do not establish permanent locations.
Another key fact that defies explanation is the sheer size of some of these earthen structures. The largest of these surrounding walls comes in at almost two miles long. Energy analysis of the amount of effort required to build them suggests that they took centuries and required substantial outside help - the local communities, based on the carrying capacity of the environment, could not have been large enough to supply all the labor required to dig, haul, and dump all this dirt. How were they able to organize enough people in a sustained effort over multiple generations to actually build these structures?
For me one of the most significant facts is that these mound clusters were carefully architected.
It appears that nearly all of them adhere to a consistent design involving a square (or possibly an octagonal structure) aligned next to a circle. Then there is a smaller circle. Burial mounds are only found inside the octagonal/square structures - not in the circles. But even more significant is that the squares fit exactly inside the larger circles, which means that they had to have a very precise measurement system in order to lay out these structures so precisely.
Finally, and this is the real kicker - the squares and large circles are virtually identical in size everywhere they have been found. And there are hundreds of these locations scattered all over Ohio and into some of the nearby states. In every case discovered so far, the square structures have the same-length sides and cover exactly 27 hectares. And they fit precisely in the larger circles. This doesn’t happen by accident - there was conscious design involved and, unfortunately, we don’t know what that design was or what it was intended to accomplish.
There is some evidence that these structures are aligned with astronomical events and may relate to a calendar system. (However, according to the archeologist
Hard to get a picture that communicates scale.
ranger I talked to there is considerable debate about these conclusions.)
I’ve been trying to draw connections between these Hopewell structures and other places I’ve been to. Unfortunately, there isn’t a whole lot to be made. The mounds at Ocmulgee, Georgia, that we saw last year, were platform mounds and they are pretty sure that they served as ways of elevating the housing structures of political and religious elites. They also came quite a bit later in time. The Effigy Mounds in Iowa were also much later in time, and smaller. The effigy mounds did, in some cases, serve as burial mounds and so might be later expressions of the smaller burial mounds. But there is no evidence of mounds of the same scale that are to be found here at Hopewell, nor of the mathematical precision.
The best comparison might be with the Great Houses at Chaco. The scale is about the same, although the Chaco buildings, built of mud bricks formed into adobe, seem more permanent than dirt mounds. But the Great Houses were built in the form of great semi-circles and, like these Hopewell mounds, did not appear to be for residential purposes. There is
also the minor little problem of dates - the first Chaco greathouses did not even start until around 750 AD, which is AFTER the Hopewell stopped building their larger structures.
An interesting possibility is that the Ancient Puebloans got the idea of building such things from the Hopewell people further east. However, there not being much dirt in the parched deserts of the southwest, they had to come up with a different building material. Maybe the Ancient Puebloans actually moved to the southwest from the Ohio Valley area! (Needless to say, no respectable scientist is suggesting that - it is my silly idea alone!)
No-one knows for sure what happened to the Hopewell people. Much like the Ancient Puebloans, there are all kinds of weird theories about aliens, mass dieoffs, and other conspiracies. However, if anyone would just talk to the local Indians, they will tell you that they are alive and well. Just as the Ancient Puebloans evolved into the 19 Pueblo tribes of the Rio Grande, so it is likely that the Hopewell evolved into today’s Shawnee. Certainly there was enough time between 700 and the arrival of Europeans for a lot of change to happen.
The Largest Structure Found So Far Involving 2 miles of embankments.
Hopewell Culture is another National Historical Park and it fits that model very nicely as it is similar to Chaco Culture in having a lot to see spread over multiple sites. In Chaco’s case, one has to hike between the sites. At Hopewell, you can drive. The Visitor Center is at the City Mound site and everyone’s visit should start there. The film is very good and they have an excellent collection of artifacts they have found in the various burial mound excavations. The exhibits do a great job of showing how far-ranging their network was. From there, you go outside and hike among the mounds of the group located there.
Unfortunately, these mounds are re-creations based on evidence as to what they originally looked like. At most of the other sites, the visuals are less than inspiring, primarily because most of the mounds have been plowed under. Using LIDAR and other scientific techniques, scientists have been able to suggest what they looked like, but the reality requires a lot of imagination. Still, being in the fields and just getting a sense of the magnitude of these things and trying to put yourself in their place, a couple
Area covered is the same as 100 football fields.
of thousand years ago, is definitely worth the experience. This is another case where the monument is more of a place to protect a cultural resource for future research than it is for a lay person to actually see it.
But what went on here more than a thousand years ago, is certainly something to be appreciated, even if we can’t understand it.
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