Intellectual Rationale

Intellectual Rationale

In a 1998 interview for the documentary Great Museums: Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian, Richard West, that institution’s Founding Director, said “Native history and culture and art and life, is a part of the shared cultural heritage of all of us.” Yet surprisingly few modern Americans, including the descendants of the indigenous cultures themselves, are fully aware of the remarkable cultural achievement of pre-contact American Indian societies—their antiquity, grandeur, the sophistication of their monumental architecture, the artistry of their material cultures, and the extensive network of interactions indicated by the diverse raw materials represented.

Many Americans certainly are aware of the well-known World Heritage sites of Mesa Verde in Colorado, Chaco Canyon in New Mexico, and the Cahokia Mounds in Illinois. Far fewer people appreciate or even are aware of the existence of the spectacular earthworks of the Hopewell and later cultures of southern Ohio. This unfamiliarity exists in spite of the fact that many of these earthworks are National Historic Landmarks and eight are on the United States Tentative List of sites being considered for nomination to UNESCO for inscription on the World Heritage List.

Moreover, these sites dominated the public imagination in the early to middle 19th century. Indeed, the central question of American science throughout much of this period was “who were the mound-builders of eastern North America?” This was the first large-scale research undertaken by the fledgling Smithsonian Institution and Ancient Monuments of the Mississippi Valley, reporting on this research, was the first publication in its Contributions to Knowledge series.[1]

Summer Scholars will explore the reasons why there is so little contemporary popular awareness of Ohio’s rich American Indian heritage. The archaeologist Geoffrey Clark theorized that one reason for this lack of interest is that Americans tend to regard Pre-Columbian American archaeology as the archaeology of the “other” and do not feel any special connection to heritage sites that don’t relate to European American history.[2] The reason that there was no such feeling of disconnection in the 19th century was that the earthworks of the Ohio Valley were considered by many to be the works of an ancient European or Asian civilization and so were not “other” at all. Once the increasingly professional discipline of archaeology demonstrated that the earthworks were the products of an indigenous American civilization, popular interest waned and was nearly extinguished, along with many of the earthworks.

Ironically, there has been something of a revival of popular interest in these sites in recent years based on pseudoscientific notions that the earthworks were “really” built by space travelers or pre-Columbian explorers from Europe or Asia. The prevalence of these pseudoscientific accounts in popular media today threatens to drown out more scholarly scientific and humanistic understandings of the ancient sites and cultures of the Americas. This presents an educational challenge of the first order of magnitude, not only for archaeologists but for all educators.

The nature of Hopewell architecture is also an educational challenge. Hopewellian and other earthworks of Ancient Ohio reflect “a spatial conception that is fundamentally beyond the grasp of the modern Western imagination.”[3] Because these earthworks spread across the ground, they are literally hard to see and do not resemble Western ideas of architecture. That conceptual problem comes wrapped with opportunities for teachers and students to rediscover the achievements of the mound-building cultures of eastern North America. Summer Scholars will learn to know and appreciate Hopewellian architecture and the Hopewell culture by experiencing the built landscape at Serpent Mound, the Newark Earthworks, Fort Ancient, and the three of the five earthworks included in Hopewell Cultural National Historical Park: Mound City, Hopeton Earthworks, Hopewell Mound Group, Seip Earthworks, and High Bank Works.

The Hopewell culture reached its fullest expression in the valleys of the major streams that flowed southward into the Ohio River in southern Ohio and neighboring Indiana during the Middle Woodland period, which spanned the years between about 100 B.C. and A.D. 400. Hopewell-related cultures, however, are known throughout eastern North America, from the Mississippi River to the western flanks of the Appalachian Mountains and from the southern Great Lakes to the Gulf of Mexico.

The Hopewell culture represents a florescence of art, architecture, ritual, and interregional interaction that was unparalleled in North America up to that time. It encompassed a number of societies in eastern North America linked by an intense focus on mortuary ceremonialism performed in monumental architectural settings and participation in an exchange network that likely involved a mixture of trade, gift-giving, pilgrimage offerings, and the direct acquisition of exotic materials through extraordinary journeys by individuals and small groups.

The Newark Earthworks is the preeminent example of geometric earthworks consisting of two large circular enclosures, a square and an octagonal enclosure all connected by avenues framed by parallel walls with the entire complex covering more than four-and-a-half square miles.[4] The Fort Ancient Earthworks is the largest hilltop enclosure in the Hopewell world. More than five kilometers of earthen walls surround a mesa-top overlooking the Little Miami Valley. In spite of its name, it does not appear ever to have functioned as a fortification. Instead, it likely was a ceremonial center very like Newark.

The ceremonial nature of the Hopewell earthworks is indicated by a number of factors, including a focus on mortuary ceremonialism, the frequent incorporation of astronomical alignments into the architecture, and the general absence of significant residential sites at the earthworks. Although earthworks dominate our view of the Hopewellian ceremonial landscape, it is increasingly clear that originally these sites included a significant number of wooden structures, including Big Houses (often characterized as charnel houses) and Woodhenges. Dr. Robert Riordan’s recent excavation of the remains of a Woodhenge within the Fort Ancient Earthworks has increased our knowledge of these features in Hopewell ceremonial life.

The Hopewell culture and its ceremonial centers in what is now Ohio have figured prominently in our broader national history. In pre-contact times, the Hopewell culture extended its influence across much of eastern North America via an interaction sphere that is often linked to trade. Yet, in spite of the incredible volume of exotic materials being brought into Ohio during this period, there is little evidence of anything from Ohio moving in the other direction. This suggests the magnificent earthworks of southern Ohio were pilgrimage centers and the exotic raw materials were offerings being brought to these sites by visitors from distant lands. Whatever the case, Ohio’s Hopewell monumental earthworks were spiritual and also likely socio-political centers known to all the peoples then living in eastern North America.

Serpent Mound, located in Adams County, Ohio, is the largest effigy mound in the world and possibly the most widely recognized icon of ancient America. Archaeologists use the term effigy to describe a landscape feature that resembles a creature, as the shape of Serpent Mound indicates a snake. The age and cultural affiliation of this monumental effigy is debated, but it reflects an alternative manifestation of the mound-building tradition in eastern North America.[5] It is also on the United States Department of the Interior’s Tentative List for consideration for nomination to the UNESCO World Heritage List.

Whereas the Hopewellian earthworks are enigmatic and their architectural canons a challenge for Western imaginations to encompass, Serpent Mound presents a different challenge to our understanding. Because it is so obviously a representation of a serpent, it has led observers to a false sense of familiarity best exemplified by the Reverend Landon West who was convinced it was not just any serpent, but the subtle serpent of Genesis and that it marked the location of the Garden of Eden.[6] Clearly, this says more about the beliefs of the Rev. West than it does about the builders of Serpent Mound. In order for us to grasp the original purpose and meaning of Serpent Mound it must be placed within the context of indigenous American Indian belief systems, many of which situate a powerful serpent spirit in the traditional Beneath World.[7] It is likely therefore that Serpent Mound is a shrine to this supernatural being where supplicants came to present offerings.

The formidable challenge for teachers charged with presenting and interpreting this heritage then is twofold: how best to bring these remarkable ancient American Indian sites to the attention of students; and how to build on that awareness to give students a broader understanding of what these unfamiliar sites represent in a global context. Another aspect of this challenge is how to compartmentalize the increasingly popular pseudoscientific views on the earthworks set off against concrete, verifiable, and conclusive archaeological evidence.

Grappling with these issues will accomplish a number of useful goals for workshop participants. It will bring an important and long neglected chapter of America’s history into clearer focus. It will make teachers, and hopefully therefore their students, more aware of important sources of bias and racism in our understanding of ancient cultures. It will clarify how we know what we know about the lives of people before written histories – and how that understanding has evolved over time. And finally it will increase awareness of and sensitivity towards cultural diversity.

This workshop will enable K-12 teachers of history, anthropology, sociology, art and literature to enrich their presentations to students by expanding their knowledge of American Indian societies as revealed in the primary sources of artifact collections, archival materials, and, most importantly, the earthworks of Ohio’s Hopewell culture. The focus for Summer Scholars will be the direct experience of those Hopewell earthworks and Serpent Mound being considered for possible inscription to the UNESCO World Heritage List. Summer Scholars will experience both intellectually and emotionally the beauty, scale and complexity of these sites and artifacts. They will begin to contemplate the motivations and skills of the people who designed and built the earthworks.

[1] E. G. Squier and E. H. Davis, Ancient Monuments of the Mississippi Valley: Comprising the Results of Extensive Original Surveys and Explorations, Smithsonian Contributions to Knowledge 1 (Washington, D. C.: Smithsonian Institution, 1847).

[2] Geoffrey A. Clark, “Should One Size Fit All? Some Observations on Killick & Goldberg,” SAA Archaeological Record 2012 10(1), 36.

[3] John E. Hancock, “On Seeing Fort Ancient,” in The Fort Ancient Earthworks: Prehistoric Lifeways of the Hopewell Culture in Southwestern Ohio, ed. R. P. Connolly and B. T. Lepper (Columbus: Ohio History Connection, 2004), 259-263;  and “The Earthworks Hermeneutically Considered,” in Hopewell Settlement Patterns, Subsistence, and Symbolic Landscapes, ed. M. Byers and D. Wymer. (Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2010), 264-275.

[4] Bradley T. Lepper, “The Newark Earthworks: monumental geometry and astronomy at a Hopewellian pilgrimage center,” in Hero, Hawk and Open Hand: American Indian Art of the Ancient Midwest and South, ed. R. F. Townsend and R. V. Sharp. (Chicago: Art Institute of Chicago, 2004), 73-81.

[5] Robert A. Birmingham, Spirits of Earth: the Effigy Mound Landscape of Madison and the Four Lakes (Madision: University of Wisconsin Press, 2009).

[6] Brook Wilensky-Lanford, Paradise Lust: searching for the Garden of Eden (New York: Grove Press), 48-62.

[7] George E. Landford, “The Great Serpent in Eastern North America, in Ancient Objects and Sacred Realms: interpretations of Mississippian Iconography, edited by F. Kent Reilly III and James Garber. (Austin, University of Texas Press), 107-135.