When I started this project, one of the questions I kept getting was “So, what are you going to do about Southern Ohio? There’s nothing there!” To some extent, they are right when it comes to the kind of thing that usually interests me (museums, weird art, cool buildings etc etc.). What I am discovering, however, is that southern Ohio has a fascinating history that is, in some cases, thousands of years older than any building. In this post, I want to take a look at three sites, all with 20 minutes drive of each other, that help tell this fascinating story.
Southern Ohio was a cultural center for three different, though related, Native American cultures: Adena (1000-200 BCE), Hopewell (200 BCE-500 CE), and Fort Ancient (500-1750 CE). There is surprisingly little known about these cultures, for various reasons. For one, they didn’t have any written language. Also, much of the land that they settled on turned out to be great farmland, so most of their mounds and the surrounding lands were razed and plowed under once settlers moved into the area. Finally, in an effort to preserve what little of their culture is actually still left, most archaeological work on burial mounds is now done without disturbing the mounds themselves. The remnants of their culture can answer some questions, but leave us with many more questions.
Mound City is called that because of the sheer density of mounds in this area. There are at least 23 mounds enclosed in a square enclosure that encloses roughly 13 acres. They say at least 23 mounds because it may be impossible to know if other mounds were completely destroyed over time. Mound City is a Hopewell Era location believed to have been built between the years 1-400 CE.
The first thing you will notice about this site is the quiet. Even though there is a busy road nearby, the trees help dull the noise. I’ve been here twice in the past month. As a tip, go early in the day before families wake up and before the school trips show. Being alone, or with only 1-2 other people in this park is quite a wonderful experience, and you can start to realize why this spot was chosen for this sort of memorial.
The more recent history surrounding this site is doubly fascinating. During World War I, one of the largest camps in the entire country, Camp Sherman, was built on this location…and the 3 miles of land south of it. Several mounds were damaged, a few were destroyed completely. After Camp Sherman was decommissioned, the grounds were excavated, and then rebuilt as closely as possible to the original configuration.
Much like the pyramids in Egypt, these mounds were ceremonial burial places. What’s not known is which members of the tribe actually got this honor. It is believed that the mound treatment was for high ranking members of a tribe. Interestingly, it is possible that high ranking members from other tribes might have been brought here to be memorialized in a mound. One reason for this belief is that in one mound, a large stash of obsidian only found in Wyoming was discovered.
What is known is that these mounds are far more complicated than it may seem at first glance. First of all, a ceremonial building would be constructed. Then the bodies would be cremated (over 100 remains were found in the Mound City excavation), and buried under a small mound of clay. Some ceremonial items would be buried along with the person. Mounds would be built over a period of years, if not decades.
Visiting the park
Mound City is just 3 miles north of Chillicothe on Route 104. It is well marked, and easy to get to.
Mound City is free to visit. There is a gift shop if you are the souvenir type. I highly recommend watching the 17 minute video inside the ranger station. Especially if you plan on making a driving tour of several mound sites, it gives a good base of knowledge to start your trip with. Also, there is a tiny museum with many artifacts that were pulled from the mounds.
There is also a 3/4 nature trail that circles the enclosure, and gives you a nice look at the Scioto River, and an old lock from the Ohio-Erie Canal!
(Yes, I am purposely just glossing over the fact that Mound City is essentially sandwiched right between two large prisons)
More pics of Mound City in my Flickr album
Roughly an 8 minute drive from Mound City is Story Mound. This mound feels a fair bit larger than even the large central mound of Mound City. What sets this one apart is its location. Story Mound sits right in the middle of a large neighborhood.
Story Mound was built by the Adena people somewhere between 800-100 BCE. It was actually the first mound that, upon excavation, showed the remnants of the ceremonial building used by the Adena people.
Unfortunately, because it’s in a neighborhood, there is a fence around Story Mound, so you can’t really get too close, and you can’t really walk around it. Still, for the sheer oddity of seeing a 20 foot tall burial mound in a neighborhood, Story Mound is worth a stop.
Flickr album: Story Mound
When I said before that we don’t know much about these tribes, that wasn’t totally true. We do know that they were wonderful astronomers, great at math, and tremendous engineers. We know this by looking at a site like the Seip Earthworks. Actually, we should be looking at multiple sites…but as is the case with most of these locations, they were largely destroyed by farming. Luckily, early surveyors named Ephraim Squier and Edwin Davis (believe me, I’ve seen these names a TON recently) did accurate surveys of these locations, so we know what they originally looked like.
Today, the Seip Earthworks location doesn’t look like much from the ground (and to be honest, there’s not a lot at this time to see from the air). There’s one large central mound (30 feet tall, and nearly 240 feet long), a couple of other very small mounds, and a couple remnants of the original large circle and square. One reason for that is because the area of the Seip Earthworks is enormous. Mound City was 13 acres, this park is over 1000 acres in size. There were over 2 miles of embankments originally built that enclosed a small circle, a large circle, and a large square shape. These shapes all show amazing geometric and astronomical precision. Even more stunning is the fact that there were originally 5 of these types of structures built within a few miles of this general location, and each one had precisely the same measurements.
Visiting the park
Seip Earthworks is just outside Bainbridge on Route 50. There’s no museum, just a roadside pull off and a picnic shelter. As it is, I don’t really recommend going to Seip on its own, but as the best representation of the full extent of one of these mysterious ceremonial sites…it’s worth the drive (especially if you then continue to a couple of other sites I will cover in the future).
This is a park that’s hopefully in for some work in the near future. The National Park Service has taken over control of Seip, and there’s talk of rebuilding the entire complex to its original glory. I hope this happens in the near future.
Flickr set: Seip Earthworks
There is so much mystery and history on display in these locations. Part of the magic about these places is that the answers you are looking for are truly unknowable. My imagination often wanders to thinking about just what life was like for these people, and why they built such interesting sites.
As a bit of a spoiler to future posts, this is not the last time we visit Indian mounds. Some of the mounds we will visit in the future are even more wild than these.
We’ve now visited 4 / 88 counties!