- 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
Although mounds were new to me, in the Ohio Valley they are part of local culture. Every town with a mound usually had a Mound Street or Mound Avenue, and of course, Moundsville, West Virginia, takes its name from the Grave Creek Mound. Police in Newark, Ohio, the site of a large Hopewell complex, have a likeness of a mound embroidered on their shoulder patches, and in Tiltonsville, a working community amid the steel mills on the upper Ohio River, the local Lions Club has taken on responsibility for maintaining the town’s thirteen-foot-high Adena burial mound, which is located in one of the state’s earliest cemeteries.
Not all mounds are original; a number have been rebuilt after being damaged by agriculture or commerce or even archeology. The thought that archeology could do harm surprised me when Martha Otto, curator of archeology at the Ohio Historical Society, first brought it up. “Any excavation is destructive,” she said. “Any time you put a shovel in the ground, you are taking on a responsibility to observe carefully and to understand what you are looking at.”
Mounds themselves, she explained, are no longer the central objects of archeological curiosity. Instead scientists are focusing on broader issues, like interaction between prehistoric cultures, diet (corn was once considered responsible for Hopewell achievements; now “we think it is much less important”), the relationship of prehistoric peoples to the environment, and “how they changed that environment.” For example, the prairies that European settlers found when they arrived were not virgin terrain; they had been enhanced by the slash-and-burn practices of the Late Woodland people ( A.D. 900–1500).
Not surprisingly, given prehistoric man’s taste for choice real estate, many mounds now sport buildings. When I heard that there was an Indian mound in the parking lot of a Hardee’s restaurant in the river town of Belpre, Ohio, I made a detour so I could see for myself. There, just as I had been told, a small mound rose like a miniature volcano out of the blacktop. In Newark, Ohio, a portion of the immense Newark Earthworks is now a country-club golf course; it has an observation tower for visitors, but those who want a close-up look at the walls risk being beaned by a golf ball. A small amusement park in Huntington, West Virginia, provides an even more unusual setting for a mound. It costs a dollar to get in, but it’s probably the only place in the world where you can see a burial mound from a roller coaster.
After several days of traveling in mound country, I started to see prehistoric earthworks everywhere. Every undulation in a cornfield., every knoll, hillock, or protuberance became evidence of an ancient culture. Most of these I passed by, but south of Newark I braked my car when I glimpsed what I was sure a mound on a hillside. My guidebook confirmed that this time I was not imagining; this was an Adena burial mound, about fifteen feet high, situated between the Fairmount Presbyterian Church and a graveyard.
In the late-afternoon light it was a pleasant sight, the church nestled by the side of the mound; the mound, like the cemetery, neatly mowed, the graves lined in neat rows down the hillside, ancient man and modern man buried together. If it weren’t for that damned light pole sticking like a periscope out of the top of the mound, the picture would have been perfect.
Brad Lepper took the small arrowpoint I had found in a tobacco field and turned it over in his hand. I was surprised when he pronounced it “Late Archaic.” Maslowski had said it was early Adena, but Lepper assured me that the two periods overlapped. And I was slightly irked when he described it as “clunky.” I had been carrying the artifact with me for several days, and it had become, in my eyes, an object of beauty.
Not surprisingly, many mounds now sport buildings. I made a detour to see a mound in the parking lot of a Hardee’s restaurant in Belpre, Ohio.
Lepper was until recently the curator of the Newark Earthworks, east of Columbus, Ohio, which he calls “the largest complex of geometric earthworks in the world.” Although the earthworks once covered four square miles, they are now broken up into two major sites and two smaller ones spread about the city. In their 1848 work Ancient Monuments of the Mississippi Valley , Squier and Davis wrote that the Newark earthworks “are so complicated that it is impossible to give anything like a comprehensible description of them.” This is even more true now that the complex has been overrun by civilization. A canal, a railroad, a fairground, and a racetrack all preceded today’s golf course.
The widespread damage done to the earthworks, Lepper says, misled both professionals and the public into assuming that “there is nothing left here.” That is far from true, he insists. A recent cultural-resource survey turned up evidence of a prehistoric habitation site just outside the earthworks. “I am constantly surprised by backyard finds. It proves that you can destroy a site but you can’t obliterate all information.”