Hopewell Culture National Historical Park
Hopewell Culture National Historical Park was created to preserve multiple earthwork complexes constructed between 200 BC and 500 AD in the Scioto River Valley in Ohio. Though the term Hopewell is used to refer to multiple groups of people across the Midwest and parts of the Northeastern United States who shared common ceremonial and construction practices, the epicenter of the culture has been located along the Scioto River where the largest and most elaborate earthworks as well as the highest concentrations of quality artifacts have been discovered. Within the dense construction in the river valley lies the Mound City complex, believed to have been the ceremonial center and the place where the mutation occurred that sparked the transition from the hunter-gatherer Adena Culture to the partially-agricultural Hopewell. Today this site lies adjacent to the park visitor center and museum near the modern town of Chillicothe.
All 23 mounds at Mound City are burial mounds that contain cremated human remains interred with exceptionally fine artifacts. Also found beneath the mounds within the mortuary structures, called charnel houses, were clay crematory basins. Though settlements were found in conjunction with other Hopewell sites in the Ohio valleys, none were discovered near the complex here leading archaeologists to conclude that the site was used exclusively for mortuary and ceremonial purposes. It is believed that after the charnel houses ceased to be used they would have been partially dismantled and deliberately burned; construction of the mounds over top the sites would begin soon after.
Similar to other native mound complexes, the earthworks created by the Hopewell were meticulously erected, with huge quantities of dirt, clay, and sand particularly layered and then capped with a type of simple concrete designed to resist erosion. Such precision and sophisticated engineering knowledge in conjunction with the required large-scale mobilization of labor indicate a highly organized society bound by shared motive and a common way of life. It has become clear that despite their highly-dispersed settlement patterns characterized by isolated homesteads, the Hopewell of the Scioto Valley were bound by a definite cultural identity and came together at these earthwork sites to perform rituals, cultivate shared knowledge, and coordinate the creation of elaborate mound complexes.
The earthworks at the Mound City site also tell of the emergence of a distinct ruling class within the society which helps mark the shift from the older Adena Culture to the more sophisticated Hopewell Culture. The mounds here contain large deposits of some of the finest artifacts found from Hopewell sites, items that display the highest levels of craftsmanship and that were made from exotic materials imported from far-flung corners of the continent: Mica from North Carolina, bear teeth and obsidian from Idaho and Wyoming, copper from Lake Superior, sharks teeth from the Chesapeake Bay, and shells from the Gulf of Mexico, to name a few. All these exemplary artifacts concentrated in a single complex plainly indicate that the people interred here were of a higher status. Other evidence supporting the societal stratification of the Scioto River Valley Hopewell comes from the level of craftsmanship of the objects themselves; such mastery of various materials reveals the presence of a dedicated class of artisans who spent their time honing their artistic skills rather than farming or hunting to secure their survival. Beautiful ceremonial and mortuary objects such as delicate and precisely-cut mica and copper effigy figures, elaborately-carved smoking pipes, intricately-beaded headdresses with sharks teeth and pearls, and carefully carved human bone all attest to artisans with thousands of hours of practice.
Much about the Hopewell remains a mystery but their widespread manipulation of the land continues to intrigue. The Mound City complex is today viewed as both unique and a prototype of sorts; later constructions formalized the elements seen at the site and standardized the design. Again and again across the Scioto River Valley the Hopewell constructed identically-sized earthworks characterized by one square and two circular embankments enclosing mounds, precise in their geometry and astrological orientation. It seems that on the cusp of developing an agricultural society, the Hopewell were simultaneously cultivating a detailed awareness of how the celestial bodies impacted them while maintaining most of the relatively large amount of leisure time that characterizes hunter-gatherer societies, resulting in the allocation of a great deal of human labor to planning, organizing, and constructing massive earthworks. This unique stage in the development of the civilization is something I personally found fascinating, but whether it intrigues you or not, the products of the Hopewell are undeniably impressive.