When you’re traveling around Europe, you stumble across ancient buildings and monuments with startling regularity. So regularly, in fact, that there’s no way you can possible know about all the historical buildings and monuments before you get there. You just come across it, look at it, and go, “I have no idea what that is, but I know it’s old and probably important.”
Not so in North America. Particularly eastern North America, if you don’t know what you’re looking at, you’ll think you’re looking at nothing. Perhaps that’s why ancient history in North America doesn’t get quite the same amount of attention as ancient history elsewhere in the world; people come, they look at the historical sites, and go, “I have no idea what I’m supposed to be seeing here, so it must not have been important.”
That’s a bit how I felt when I got to the second Hopewell Culture National Historical Park site that I visited, called the Hopewell Mound Group (not to be confused with Hopewell Mound City, which was the first site I visited). When you get there, you park, and there’s a trail that starts right by the picnic site. A few yards down, there’s an overlook, showing you all the stuff they found in the site.
That’s it. That’s the view from the overlook.
It’s a wheat field.
That’s when you have a decision to make: You can either get in your car and go home and say there was nothing there, or you can plow forward and figure out what the heck is going on like the intrepid explorer you were born to be.
I chose to be the intrepid explorer (read: I wasn’t quite ready to make the 3-hour drive home yet), and I plowed forward.
As it turns out, the Hopewell Mound Group was just another casualty in the epidemic of historical destruction. This was the original site related to the Hopewell culture excavated in the 1840s which sparked an interest in the other mounds in the area. At that time, there were actually mounds out in that field. The largest stood about 33 feet high and 55 feet long, although there were many others in the field as well.
After that, a man named Mordecai Hopewell purchased the land, and later, when archaeologists came along and wanted to study the mounds, it was Mordecai’s name they gave to the culture which built them. It was also Mordecai who started farming the area. Years of plowing wore the mounds away until they got to be the size they are today, which is hardly noticeable as a mound.
One ancient construction that is still visible is the earthen wall around the field where the mounds used to be located. The trail through the site takes you up a nearby hill and around what remains of the earthen walls. To be honest, I didn’t even realize that I was walking along a man-made construction until I read a sign pointing it out; it just looked like a ridge to me. That should tell you something about the scale of construction these ancient people undertook.
Eventually, farming on the land was halted and the site became part of the National Historical Park, which is still responsible for its preservation. Further research has been done on the site (alas, they’ve been unable to fully reconstruct the site, the plowing practices of the farmers being too effective in evening out the land), and they’ve been able to determine that this site was an incredibly important ceremonial complex for the Hopewell people.
Most of the sites associated with Hopewell constructions were occupied for roughly 200 years before a new one was established and the people moved there. However, this is not the case with the Mound Group. This site was active for the whole duration of the Hopewell activity, from roughly 100 BC to around 400 AD. The mounds were considerably larger here than in other locations, and the arrangements of the constructions seem to have either astronomical or geometrical significance.
Additionally, archaeologists found tons of artifacts in the site. Elaborate items made out of exotic materials, such as obsidian and copper, were found in what was left of the mounds. This is important because it reinforces the idea that the Hopewell people had a vast trade network in their time: the obsidian comes from the area around Yellowstone National Park, and the copper from the northern Great Lakes, neither being particularly close to Chillicothe. Many of these items were on display at the World Exposition in Chicago in 1893, and after the fair remained at the Field Museum there.
To be fair, some of the mounds were destroyed by too much love. Over-eager archaeologists excavated some of the mounds, but never repaired the site when they had finished, and some of the mounds were later eroded by too many feet plodding up and down on them. Just your little reminder to be respectful of the site and its specific needs whilst embracing your inner intrepid explorer.
And just another little reminder that even though something seems uninteresting, it might be very important.
Visiting the Hopewell Mound Group:
Getting there: You’ll have to drive it! The nearest address is that for the visitor center at the Mound City site: 16062 State Route 104, Chillicothe, OH 45601. From there, it’s probably a 10-minute drive to the Hopewell Mound Group site. Click here for directions via Google Maps.
Admission: There is no admission to visit any State or National Park in Ohio.
Opening hours: The site is open from dawn until dusk.
Website: You can visit the Hopewell Mound Group website here.
Good to know:
- The Mound Group site has a picnic area, for anyone who brought a packed lunch to the party – which is probably a good idea, since conveniences like restaurants and shops are quite a ways down the road.
- This site also sports pit toilets – if you’d prefer a real restroom, there’s one in the visitor center located at the Mound City site.
- 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.