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Know Ohio: Mysterious Mounds and Earthworks

Explore the mystery of ancient Indian earthworks and mounds in Ohio. No one quite knows when or why they were built. At Hopewell National Historic Park, modern-day archaeologists are still uncovering artifacts and looking for answers.

Class Discussion Questions:

1) Using your own prior knowledge, create a hypothesis for the mysterious mounds in Ohio.

Read the Script:

I've got a mystery for you today and it's all about some mounds of dirt. What, doesn't interest you? Let me explain, Ohio is home to some of the most fascinating earthworks. 

Some of them are effigy mounds, meaning they are shaped to look like an animal, like this one in Granville. Okay, so from the ground it's hard to tell, but go up in the sky and you can kind of see the animal shape. It's called Alligator Mound, but it looks more like a possum with that curly tail. Then there is the spectacular Serpent Mound in Adams County, super cool. 

So here's the mystery. There are a bunch of mounds in southern Ohio but no one knows quite when they were built or why they were built, or even who built them. As the Alligator Mound showed us, they can be hard to spot. 

You might think these mounds are just part of the landscape but they were actually carefully built. This area in Ross County called Mound City is part of the Hopewell National Historic Park. It contains at least 23 mounds. Some have been worn down over time and others were razed by military using the area. 

The mounds have been reconstructed based on drawings like this from 1848. These drawings were the hard work of Edwin Hamilton Davis and Ephraim George Squier. Neither man started as an archeologist. Davis was a doctor, and Squier a newspaper editor, but together the men surveyed hundreds of mounds in the area. 

Digging up the mounds is one of the best ways for mysteries to be revealed. What Squier and Davis found was pretty extraordinary. Pieces like this frog-shaped pipe and clay pot are stored at the British Museum. From the artifacts, historians believe these mounds were constructed between one and 400 A.D. 

Modern-day archeologists are still working to solve questions surrounding these artifacts, and the archeologists were able to determine that the mounds are probably related to elaborate funeral services. They believe that the mounds were built by a group of native people who were named the Hopewell, a name taken from Mordecai Hopewell who owned the land where many of the mounds were first discovered. 

From what they can tell, the Hopewell people did not live near the mounds. Hopewell villages were often quite small, so the size of these huge mounds suggests the people were able to gather from different settlements to build them together. 

With Mound City, scientists had more clues to put the pieces together. But with the Alligator Mound and Serpent Mound, mystery still remains. Digging them up didn't reveal any artifacts and without those to go off of, scientists are left scratching their heads over who built them, why, and even when.

Find Out More

Website: Ohio Exploration Society. Indian Mounds | Lots of info and pictures about all the Ohio mounds.

Website Article: National Park Service, Hopewell Culture | See the  inside of the mounds with maps and diagrams.

Website Article: Ohio History Connection, Serpent Mound