Hopewell Culture

From Ohio History Central
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Effigy of a hawk claw cut from sheet mica, Ohio Hopewell culture, 100 BC-500 AD. Excavated from Hopewell Mound Group, Ross County, Ohio ca. 1922-1925. The Hopewell obtained mica from western North Carolina. Archeologists are not certain how they used mica cut outs. This object is held in the Ohio History Connection Archaeology Collection.

Around A.D. 1, during the Middle Woodland period, a new Native American culture developed whose influence spread throughout the Midwest -- archaeologists named this the Hopewell culture after the Hopewell Mound Group in Chillicothe where it was first recognized. The "Hopewell culture" doesn't refer to a particular Native American tribe; instead, it’s a name for a distinctive set of artifacts, earthworks, and burial practices characteristic of sites in southern Ohio from A.D. 1 to 400.

A Hopewell culture settlement typically consisted of one or a few families living in rectangular houses with a nearby garden. These people were hunters, fishers, and gatherers of wild plant foods, but they also grew a number of domesticated plants in their gardens, including sunflower, squash, goosefoot, and maygrass. Archaeologists refer to this set of plants as the Eastern Agricultural Complex.

The Hopewell culture participated in a vast social network that stretched across much of eastern North America and sometimes beyond. This social interaction consisted of people from distant regions traveling to the main Hopewell ceremonial earthworks in the Scioto, Muskingum, and Great and Little Miami river valleys perhaps as pilgrims bringing gifts of rare and precious materials, such as copper from Lake Superior, sea shells from the Gulf of Mexico, mica from the southern Appalachian Mountains, and obsidian from Wyoming. Ohio people also may have traveled to these distant regions on spiritual quests bringing these materials back with them. Hopewell artisans crafted these special raw materials into amazing works of art that seem to have been used as religious symbols in ceremonies. They made smoking pipes in the shapes of a variety of animals, cut sheets of mica into iconic forms such as an open human hand and a bird’s claw, and chipped obsidian into the shapes of spear points much too big ever to have been actually used to tip spears.

The ceremonial life of the Hopewell culture was centered on enormous earthworks built in geometric shapes, including circles, squares and octagons. The Newark Earthworks include all three shapes in one interconnected design. These ancient Native Americans also built earthworks on the tops of hills with their shapes determined by the shapes of the hilltops. The Fort Ancient Earthworks and Fort Hill are the foremost examples of this kind of earthwork. Although the names of these sites suggest they were ancient forts, they actually were also places of ceremony. Often the earthworks are aligned to the apparent movements of the Sun and Moon, which shows that the builders were careful observers of the sky and may have wanted their ceremonial spaces to forge a connection between the heavens above and the earth below.

Many of the Hopewell earthwork centers included large burial mounds containing the remains of special people, including religious leaders, who often were buried with special objects of great spiritual significance. These were not, however, kings and queens who could command their people to build the gigantic earthworks. There is no evidence in Hopewell societies for that kind of authoritarian leadership. Everyone lived in the same kinds of houses, ate the same foods, and worked as hard as anyone else. This makes the Hopewell culture special. People from many small communities gathered together at these ceremonial centers to cooperate in building the earthworks and to participate in the religious observances that took place there.

Although the Hopewell culture cannot be linked to one particular modern Native American tribe, it is likely that all the tribes with historic ties to the Ohio Valley had ancestors who helped to build or participated in the ceremonies that took place at Ohio’s monumental earthworks.

Learn more about our effort to inscript several Hopewell Ceremonial Earthworks sites (in Ross County, Licking County, and Warren County) to the UNESCO World Heritage List.

See Also


For young readers: Stiverson, Charlotte. A Bird’s Eye View of the Hopewell. Wrinkled Rock Publishing, 2019

Basic introductions: Lepper, Bradley T. 1999 People of the Mounds: Ohio's Hopewell Culture, revised and reprinted. Guidebook on the Hopewell culture prepared for Hopewell Culture National Historical Park, Ft. Washington, Pennsylvania, National Park Service, Eastern National, 1999.

Lepper, Bradley T. Ohio Archaeology: An Illustrated Chronicle of Ohio's Ancient American Indian Cultures. Wilmington, Ohio, Orange Frazer Press, 2005.

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.

More detailed/technical works: Burks, Jarrod, Bret Ruby, and Brian Redmond (editors) Encountering Hopewell in the Twenty-first century, Ohio and beyond: Volume 2: settlements, foodways, and interaction. University of Akron Press, 2020.

Ruby, Brett, Brian Redmond, and Jarrod Burks (editors) Encountering Hopewell in the Twenty-first century, Ohio and beyond: Volume 1: monuments and ceremony. University of Akron Press, 2019.

Lepper, Bradley T. Archaeology of the Hopewell culture. In Encyclopedia of Global Archaeology, edited by Claire Smith, pp. 3483-3488. Springer, New York. 2014.

Lynott, Mark. Hopewell ceremonial landscapes of Ohio: more than mounds and geometric earthworks. Oxbow Books, 2015.