What do we mean by “Hopewell Ceremonial Earthworks?”

When our earthworks are granted World Heritage status in 2023, the official name of the new World Heritage Site, which will include Newark Earthworks, Fort Ancient Earthworks and Fort Ancient National Historic Park Earthworks Hopewell Culture, will be “Hopewell Ceremonial Earthworks”.

Why this title: “Hopewell Ceremonial Earthworks?”

“Hopewell Culture” is the archaeological term for a Native American culture dated to 1-400 CE.

Why “Hopewell?”

There has never been a tribe called “Hopewell”. Archaeological exploration of this type of mound began at a site owned by a man named Mordecai Hopewell. When archaeologists explored related sites, they used the term “Hopewell” to refer to the people who built them and the culture in which they participated.

Our knowledge of this “Hopewell culture” is based on the nature of the mounds themselves, the objects these people left behind, and our best understanding of how these objects were used.

These people left hundreds of mounds. There is evidence of nearly 500 Hopewell earthworks in Ohio alone. People did not live in these mounds year after year, but came there periodically. Moreover, people came from very far away and in very large numbers.

Why would they have come to the earthworks? What would they have done there?

Again, the archaeological answer is based on what these people left behind, including thousands of human burials and even more artifacts. Surprisingly, these provide no evidence of widespread warfare or even violence. These earthworks were not military forts.

Many items left at the sites appear to be ceremonial. These would include beautifully crafted clay effigy pipes and very distinctive clay ear coils. An effigy pipe is a pipe in the shape of an animal. Ear coils have no practical function. Archaeologist Jarrod Burks once told me that whenever we find these ear coils, we know we’ve found a Hopewell site.

Ear coils would have been used for ceremonies. Effigy pipes are also ceremonial. Hundreds of pipes found at Tremper Mound have been broken into small pieces and are believed to have been broken in some sort of ceremony.

Moreover, the earthworks themselves seem to have been built for the ceremony. Otherwise, how do you explain why the Octagon aligns with the 18.6-year lunar cycle, or why Fort Ancient comprises an area defined by three concentric circles of wooden posts?

Two thousand years ago, Ohio was the epicenter of what we call the Hopewell culture, but there are Hopewell mounds filled with such artifacts far beyond Ohio’s borders. These have been found in New York, Michigan, Wisconsin, Illinois, Kansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, South Carolina, and Florida.

Who knows what these people were called? They almost certainly spoke several languages. The objects they left on the earthworks they built suggest that these were ceremonial sites built for spiritual gatherings or rituals, attracting people from great distances from a variety of what we call “tribes” over several centuries.

So what is this thing that archaeologists call the “Hopewell culture”?

Today archaeologists say it appears to have been more like a religion than anything else. Archaeologist Bradley Lepper compares the discovery of these earthworks in the eastern half of North America to the discovery of Roman Catholic churches and cathedrals in several European countries.

The Newark Earthworks, Fort Ancient and the earthworks that make up the Hopewell Culture National Park are the best remaining examples of earthworks created for ceremonial purposes by a large population of people participating in a culture – or perhaps – to be more precisely, a religion – we call Hopewell.

Dick Shiels is an associate professor emeritus of history at The Ohio State University.

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