- 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
Both the Adena and the Hopewell mounds were for the elite only; archeology does not yet know, although it would dearly like to, where and how the common folk were laid to rest. There are many other unanswered questions. It isn’t known if the Hopewell drove out the Adena or whether one culture simply melded into the other. Archeologists don’t even know the bare outlines of the story: where the prehistoric people of the region came from, where they went, or what happened to them. (There were no Indians living in their region when white settlers arrived.) With the Adena and Hopewell, burial of the dead appears to have been an obsession amounting to a cult. But we don’t know why they built mounds, or even what the people of these cultures called themselves. And because the Adena and Hopewell, like all of America’s prehistoric peoples, had no written language, the answers to these questions may never be known.
The Grave Creek Mound was first excavated in 1838 by local amateurs, who dug two shafts, one vertical and one horizontal, into the earthwork and discovered two burial vaults, one above the other. The first excavation also produced the notorious Grave Creek Tablet, a “curious relic” that the early anthropologist Henry Rowe Schoolcraft saw “lying unprotected among broken implements of stone, pieces of antique pottery, and other like articles.” The oval stone, which immediately became more famous than the mound itself, is less than two inches long and inscribed with more than twenty hieroglyphiciike characters.
Grave Creek Mound, one of the largest man-made earthworks, took the equivalent of three million basketloads of earth to build—without the use of horses or the wheel.
The Grave Creek Tablet intrigued the experts and provided support for the argument that the mounds were built by a civilized race that had a written language. Schoolcraft speculated that four of the twenty-five characters were from an ancient Celtic alphabet; others saw evidence of Greek, Phoenician, and Canaanite letters.
Faith in the authenticity of the stone diminished as the century progressed, but there are still believers, Yoho told me. “Just the other day a man was in here telling me that he could prove the tablet was written in Welsh.” The actual tablet is privately owned; only a replica is on display at the park’s Delf Norona Museum and Cultural Centre. Yoho recognizes its worth—‘historically it’s one valuable little item’—and would like to obtain the original for the museum. But she is sorry that it deflects attention from the mound itself.
“You don’t have to sensationalize the mound to make it interesting,” she says. “The Adena and Hopewell led wonderful, peaceful, and complicated lives. To me that alone is sensational. There’s no need here to look for the Loch Ness monster.”
In my travels through the Ohio Valley, I must have seen fifty mounds. I discovered early on that there is something about a mound that makes me want to climb it. This isn’t always possible, of course; some mounds are fenced or chained off, but others have steps spiraling around them like a corkscrew or going straight up the side. Often children and I were the only climbers.
Mounds are the stars of the prehistoric sites of the Ohio Valley. There are other ancient attractions—forts, quarries, a reconstructed village—but nothing with the visual impact of a mound. Some of them were in state or federal parks with trails and museums and other facilities, but they could be found almost anywhere, often in bizarre juxtaposition with the man-made environment. “They liked the same land we like,” says N’omi Greber, a Hopewell expert at the Cleveland Museum of Natural History. “Land gets reused.”
Most mounds that have been excavated have revealed burials—both skeletons and cremated remains—as well as tombs made of wood, graves lined with sheets of mica, and immense quantities of burial goods. These days it is also believed that mounds were used as astronomical observatories. “There is rarely just one reason for doing anything,” says Robert Petersen, an archeologist at a large Hopewell complex in Chillicothe, Ohio. At Sunwatch, a prehistoric village reconstructed on its original site near Dayton, archeologists, guided by evidence found in the ground, have rebuilt a solar observatory.
Mounds located in old cemeteries—where the recently old and the really old come together—were particularly to my liking. In Marietta, Ohio, the Revolutionary War general Rufus Putnam is buried at the foot of Conus Mound, which is separated from the historic burial ground by a prehistoric moat. Putnam led the Ohio Company party that settled Marietta in 1788. These same settlers had the foresight to set aside the city’s extensive prehistoric earthworks, which include the 680-foot Sacra Via, an elegant graded esplanade that leads from a large square mound, now a park, to the Muskingum River.