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Mound Country

June 2024
18min read

Elaborate earthworks engineered two thousand years ago by an impenetrably mysterious people still stand in astonishing abundance throughout the Ohio River Valley

Robert Maslowski and I made our way carefully across the tobacco field, trying not to disturb the neat rows of freshly plowed furrows. On the other side of the flat valley, a tractor moved slowly across the horizon “settin’ tobacco,” as they call planting seedlings in this part of West Virginia. Our destination was also far away: an oasis of greenery in the distance that was a prehistoric Indian mound.

Maslowski suddenly picked up something from a furrow and handed it to me. I could see it was a flint arrowpoint, less than two inches long, flatter on one side than the other, and unevenly shaped, but it wasn’t until Bob said “Early Adena” that I realized I was holding a true prehistoric artifact in my hand, one that had been crafted by the Adena Indians hundreds of years before Christ and at least twenty centuries before Europeans set foot in this part of America. Maslowski, an archeologist with the Army Corps of Engineers, explained that recently plowed fields were fertile grounds for finding prehistoric Indian artifacts. From time to time he would stop to pick up a fire-cracked rock, evidence of an ancient campsite, or to point out a grayish patch in the soil caused by the high ash content of prehistoric debris, probably mussel shells.

Elaborate earthworks engineered two thousand years ago by an impenetrably mysterious people still stand in astonishing abundance throughout the Ohio River Valley

Our walk across the tobacco field came on the first day of a trip I took to the Indian mounds and other prehistoric earthworks of the upper Ohio River Valley, an area that includes sites on tributaries many miles away from the river itself. This part of the Ohio River has both heavy industry and great stretches of unspoiled scenery; it defines eastern and southern Ohio on one side and forms borders for western West Virginian and northern Kentucky on the other. An atlas published in 1814 shows how archeologically rich this region once was; dots on a map indicate large clusters of prehistoric sites, especially along rivers flowing into the Ohio, like the Muskingum, the Scioto, the Hocking, and the Great Miami. Most of these sites are gone, “plowed down,” as they say, for agriculture or otherwise destroyed in the name of progress. But more survive here than in any other part of the country.

In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the mounds were a source of wonder—and pride, in that they were thought to be much older than any man-made monument in Europe. Most Americans believed that they had been built by some prehistoric master race, the “ancient white aborigines of America,” a people of skill and culture who came to be known as the Mound Builders. At the heart of the Mound Builder theory was the assumption that contemporary Indians lacked the intelligence, technical know-how, or energy to be Mound Builders—a theory bolstered by the fact that more modern Indians had no knowledge or collective memory of the mounds.


Ideas about where the ancient builders came from varied, ranging from Europe—Wales, Norway, Greece—to the Bible: the Lost Tribes of Israel or the sons of Shem. Ephraim Squier and Edwin Davis, authors of the important mid-nineteenth-century survey Ancient Monuments of the Mississippi Valley , thought the Mound Builders originally came from Mexico or Peru. Others claimed they were a superior indigenous race that had been driven south to Mexico by savage invaders.

There were dissenters from Mound Builder orthodoxy all along, enlightened souls who had no trouble believing that the mounds had been built by ancestors of modern Indians, and they grew in number as the nineteenth century wore on. Among them were Thomas Jefferson, who described excavating a mound in Notes on the State of Virginia , and the famous explorer John Wesley Powell, who dismissed the Mound Builder theory as a “romantic fallacy.” In 1881, as the first head of the Bureau of Ethnology, Powell assigned the eminent archeologist Cyrus Thomas to survey prehistoric earthworks. Thomas and his crews excavated many mounds in the Ohio Valley, including the one toward which Maslowski and I were now heading. Thomas concluded in a 730-page report published in 1894 that there was “an unbroken chain connecting the moundbuilders and the historical Indians.” Thomas’s well-researched conclusions were supposed to put an end to the Mound Builder theory once and for all.

On my trip I would see more impressive mounds; even close up, this one looked more like a natural feature that farmers had plowed around rather than over. And I would see more accessible ones, with parking lots and visitors’ centers, paved paths, and steps to the summit. Here access was difficult, and the top could be reached only by bush-whacking up through locust trees and brambles. The view from the top was blocked by vegetation, but on the ground we could make out a rock-filled indentation in the earth that, Bob informed me, had been dug by the Cyrus Thomas expedition in 1890.

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.

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.

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.”

The headquarters of the complex, which includes a museum, is located in the twenty-six acres known as the Great Circle Earthworks, enclosed by an earthen wall eight to fourteen feet high and twelve hundred feet in diameter. (An unusual moat running along the inside of the wall reflects “principles of military science now lost or inexplicable,” a puzzled observer wrote in 1839.) Two smaller, nearby sites—the six-foot-high Owen Mound and the Wright Earthworks, a surviving section of a large enclosure—are also part of the complex.


The second major section, the 120-acre Octagon State Memorial, includes the large earthen octagon covering 50 acres that is now part of the groomed golf course of the Mound Builders Country Club, which has held a lease from the Ohio Historical Society since 1933. Some years before that it was the site of a National Guard camp whose members damaged an embankment while practicing gunnery.

I met Lepper at his cubbyhole of an office in the museum at the Mound Builders State Memorial, but we were soon trudging our way through a cornfield headed for a distant thicket of trees and the remains of a walled highway that, Lepper is convinced, the Hopewell built from Newark straight to Chillicothe some sixty miles to the southwest.

Lepper warned me not to expect too much, and he was right: the remnants of the road’s walls were hardly more than brush-covered irregularities in the surface of the ground. But these irregularities were eloquent to Lepper. “This is the first evidence we have of a great road in the eastern Woodlands. Not only is it monumental in size, it’s older than any other we know about.”

A walled roadway from the Newark earthworks to a creek about two and a half miles away appears on early maps, like the one Squier and Davis published in 1848. In 1990 Lepper rediscovered an unpublished map from 1862 that took the road another three miles toward Chillicothe. When he first saw the map, Lepper says, “It was as if I had gotten into a time machine and been transported back to 1862.” Beyond that, aerial photographs and physical evidence of the wall have convinced him of that thoroughfare’s reality.

Building a straight road is not that difficult—“Three men holding sticks could do that,” says Lepper—but the fact that this one appears to go straight to a destination sixty miles away is astonishing. If the road can be confirmed, it will throw a new light on the Hopewell culture, says Bob Petersen, an archeologist at the Hopewell Culture National Historical Park, a burial-mound grouping in Chillicothe at the other end of the putative highway. “It will show a greater commitment of time and energy than we thought them capable of and greater engineering skills than we thought they had.”

Lepper describes the Newark earthworks as “monumental architecture that we usually associate with kings and queens.” But there is no evidence that the Hopewell had a nobility or that the common people were coerced to build the earthworks, so it is possible that the architecture is the result of a common goal and vision shared by the populace over a span of generations. This is a difficult concept for us to grasp today, Lepper says, “when we can’t seem to sustain a national vision for more than the four or eight years of a Presidency.

“There seems to be a message here from the past. We can work together.”

For nearly two centuries Chillicothe has been the pre-eminent place to go to see mounds; it has a number of its own, and it is at the geographic center of mound country. Most of the other sites I visited, even those in West Virginia, lie within a hundred miles of it.

Chillicothe also has a firm place in the history of American archeology. The names archeologists have given to two principal prehistoric cultures come from there: Hopewell from the farm of Capt. M. C. Hopewell, where three dozen mounds were found in and around a 110-acre enclosure, and Adena from the estate of the same name belonging to Thomas Worthington, Ohio’s governor from 1814 to 1818. With the excavation of a large mound on Worthington’s estate in 1901, the Adena and the Hopewell began to emerge as clearly separate cultures.

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.”

I left Greber in Chillicothe and the next day made some quick stops at sites I had missed: Story Mound, a large Adena burial mound owned by the Ohio Historical Society and located in a residential section of Chillicothe; Fort Hill, a hilltop enclosure southwest of Chillicothe, where, on a trail deep in the woods, I came across a man hunting wild rosemary—just like the hunter-gatherers of old, I thought. And finally the spectacular effigy Serpent Mound, near Locust Grove, the seven curves of its body covering nearly a quarter of a mile. Visitors can get an overview of the serpent from an observation tower, but how the Adena—or maybe the later Fort Ancient people—were able to achieve its faultless proportions is a mystery.

As I headed home, I thought about what Greber had said about how people “arranged themselves”—maybe in ways that we know nothing about—and what Lepper had said about their ability to cooperate without compulsion and how this could be a “message from the past.”

I had to admit that the message seemed faint, but then, to me, messages from the past often are. More to the point, I thought, was a story Susan Yoho told me about a farmer who went out daily to his fields to look for prehistoric artifacts. Every day his wife would say to him, “Honey, I don’t know what you’re looking for, but I hope you find it.”

Archeology has produced more questions than answers. How many people did it take to build the mound? How was it used? Who was buried in there?

Well, I thought, I didn’t know what I was looking for in the Ohio Valley, but I had found it aplenty. I had gotten in my mind a vivid picture of what a nineteenth-century traveler called “the great monuments and pyramids … of the ancient nations of N. America” and, in my pocket, an arrowpoint from a tobacco field in West Virginia that I at least found beautiful.


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