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On the Great Hopewell Road
by Joseph M. Knapp August 21, 1998
- "These walls proceed south a short distance, thence making one or two slight turns, finally settle to S. 27º W., in which direction we have traced them some six miles over fertile fields, through tangled swamps and across streams, still keeping their undeviating course. The extent of this great fortified high way, and what other ancient stronghold or place of importance it connects with, is as yet unknown..."
James and Charles Salisbury, 1862
Dr. Bradley T. Lepper, Curator of Archaeology, Ohio Historical Society, 1998
When the Hopewell culture of the Scioto River valley constructed their complex of earthworks in what is now the city of Newark, Ohio, they included two parallel walls of clay marking a 200-foot wide path leading from the Octagon Earthwork in a straight line some two miles south where they intersect Ramp Creek, a minor tributary of the Licking River. The walls form the boundaries of a meticulously graded road, crowned in the middle and constructed of clay differing from the neighboring soil. The destination of the road is a matter of debate, although that it actually extended for many miles beyond the small creek is a fact that has been discovered many times in the field only to languish from academic neglect. Thus the road's curious fate is to be periodically re-discovered, and then, for some odd reason, be pooh-poohed by the referrees of archaeological correctness. The current champion of the road is Dr. Bradley T. Lepper, whose interest in the road was sparked by his discovery of a forgotten manuscript gathering dust at the American Antiquarian Society in Worcester, Massachusetts, detailing an 1862 survey of the road. Lepper has followed up this discovery by finding traces of the road which still exist today despite nearly two centuries of agriculture and other improvements to the Ohio landscape. With his evidence, coupled with aerial surveys done back in the 1930s that found traces of the road extending straight as an atl-atl throw for at least twelve miles towards the great Hopewellian center of what is now Chillicothe, 55 miles distant, Lepper concludes that there are sound reasons to believe that this ancient Hopewell sacra via did exist.
The role of head referree in Hopewellian matters is today filled by Dr. Olaf H. Prufer, professor of anthropology at Kent State University, who has published on the Hopewell culture extensively beginning with his 1961 Harvard Ph.D. dissertation, The Hopewell Complex of Ohio. Accordingly, when a A View from the Core: A Synthesis of Ohio Hopewell Archaeology, a collection of papers outlining current research and speculations in Hopewell archaeology was published in 1996, Dr. Prufer was invited to write a brief critique of each paper, his comments to be included in the book as, appropriately, "The Final Chapter on Ohio Hopewell." Prufer takes issue with Lepper's position:
- I do, however, part company with Lepper when it comes to his discussion of the so-called Great Hopewell Road, 40 m wide and flanked by earthen embankments which, so he believes, ran over a straight distance of 90 km, o'er rugged hills and through glens, from Newark, Ohio, to the Hopewellian heartland near Chillicothe. Apart from the general unlikelihood that such highway ever existed, there is, as far as I know, no concrete evidence whatsoever in support of such a line of communication.1
Part of the problem is that modern archaeology has paid relatively less attention to Eastern Woodland archaeology than to matters such as the "Chaco Phenomenon"--the reason being a "been there, dug that" attitude. That is, the Woodland cultures were the focus of nineteenth century American archaeology--indeed they formed the subject on which Yankee archaeology cut its trowels. As might be expected, the early theories were heavily laden with Victorian and Edwardian ideas about the order of human history. Surely, they felt, the savage Indian occupied a low place on the steps of the temple of Apollo, and could not have been responsible for such feats of art and architecture. To conform to prevailing thought, such advanced knowledge must have originated from somewhere in the classical world defined by the Mediterranean sea. The builders were not, it was theorized, related to historical Amerindian groups, but were a race of outsiders, known by the generic term "The Moundbuilders," and who might have been Phoenician wayfarers, or the lost tribe of Israel, or wandering Celts, or incipient Mormons. The only side benefit of these theories was that the earthen antiquities suddenly became more interesting to European Americans who saw Greece and Rome and Israel as their heritage, and who were therefore perhaps more hestitant to plow them into oblivion without at least some investigation.
So, the late nineteenth century saw a lot of frenetic excavation by amateurs and enthusiasts and even some careful investigators. There has been a lot of turmoil and bad blood along the way as the mounds have succumbed to the spade and backhoe--and science--with each succeeding generation becoming holier than its predecessor, and progress marked by taking the Hopewell down a notch at each step along the way. Any attempt to exalt the Hopewell above the common herd is reactively met with charges of trying to resurrect the "lost race" theory. This is a danger, no doubt, and archaeologists nostalgically look back on the battles with "lost race" advocates the same way that modern biologists love to recount the nineteenth century battles over Darwin's theories, where science prevailed over religion. Still, victories in these areas are tenuous and scientists can be forgiven for being a little paranoid as each generation produces new promoters and variations on old themes.
- "It probably would not be true that you can fool all of the people some of the time if they didn't want it that way. There is a craving for marvels, the tall tale, the haunted house, the whodunit, the two-headed calf. A hoax may become a valuable commodity if in the end we can all laugh and particularly if the laugh is on us, and nobody has been hurt. This is why the Cardiff Giant deserves a place in a museum, a monument to fantasy and the human race's addiction to it."
--Louisville Courier Journal
- The opinion held by Maj. J. W. Powell that the Indians found inhabiting the Atlantic division of North America and their ancestors were the builders of the mounds in that region, which the explorations of the Bureau of Ethnology under his charge have done much to confirm, has been adopted.3
- His conclusions are, in brief, that the mound-building peoples were Indians (as the term is commonly accepted); that mound-building began in the Mississippi region many centuries ago and continued down to the coming of the Europeans, and that the mound-builders are represented in a number of existing tribes, some of which have been fully identified. The subject of the origin and migrations of the North American tribes appears prominently in this chapter. The theory of an Asiatic derivation is favored, and the general trend of the evidence is held to indicate that "the place of dispersion was in the northwest, and that the course of migration has been south and southeast."4
As important as Thomas was Frederick Ward Putnam (1839-1945), who has been called if not the father of American archaeology, at least the one who professionalized the field. In 1874 he became the Curator of the Peabody Museum of Harvard University and directed his energies to the mounds of the Ohio Valley as well as studies of late Pleistocene peoples. The photo below, taken at the "Chillicothe Group" of earthworks (later known as Mound City Group), features Putnam at the far right. Next to him is his colleague Charles L. Metz.
As scientific archaeology disposed of some of the more egregious "lost race" romances, more subtle issues were taken on, such as the idea that "The Moundbuilders" were a pale reflection of ideas diffusing from Mexico. Carbon-14 dating set the chronology straight however, proving that these Woodland cultures spanned a time predating the monumental architecture of Mexico. This is not to say that the chronology is by any means settled for the majority of sites, as radiocarbon dating is expensive, and very little in the way of funds has traditionally been available. Notably, only recently was a radiocarbon date obtained for the Great Serpent. DeeAnne Wymer of Bloomsburg University was part of a team which dated that earthwork to as late as Fort Ancient times (1100 AD). Other mounds associated with the Serpent are dated to the Adena culture (i.e., 800 BC-100 AD), indicating a long period of use of this sacred site by related groups.
This century in general has seen ever more meticulous investigations, in theory, by more or less flamboyant figures such as Henry C. Shetrone of the Ohio State Museum, looking jaunty as the conqueror of the Seip Mound, or Warren K. Moorehead, who in 1896 became the first Curator of Archaeology at what was then known as the Ohio Historical and Archaeological Society. Moorehead directed excavations at the prototypical "Hopewell" site at the farm of Mordecai Cloud Hopewell in Ross County, Ohio.
Warren K. Moorehead, ca. 1935
Prufer must ride herd on current archaeology as well. He left-handedly praises Dr. N'omi Greber, Curator of Archaeology at the Cleveland Museum of Natural History, for her paper on the contexts of Ohio Hopewell burial deposits, even though "we have known this for a long time." At least, he offered, she hadn't strayed from the straight and narrow as she had done ever so briefly in The Hopewell Site: A Contemporary Analysis Based on the Work of Charles C. Willoughby, 1989, where she said:
- Why were the earthworks built? What directed the great social commitment? What initiated the various stages? One reasonable answer to parts of these questions might be found in knowing the cycles of time recognized among the Hopewell peoples. The repetition of patterns, with variations, in the use of space, in the forms of mound construction, and in the nature and location of deposits which have been noted among several Scioto Hopewell sites suggests that in this region there were culturally recognized cycles of time which determined various building stages or the activities which resulted in major deposits of artifacts and debris... There is also evidence within the Scioto region for knowledge of several long (and short) astronomical cycles. Studies of the design of the Octagon at High Banks... have found patterns reflecting knowledge of lunar cycles as well as the yearly solar cycle, and probably also cycles in the apparent motion of Venus.7
- All this talk about patterns of complementary contrast; the acquisition of symbolic parts of many animals from certain deposits; the symbolic contrast between dark and light as well as between copper and mica; calendrical cycles; dual ritual organization; and her belief that "a calendrical cycle paced a major portion of Hopewellian celebration" leaves me cold, because it is beyond empirical verification.
On top of this, there is a definite feeling out there that such few earthworks as still exist are a bit of a fiction. In almost all cases, present examples have been "restored" after having been nearly leveled by either the march of progress or, shall we say, enthusiastic archaeology. The restoration was in general based on accounts of early observers, and is not completely reliable. Restored sites do give modern visitors an idea of the vanished culture, but their further archaeological value is questioned by some. Developers thus have a new argument to appeal to in their efforts to level the Ohio countryside: that the "mounds" are really the handiwork of a much more recently-vanished culture, the Works Project Administration initiated by Pres. Franklin Roosevelt. For example, one earthwork in the town of Morrow, Warren County, Ohio, said by Dr. C. L. Metz back in 1892 to have represented a form of a serpent before it fell to the plow, was restored by WPA workers who faithfully followed Metz's survey. Metz had written:
- In the fall of the year 1892, I visited this earthwork in company with Mr. Harlan I. Smith, now of the American Museum of Natural History, New York, and a cross section of the embankment was made. This revealed a layer of large lime and flat river stones, 20 feet wide, placed on the level surface, and the earth embankment was built over it. the embankment was about 4 feet in height at this point. The greater part of this earthwork was in the woodland, well preserved large trees growing on the top and slopes of the embankment.8
- Messrs. Scoville, Metz and others of their associates were men of good will and honorable intentions, but it should be remembered that, with the salvaging of the Adams County Serpent by Professor Putnam in 1885, the Serpent, as such, was much in the public mind, and a bit of 'wishful thinking' was a natural concomitant of that early period. Putnam to be sure was a thorough scientist, and Dr. Metz, under his supervision, was efficient within his limited experience. Gerard Fowke, if I am not mistaken, ignored the Morrow county structure in his Archaeological History of Ohio. Fowke, while overly critical of others, was a capable archaeologist, as was William C. Mills, who came into the picture in 1898, but had no occasion to concern himself directly with the Morrow County structure...
- The restoration, regardless as to whether it is correct or not, should have been effected under supervision of accredited authorities. As matters now stand, there may never be a consensus of opinion as to its true nature. There appears to be no doubt but that the structure is of human origin, and from the evidences adduced, including the tests conducted by the Committee in 1951, and the aerial photography, I am inclined to believe that it was intended as an effigy. It does not conform to any Ohio earthen structure, other than the Adams County Serpent Mound, and so, in my opnion, it may very well have been intended as a serpent effigy.9
Cincinnati Enquirer, Jan. 1964 (click for larger image)
Ephraim Squier and Edwin Davis
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- From the octagon lead off three lines of parallel walls: those extending towards the south have been traced for nearly two miles, and finally lose themselves in the plan. They are upward of a mile in length. The walls composing these singular lines are placed about two hundred feet apart, and are parallel throughout.10
Squier and Davis did not escape the intense scrutiny of archaeological hindsight at the hands of Cyrus Thomas. In The Circular, Square, and Octagonal Earthworks of Ohio, he notes that they only personally surveyed about one-third of the "works of defense" and "sacred enclosures." He goes on to document several inaccuracies in their work and concludes:
- Some of the errors and inconsistencies we have pointed out may be considered of minor importance, yet when we take into consideration the large number of them, in the face of repeated assertions of the authors that their surveys were accurately and carefully made, we are compelled to recognize that there has been an inexcusable degree of carelessness, which is calculated to depreciate their work, and to a great extent destroys confidence in their measurements and figures.Notwithstanding these criticisms, which, as will be seen, relate almost wholly to measurements and want of care in editing their memoir, the work is of great value; for, as heretofore stated, the figures of those works they personally examined are generally correct.
The presence of parallel walls leading to nearby waterways is by no means a unique situation, as Squier and Davis had noted a similar arrangement at other Hopewellian sites. Indeed, there are analogues in the mysterious neolithic structures in the Old World, such as Stonehenge, which began its life as a circular earthen embankment, to which was added (around 2100 BC) an "avenue" of parallel walls leading to the banks of the River Avon.
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- Apparently Marshall is a diffusionist, suggesting that all this allegedly complex mathematical knowledge did "spring from one school of thought." Just as in Romain's papers there are those endless measurements and units of measurement... We also learn from Marshall that certain such geometric earthworks, across space and time, demonstrate the concept of pi upon the (shall I use the hallowed term?) Mound Builders... Apparently, it has never struck the author that, in essence, the Hopewellian earthworks are fairly simple geometric structures... Any moderately intelligent and mathematically untutored individual can do this.
Marshall has written several papers on Hopewellian geometry, and made more modest claims in An Atlas of American Indian Geometry that Hopewellian methods were very practical, not theoretical, and involved standard units of length as well as standard construction triangles for generating various angles and spatial relationships. For example, they knew of the simplest Pythagorean triangle, of sides 3, 4 and 5, and utilized the fact that it would create a right angle. This is not to say that they had proved, mathematically, the Pythagorean theorem! Marshall states:
- First, the data make clear that Hopewell people were able to determine true north by the North Star. They also attained a precision and regularity in measuring angles and lengths and extending straight lines over distances of a mile or more that is impossible to attain by pacing and approximating right angles or other angles in the field. Such precision and regularity is indicated by the octagons and circles they built... They could not have laid out this or other works in the field unless they also had a unit of measure and a considerable knowledge of land surveying and geometry. We should note that geo-metry in its ancient Old World Greek origin meant earth-measure.11
To demonstrate his point, Marshall impressively shows, based on his exacting surveys, that the centers of the Newark Octagon, Square and Great Circle were laid out with the simplest triangles, being the 3-4-5, 1-2, and 1-1. Moreover, the orientation and size of the Octagon was found to follow from a standard golden triangle construction based on the 1-2 triangle.
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Other observers followed the road farther than did Squier and Davis. Newark resident Isaac Smucker wrote in Mound Builder's Works Near Newark, Ohio in 1908:
- To give assurance to the reader of the accuracy of the descriptions, the writer hereof states that he has been familiar with the locality and antiquities here described, for more than fifty-five years. He saw them while yet more than nine-tenths of this renowned group of ancient works had been undisturbed by the devastating plow and harrow of the pioneer, or by the destructive axe of the iconoclastic woodsman... He early became acquainted with Mr. [Caleb] Atwater, the first Ohio writer upon Archaeology; read his description of these ancient works, not many years after the American Antiquarian Society published them; was long and intimately acquainted with Judge Holmes, who surveyed them for him...The parallel walls that extend southward from one of the gateways of the octagonal work, as seen in the cut, was traceable many miles in the direction of the Hockhocking River, at some point north of Lancaster, where Mr. Atwater thought it connected with other similar works. It is not known to the writer, however, that any effort was ever made to follow these parallel walls to ascertain with certainty that the space between them did or did not serve the purpose of a road between this point and the Hockhocking.12
- These walls proceed south a short distance, thence making one or two slight turns, finally settle to S. 27º W., in which direction we have traced them some six miles over fertile fields, through tangled swamps and across streams, still keeping their undeviating course. The extent of this great fortified high way, and what other ancient stronghold or place of importance it connects with is as yet unknown, but its course if continued would lead near Circleville and Chillicothe, where are extensive ancient ruins.13
The Salisburys apparently gave magnetic bearings, as the course as determined by Lepper is 31 degrees west of south. The magnetic deviation in the region is 5 degrees.
Decades of agriculture have made traces of these walls all but invisible to the naked eye. But with the turn of the century and the advent of aviation, aerial photography was brought to bear by early enthusiasts. One such person was Capt. Dache M. Reeves of the U.S. Army Air Corps, who beginning in 1934 worked with the Ohio State Archaeological and Historical Society in an aerial survey of various prehistorical earthworks. Capt. Reeves published a preliminary article in 1936, titled A Newly Discovered Extension of the Newark Works. Apparently the Great Hopewell Road had been forgotten and discovered again! Reeves wrote:
- The study of aerial photographs of the famous Newark group of prehistoric earthworks resulted in the discovery of a hitherto unknown extension to these works. An interesting feature of this discovery is the fact that an important section of the works was found on the Newark flying field. This area had been prepared for flying purposes after having been under cultivation for a long period, and the former embankments were obliterated entirely. It would have been difficult, if not impossible, to have located these earthworks on the ground, but on the photograph they stand out clearly. This is a striking illustration of the value of aerial photography in archaeology.A portion of one of the aerial photographs is reproduced here as Figure 1. This photograph was taken from 10,000 feet in January, 1934, the winter season being selected in order to have the ground as bare as possible.14
Fig. 3 -- click for a larger image
- The length of the avenue is 4300 yards, which agrees closely with Ephraim George Squier and Edwin Hamilton Davis who stated that the parallels were two and one-half miles long. However, Col. Charles Whittlesey, who made the survey for Squier and Davis, only followed the avenue a short distance... By failing to follow out the length of the avenue, Whittlesey missed entirely the branch avenue and circle on the Newark airport. It is strange that this was overlooked, as at the time the original survey was made, nearly a hundred years ago, the earthworks were still undisturbed by cultivation.A detailed analysis of these newly discovered features will be made in connection with a larger study of the so-called "geometrical earthworks." However, it may be of interest to discuss briefly the significance of this discovery. The Newark avenue is the longest straight line of parallel embankments constructed by prehistoric builders and demonstrates a considerable knowledge of elementary surveying. Like the majority of similar avenues, it ends at a stream...
It is puzzling to note that this Newark avenue extends over two miles from the octagon to a small stream, whereas the octagon is located within a short distance of Raccoon Creek, and if the avenue had extended north instead of south, it need only have been about a hundred yards long. Furthermore, Raccoon Creek is a larger stream than Ramp Creek on the south.
- A short distance from the southern terminus of the avenue, a side avenue leads off to a small circle (see fig. 1). This side branch is not a true parallel, as the two walls converge slightly as they approach the main avenue. The reason for this was found in a small knoll at the inner angle of the airport. The north wall of the side avenue was shifted slightly south in order to avoid climbing the knoll. Yet the main avenue pursues a straight course regardless of the varying slope of the ground.At the center of the junction between the main avenue and side branch, traces of a circular earthwork can be detected on the photograph. This may have been a circular mound with a surrounding ditch, but this is only a guess, as the destruction is so complete the exact character of this object cannot be determined. Excavation at this point might clear up the difficulty.
Nothing more on the subject of the road can be found in print from the time of Reeves' survey until the present, when Dr. Lepper found the Salisbury manuscript.15 Lepper synthesized the Salisburys' information with all he knew about the surveys of Squier and Davis, Whittlesey, Atwater and other sources, realizing that this great Hopewell road, stretching well beyond its assumed limits, was no fantasy. He took a cue from the aerial photographers and made his own photos from the vantage point of a helicopter along the presumed route. He found evidence for the road in three separate places all the way down to Chillicothe. One example, located eleven miles south of the Octagon, on the expected bearing, appears below.
- It has already been several times remarked, that the most commanding positions on the hills bordering the valleys of the West, are often crowned with mounds... Between Chillicothe and Columbus, on the eastern border of the Scioto valley, not far from twenty may be selected, so placed in respect to each other, that it is believed, if the country were cleared of forests, signals of fire might be transmitted in a few minutes along the whole line. On a hill opposite Chillicothe, nearly six hundred feet in height, the loftiest in the entire region, one of these mounds is placed. After the fall of leaves in autumn, it is a conspicuous object from every work laid down on the map... But whether as signal stations or otherwise, there can be no doubt that the ancient people selected prominent and elevated positions on which to build large fires... For what purposes they were built, whether to communicate intelligence or to celebrate some religious rite, it is not undertaken to say.
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Thousands of people have attended the Sugarloaf Amphitheater and there watched the outdoor drama Tecumseh!, taking in the story of the great Shawnee leader and not realizing they may be strolling on the highway of Tecumseh's prehistoric ancestors.
1. A View from the Core: A Synthesis of Ohio Hopewell Archaeology, edited by Paul J. Pacheco, 1996.
2. Thomas, Cyrus, The Story of a Mound; or, The Shawnees in Pre-Columbian Times, appearing in American Anthropologist, 1891.
3. Thomas, Cyrus, Report on the Mound Explorations of the Bureau of Ethnology, 1890-1891 appearing in the 12th Annual Report of the Bureau of Ethnology, Government Printing Office, Washington, DC.
4. Holmes, W. H., American Anthropologist, 1899.
5. Muller, Jon, Cyrus Thomas, 19th Century Synthesis and Antithesis, Department of Anthropology, Southern Illinois University, 1996
6. Prufer, Olaf M., Core and Periphery: The Final Chapter on Ohio Hopewell, appearing in A View from the Core: A Synthesis of Ohio Hopewell Archaeology, edited by Paul J. Pacheco, 1996.
7. Greber, N'omi, The Hopewell Site: A Contemporary Analysis Based on the Work of Charles C. Willoughby, Westview Press, 1989.
8. Wright, Frederick George, A New Serpent Mound in Ohio, appearing in the Ohio State Archaeological and Historical Quarterly,vol. XVIII, Jan. 1909.
9. Shetrone, H. C., letter H. R. McPherson, secretary of the Ohio Indian Relic Collectors Society, Sept. 13, 1951.
10. Squier and Davis, Ancient Monuments of the Mississippi Valley, 1847.
11. Marshall, James A., An Atlas of American Indian Geometry, appearing in Ohio Archaeologist, 37(2), 1987.
12. Smucker, Isaac, Mound Builder's Works Near Newark, Ohio, 1908.
13. The Search for the Great Hopewell Road, PBS Video, 1998.
14. Reeves, Dache M., A Newly Discovered Extension of the Newark Works, appearing in the Ohio State Archaeological and Historical Quarterly, vol. XLV, 1936.
15. Lepper, Bradley T., The Great Hopewell Road: a Middle Woodland Sacra Via Across Central Ohio. Paper presented at the joint meeting of the Midwest Archaeological Conference and the Southeast Archaeological Conference, Lexington, Kentucky, 1994.