There is a place in North America that was once the cultural crossroads between Native American tribes. This place is called Hopewell Culture National Historical Park, and it is located Chillicothe, Ohio. The archeological site was once the nerve center of Hopewell Indian culture. Today, it is in the process of being declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site. We will discover it with Mr. Bill Huebner, who knows the Park and its Mound City Group inside-out and has quite a story to tell.
Mr. Huebner is 83 years old, but from his quick and articulate answers, you would think he is 35. For 10 years, Bill worked as a volunteer at the Hopewell Park. Years of neglect and unawareness of the importance of the archeological site almost had it and its majestic earthworks forgotten. Volunteers like Bill Huebner have contributed to keep its memory alive during the years.
Francesca (“Fran”): Bill, what is the Hopewell Culture National Park?
Bill: The whole Hopewell Culture National Historical Park in Ohio is comprised by five sites, including Mound City.
Fran What purpose were these archeological sites they serving?
Bill These are Astronomical Observatories. Do you want to hear a little astronomy?
Fran Of course!
Bill These earthworks have sightlines that point to the horizon where the moon rises and sets on the important points of an 18.6 year-long cycle. When you think about that for a minute, it’s pretty amazing. Imagine how long you have to watch the sky to determine that 18.6-year cycle, in a time where the was no written language yet, and the information was passed on over the generations! There’s also a huge circle that apparently was built to coincide with the summer solstice. It is genius that somebody figured out a way to record this information by building this immense earth work, recording it on the ground. It just gives me goose bumps!
Fran Yes. It highlights how it's a culture that was highly sophisticated to be able to do this! When does this culture trace back to?
Bill Nobody knew how old this culture was until about 1950 and not until radiocarbon dating came in the picture. When the first archeologists looked at the site, they thought it was probably only 300, 400 years old. No one guessed that these sites dated from 2000 years ago!
Fran A couple of years ago, I visited a site called the Serpent Mound [another earthwork site in Ohio]. Is there any connection between the two?
Bill There is controversy on whether the timeframe aligns. But beside that, Serpent Mound is the largest effigy mound in the world, so it is just as important as the Hopewell site. So important that they are in line for the World Heritage Inscription, which will probably happen in a couple of years because there are some problems with one of the sites.
Fran What’s the problem?
Bill There’s a golf course on part of it. And they have to get the golf course off of it, that has to happen first [laughs]. Once that’s fixed, the site is going to get worldwide recognition. What’s too bad is that many of us who have lived in the area for a long time didn't know about the treasure we have in our backyard!
Fran Have you come into contact with any Italians visiting the Park?
Bill There were some Italian researchers that worked at the park. I used to tell them that if Julius Caesar had had an embassy in North America, it would have been in Chillicothe, because that's where the center of culture was.
Fran Love it! Going back on the Hopewell's side, you mentioned that that it had a religious significance...
Bill Everything did, Francesca. Everything we have remaining from the Hopewell has religious significance. There's no doubt about it.
Fran Do we know who was buried there?
Bill We think that everyone buried at the Hopewell site was somehow important in the culture.
Under one of the biggest mounds alone there were at least 100 burials. They were not cremated, so they took up quite some space. We think that as many as 120 individuals are buried at the Hopewell site.
Fran How did the Hopewell Native Americans live?
Bill People lived in settlements of two or three houses together, probably like an extended family. There were not very many of them. We think it was a pretty egalitarian culture. There were no kings, no rulers. The important people were the religious leaders, the shamans. And it's my opinion, and I think most experts would agree, that the people buried in the city were probably religious leaders.
Fran How did they build these impressive and gigantic earthworks?
Bill There were ceremonial events probably guided by the 18.6-year cycle I mentioned earlier. People from all over the eastern half of the United States came to the Chillicothe area and participated in their construction. There is some thinking that the construction, the act of construction, was an act of worship. It may very well be that once these earthworks were completed, they lost their significance. Maybe that's the reason that so many of them were built in such a small area.
Fran It's amazing how many native American archeological sites there are in the area, I was not aware of it!
Bill There are so many. Ohio is full of them, most of them are not well protected, they have been farmed out of existence. These silly Hopewell, they built their earthworks on good farmland [we both laugh].
Fran Bill, transitioning to modern history. What items have been found within the Hopewell mounds?
Bill Pipes, incinerators. There are beautiful copper objects, some of them covered in silver. Probably the most copper item found are earspoons.
Fran Go figure! What else did you find?
Bill We found some of those individuals buried holding copper earspoons in their hands. We're thinking maybe these were some kinds of offering in the underworld. They had altars, where things were burned on. Another interesting thing, at the Hopewell Mound Group, there was a little mound, at first it seemed insignificant. Buried under this mound there were 8000 flints that was partially worked. They did not come from Ohio.
Fran Where did the flints come from?
Bill All of this flint came from southern Indiana, about 200 miles away. So, 8 tons of flint were carried, lay down to the ground, and buried as a sacrifice. It just blows my mind.
Fran This is fascinating. Do the items discovered give any insight of the presence of intertribal trade?
Bill Well, we used to say these artifacts were the result of trade going on. In fact, it is more likely attributable to pilgrimage offers. You see, Central Ohio, where the Hopewell site is, was a little like Rome for the catholic church. Pilgrims came and they brought gifts. These exotic materials came here as gifts. We don't find the Hopewell stuff elsewhere in the US. It was a one-way street. So, it seems to me that we have to look at all of this as a sincere religious behavior.
Fran What is an example?
Bill Take the stone Mica. Mica comes from the mountains in Appalachia and South Carolina. At the Hopewell burial sites, there were literally bushels of Mica buried. But we don't find Hopewell items in these other places. It's quite amazing!
Fran As for the discoveries in the mounds, are there any that have yet to be explained?
Bill Yes. To me, one of the most amazing things is the marine shells that are buried in the Mounds. They come from the Gulf of Mexico. They are very large. An interesting thing about these marine relics is that they can be left footed or right footed, depending on which side of the entrance the foot comes out from. The left footed ones are very rare. Everyone in the Mounds is buried with left-footed marine shells.
Fran Wow, this is very interesting! When I visited the site, I saw there was some damage to the mounds, attributable to World War I. What happened exactly and what consequences did it have?
Bill During the first World War, the government built a bootcamp directly on top of the earthworks. Their value was not fully appreciated back then. There were barracks where you see the mounds today, right on top of them. In a way, it was a good thing, because it brought the site to national attention. As a result, the site was declared the National Monument. So, it may very well be that if Camp Sherman had not been there, that would have been farmland forever and we would not have this. So, it is hard to say what's good or bad.
Fran To what extent did the barracks damage the site?
Bill Luckily, the army built the barracks on pilings. They did not disturb a lot that was underground. So, there was a lot to be found still by archeologists after the army left. But the site had been badly degraded by farming before the army got there.
Fran Interesting, one would not think that farming can really damage archeological sites like this. Do we know what was permanently lost by the building on in the Mounds area?
Bill We don't know that. And it may very well be that a couple of mounds were lost. We have this modern technology to look down into the ground and see the disturbed earth and try to figure this stuff out.
Fran I see. What are some of the preservation or archeological project at the site?
Bill There's active archeology going on all the time [in non-Covid times]. It's really quite exciting. About four years ago, the Germans offered their services to Hopewell Park free of charge. They used some magnetic resonating technology over almost all of the Hopewell sites in the park and we discovered many features no one ever knew about before through it. Apparently, the German government has some cultural funds that have to be spent outside of Germany. It’s because of that funding that they came in and did this work at the park. Our park archeologist tells me there is a whole lifelong career here at the Hopewell archeological site!
Fran Wow. Who knows, maybe this cooperation with the German government will also raise awareness of the site in Europe.
Bill Definitely! I would also imagine it's going to pick up in the World Heritage inscription comes.
Fran Have you ever had any Italian visitors?
Bill We have! I had I remember a group of three Italian archeologists that visited the park, they were blown away by it! Can you imagine, in Italy where you can't put a shovel in the ground without finding something of historical value, and here you have a group of Italian archeologists that were blown away by our park? It was incredible. I talked to them and told them the whole story. You know, I'm always the talker at the park!
Fran You know so much and you have such a great enthusiasm. I bet everybody loves listening to you! Circling back to your experience at this site, what is your favorite memory of the site?
Bill There are many. Well, you know, I don't have any archeological training or schooling, but the way that I was accepted and appreciated, the way the way the archeologists there made me feel like I was a part of the whole thing. It was an emotional experience for me.
Fran What is your favorite Hopewell fact of all that you want to share with us?
Bill What blows me away more than anything else is to think about people coming to the site in hundreds, traveling for many hundreds of miles to participate in what was going on here. It's just extraordinary.
Fran As you know, Bill, there is this rhetoric that the United States is a new country and a new continent. And we forget that really there was a lot going on a lot a long time before Christopher Columbus came to the US.
Bill That's exactly true. And most of it has been obliterated. And that's one of the goals of the Hopewell Culture National Historical park. It is to preserve the history of the American Indian.
Fran When I went to this site, peeking through the windows I saw some beautiful glass work that you made. Can you tell us a little bit about the stained-glass windows that you made?
Bill Yes, I can. In 1848 someone drew maps of these sites. When I first saw them, I thought, oh, my God, those are single etched patterns. I said, I'm going to make these sites into the patterns! My work is just an interpretation. And maybe when I'm long gone, they'll still be there. Who knows?
Fran Well, they're beautiful. So those are representations of the five sites the park protects!
Bill Yes, exactly!
Fran Some of the most valuable artifacts (like the pipes) from the site are at the British Museum, what happened?
Bill The owner of the collection fell on hard times and he put this big collection up for sale. There was not one single American offer on it. So, he sold the collection to some guy who owned a small museum in southern England. Then, this guy went bankrupt, and the British Museum bought the entire collection. That’s how they ended up in the British Museum. A few years back, the British Museum posted a list of the 100 most important archeological items in history. And one of those pieces is a Hopewell pipe.
Fran Well, Bill, thank you so much for your time and for sharing part of your knowledge and experience.
Bill Thank you for listening, I enjoyed sharing my experience at the Hopewell site, I love it so much!
A portion of this interview was published in Italian in the March issue of the magazine Valsugana News. You can find it HERE, at page 74-75.
* * *
Francesca Gottardi is an attorney. She is also a University of Cincinnati Ph.D. Student at the College of Arts and Sciences Political Science Department and a J.D. Candidate at the College of Law. Francesca also earned a law degree from the University of Trento, Italy.