Fort Hill is one of the best-preserved examples in Ohio of a monumental hilltop enclosure. Pre-contact American Indian people constructed it. A wall made of earth and stone winds around this prominent hilltop for more than one and a half miles. A ditch, or moat, inside the wall was one of the sources of the earth the builders used to make the wall. Measured from the bottom of the ditch to the top of the wall, the earthwork ranges from six to 15 feet in height and it encloses about 40 acres.
Although the site is known as "Fort" Hill, it probably never served as a defensive work. A "moat" on the outside of the walls would have been of more aid to the defenders. Also, there are more than 30 openings, or gateways, in the wall. So many entrances would have been difficult to defend.
Many modern archaeologists believe Fort Hill was a ceremonial or religious center. The people known to archaeologists as the Hopewell culture (100 B.C. to 500 A.D.) built the earthwork nearly 2,000 years ago.
Today, Fort Hill is an Ohio History Connection site that is open for visitation. It is located off of State Route 41 on Township Road 256. Fort Hill is five miles north of Sinking Springs and three miles south of Cynthiana in Highland County. Fort Hill also is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and is a National Natural Landmark.
From 1952 to 1954, Raymond Baby (pronounced "Bobby"), then Curator of Archaeology for the then-Ohio Historical Society, directed excavations near the base of the hill upon which Fort Hill is located. There are two circular earthworks here and many artifacts had been found in the surrounding fields, leading the archaeologists to think there had been a village here. Baby claimed his study was "the first real attempt to conduct explorations of a Hopewell village-site in Ohio."
In 1952, Baby excavated six exploratory trenches in this area. He uncovered a line of eight postholes, two small fire pits, and lots of artifacts including Hopewell pottery, flint tools, and mica fragments. He also dug a trench through the wall of one of the two small circular enclosures. He found postholes beneath the earthwork that appeared to be following the curve of the circle.
In 1953, Baby concentrated his work on the circular earthwork. He found the circular pattern of postholes beneath the earthwork actually formed two circles, one inside the other with about ten feet separating them. Apparently, there had been some kind of circular or donut-shaped building that the Hopewell people had taken down and buried under the circular earthwork. The floor of this large circular building was littered with pottery, flint chips, and pieces of mica.
In the 1954 field season, Baby and his team returned to the line of eight postholes they discovered in 1952. They found that these postholes were just a small section of a large, rectangular posthole pattern. This building would have been 120 feet long and 60 feet wide. It may or may not have had a roof. The archaeologists found many artifacts on the "floor" of this building including pits filled with chips of flint. Many of these flint flakes came from quarries as far away as Harrison County, Indiana. Buried in one of the postholes, excavators found the broken mid-section of an obsidian biface (a knife or spearpoint). Obsidian is a shiny, black, volcanic glass not normally found in Ohio. It was one of the raw materials the Hopewell obtained from far off regions. Bradley Lepper, archaeologist with the Ohio History Connection, and a team of researchers restudied the obsidian artifact in 1998. Chemicals in the obsidian showed that it came from Obsidian Cliff at Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming. Also, using a dating technique called "obsidian hydration" they learned the artifact was made around AD 306. The obsidian hydration dating method is based on the fact that obsidian slowly soaks up water, somewhat like a sponge. By measuring how far water has soaked into the obsidian, you can tell how long ago the artifact was made.
Just how the Hopewell artisans acquired the obsidian is still a mystery. Maybe they traded with neighbors who had traded with their neighbors all the way between Ohio and the obsidian's source in Wyoming. Maybe Hopewell pilgrims came from distant places bringing offerings of special magnificence to the earthworks.
The artifacts and features found by Baby do not seem to be the usual sorts of things found at Hopewell villages. The rectangular building is larger than any known Hopewell dwelling and the donut-shaped building buried beneath the circular earthwork also doesn't seem to be an ordinary house. This site probably relates to the ceremonial activities of the Hopewell people at Fort Hill.
In 1964, the late Olaf Prufer of Kent State University directed the excavation of a trench through the Fort Hill embankment. He dug the trench at a point overlooking the circular enclosures and the area studied by Baby. Prufer also dug several test pits within the enclosure to search for evidence of what the Hopewell people were doing at the site.
Prufer determined that the Hopewell built Fort Hill in two stages. They first built a wall of earth and stone. They then covered the inner part of the wall with large, flat sandstone slabs.
Much later, in stage two, the Hopewell built an inner wall of stones piled closely together. Then they added more earth and stone until the inner and outer walls were combined into one wall. Finally, they placed a layer of sandstone slabs over the entire wall.
Prufer found no artifacts in the Fort Hill wall trench or in any of the test pits he dug inside the enclosure. We still don't know exactly what the Hopewell builders of Fort Hill were doing on this hilltop nearly 2,000 years ago, but it was probably linked to the ceremonial activities they were performing down at the circular earthworks.
- Byers, A. Martin. The Ohio Hopewell Episode: Paradigm Lost and Paradigm Gained. Akron, OH: University of Akron Press, 2004.
- Carr, Christopher, and D. Troy Case, eds. Gathering Hopewell: Society, Ritual, and Ritual Interaction. New York, NY: Kluwer Academic/Plenum Publishers, 2005.
- Dancey, William S., and Paul J. Pacheco. Ohio Hopewell Community Organization. Kent State University Press, 1997.
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- Baby, R. S. "Archaeological Explorations at Fort Hill." Museum Echoes Volume 27, Number 11, pp. 86-87, 1954.
- Pangea Productions. Searching for the Great Hopewell Road. N.p.: Pangea Productions, 1998.
- Earthworks Virtual Explorations of Ancient Newark, Ohio. The Center for the Electronic Reconstruction of Historical and Archaeological Sites. Cincinnati, OH: Center for the Electronic Reconstruction of Historical and Archaeological Sites, 2005.
- Warriner, Gray, producer. Legacy of the Mound Builders. Seattle, WA: Camera One for the National Park Service and the Hopewell Culture National Historical Park, 1994.
- Woodward, Susan L., and Jerry N. McDonald. Indian Mounds of the Middle Ohio Valley: A Guide to Mounds and Earthworks of the Adena, Hopewell, Cole, and Fort Ancient People. Lincoln: The University of Nebraska Press, 2002.
- Lepper, Bradley T. Ohio Archaeology: An Illustrated Chronicle of Ohio's Ancient American Indian Cultures. Wilmington, Ohio, Orange Frazer Press, 2005.
- Lepper, Bradley T., Craig E. Skinner, and Christopher M. Stevenson, "Analysis of an Obsidian Biface Fragment from a Hopewell Occupation Associated with the Fort Hill (33HI1) Hilltop Enclosure in Southern Ohio." Archaeology of Eastern North America Volume 25, pp. 33-39, 1997.
- Morgan, Richard S. and Edward S. Thomas. Fort Hill. Ohio State Archaeological and Historical Society, Columbus, 1948.
- Prufer, Olaf H. "Fort Hill 1964: New Data and Reflections on Hopewell Hilltop Enclosures in Southern Ohio.' In Ohio Hopewell Community Organization, edited by W. S. Dancey and P. J. Pacheco, pp. 311-327. Kent State University Press, 1997.