A Not-Quite Ohio Spring

Spring arrived at my California home no later than the third week of January, but apparently the season has been playing hide-and-seek with a large swath of the mid-West.  I visited family in the Cincinnati, OH area over Easter weekend, and was greeted with colder air than I’ve gotten accustomed to!  Despite the fact that snow was falling on April 1st (some kind of cruel April Fool’s joke being played by Mother Nature?), the last days of March were truly lovely, and made for perfect hiking weather.

My parents and I decided to go exploring, and apparently our theme was “ancient peoples”.  On our first hike, we went to Fort Hill State Memorial, which has miles of hiking trails with numerous creek crossings and unusual rock formations.  Our goal was to see “The KeyHole Arch“, but somehow we took a wrong turn and missed it, but we still ended up getting good exercise, fresh air and pretty scenery, so we can’t complain — missing this cool rock feature simply provides a reason for coming back here later!   The really interesting aspect of this park, that ties in with the theme, are the so-called “earth works” that lay at the top of the hill and for which the park is named.  These impressive mounds of dirt — in this park, a wall that is 1.5 miles long — were created several hundred years ago by ancient native Americans living in the Ohio valley region between 100 BC and 500 AD, who are referred to as the “Hopewell Indians”.

What is particularly incredible is how these mounds were built:  they were created one basketful of dirt at a time, by people who had nothing but clam shells to use as shovels and picks.  In some cases, at other sites, these mounds are 30 feet high, and some of the walls they constructed can extend by miles.  Sadly, most of the earth works in the Ohio Valley have been destroyed over the past 2 centuries by farming — the mounds were simply plowed right over until they eventually disappeared altogether. They were regarded as inconvenient bumps in the corn fields rather than revered for being the precious glimpses into ancient North American lifestyles that they were.

The engineering of these mounds are, in many ways, as impressive as that of the Egyptian pyramids:  the large ones encompass several hundred acres of land, yet are composed of near-perfect geometric shapes (circles, ovals, rectangles) whose construction appear to have followed some Grand Plan, as the size of these shapes are identical for earth works that are separated by hundreds of miles.  I literally get goosebumps thinking about what could have been so important as to motivate such a tremendous investment of time, resources and energy by a people who were still primarily surviving via a hunter/gatherer lifestyle.  I am saddened by how society in recent years have treated these precious, almost-sacred sites with such little appreciation and regard.  Thankfully, we now recognize their value, and several parks in Ohio serve to protect these earthworks for the viewing enjoyment of future generations.

I’ll leave you with a couple of pictures taken at various earth works/Hopewell Indian sites that I have visited in Ohio:

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The above photo is an “aerial” shot of Serpent Mound, taken from the top of a small viewing tower. This beautifully-shaped mound of dirt looks exactly like its namesake. From ths picture, you can see the undulation of the snake’s tail.

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The above picture shows 3 of the several mounds located at the Hopewell Mound City Group.  These mounds contained cremated remains, along with weapons (arrows, knives) and beautiful pieces of art:  pipes constructed in the shapes of several animals, jewelery, pottery and thin plates of copper hammered into various animal shapes.  One of the more amazing facts about these items is that they are created from materials that are not native to Ohio.  In fact, some of the items were made from obsidian believed to come from the Yellowstone region, demonstrating that these ancient people had extensive trade routes! The on-site museum has many of these fascinating items on display.

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The above shows the many mounds that are present at this single site (Mound City Group), and the very large wall that encompassed them.  Can you imagine building these structures, one basket full of dirt at a time?  Without the benefit of at least having a shovel?

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The above is a map of the many Ohio earth works sites that are protected by parks.  This region was chock-full of these amazing structures, before the farmers plowed them under.

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Another fun thing we did was to visit the Leo Petroglyph State Memorial.  These carvings were made in soft sandstone, not by members of the much older Hopewell civilization who built the mounds pictured above, but by a different people known as the “Fort Ancients”, who lived between 1000-1650AD.  This park is sadly in need of some love — the petroglyphs seem extremely vulnerable to vandalism, as they are protected by nothing more than a very old “picnic shelter” and a wood fence around them. The carvings have been outlined in charcoal to assist with their viewing:

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The above:  an owl?  A devil?!  What do you think?

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Most of the figures are unidentifiable from our modern perspective  (with the exception of the squiggly line that is clearly a snake!), but they almost definitely held deep significance to those who  captured  their essence in this rock layer.

If you ever get a chance, please go see some of these treasures!

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2 thoughts on “A Not-Quite Ohio Spring

  1. I know that many people believed the owl brought harbinger of bad luck so maybe the horns are exaggerated like a devil, if not they just exaggerated the tufts of a great horned owl, which many were probably revereed, I am thinking giving it a human face meant they believed the owl was wise like a human or was a human reincarnated, you really can just use your imagination to guess what they were thinking, by the way do they know what the mounds were for?

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  2. Good insights, roberta! I didn’t know that some societies consider the owl as representing bad luck — interesting! And yes, perhaps the human face does indeed reflect their beliefs on reincarnation (if we indeed had a chance to “come back”, being an owl wouldn’t be such a bad thing!) My significant other has a significantly less sophisticated theory about rock carvings: he thinks that teenagers have basically behaved the same, down through history, and rock carvings/paintings are really just the products of idle hands — common graffiti. Ha!

    In any case, more is known about the purpose of the mounds: they were used for burial. Specifically, a wooden house (similar to a longhouse) was initially constructed. In fact, evidence of where the wooden poles were put into the ground still exists under the mounds. When a person of high rank died, that person was placed in the longhouse and likely some kind of spiritual ceremony performed (more graphically — involving knives! But I won’t go into more detail unless you want it!).

    The body was then cremated and the ashes left in the building. Other bodies, after a similar process, were added until at some point, the building was declared full and then burned to the ground. Layers of weapons, pottery, jewelry, etc were often also placed amongst the ashes, and then the mound itself was built on top. Most of the items (weapons, pottery, etc) in the mounds appear to have been intentionally broken before burial — perhaps as a way to “free” the item so that it could be used in the spirit world. So the mounds are essentially solid earth except for the contents at the very bottom. Some modern native Americans did use the mounds as sites of shallow graves for their own members, indicating that they, too, must have known that the mounds held some kind of special significance.

    Thanks for your comment — the very first legitimate (non-spammy) one on my blog, by the way! I hope you get the chance to see an earthworks some day.

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