- Historic Sites
Elaborate earthworks engineered two thousand years ago by an impenetrably mysterious people still stand in astonishing abundance throughout the Ohio River Valley
April 1995 | Volume 46, Issue 2
I was disappointed. I had enjoyed the walk across the field, but compared with the thrill of finding the arrowpoint, this hole in the ground that amounted to no more than a shallow pit was an anticlimax. Only later, in retrospect, did its significance come into focus. Cyrus Thomas’s 1894 report was a milestone, “the birth of American archaeology,” Maslowski has written. By demolishing the myth of an ancient race of Mound Builders and determining that the mounds were constructed by American Indians, it put archeology on a scientific footing. This unimpressive hole in the ground was part of that process and therefore had a historical importance all its own. I understand that now, but at the time it was just a hole; I missed the point entirely.
‘How much do you know about woodland people?” Susan Yoho asked me. It was a question l was hoping to avoid. I knew that Woodland was a term that covered roughly three thousand years of human development before white men arrived in eastern America, but otherwise I had to admit that I knew very little prehistory (a curious term covering the centuries before man began writing down his story). And this despite some fancy schooling and a long association with publications in the American history field.
Yoho, who is curator of the Grave Creek Mound State Park in Moundsville, West Virginia, assured me I wasn’t alone. “There is widespread ignorance about prehistoric sites,” she said. “People still come here who think that the Grave Creek Mound is historic. When you tell them that it was built before the birth of Christ, they are astounded.”
In historic times, after Moundsville was founded by white settlers, the local citizenry put the huge mound to a variety of uses, including building a racetrack around its base and a saloon on its pinnacle. (“After a long night of drinking, that first step must have been a doozy,” Yoho says.) When Yoho took over as curator in 1981, she ended the practice of draping the mound with lights at Christmas on the ground that “an Adena mound built several hundred years before the birth of Christ really had very little to do with Christmas.” Yoho is not an archeologist, but, she warns, “like all amateurs, I have my own opinions.”
Sixty-two feet high and two hundred and forty feet through at the base, Grave Creek Mound, built between 250 and 100 B.C. , is one of the largest man-made earthworks in the world. It took people who had neither the horse nor the wheel the equivalent of three million basketloads of earth to build it. The Adena lived in this part of the country from roughly 1000 B.C. to A.D. 200; they came after the Late Archaic people and before the Hopewell (about 150 B.C. to A.D. 500), although as the dates show, there is considerable overlap between the Adena and the Hopewell cultures. The Adena lived throughout the southern half of Ohio and in adjacent parts of Indiana, Kentucky, West Virginia, and Pennsylvania. The Hopewell were concentrated in southwestern Ohio, at the hub of a trading network that extended from the Great Lakes to the Gulf of Mexico. The impact of their culture was felt throughout that vast territory.
The Adena were the region’s first serious mound builders. They built them in stages, starting with a burial, sometimes in a log tomb like the one found at Grave Creek, which they then covered with earth. Then another burial and more earth, and so, depending on the number of burials, the mounds grew, sometimes to immense size.
The Hopewell had a different approach: their mounds were one-stage affairs. They first disposed of their dead in a charnel house, which, when filled with bodies, they covered with earth to construct a mound. Then they started all over again in another location. This is why Hopewell mounds are smaller than Adena mounds, the highest being barely half the size of the mound at Grave Creek.
What they lacked in size, the Hopewell mounds made up for in treasure. The burial goods found in them were far more abundant and finely crafted than the items buried with the Adena. Where an Adena mound might contain tools or simple neck ornaments called gorgets, Hopewell burials have yielded quantities of items crafted from mica or copper or gold or large numbers of precious freshwater pearls. Because they were in pristine condition when excavated, it appears that the Hopewell goods were produced solely for burials and went into the grave unused.