Mound Country

It was public dismay over the loss of nearly two hundred exquisitely carved pipes to the British Museum that led to the founding of the Ohio Historical Society to house such treasures.

Chillicothe was also home to the young newspaper editor Ephraim George Squier and his physician-collaborator Edwin Hamilton Davis, authors of that influential 1848 work Ancient Monuments of the Mississippi Valley . The team did extensive work right in their own back yard, at twenty-three Hopewell burial mounds grouped in thirteen walled acres that today form the largest concentration of mounds in the Ohio Valley. The National Park Service, owner of the site, recently renamed it the Hopewell Culture National Historical Park, but it is still usually called by its previous name, Mound City. Badly damaged when the U.S. Army put a World War I training camp there, the site was extensively rebuilt and restored after it became a national monument in 1923.

Death Mask Mound, the largest at the site, was the only mound untouched during the war. When excavated, it yielded up the remains of thirteen individuals and an unusual ceremonial headpiece—or death mask—made from fragments of human skull. A cutaway section of the Mica Grave Mound reveals the burial site of four cremations and provides a glimpse into how the mound was constructed: the burials, a layer of earth over the cremated remains, then a layer of sand covered by sheets of mica, and then more earth. And so the mound grew.

When Squier and Davis explored the site in the 1840s, they struck archeological pay dirt. A single mound, now called Mound of the Pipes, contained “not far from two hundred pipes, carved in stone. …The bowls of most of the pipes are carved in miniature figures of animals, birds, reptiles, etc. All of them are executed with strict fidelity to nature and with exquisite skill.” Earlier in my trip, during a stop at the Ohio Historical Society in Columbus, Martha Otto explained that it was public dismay over the loss of the pipes to the British Museum that had led to the founding of the society, then called the Ohio State Historical and Archaeological Society.

The entire thirteen-acre Mound City complex can be seen from a balcony at the visitors’ center. As archeological sites go, it is not large. But as Bob Petersen told me, its twenty-three mounds, compared with the two or three found elsewhere, “clearly indicate that something special was going on here.” From my vantage point on the balcony I could see what he meant. In the haze of a hot June morning the well-groomed mounds rising from the earth lay mystical and beckoning.

Before being excavated in the twenties, Seip Mound, fourteen miles southwest of Chillicothe, was—at 240 feet long, 160 feet wide, and 30 feet high—the second-largest Hopewell mound in existence. Standing on top of it, N’omi Greber pointed out the full extent of the walled enclosure, which once consisted of two connected circles and a large square. She guesses that the Hopewell built two large buildings, whose size can be determined from the size and depth of the postholes found on the site, then mounded them over with earth and added a wall around the complex. Seip is a place Greber knows well, having camped out there with students on field trips. At dusk, she says, Seip becomes “theatrical with the sun going down, the moon coming up, fireflies blinking, clouds hovering around the tops of the mountains. If you wanted a place for a ceremony, this would be it.”

As at other sites, archeology has produced more questions than answers. How many people did it take to build the mound? How was it used? Where did the Hopewell people live? Who was buried in there? Where was everybody else buried?

Greber, a mathematician before she became an archeologist, admits she is not one given to speculation. (When I showed her my arrowpoint, she declined to classify it, but she did suggest that a slight curve on one edge might indicate that it was a small knife rather than part of an arrow.) Still, she is fairly sure that a mound like Seip could be built by two hundred to two hundred and fifty people —“not the thousands that people associate with the Egyptian pyramids.

“It is generally assumed that you need a strong leader to do all these things, but I don’t think that is true,” she continues. “I think they were very autonomous. They probably had important people, but not as the basis of the social organization. The Europeans came here and imposed the concept of chiefs on what they saw, because that is what they understood. But not all societies are like that. There are more possibilities of how people arrange themselves than we think.”