Ancient Civilizations of 
the Americas - Webring 
This site is owned by: 
Joe Knapp 
Random Site List Sites

On the Great Hopewell Road
by Joseph M.  Knapp August 21, 1998 When the Hopewell culture of the Scioto River valley constructed their complex of earthworks in what is now the city of Newark, Ohio, they included two parallel walls of clay marking a 200-foot wide path leading from the Octagon Earthwork in a straight line some two miles south where they intersect Ramp Creek, a minor tributary of the Licking River. The walls form the boundaries of a meticulously graded road, crowned in the middle and constructed of clay differing from the neighboring soil. The destination of the road is a matter of debate, although that it actually extended for many miles beyond the small creek is a fact that has been discovered many times in the field only to languish from academic neglect. Thus the road's curious fate is to be periodically re-discovered, and then, for some odd reason, be pooh-poohed by the referrees of archaeological correctness. The current champion of the road is Dr. Bradley T. Lepper, whose interest in the road was sparked by his discovery of a forgotten manuscript gathering dust at the American Antiquarian Society in Worcester, Massachusetts, detailing an 1862 survey of the road. Lepper has followed up this discovery by finding traces of the road which still exist today despite nearly two centuries of agriculture and other improvements to the Ohio landscape. With his evidence, coupled with aerial surveys done back in the 1930s that found traces of the road extending straight as an atl-atl throw for at least twelve miles towards the great Hopewellian center of what is now Chillicothe, 55 miles distant, Lepper concludes that there are sound reasons to believe that this ancient Hopewell sacra via did exist.

The role of head referree in Hopewellian matters is today filled by Dr. Olaf H. Prufer, professor of anthropology at Kent State University, who has published on the Hopewell culture extensively beginning with his 1961 Harvard Ph.D. dissertation, The Hopewell Complex of Ohio. Accordingly, when a A View from the Core: A Synthesis of Ohio Hopewell Archaeology, a collection of papers outlining current research and speculations in Hopewell archaeology was published in 1996, Dr. Prufer was invited to write a brief critique of each paper, his comments to be included in the book as, appropriately, "The Final Chapter on Ohio Hopewell." Prufer takes issue with Lepper's position:

Prufer's dismissive tone is more than a bit o'er the top, as there is very strong documentary and physical evidence that the graded road flanked by walls of clay extended at least twelve miles from the Newark Octagon, indeed in a straight line regardless of hills and glens. Think of it: an undeviating earthwork road emanating from a Hopewellian ceremonial center, exceeding twelve miles in length, reminiscent of the celebrated straight paths built by the Anasazi culture in Chaco Canyon over 500 years later. This fact alone should provoke wonderment, both at the glimpse into the Hopewell mind and at the repeated failure of the archaeological community to follow this avenue, so to speak.

Part of the problem is that modern archaeology has paid relatively less attention to Eastern Woodland archaeology than to matters such as the "Chaco Phenomenon"--the reason being a "been there, dug that" attitude. That is, the Woodland cultures were the focus of nineteenth century American archaeology--indeed they formed the subject on which Yankee archaeology cut its trowels. As might be expected, the early theories were heavily laden with Victorian and Edwardian ideas about the order of human history. Surely, they felt, the savage Indian occupied a low place on the steps of the temple of Apollo, and could not have been responsible for such feats of art and architecture. To conform to prevailing thought, such advanced knowledge must have originated from somewhere in the classical world defined by the Mediterranean sea. The builders were not, it was theorized, related to historical Amerindian groups, but were a race of outsiders, known by the generic term "The Moundbuilders," and who might have been Phoenician wayfarers, or the lost tribe of Israel, or wandering Celts, or incipient Mormons. The only side benefit of these theories was that the earthen antiquities suddenly became more interesting to European Americans who saw Greece and Rome and Israel as their heritage, and who were therefore perhaps more hestitant to plow them into oblivion without at least some investigation.

So, the late nineteenth century saw a lot of frenetic excavation by amateurs and enthusiasts and even some careful investigators. There has been a lot of turmoil and bad blood along the way as the mounds have succumbed to the spade and backhoe--and science--with each succeeding generation becoming holier than its predecessor, and progress marked by taking the Hopewell down a notch at each step along the way. Any attempt to exalt the Hopewell above the common herd is reactively met with charges of trying to resurrect the "lost race" theory. This is a danger, no doubt, and archaeologists nostalgically look back on the battles with "lost race" advocates the same way that modern biologists love to recount the nineteenth century battles over Darwin's theories, where science prevailed over religion. Still, victories in these areas are tenuous and scientists can be forgiven for being a little paranoid as each generation produces new promoters and variations on old themes. 

  The federal government was instrumental in fostering the veer towards rationality in "Moundbuilder" matters, specifically through the creation at the Smithsonian Institution of the Division of Mound Exploration, Bureau of Ethnology. Cyrus Thomas, a specialist in entomology as well as ethnology, was in 1881 appointed Director of this activity and in 1894 published a summary titled Report on the Mound Explorations of the Bureau of Ethnology, 1890-1891. In addition to developing the framework of North American Indian culture areas and mound classification largely still in use today, he reported results of the Division's excavations proving that "Moundbuilder" burial practices were seen among pre-Columbian Shawnee groups.2 He stated in the preface: A reviewer said on this topic: So much for the Phoenicians. Thomas' conclusions of course were taken issue with by some, one authority reacting that, "The fact is, American Archaeology is in just that unsettled condition that no author who covers the whole ground, and advances his theories on all subjects as Dr. Thomas does, can be accepted as authority, and it is a great mistake that he should ignore the opinions of those who differ with him, and never mention their works."5

As important as Thomas was Frederick Ward Putnam (1839-1945), who has been called if not the father of American archaeology, at least the one who professionalized the field. In 1874 he became the Curator of the Peabody Museum of Harvard University and directed his energies to the mounds of the Ohio Valley as well as studies of late Pleistocene peoples. The photo below, taken at the "Chillicothe Group" of earthworks (later known as Mound City Group), features Putnam at the far right. Next to him is his colleague Charles L. Metz.

Putnam was instrumental in proving that people inhabited the New World since the last ice age. He also was instrumental in saving the most famous effigy mound, the Great Serpent Mound of Adams County, Ohio, from destruction and archaeological oblivion. 

Click for larger image

As scientific archaeology disposed of some of the more egregious "lost race" romances, more subtle issues were taken on, such as the idea that "The Moundbuilders" were a pale reflection of ideas diffusing from Mexico. Carbon-14 dating set the chronology straight however, proving that these Woodland cultures spanned a time predating the monumental architecture of Mexico. This is not to say that the chronology is by any means settled for the majority of sites, as radiocarbon dating is expensive, and very little in the way of funds has traditionally been available. Notably, only recently was a radiocarbon date obtained for the Great Serpent. DeeAnne Wymer of Bloomsburg University was part of a team which dated that earthwork to as late as Fort Ancient times (1100 AD). Other mounds associated with the Serpent are dated to the Adena culture (i.e., 800 BC-100 AD), indicating a long period of use of this sacred site by related groups.

This century in general has seen ever more meticulous investigations, in theory, by more or less flamboyant figures such as Henry C. Shetrone of the Ohio State Museum, looking jaunty as the conqueror of the Seip Mound, or Warren K. Moorehead, who in 1896 became the first Curator of Archaeology at what was then known as the Ohio Historical and Archaeological Society. Moorehead directed excavations at the prototypical "Hopewell" site at the farm of Mordecai Cloud Hopewell in Ross County, Ohio. 

Warren K. Moorehead, ca. 1935

Dr. William C. Mills, Professor at Ohio State, was also a leading figure whose name was for years synonymous with things prehistoric in Ohio, such that a farmer could be caricatured running through the field with a mastodon bone, shouting, "Quick, this looks like a job for Dr. Mills!" Still, later archaeologists can offer harsh appraisals, as does Prof. Prufer, who opines "...who knows what Moorehead, Mills, Shetrone, Metz, et. al. really observed and saw fit to preserve for posterity. The incompetance of some of these individuals is legendary."6 Time does not treat these authorities well, as each succeeding authority looks askance at previous work. Some even think this trend may continue.

Prufer must ride herd on current archaeology as well. He left-handedly praises Dr. N'omi Greber, Curator of Archaeology at the Cleveland Museum of Natural History, for her paper on  the contexts of Ohio Hopewell burial deposits, even though "we have known this for a long time." At least, he offered, she hadn't strayed from the straight and narrow as she had done ever so briefly in The Hopewell Site: A Contemporary Analysis Based on the Work of Charles C. Willoughby, 1989, where she said:

Prufer's reaction? In general, the trend has been to de-glamorize the Hopewell; to bring the theories, as some sorely needed, down to earth. The thrust of research in the area today in fact is to shrug off study of the geometric mounds themselves. Part of this is motivated simply by convenience, as excavations at burial sites have become increasingly subject to strong protests from organized political action groups. The geometric earthworks need not be burial sites per se, but they are typically at least closely associated with burial sites. There is obviously much less political fallout from excavating a refuse pit, cooking hearth, building foundation, etc.

On top of this, there is a definite feeling out there that such few earthworks as still exist are a bit of a fiction. In almost all cases, present examples have been "restored" after having been nearly leveled by either the march of progress or, shall we say, enthusiastic archaeology. The restoration was in general based on accounts of early observers, and is not completely reliable. Restored sites do give modern visitors an idea of the vanished culture, but their further archaeological value is questioned by some. Developers thus have a new argument to appeal to in their efforts to level the Ohio countryside: that the "mounds" are really the handiwork of a much more recently-vanished culture, the Works Project Administration initiated by Pres. Franklin Roosevelt. For example, one earthwork in the town of Morrow, Warren County, Ohio, said by Dr. C. L. Metz back in 1892 to have represented a form of a serpent before it fell to the plow, was restored by WPA workers who faithfully followed Metz's survey. Metz had written:

H. C. Shetrone wrote in 1951 on the "serpent" issue: But the glacial deposits of gravel on which it lay were too valuable, and in the 1960s against the side issue of whether or not it was a serpent effigy was raised the convenient argument that FDR's minions had cooked the whole thing up. The argument resonated (this is Republican country after all) and the earthwork was razed.

Cincinnati Enquirer, Jan. 1964 (click for larger image)

So, a number of currents have led to a decline in interest in studying the earthworks. To paraphrase the general line among archaeologists today: "In the past people were concerned with the flashiest and most visible aspects of Hopewell Culture: the mounds and burial practices and funerary goods; but today we are interested in their domestic settlement patterns--the way they lived." How nice, and information on habitation sites is sorely needed, but perhaps the pendulum has swung too far in assuming that the "final chapter" has been written on the earthworks, and indeed that the trend of separating them from the lives of the people isn't as wrongheaded as attributing them to the WPA. But that's the stance of much Hopewell archaeology today. Resurrection of the Great Hopewell Road might even threaten to stir up some old and empirically unverified demons.

Ephraim Squier and Edwin Davis

In 1847 the newly-formed Smithsonian Institution gave the road its first wide notice in the institution's first publication, Ancient Monuments of the Mississippi Valley by E. Squier and E. Davis. Working with the American Ethnological Society, these two men, the Lewis and Clark of North American archaeology, did a tremendous amount of field work in mapping the amazing Hopewell geometric earthworks which dot Ohio. Squier was a newspaperman who later became ambassador to Nicaragua and Davis was a physician from Chillicothe, Ohio. Their survey of the Newark Earthworks, actually executed by Col. Charles Whittlesey (two-thirds of their surveys were collected from outside parties) appears below: 

click for larger image

The plan shows a network of parallel earthen banks interconnecting the major elements of the works: the "Newark Octagon" (being the conjoined octagon-circle), the "Great Circle," and the "Newark Square." The Newark Octagon and Newark Square are connected by a pair of banks over one mile long. Another set of banks leads from the Newark Octagon towards a complex earthwork on the south bank of Raccoon Creek. In its course, Squier and Davis found, the builders built up the road over swampy ground, and graded the path from the terrace for easy ascent. Of the banks shown leaving the Octagon more or less due south, Squier and Davis write: These walls are annotated on the the Squier and Davis plan as "parallels 2½ miles in length." They (or Col. Whittlesey) had followed the walls only so far as Ramp Creek.

Squier and Davis did not escape the intense scrutiny of archaeological hindsight at the hands of Cyrus Thomas. In The Circular, Square, and Octagonal Earthworks of Ohio, he notes that they only personally surveyed about one-third of the "works of defense" and "sacred enclosures." He goes on to document several inaccuracies in their work and concludes:

A subtle point apparently. In any case, it underscores the importance of not using their surveys for fine work such as determining absolute alignment of the structures, or the absolute extent of extended features.

The presence of parallel walls leading to nearby waterways is by no means a unique situation, as Squier and Davis had noted a similar arrangement at other Hopewellian sites. Indeed, there are analogues in the mysterious neolithic structures in the Old World, such as Stonehenge, which began its life as a circular earthen embankment, to which was added (around 2100 BC) an "avenue" of parallel walls leading to the banks of the River Avon. 

click for larger image

Perhaps it's this type of analogy with the Old World--and all the fantastic baggage of diffusionism and priestly druid geometers that might entail--that makes the archaeological old guard chafe at speculative forays onto the Great Hopewell Road and analysis of Hopewellian geometry in general. Two of the papers in Reference 1 cover the latter subject, and Prufer can barely contain his derision, likening it to "astronaut archaeology." Of civil engineer James A. Marshall's paper analyzing Hopewell "Fibonacci" geometry, Prufer writes: Apparently, it has never occurred to the intelligent and intensively-tutored professor of archaeology that if he was set out in the middle of a plain with neolithic tools, and tasked with the "simple" job of setting out a dead-straight line six miles and more in length with anything approaching the precision of the Hopewell achievement, the chances of his success are, respectfully, about nil. In the desire to react against diffusionism and speculation it is now necessary to denigrate Hopewell engineering and architecture, to shrug and say they were nothing special. In fact, Prufer champions a view somewhat strange in the other extreme--its banality--which is that the Hopewell geometric earthworks do not mark population centers but were essentially vacant except for sporadic ceremonies, and that in fact the Hopewell people lived in small outlying "hamlets" comprising extended family groups at most, not even attaining the status of villages. This loose association of kin groups then just occasionally decided to band together to construct another vacant center, like any moderately intelligent and mathematically untutored people might be expected to do, just for the fun of it. They might send earthworks across the landscape to connect with other vacant centers miles away, which of course have little to do with the daily life of those folks either, being focussed on their little hamlets as well. The geometry? Mere doodling on the ground--don't bother trying to analyze it. Somewhere in all this, national trade networks develop. One thing recommends this view at least: there's certainly no danger of stumbling into astronaut archaeology!

Marshall has written several papers on Hopewellian geometry, and made more modest claims in An Atlas of American Indian Geometry that Hopewellian methods were very practical, not theoretical, and involved standard units of length as well as standard construction triangles for generating various angles and spatial relationships. For example, they knew of the simplest Pythagorean triangle, of sides 3, 4 and 5, and utilized the fact that it would create a right angle. This is not to say that they had proved, mathematically, the Pythagorean theorem! Marshall states:

Marshall found much evidence that the Hopewell used a unit of length of 187 of our feet (57 meters). He also found that the Hopewell used a number of triangular relationships in laying out their earthworks, summarized below. 

click for larger image

These are all right triangles, one of the Pythagorean sort (3-4-5). The last one is interesting as it is the "Golden Triangle" based on Fibonacci mathematics, a very old form. The triangle to the left of it is approximately of the same proportions as a golden triangle, and is a practical approximation which has two sides with integral length.

To demonstrate his point, Marshall impressively shows, based on his exacting surveys,  that the centers of the Newark Octagon, Square and Great Circle were laid out with the simplest triangles, being the 3-4-5, 1-2, and 1-1. Moreover, the orientation and size of the Octagon was found to follow from a standard golden triangle construction based on the 1-2 triangle. 

click for larger image

click for larger image

Clearly, setting up straight lines in the construction of the Newark earthworks was not difficult for a people who could maintain a straight line for more than several miles and more, as they demonstrably did on the Great Hopewell Road.

Other observers followed the road farther than did Squier and Davis. Newark resident Isaac Smucker wrote in Mound Builder's Works Near Newark, Ohio in 1908:

A detailed survey of the initial segment had been done in 1862 by two brothers, Charles and James Salisbury. Charles studied geology and botany, and James became a renowned physician. They found that the walls were precisely 192 feet apart. In their report to the American Antiquarian Society, filed in 1862 but forgotten in the midst of the war and only brought back to light recently through the research of Brad Lepper: Apparently not all investigators had as much inclination to wade into streams and swamps as did the brothers Salisbury! Even they eventually gave up the chase.

The Salisburys apparently gave magnetic bearings, as the course as determined by Lepper is 31 degrees west of south. The magnetic deviation in the region is 5 degrees.

Decades of agriculture have made traces of these walls all but invisible to the naked eye. But with the turn of the century and the advent of aviation, aerial photography was brought to bear by early enthusiasts. One such person was Capt. Dache M. Reeves of the U.S. Army Air Corps, who beginning in 1934 worked with the Ohio State Archaeological and Historical Society in an aerial survey of various prehistorical earthworks. Capt. Reeves published a preliminary article in 1936, titled A Newly Discovered Extension of the Newark Works. Apparently the Great Hopewell Road had been forgotten and discovered again! Reeves wrote:

Reeves' figure 1 is reproduced below, along with another image highlighting the parallel banks and other earthworks in the frame. Even in this image, scanned from a xerox copy of the article, the features are visible. 

Fig.1 -- click for a larger image

Reeves also provided photos of two other sections of the road, figures 2 and 3, reproduced below. 

Fig. 2 -- click for a larger image
Fig. 3 -- click for a larger image

Reeves notes the presence of the adjoined small circle and banks in figure 1. He writes:
Point at which the Great Hopewell Road crosses Ramp Creek today

But as we've seen, the intent was not to get to a stream, but to head off in a particular direction, crossing streams if necessary. Reeves (and the Ohio Archaeological and Historical Society) was evidently unaware of the Salisbury survey, mouldering in the American Antiquarian Society archives in Massachusetts. He continues:

With the aerial photos of Reeves and others it's possible to determine an accurate value for the azimuth of the road. Using USGS maps to determine the latitude and longitude of the feature shown in Figure 1 above and another feature found by Brad Lepper approximately eleven miles from the Octagon (see below), an azimuth of 210.255 degrees is obtained (30.255 degrees west of south). If the Hopewell used a standard construction triangle to lay out this line, it's of interest that a triangle with base 12 and altitude 7 will produce an angle of 30.256 degrees. That is, go 12 units (paces) due south and 7 units (paces) due west, and the road's bearing is obtained. This is not to say they layed down this line by pacing. To keep the road on a straight and true course, mile after mile, an unknown and much more accurate method was used.

Nothing more on the subject of the road can be found in print from the time of Reeves' survey until the present, when Dr. Lepper found the Salisbury manuscript.15 Lepper synthesized the Salisburys' information with all he knew about the surveys of Squier and Davis, Whittlesey, Atwater and other sources, realizing that this great Hopewell road, stretching well beyond its assumed limits, was no fantasy. He took a cue from the aerial photographers and made his own photos from the vantage point of a helicopter along the presumed route. He found evidence for the road in three separate places all the way down to Chillicothe. One example, located eleven miles south of the Octagon, on the expected bearing, appears below. 

click for larger image

Unfortunately, there is even less trace of the road today than there was in Reeves' time, so the evidence is meager and therefore still subject to some skepticism. Still, Lepper's examples all show parallel traces about 200 feet apart, on the expected azimuth (210.255 degrees) from the Newark Octagon. In one case, a site very close to Chillicothe, the indication of the road coincided with traces of a circular mound, such as we've seen was the Hopewellian practice. The circular mound may be the one marked "Lepper site 4" on the Squier and Davis map below. As can be seen, the Chillicothe area is "ground zero" for Hopewellian geometric earthworks. It's also interesting that there's a road near this earthwork the direction of which more or less coincides with the presumed azimuth of the Great Hopewell Road.

click for larger image

A modern map of Chillicothe, showing the location of this feature, follows. 

click for larger image

Thus the Great Hopewell Road appropriately leads to the Hopewellian heartland in modern Chillicothe. It's interesting that about two miles from its destination the road's projected course climbs the side of Sugarloaf Mountain, just north of Chillicothe, in Great Seal State Park.

This is one of a chain of prominent sandstone hills in the area. Squier and Davis wrote of nearby Mount Logan in their survey: The following map shows the projected course of the Great Hopewell Road through Great Seal State Park: 

click for larger image

The course slips between the peaks of Sugarloaf and Bald Hill, crossing the grounds of the Sugarloaf Amphitheater. At the point where it is predicted to cross the Shawnee Ridge hiking trail, no sign of artificial landscaping is apparent. However, a short section of the trail runs about parallel to the desired line, shifted about 250 feet west. This would only be about a 0.05-degree shift in the line at this distance. Thus it could be that this section of the trail itself coincides with the Great Hopewell Road.

click for larger image

The topography is suited there for a trail, being a linear crest between two side ditches. As can be seen in the photo, it extends into the wooded area, off the trail proper, this view being back towards Newark. Perhaps not all the artificial improvements were done in historic times. If the road did coincide with this trail, then its course, if close to straight, would have taken it very near the summit of Sugarloaf.

Thousands of people have attended the Sugarloaf Amphitheater and there watched the outdoor drama Tecumseh!, taking in the story of the great Shawnee leader and not realizing they may be strolling on the highway of Tecumseh's prehistoric ancestors. 

1. A View from the Core: A Synthesis of Ohio Hopewell Archaeology, edited by Paul J. Pacheco, 1996.
2. Thomas, Cyrus, The Story of a Mound; or, The Shawnees in Pre-Columbian Times, appearing in American Anthropologist, 1891.
3. Thomas, Cyrus, Report on the Mound Explorations of the Bureau of Ethnology, 1890-1891 appearing in the 12th Annual Report of the Bureau of Ethnology, Government Printing Office, Washington, DC.
4. Holmes, W. H., American Anthropologist, 1899.
5. Muller, Jon, Cyrus Thomas, 19th Century Synthesis and Antithesis, Department of Anthropology, Southern Illinois University, 1996
6. Prufer, Olaf M., Core and Periphery: The Final Chapter on Ohio Hopewell, appearing in A View from the Core: A Synthesis of Ohio Hopewell Archaeology, edited by Paul J. Pacheco, 1996.
7. Greber, N'omi, The Hopewell Site: A Contemporary Analysis Based on the Work of Charles C. Willoughby, Westview Press, 1989.
8. Wright, Frederick George, A New Serpent Mound in Ohio, appearing in the Ohio State Archaeological and Historical Quarterly, vol. XVIII, Jan. 1909.
9. Shetrone, H. C., letter H. R. McPherson, secretary of the Ohio Indian Relic Collectors Society, Sept. 13, 1951.
10. Squier and Davis, Ancient Monuments of the Mississippi Valley, 1847.
11. Marshall, James A., An Atlas of American Indian Geometry, appearing in Ohio Archaeologist, 37(2), 1987.
12. Smucker, Isaac, Mound Builder's Works Near Newark, Ohio, 1908.
13. The Search for the Great Hopewell Road, PBS Video, 1998.
14. Reeves, Dache M., A Newly Discovered Extension of the Newark Works, appearing in the Ohio State Archaeological and Historical Quarterly, vol. XLV, 1936.
15. Lepper, Bradley T., The Great Hopewell Road: a Middle Woodland Sacra Via Across Central Ohio. Paper presented at the joint meeting of the Midwest Archaeological Conference and the Southeast Archaeological Conference, Lexington, Kentucky, 1994.

Join the discussion in the Woodland Interaction Sphere!