By Patricia Harris , President, DC Historical Society
I was so touched by the large number of positive responses to last week’s article regarding the ‘mound builders’ of Doddridge County. I am both grateful for and humbled by the many positive comments and emails. Thanks so much for the kind words and opinions. I shall always do my best to be worthy of the respect I have been given.
This week I want to delve more deeply into who the Adena and Hopewell people were, and the world in which they lived, and why it’s important that we preserve their history.
First… Why should we care about a lost people that disappeared eons ago? Fair question and I’m not sure how to answer it except from my heart. Full transparency, I am not an archaeologist. I am a historian. Now, let’s discuss why we should care.
To begin with, each mound tells its own story of their people’s past. An archeologists can learn how the people lived throughout the millennia of their existence. As we ponder the importance of these priceless treasures, we waste precious time and the opportunity to learn more about the mounds and the people who built them due to local farming, looting, and to the Doddridge County’s budding industrial progress.
It’s impossible to know how many of these mounds have already been lost, taking our prehistoric past with them as they disappeared as many have never been registered. Prof. Sutton listed 5 mounds in just one area in Doddridge, as well as the few that we have left are all we have to tell the story of their complex societies. Their survival is in our hands. It is up to us to not only protect them, but to teach our children and grandchildren the importance and the wonder of these ancient memorials of Doddridge County’s and indeed the Nation’s lost people. The truth is each of us must decide for ourselves the importance of the ancient mounds and the history they hold within them, but we should know and understand of what we are protecting or letting go.
Let’s begin with the Archaic Culture. Even though this period does not necessarily pertain to us, I decided to include it. The greatest characteristic of Archaic cultures is the change in subsistence and lifestyle; prior to the Archaic Period, the people were nomadic, hunters and gatherers. They relied on wild plants and game. The Archaic peoples lived in larger groups. They remained in one location for periods of time and enjoyed a diverse diet. In time, they began to cultivate some of their foods. However, it was the Adena, Hopewell (Woodland Period), and Mississippian cultures that conquered the craft of building the mounds, earning them the title, ‘mound builders’ we know them by today.
The Adena were part of the Eastern Woodland culture that existed from about 1,000 – 800 B.C. to 100 – 500 A.D. in the central Ohio Valley, including our home state of West Virginia (also included were Indiana, Kentucky, and Pennsylvania).
In case you wondered why they gave these prehistoric people the names that they did, the Adena Culture was named as such because Gov- ernor Thomas Worthington (July 16, 1773 – June 20, 1827), who was an American politician and served as the sixth governor of Ohio was the source of the name. It was the name of his estate which was also home to a large mound typical of the cultures’ burial mounds. Adena refers to dozens of cultures and isn’t the name of a tribe. It is impossible to know what they called themselves.
The Adena were to a large degree hunter-gatherer people. However, they also farmed and were known to plant such things as squash, gourds,sunflowers, and maize. They had a high-functioning society in order to build the extensive earthworks. We know that cremation was a common form of funerary practice by the condition of the burial sites. The Adena put the deceased in existing mounds and added dirt to cover the bodies, which made the mounds grow larger over time. They also buried tools, weapons, pottery, and other clay items with the dead, believing the de- ceased would need them in the next life. Materials from the Southeast, North and South proved the Adena had an extensive trading network. They were skilled potters and sculptors, making pottery and small effigy sculptures out of clay and stone. In addition to clay, they made bowls and other household utensils from wood and stone.
Dr. Price and Prof. Sutton found artifacts in the several mounds excavated here in Doddridge County similar to those found elsewhere, indicating their place in history.
The Hopewell, who replaced the Adena, was a bigger group. Evidence of their existence dates them at about 100 A.D., but traces of their culture disappear around 500 A.D. Just as the Adena did not identify themselves as such, and no one knows what they would have called themselves, so too, the Hopewell wasn’t a tribal name, and no one knows what they called themselves. The Hopewell mounds were bigger than those of the Adena cultures and their burials involved more ceremony. Hopewell burials included putting ochre and other pigments on the body. Their stone and clay items had a refinement that indicated the Hopewell sculptors and potters were more proficient than the Adena.
The Hopewell were also hunter-gatherers and farmers, but they en- larged the existing Adena trading area, obtaining obsidian from the Rocky Mountain region. Items found in their burials included shells from the Gulf of Mexico and copper from the Great Lakes region. No one knows what caused the ‘mound builders’ to disappear, but we do know that they built large defensive earthworks, hinting at the probability of increased outside threats.
That leads us to the big question… What is a burial mound? To some that would seem a silly question, but why bury the dead in mounds?
Excavation research reveals that the burial mounds were planned, and they were built in layers. Families had their own personal mounds, sim- ilar to the family plots in cemeteries today. Constructed in layers, each level of the mound contains members of the community buried according to their station. Lesser members of the tribe were cremated before being entombed in tiny logs; the logs were then covered with dirt. Burials of chiefs, shamans, and priests would have been accompa- nied by great ceremony. Like the Egyptians, their bodies would have been kept company by cultural items such as pottery, projectile points, beads, and pipes.
Geometric mounds were usually circular, square, or rectangular. They were mainly used for ceremonial purposes, but in later years they were also used as tombs. It is also believed that the geometric mounds may have been used as observatories.
The early Woodland peoples were nomadic; they moved from place to place, season to season, to hunt, fish, and gather wild plants. Over time, these groups conquered the cultivation of plants, and eventually they began to settle in small communities. The earliest of these communities were small, consisting of only two or three households; later communities were larger, possibly home to as many as 100 people.
Woodland villages required food sources, and besides hunting for game, the Woodland people began growing crops. Early settlers depended upon crops such as gourds, squash, and sunflowers. Later, corn (maize) would become as integral part of the Woodland people’s diets, as tobacco cultivation would become a source of trade.
Archaeologists recognize the Adena as the first of the two major mound-building cultures during the Woodland Period. The Adena began their construction of mounds around 600 B.C., in the area we now know as southern Ohio.
Little information is known about the Adena culture, and the information we do have is based upon what has been obtained through excavation of the burial mounds they are now famous for. Items found within the mounds themselves have been a window into a world that without them would be an elusive mystery.
Both Price and Sutton discovered priceless artifacts that are relative to Doddridge County. They are well-documented, especially in Prof. Sutton’s notes of which D.C. Historical Society is in possession. Yet, their whereabouts today is not revealed by any of the establishments believed to be in possession of them.
Back to the mounds… The Adena mounds are generally conical in shape, and their sizes vary greatly. Mounds have been discovered as large as 100 meters in diameter and were surrounded by moats. Each mound had only one access to its burial site, and the moats were built with single gateways for entrance.
Adena mounds (tombs) were constructed from the floor up. The tomb’s base was made up of logs, surrounded by poles, topped with a platform, roofed with tree bark, and covered with soil. The weight often resulted in the tomb’s collapse.
The most complex of the mound building cultures during the Woodland Period, was that of the Hopewell in the Ohio Valley. The Hopewell culture flourished during the years between 100 B.C., until about A.D. 500. Their community was centered around religious ceremony and focused upon the death ritual. Hopewell mounds can be found throughout the modern-day states of IA, IL, MI, OH, WI, MO, and WV.
Leaders of the Hopewell were buried in huge mounds. At the time of burial, the deceased would be accompanied by all the wealth they would require in the afterlife. In one burial site, archaeologists discovered thousands of pearl beads, necklaces adorned with the teeth of grizzly bears, and ornaments made of copper. Wouldn’t that have been an amazing site?
Other objects that have been discovered teach us that the Hopewell participated in trade with other areas of North America. Shells and shark teeth have been found from what is now Florida, pipestone from present day Minnesota, volcanic glass from Wyoming, and silver from the prov- ince of modern-day Ontario.
Around 500 A.D., the trade networks began to collapse, and the Hopewell culture disbanded. Members took to the hills. Based on the large, sporadic earthworks that were created for defense, it is believed by some archaeologists that there was unrest in the area. Who created this unrest? Your guess is as good as mine. The supposed invaders are no longer talking.
The last evidence of the Hopewell culture can be found in the earth walls they constructed. The people disappeared, but the mounds remain, and West Virginia has the honor of being home to the tallest conical burial mound in the United States. It is, of course, the Grave Creek Mound in Moundsville, believed to have been built about 300 B.C. during the Early Woodland Period. Originally Grave Creek Mound stood at 70 feet tall or more, requiring its builders to carry at least three million (3,000,000) baskets of earth to create it.
We must remember that these are the sacred burial sites of people who once lived, laughed, cried, and loved just as we do today. They deserve to be protected. There is a conflict within most of us as to the right we have to violate them in the name of knowledge. On the one hand, how can we learn about them and thereby keep the memory of their existence alive without the excavation? On the other hand, would we ever approve violating the graves of our loved ones for any reason? Does the need for us as a people to know and learn all that we can learn about the ‘Mound Builders’ outweigh their right to rest in peace? The dilemma continues.
Patricia Richards Harris
Doddridge County Historical Society