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Silent Testimony: Alice Weston

About Silent Testimony

Mark Michel, President
Archeological Conservancy

Silent Testimony: Prehistoric Earthworks of the Central Ohio Valley

When Europeans first crossed the Appalachians into the rich valley of the Ohio River, they were astounded by the discovery of great earthen monuments... high conical mounds, circles, squares, octagons, and miles-long parallel walls.  The first publication of the new Smithsonian Institution in 1848 was a remarkable study of the Ohio mounds, Ancient Monuments of the Ohio and Mississippi Valleys, by Squier and Davis.

Alice Weston and Rebecca Hawkins continue the tradition with these photographs.  Rebecca Hawkins provides a lively narrative that summarizes 200 years of research, while Alice Weston's vivid photographs document the mounds and monuments as they appear today, with new insights on their relationship to the skies.  She has created a pictorial record unsurpassed in mound builder studies.

When the Bureau of Ethnology surveyed the mounds in 1880, they found more than 20,000.  Probably no more than 200 remain intact today.  The Archeological Conservancy has in recent years joined in the effort to save this great American treasure.  There is nothing more satisfying than to rediscover the ancient mounds and monuments and see them preserved for posterity.

Archaeoastronomy Images

Archaeoastronomy is the study of how and why ancient peoples created marking devices to track the movements of the sun, moon, and stars.  The sun has a short, simple, annual cycle.  By marking its northern, southern, and midway rise points along the horizon, the seasons of the year can be ascertained.  Many sacred circles and effigy earthworks may mark these solar points.  The head of the Great Serpent Mound in Adams County, Ohio, points directly to the northernmost setting of the sun every year on June 21, the summer solstice.

The moon has a long and complicated cycle with 8 major and minor rise and set points over an 18.6-year time span.  It is only recently that these lunar alignments have been revealed in the huge geometric earthworks of the Central Ohio Valley.  Stars and constellations may also be marked, but "because their positions change greatly over time, they are harder to determine.  However, alignments for the rise of the planet Venus have been found in Central Ohio Valley earthworks.  We know, because the earthworks track the cycles of nature, that a closeness to nature was at the core of these ancient civilizations.  We must learn to accommodate our own modern technological civilization to nature, too.

Early Woodland ca. 1500 BC-200 BC Images

The Adena culture flourished toward the end of the Early Woodland period (after 800 BC).  Concentrations of Adena sites were located throughout the Central Ohio Valley along both major and minor streams.  Apparently, Adena mound building evolved from the construction of scattered, low mounds, to larger mounds or small groups of mounds that were sometimes surrounded by ditches and raised, circular walls.

The primary function of the mounds was sepulchral, although Adena mounds and earthworks also were a physical monument to group ritual and identity, and therefore a catalyst to continued ritual interaction.  As time passed, this interaction assumed more elaborate and complex forms as it worked to strengthen the ties between the living and the dead.  Perhaps these burial customs represented a way to overtly mark a particular group territory and integrate the group's families scattered across a large geographic area.

Middle Woodland ca. 200 BC- AD 500 Images

By about AD 1, Adena earthworks and artifacts were replaced by those of the Hopewell culture, whose epicenter was the Scioto Valley of southwestern Ohio.  The Hopewell maintained distant trade relations, procuring copper and silver from the Great Lakes, quartz crystals, and mica from the lower Allegheny region, obsidian and grizzly bear teeth from the West, and fossilized shark teeth and shells from the Gulf Coast.  Hopewell artifacts are found across the Eastern Woodlands, common ritual and symbolic denominators of the interaction among Native Americans during the Middle Woodland period.

Hopewell groups built new varieties of earthworks that satisfied the same functions as the Adena mounds, and also served as trading centers.  Some also integrated sophisticated astronomical alignments.  The range of celestial events observed and the accuracy with which they were commemorated on the ground is staggering.  So cognizant of the changing seasonal cycle, the Hopewell were able to pin down the peregrinations of the very stars and planets in their earthworks.  By this act, they proclaimed themselves solidly bound to nature.  From their earthen observatories, they could watch, as from the pivot point of an interconnected whole, the revolutions of the seasons and the skies, and of their own lives.

Late Prehistoric ca. AD 500- AD 1650 Images

For 2,000 years, possibly only a few generations at individual sites, the Native Americans of the Central Ohio Valley periodically convened at their great earthen ceremonial centers, perhaps to feast and dance, to bury their dead and take wives, to name their children, to resolve grievances, to watch in thanksgiving as the sun rose and set on course, to trade.  The golden age of Adena and Hopewell earthwork construction and use was over.  Although both Newtown (AD 500-1000) and Fort Ancient (AD 1000-1650) groups continued to use stone and earthen mounds, primarily for burial, it appears that interaction among groups simply found new manners of expression.  The civic and religious functions of the large earthwork complexes apparently were now outmoded.

The great debate continues, perhaps never to be solved, regarding the historical identity of Native American indigenous to the central Ohio Valley.  Some researchers believe that the Shawnee are the direct descendants.  Indeed the central Ohio Valley was the Shawnee homeland for much of the eighteenth century, before treaties made to be broken eventually evicted them.

Natural Setting Images

A fruitful people in a fruitful country, the sculptors of the earthworks in the central Ohio valley were sustained by a land that drew its energy from the mighty Ohio River.  Its various streams carved the terrain, influenced the weather, formed and drained the soil and nourished the plant and animal communities that supported human life.  In the heartland of the Eastern Woodlands, the primeval central Ohio Valley watershed was distinguished from adjacent regions by its geography and environment, as well as by its prehistoric cultures.

For about 2,000 years, maybe no longer than 100 generations, people here scooped up the ground beneath them to build up earthen tombs and monuments.  Their lives were modulated by the rhythmic swing of the seasons, their prosperity tied to the abundance of game and the harshness of winter, their technology bound up with the clay and the rocks available for making tools.  These Native Americans, who descended from the people who first settled the central Ohio Valley after the glacier's retreat, lived closely with the earth.  By both exploiting and husbanding its resources, they lived well on a land nurtured by the wellspring that was the Ohio River.

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