The Ohio Hopewell

by N'omi Greber
Cleveland Museum of Natural History


Time, place, and peoples

From about 100 B.C. to A.D. 500 a remarkable culture flourished in southern Ohio. Named Hopewell in honor of its major site, this culture was built on knowledge and traditions that had grown in the area over many centuries. It also contained elements of behavior shared by contemporaneous peoples who lived in scattered sections of eastern North America from Canada to Florida. These groups were politically and economically as well as geographically separate. They did share some cultural values that fostered the use of exotic materials and social symbols, both of which each group interpreted within the context of the local social and physical environment. The quality, quantity, and lavish intensity found in Ohio Hopewell archaeological remains mark this culture as unique among its contemporaries.

The acquisition of exotic raw materials, and to a lesser extent, exotic objects is a signature of Ohio Hopewell. Copper, mica, marine objects, obsidian, tiny bits of gold, somewhat more silver, galena, and a wide variety of fine flints and stones are among the exotica. They probably arrived in Ohio through a mix of contacts including personal travel, formal and informal gifts, direct and indirect barter, and other personal and group activities. New field and technical data may aid in determining the type and duration of these contacts. In any case, it is very clear that, whatever their form, the non perishable artifacts resulting from these contacts accumulated in southern Ohio while few objects from Ohio are found elsewhere.

Ohio Hopewell peoples built miles of earthen and stone walls, many in geometric shapes. They also constructed large wooden civic ceremonial structures which contained evidence of many public and private activities. These activities revolved about a world view which apparently emphasized elaborate rituals, rites, and/or ceremonies. All were undoubtedly intended to keep each society and the world in proper order. We now only know this perceived order from fragments which refuse to fit neatly together. The large structures and their smaller counterparts, were eventually covered with carefully constructed mounds. Some sites were used for many generations, thus numbers of mounds accumulated. For example, at least forty were built at the Hopewell Site. Their size and contents are almost as varied as their number. Although they are frequently all classed as burial mounds, many did not cover any tombs. They did cover small burned work areas, large and small deposits of artifacts, prepared floors with few features, relatively empty wooden structures, and enigmatic features.

Within the recognizable Ohio tradition there are local customs and ways which are reflected in the materials and designs of artifacts, structures, and enclosures. The use of large sites through generations adds elements of change through time. The various polities found in each of the river valleys leading to the central Ohio valley, contributed to the high artistic, technological and social achievements found in the mosaic of Ohio Hopewell. Some of these achievements are illustrated in this slide set.

The best current estimate for the subsistence base which supported or allowed these achievements included gathering wild flora and fauna, hunting, and probably gardening. Elements of the Midwest agricultural complex are present. The few instances of corn found in undisturbed context come from what appear to be ceremonial deposits. In addition, based on limited skeletal studies, corn was not a major food item. The settlement pattern is not well documented, but probably was based on seasonal movements of at least substantial segments of the societies. Larger gatherings may have been seasonal and/or based on a longer, culturally determined cycle.

The social organization which supported and initiated the engineering and artistic florescence has been variously reconstructed by archaeologists through the decades, partly based on field data, more heavily based on the mind set of the times and of the particular archaeologist, including myself. Since the middle of the nineteenth century in the minds of archaeologists, the leaders of Ohio Hopewell peoples have been downwardly mobile from "kings" to the present equivalent of "big men" (or women?) and tribal elders.

In my opinion, the Ohio Hopewell peoples lived in ranked societies. Larger social units were ranked with respect to each other, and individuals were ranked within these units. The relative rankings of groups and individuals could and did change through time. Large social units pooled resources for some social purposes such as great ceremonies. The composition of these large groups varied as polities of varying sizes and complexities waxed and waned within the several river valleys. These polities were all loosely united by a common culture. Their relationships with each other were tied closely to the varying prestige of local leaders who combined political, religious, and some economic functions. The authority of these leaders rested upon general social custom, persuasion, and their individual abilities.

Abilities were needed and recognized, frequently by special apparel or access to unusual items. The leaders of the local groups probably spent much time negotiating new glories for themselves and their groups in great ceremonies which these leaders personally initiated or which were part of the generally accepted cycles. Great monuments were raised for great public causes and celebrations. The raising of these monuments records intergroup cooperation, quite probably tinged by the competition of intragroup pride.

Brief comments on Hopewell art

A major element of the Ohio Hopewell art style which appears in a variety of media is two dimensionality. This can be noted on both three dimensional (e.g. Slides 41, 90, 97) and essentially two dimensional artifacts (e.g. Slides 67 72).

Another important style element is symmetry. Simple bilateral symmetry is common (e.g. Slides 44, 45, 46, 49, 69, 80, 90). The mirroring of designs is also found in separate pieces apparently used together (e.g. Slides 72, 75, 99, 100). More complicated symmetries occur. Some of these can be seen in the unique set of copper cutouts found in Mound 25, Hopewell Site (Slides 67 69).

In decorations and depictions, zones of plain and filled areas are commonly juxtaposed. Areas are filled by parallel lines (Slide 41), cross hatching (e.g. Slides 42, 47, 99), or rocker stamping. A similar type of contrast is seen in images formed using both positive and negative space (e.g. Slides 67, 98).

Common motifs include oval to tear drop shaped loops (e.g. Slides 47, 81, 98, 100), "comma" or "9 shapes (e.g. Slides 47, 67, 69), and many circular forms.

The images portrayed in all media can be realistic, abstract, or conventionalized. Most, if not all, of the animals on which the various effigies are based could have actually been seen in southern Ohio during Hopewell times. Some images are modified with one or two mythic or symbolic elements (e.g. Slides 77, 86, 94). Some become extremely complex (e.g. Slides 67, 98, 100). The intricacy of the latter easily lead to many possible interpretations of the actual images intended.

One very distinctive characteristic of Ohio Hopewell artifacts is a large measure of individuality in form and in execution. Many well known objects such as the mica effigy hand seen here are unique. Others not shown include the frequently depicted ear spool (one of a pair) decorated with a quartered circle design. Variations on this particular design are found on many objects from other cultures and times into the historic periods. However, it is quite clear that the particular symbolic interpretations of this design are as variable as its depictions both in North America and elsewhere. Ohio Hopewell versions are known mainly from the Hopewell Site where they have been found on copper, bone and other shell or bone like materials. Some variations in executions on copper are shown in Slides 50, 67, and 68. Two copper swastika designs, which were part of a unique deposit (Slides 67 69) are probably stylistically related to quartered circle designs. Apparently in the large specimen the arms "rotate" clockwise; in the smaller, counter clockwise. The circular symbol on the small human effigy pipe from Edwin Harness is also quite likely a related design motif (Slide 81).

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