On my third archaeological site of the day (after the Hopewell Mound City and Hopewell Mound Group sites), and overly confident in my exploration abilities, I got out of the car and followed the short path up to the field. I looked around, looking for what was left of the Hopewell earthen mounds, or a path, or a sign, or something.
I wandered around in the clearing for a bit, then doubled back to the initial path, looking for something I’d missed. I found another path, followed that one instead, and ended up in the same place as before. The whole thing looked more like a scene out of Field of Dreams than an important historical site.
Knowing for sure I’d missed something both times, I went all the way back to the parking lot and studied the posted map. Still not seeing what I’d missed, I pulled a pamphlet out of the box attached to the signpost. A much more detailed map was printed on the back of the pamphlet, revealing a small footpath I’d walked right by twice without noticing.
I went back up the path to where the second trail was supposed to start, and realized why I’d missed it twice in a row. It looks like a small deer trail that leads nowhere but down into the ravine. Not having anything better to go on, I followed the path a ways, and realized that it does not, in fact, go down into the ravine, but rather climbs up a rather steep slope.
Once I got to the top, though, I saw what I expected to see.
The Hopeton Earthworks are a part of the Hopewell Culture National Historical Park, and have only recently been opened to the public (when I visited, the website still said it was closed, but the park ranger at the visitor center told me to go). Up until recently, archaeological and restorative work was being carried out on the site, but it’s finally ready for visitors.
Like the Hopewell Mound Group site, the mounds at the Hopeton Earthworks have fallen victim to the plows of the local farmers, and no longer stand. However, that doesn’t mean that all traces of the Hopewell people are lost at this site. With the help of modern technology, such as LiDAR (laser imaging technology), GPS, and magnetic surveying, archaeologists have been able to recreate computer images of the site and determine where the mounds once stood.
When the mounds were still standing, back in the 19th century, they were subject to looting. Much of the artwork and artifacts that they suspect were there have been lost to the tides of time and the black market. Despite all that, archaeologists have been able to tell quite a bit about this site.
For instance, it’s the only Hopewell site in the area that does not contain burials. The other sites contain graves, which have been by and large protected over time since they were actually under the mounds, not inside them. This site has no such graves. It also has almost no evidence of human occupation at all, leading archaeologists to believe that this was a site used solely for rituals or ceremonies, and not for day-to-day living.
The mounds also formed geometric shapes. While the Hopewell Mound Group site was clearly planned using geometric principles, the Hopeton Earthworks are overtly geometric. There are two main constructions, both walls: a large circle, which archaeologists dub the “Great Circle,” and a very nearly perfect square. Both of these constructions were massive in scale, with archaeologists estimating that the walls were about 50 feet wide and 12 feet high.
These geometric shapes obviously served some ritual purpose. The sides of the square align with the winter solstice, making it clear that there was some connection with solar observations, possibly religious or ritual. It’s the Great Circle that’s a bit of a mystery.
The circle is just about as perfect as a people operating sans computers could get, which is impressive in its own right. But not only that, the circle has a very specific circumference: 1,050 feet. Nearly perfect circles with circumferences of almost exactly 1,050 feet have been found in several other locations associated with ancient peoples, notably four other sites in what is now Ohio. Given the scale of these constructions, that can hardly be a fluke of ceremonial site planning by unrelated communities. So, while archaeologists know that this type of circular construction means something, most likely something incredibly important to the Hopewell, your guess is as good as theirs as to what that something was.
Now, I have to give the National Parks Service their due here. It’s their job to try and help visitors understand these sites and appreciate their worth. With a site like this one, and the Hopewell Mound Group, the question becomes: How, exactly? Most of the stuff that’s interesting about this site has been destroyed, and was destroyed way back in the 19th and early 20th centuries, leaving few options as to how to proceed.
The solution they came up with was rather creative. They cleared the land where the site was, and planted tall grass along the places where the earthworks had stood, creating a tall-grass outline of the former constructions. When I overshot the path up to the overlook at the top of the hill, I’d walked through some of the tall grass planted, and thus my Field of Dreams moment. But when I got up to the overlook, I was able to see the lines clearly.
So, if the moral of the story last week was to be respectful of places that didn’t appear at first blush to be important, the moral of the story this week is to support – and pay attention to – the work being done by groups like the National Parks Service to preserve bits of history that help to tell the story of where we are.
Visiting the Hopeton Earthworks:
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 is open from dawn until dusk.
Website: You can check out the Hopeton Earthworks 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: There are no restroom facilities of any kind at the Hopeton Earthworks site. The nearest restroom is in the visitor center at the Mound City site. 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.