CHILLICOTHE, Ohio – Capt. Mordecai Hopewell may be the most famous old-time landowner in southern Ohio’s Ross County.
Hopewell’s name is attached to the ancient culture that built giant, elaborate and mysterious earthworks in the Ohio Valley: the Hopewell Indians who thrived between 200 B.C. and A.D. 500.
The Civil War veteran owned the farm where an extensive archaeological dig took place near Chillicothe in 1891. Today, it is known as the Hopewell Mound Group earthworks. It is one of five earthworks that together form the Hopewell Culture National Historic Park.
The Hopewell farm off Sulphur Lick Road northwest of Chillicothe and along the North Fork of Paint Creek includes portions of the wall and mounds that were built 2,000 years ago with simple hand tools. It is a 316-acre site.
The main attraction at the 1,245-acre historic park is the Mound City Group, a 120-acre tract that is a cemetery, of sorts, and a ceremonial ground. It’s about 45 miles south of Columbus.
It’s generally considered one of the most important and well-known archaeological sites in North America, with 23 re-created mounds on 13 acres memorializing the dead that date back at least 1,500 years. Two additional mounds are outside the main tract and have not been fully authenticated.
The site was likely used for ceremonies including cremation and other community rituals. Some of the mounds may be tied to astronomy with alignments linking the Earth, moon, sun and stars. It is the only fully restored Hopewell site.
The grassy tract sits next to the Scioto River and close to the Chillicothe Correctional Institution, a state-run maximum-security prison.
Mound City includes a small visitor center where visitors can view a 17-minute film on the Hopewell Indians and exhibits of artifacts including pottery, copper items and animal-shaped effigy pipes.
A 1.5-mile trail circles Mound City with audio stations and a self-guiding brochure. But most visitors are drawn straight into the mound complex that is surrounded by a low earthen embankment. The park service offers a guided walking tour and patio talks during the summer.
To most visitors, Mound City looks like a grassy city park or a golf course.
The Hopewell Indians brought high-ranking dead here for cremation in wooden charnel houses. The ashes, along with material objects, were placed atop a clay platform, buried and covered by a small mound. After several burials, the charnel houses would be dismantled, leaving behind a now-larger mound.
The mounds vary in terms of numbers of burials, the layers of coverings and the kinds of artifacts they contain.
The Central Mound is the largest, perhaps 30 feet high. Thirteen cremated burials were accompanied by copper falcon effigies. Fragments of the skulls had been cut and drilled, perhaps to create ceremonial death masks.
The Mound of Pipes, excavated in 1847, included more than 200 carved stone pipes in the shape of birds, animals and reptiles. Replicas are on display.
The Mica Grave Mound, excavated in 1921, contained evidence of a wooden building with a pit lined with mica. Inside were cremated human remains, along with obsidian, tools, raven and toad effigy pipes and a human-shaped copper headdress. Nearby were elk and bear teeth, large obsidian points, 5,000 shell beads and two copper headdresses, one with antlers and the other in what may be the form of a bear.
I also visited one of the other Hopewell Culture sites, the 168-acre Seip Earthworks. The site with two circles and a square includes a burial mound that is 30 feet high, 240 feet long and 130 feet high. It is the second-largest known Hopewell mound.
A 122-acre portion of the site is surrounded by a 10-foot-high earthen wall that stretches nearly two miles.
Cremation shelters have been located, along with freshwater mussels and artifacts made of obsidian, silver, copper, tortoise, shell and mica.
The site is owned by the Ohio Historical Society and managed by the National Park Service. Admission is free.
The other Hopewell Culture sites are:
• Hopeton Earthworks at 292 acres. The geometric earthwork with a great circle and great square is just across the river from Mound City. It includes mysterious parallel earthen walls that stretch 2,400 feet toward the river. It is not open to the public.
• High Bank Works at 190 acres south of Chillicothe. It is an astronomical observatory that marks the summer solstice and eight points of a complex 18.6-year lunar cycle. It is not open to the public.
There is a sixth local site: 240-acre Spruce Hill west of Chillicothe. The hilltop earthwork is owned by the Arc of Appalachia Preserve and the Ross County Park District. It is managed by the federal park service.
The term Hopewell describes a broad network of economic, political and spiritual beliefs and practices among different Indian groups over a large portion of the eastern United States.
The Indians hunted, fished and gathered wild foods. They lived in villages of small huts made of wood and covered with animal skins or bark. They did not live around the mounds.
They were part of a wide-ranging trade network that extended to North Carolina for mica, to Wyoming for obsidian, to the Great Lakes for copper and silver and to the Atlantic and the Gulf of Mexico for shells and shark’s teeth. They disappeared about 1,500 years ago.
Mound City has a varied history. During World War I, the Army built Camp Sherman there with more than 2,000 buildings and up to 35,000 troops.
Railroad tracks to the camp ran atop the mounds closest to the Scioto River.
Most of what you see at Mound City has been reconstructed from detailed maps drawn in 1846 by Ephraim G. Squier, a Chillicothe newspaper editor, and Edwin H. Davis, a local physician.
In 1923, the Mound City Group was declared a national monument. In 1992, it became the Hopewell Culture National Historic Park.
The visitor center is open from 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily in the fall, winter and spring, to 6 p.m. from Memorial Day to Labor Day. The grounds are open dawn to dusk daily. Admission is $2 per person or $4 per vehicle.
For more information, contact the Hopewell Culture National Historic Park, 16062 State Route 104, Chillicothe, OH 45601, (740) 774-1126, www.nps.gov/hocu.
Nine Hopewell sites and the Serpent Mound State Memorial in Ohio are included in the Department of the Interior’s nomination to become U.N. World Heritage sites.
There is a another more modern historical attraction in Chillicothe: Adena Mansion and Gardens. It was the home of Thomas Worthington, the father of Ohio statehood and Ohio’s sixth governor and a U.S. senator. It is operated for the Ohio Historical Society by the Adena Mansion and Gardens Society.
It includes the mansion with 20 rooms, three halls and 16 fireplaces, formal and working gardens, an orchard, estate buildings and a museum.
In its time, Adena – it comes from the Hebrew word for pleasure – was a 2,000-acre estate. The mansion was completed in 1806-07. Visitors included President James Monroe, Gen. William Henry Harrison and Sen. Henry Clay of Kentucky.
Hours: 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday and noon to 5 p.m. Sunday from April through October. Admission is $8 for adults and $4 for students with children 5 and under free. For information, call (740) 772-1500 or (800) 319-7248.
You can also get tourist information at (740) 702-7677, (800) 413-4118, www.visitchillicotheohio.com.