Recently, I listened to a series of lectures called “Ancient Civilizations of North America,” given by an professor of archaeology at the University of Texas at Austin. The title of the series caught my attention, because I was always under the impression that there were no civilizations as such in ancient times in North America – in fact, I’m guilty of telling my European students that we don’t have old things in the US. Here, old is the 1770s. In Europe, old is the 500s. I’d always been taught that native cultures in North America didn’t develop civilizations until just before European contact. So that word civilizations intrigued me.
As it turns out, almost everything I knew about ancient North America was wrong.
There actually were full-on, developed, and productive civilizations in North America ages before Europeans arrived and wrote accounts of their voyages. Archaeological excavations have located many sites in what is now the United States that hosted major cities, which were occupied for generations. The reason we don’t see the remains of those cities the way we do contemporary cities in Europe is that the ones here were systematically picked apart by Europeans looking for gold and precious stones, by farming, and even by WWI recruitment camps. But I get ahead of myself.
I was flabbergasted while listening to these lectures by just how much my trusted grade school history books got wrong. So imagine my delight at learning that there were ancient historical sites that I could visit right on my back doorstep in Ohio.
The Ohio River Valley was the hotspot for one of North America’s ancient civilizations, dubbed the Hopewell Culture. The name comes from the family who owned the farm upon which one of the archaeological sites was situated, not from the Hopewell people themselves. They did not leave a written record, so we have no idea what they called themselves. The culture dates way back to roughly 100 BC, falling well within the category of ancient.
Now, I specifically remember learning about the Hopewell mound builders in school (it was my 6th grade world history class, in case you were wondering). I remember learning that they had built burial mounds, but no one knew anything else about them. As it turns out, we do know some things.
In Chillicothe, Ohio (about 45 miles south of Columbus), there’s a place where you can learn all about the Hopewell (and just how much your grade school textbooks led you astray): the Hopewell Culture National Historical Park. This park, managed by the National Parks Service, is actually several different sites where these mounds have been found and excavated. The primary site is called Mound City, and the visitor center is located there.
Mound City is a group of mounds surrounded by an earthen wall, giving it the appearance of a – well – a city made out of mounds. While this site has survived fairly well, similar sites were often plowed under by farmers who, not knowing what they were, considered them naught but a nuisance. At this particular site, though, archaeologists managed to persuade the farmers to hold back the wrath of their plows, and in the 1840s excavated the site. They determined it was of great historical significance, and the locals started to view the mounds in a different light, as we’ll see in just a minute.
Excavations of the Hopewell mounds at Mound City revealed that, while some of the mounds were in fact burial mounds built to commemorate the dead, others contained no graves and, therefore, must have had different purposes. Signs of human life – the remnants of cooking fires, refuse, and clay pipes – were found around the mounds, but there were no signs of dwellings anywhere in Mound City. Hopewell dwellings have been found in the area, and it appears that they didn’t live in villages so much as in a loose-knit community: The dwellings were large enough to accommodate maybe an extended family, but the ceremonial sites, such as Mound City, would have required major cooperation from everyone in the area.
During World War I, Camp Sherman, a new recruit training camp, was established on the site. Little could be done to prevent the military from taking that exact spot – especially given that the military was willing to pay the strapped-for-cash locals as much as $20 an acre – but the local historical preservation society managed to convince the commanders in the camp to build the barracks in such an arrangement as to avoid building on top of the mounds. By the skin of their teeth, the locals had saved a major historical site.
Today, Mound City is home to a small museum in the Hopewell Culture National Historical Park visitor center, which displays some of the artifacts found in the excavations. Recent excavations in various parts of the country have revealed that, in addition to being much more complex as a culture than previously thought, the Hopewell had trade and cultural connections to other culture groups all over the eastern part of North America – their art and artifacts can be found almost everywhere east of the Mississippi.
So much for not having impressive old stuff in America.
Visiting Mound City:
Getting there: You’ll have to drive there! The address is: 16062 State Route 104, Chillicothe, OH 45601. There’s a parking lot right next to the visitor center.
Admission: There is no admission to visit any State or National Park in Ohio.
Opening hours: The visitor center is open from 8:30 to 5 daily, and the grounds are open from dawn until dusk.
Website: You can check out the Mound City website here.
Good to know:
- The Hopewell Culture National Historical Park is actually comprised of several sites around the Chillicothe area. It’s recommended that visitors start at the Mound City site, as this is where the visitor center (and therefore the park rangers) are.
- Also: This is the only site with a restroom; the Hopewell Mound Group site has pit toilets, and the Hopeton Earthworks site has no restroom facilities at all. Plan accordingly.
- Bonus points: The sites that constitute the National Historical Park have been nominated and are on the Tentative List of UNESCO World Heritage Sites. They’re being considered for the list due to the light they shed on human life and culture in North America.