Hopewell Culture National Historical Park | MOUND CITY GROUP

Mound City Group at Hopewell Culture National Historical Park

Mound City Group at Hopewell Culture National Historical Park

VISITING THE MOUND CITY GROUP

The Mound City Group is the main unit of Hopewell Culture National Historical Park. The Visitor Center is located here, and as far as tourist interest goes, Mound City is the only unit in the park that has been substantially reconstructed so that visitors can envision what the site looked like two thousand years ago. All earthen structures at all units of the park were destroyed between the mid-1800s and the early 1900s by farming and general modernization of the area.

While the Visitor Center closes at either 4 PM or 5 PM, depending on the season, the grounds of Mound City are open from dawn until dusk year-round. Everything is located a short walk from the back of the building. Feel free to walk anywhere within the mound complex except on the mounds and the earthen walls. Wayside exhibits explaining the history are located at various points, mostly in the center of the site.

Wayside exhibit at Mound City's Mound 8, Hopewell Culture National Historical Park

Wayside exhibit at Mound City’s Mound 8, Hopewell Culture National Historical Park

Park Rangers conduct guided tours of the Mound City Group on a daily basis during the summer (Memorial Day weekend through the end of July) and on weekends only from late April until daily tours begin. Tours last one hour and depart from the Visitor Center. No need to register—just show up at tour time.

Park Ranger conducts at tour of the Mound City Group at Hopewell Culture National Historical Park

Park Ranger conducts at tour of the Mound City Group at Hopewell Culture National Historical Park

There is a 1-mile hiking trail at Mound City, the Mound City Nature Trail, but this circles the outside of the Mound City Group and does not have much to do with the archeological site. There is an overlook on the Scioto River, but other than that, the trail is mainly for exercise purposes.

MOUND CITY GROUP HISTORY

The people known as the Hopewell created their massive earthworks between 1 AD and 400 AD, then mysteriously disappeared, most likely dispersing into other groups of native people. The mounds were well built using different layers of soil, clay, and gravel, all designed to keep them from washing away. Mound City was eventually consumed by forest, but the mounds remained intact all the way up until the mid-1800s when modern landowners cleared the trees and plowed under the smaller mounds to create more farmland. Nearly everything that remained intact was destroyed in 1917 when the United States Army graded the entire area when building Camp Sherman on the property during World War I.

The mounds were known to the locals prior to their destruction, and luckily early archeologists Ephraim Squier and Edwin Davis (who grew up near Chillicothe) mapped their locations and recorded their sizes in 1846. Their work helped later archeologists locate and excavate the mounds, which in turn allowed for the earthworks to be reconstructed by the Ohio History Connection in the 1920s.

Mounds at the Mound City Group, a unit of Hopewell Culture National Historical Park

Mounds at the Mound City Group, a unit of Hopewell Culture National Historical Park

The only mound that was not completely obliterated is Mound 7, the largest of the mounds. Its preservation is probably due to its size—too large to plow under—though part of it was removed by the landowners. When Camp Sherman was built, members of the Ohio State Archeological and Historical Society convinced the Army to build around it. What stands today is not all original, as it had been whittled down, but it was built back to its original size per the Squier and Davis measurements.

Mound 7, part of the Mound City Group at Hopewell Culture National Historical Park

Mound 7, part of the Mound City Group at Hopewell Culture National Historical Park

Unlike the other units of the park—Hopeton, Seip, and Hopewell—all mounds at Mound City are burial mounds, making this a large cemetery. Furthermore, the Hopewell people at Mound City did not create any geometric shapes with earth as they did at the other sites other than a rectangular earthen wall around the complex that encloses approximately 16 acres. The wall was one of the last structures built at Mound City.

Earthen wall around the Mound City Group unit of Hopewell Culture National Historical Park

Earthen wall around the Mound City Group unit of Hopewell Culture National Historical Park

As you can imagine, it took a lot of buckets of dirt to build a mound or a wall—over a million for some of the larger structures in the park. However, only 100 burials were found at Mound City, not a lot given the 400-plus years that the Hopewell people lived in this area. While on the surface this suggests a very small population, it would take hundreds, if not thousands of people to build a mound in any reasonable amount of time. So obviously not everyone was buried at Mound City. It would make more sense that this is a cemetery for kings and queens and that there were thousands of ordinary people living in the area who could provide labor when called. To put this into perspective, the United States has had only 45 presidents in its nearly 250 years of existence, so this hypothesis is very feasible. However, unless a time machine is built, the secrets of Mound City will never be known with certainty.

Mound City, a unit of Hopewell Culture National Historical Park

Mound City, a unit of Hopewell Culture National Historical Park

Each mound represents a burial area, perhaps one that belonged to a single royal family or some other close-knit group. There originally stood a wooden ceremonial building of some sort (a shine or charnel house) with a clay floor. All bodies were cremated, most likely within the building (remains of ovens were found), and buried in the floor along with items that were important to the deceased individual or that family members wanted buried along with the remains. Many of these items were finely crafted works, further suggesting those buried at Mound City were not ordinary people. For unknown reasons—perhaps a royal line was ended or the burial area was full—the building was eventually dismantled and a mound of dirt was built on top of the burial area. There were no remains within the mound itself. What the mound represented is also unknown, but perhaps it was similar to a tombstone or designed to prevent others from looting or disturbing the graves.

Artist's conception of a ceremonial building used by the Hopewell people at Mound City

Artist’s conception of a ceremonial building used by the Hopewell people at Mound City

Despite the mounds themselves being destroyed, by the mid-1800s the floor and gravesites had been covered in earth and were now protected below ground level. In fact, all but one of the 24 mounds noted by Squier and Davis were located after Camp Sherman was dismantled (one was most likely destroyed when a below-ground plumbing system was installed). Archaeologists of the Ohio History Society were able to excavate the burial sites, and afterwards, all but one mound was reconstructed. Mound 15 was left as is so that visitors could see what the burial sites looked like without the dirt mound. Archeologists placed markers where post holes from the building had once been. Nineteen of twenty-four burial sites had such post holes.

Site of Mound 15 with post holes marked (bottom of photo), Mound City Group at Hopewell Culture National Historical Park

Site of Mound 15 with post holes marked (bottom of photo), Mound City Group at Hopewell Culture National Historical Park

All of the dirt used to build the mounds was dug from areas outside the wall around Mound City. If you hike the Mound City Nature Trail, you will see some of these borrow pits. Note that it is a far walk from the pits to some of the mounds, which makes the tedious task of dumping bucketful after bucketful of dirt on one spot even more mind numbing when you factor in the walk to and from the pit. There are seven borrow pits outside the Mound City wall.

Borrow pit at the Mound City Group unit of Hopewell Culture National Historical Park

Borrow pit at the Mound City Group unit of Hopewell Culture National Historical Park

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Last updated on May 2, 2024
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