The Great Hopewell Road
Adena, Hopewell, and Missisippian are terms for three major traditions in ancient North American societies. They represent not distinct ethnicities, empires, or cultures but customs and lifestyles. It can be hard getting a handle around that, but think of them all as “Mound-Builders.” They marked the landscape of the southern Great Lakes with massive monuments of earth and stone. Their domains were the Mississippi River valley, the Ohio River valley, and the southern bellies of the Great Lakes, including my home region of Western New York.
The thriving of the Adena tradition was roughly 1000 BC to about 200 AD. The Hopewell overlapped them, around 200 AD to about 500 AD. The Mississippian influence seems to have started up around 800 AD. Its practitioners should have been there to greet the first Europeans who came to their territory. The first French and Spanish explorers of the Mississippi River valley found monuments still under construction but no one left to talk to. As with the cultures of the Caribbean, the builders of the Mississippian earthworks seem to have been exterminated by the plagues, typically smallpox, that accompanied and many times even preceded America’s first historic explorers.
In Newark, Ohio, is a complex of monuments made around the time of Christ in the Hopewell tradition. One of them, most often called, “The Newark Octagon and Observatory Circle,” is basically a giant, recumbent dirt-ring linked by a two-walled walkway to a similarly made eight-sided form. It’s so reminiscent of the body outline of many a spider that some parties are even conjecturing that it might be the form of Grandmother Spider, a major figure of southwestern Native American mythology. The monument is huge, and fairly unique.
The circle-form is found worldwide, of course, in every conceivable design and medium. While the octagonal shape appears in sacred design and thought in divergent world societies, octagons are unusual in megalithic construction. In fact, they seem distinctive of Native North American mound-building tradition. While the significance of the octagon to these ancient societies is a matter of interest in itself, octagons connected to circles are mighty rare. A monument remarkably similar to the one at Newark stood sixty miles to the southeast. It was the High Bank Earthworks in Chillicothe, Ohio.
The first state capital of Ohio, Chillicothe appeared also to be the core of the society that had built these monuments. (The U.S. has a lot of odd cultural overlaps like this. Many of our cities were once Native American culture-centers.) Chillicothe’s octagon-and-circle could have been the original. Study of these two uncannily similar constructions revealed that their alignments, their central axes, may be exact perpendiculars. Though sixty miles apart, they seem have been made as echoes of each other. This looked like some sort of statement, but what?
Close studies of the monuments revealed other peculiarities, including astronomical alignments. Pits and stones outside them made sightlines from points inside them that would have indicated lunar and solar events. And there may have been a more literal and earthly connection between them.
Surveys of the Newark monuments made in 1820 (Squier and Davis) and 1862 (C & J Salisbury) showed two low, parallel earth-banks coming off like a tail and heading straight southeast. About 175 feet apart and three feet high, they perfectly framed an astonishing open-ground promenade.
If this earthen, double-banked pathway had been shorter (under six miles/10K) and appeared to start and end nowhere, you might call it a “cursus” like those of ancient Europe. As it was, its first inspectors wondered if it might lead to something. They followed this straight trail for about six miles until it was obliterated by development, which in mid-19th century Ohio meant just about nothing but farming. They could have had no idea that its true base might be sixty miles away.
In the 1980s Ohio archaeologist Bradley Lepper got speculating about this walled pathway, and he has done some admirable digging. He found traces of “the Great Hopewell Road” coming out of Newark visible in aerial photographs taken in 1934. It’s fun to see this parallel trackway showing as eerie discolorations in the fields. Imagine the shock when it was discovered with contemporary technology that Chillicothe’s companion earthworks, the state’s other rare circle/octagon monument, must have been the southern anchor of this electrifying pathway they call “the Great Hopewell Road.” Across sixty miles! Think of the engineering, the planning, the surveying, needed to do a thing like this! It was far beyond a bunch of cavemen. And what exact statement did it make?
Lepper–Curator of Archaeology for the Ohio Historical Society and a visiting lecturer at Ohio State and Denison University (my alma mater)–is an example of the finest of academics: an established scholar who actively thinks outside the box, one who is willing to evaluate radical theories based on their evidence and not what the system tells him he ought to think. I can’t tell you how much I admire people like this, even when I disagree with them. Lepper has to be credited as the pioneer in the discovery of this spectacular example of an American “ley,” a connector of sacred sites. Who says leys don’t exist now?
While only in a few spots along the 100K route were any traces of the road still visible today, the uncanny connector stands as a monument to the vast, mysterious culture that set it up. Wouldn’t it be fun to reconstruct the thing, set up a sacred, offroad rec path across the Buckeye State, and join the elders on one of their shadow-pilgrimages? It would be fun, also, to know the supernatural encounters, the EHEs (“exceptional human experiences”) that may have been reported about spots on this line.
“Very Special Things Happen There”
As I have maintained for so long, supernatural folklore is an indicator, often an indirect one, of ancient power-space. Like haunted houses, these powerful, ancient, sacred places are “EHE zones,” places of exceptional human experience. You notice we aren’t saying that the dragons, spooks, UFOs, and mystery beings are all really there. How could we say yea or nay? We weren’t there at the time. We are saying with confidence that people report crazy things at these spots. Legends attach to them.
The Time-Life series Mysteries of the Unknown (1987-1991) was one of the company’s best selling ventures. Its 33 volumes were compiled by fine journalists, and the individual articles are summaries of talks and interviews with cutting-edge researchers. They are also fun reads, with glorious art and photographs. I was scanning “Mystic Places” on the exercise bike last week when I came across an article about a sociologist’s experience in November 1975 at Lebanon, Ohio’s Serpent Mound, one of North America’s most impressive effigy monuments. Let me quote:
Robert W. Harner was driving through the state one warm November afternoon when he decided on a whim to see the mound he had first visited as a child. He stood alone on the serpent's head that windless day, he recalled later, wondering why the builders had chosen that inconvenient hill for their sculpture. Then, suddenly, he felt an overwhelming sense of dread -- "the coldest, most abject, hopeless terror I have ever experienced. I felt the hair rising on the nape of my neck; I could neither move nor speak. I know that, although I was completely alone, I was not really alone."
Frozen with fear, Harner said he could only watch as the leaves below him, first one by one and then in small groups, gathered themselves up and began to move toward him up the ridge. Still there was no wind; yet the leaves crept unnaturally toward him, rising and falling like footfalls. When they were fifteen or twenty feet away, they flew together, swirling around him in a macabre dance. Harner forced himself to break away, turning toward his car for a camera, but at that instant the spell was broken. “I saw that already the leaves were walking back down the hillside and I knew I never could get back in time to photograph them.”
As a shaken Harner contemplated the incident, he was certain he had glimpsed “some small portion of that world I did not believe existed,” a spirit world the builders of the Great Serpent may have known, too. "Perhaps" he concluded, "they built their mound on that particular hill because very special things happen there."
"Perhaps they built their mound on that particular hill because very special things happen there"? Ya think? Or do very special things happen on that hill because the monument is there?
I haven’t had much luck tracking Harner down to find out if he was an academic sociologist or some other, but from the sound of things he made an excellent skeptical witness. (When one thinks of occupations associated with mystical visions, sociology is not the first that comes to mind.) It would also be wonderful to know the day of Harner’s visit to that hill, thus if his experience could somehow have been coincident in time. His positioning was neat, too: on the serpent’s head. I had a nifty vision of my own when standing in the eye of the White Horse of Uffington in England. I wouldn’t stand there like that today, incidentally. Both standing positions are at the least bad form, and by now they are probably illegal.
Harner’s fear reaction is pretty common with an EHE. I remember the feeling pretty well myself in the first few psychic-paranormal incidents I had in my life. By now, I don’t see them as aspects of dread. They are so rare, they’re almost like religious visions or wondrous meteorological events. I usually react to them with the inspiration and awe of spotting a sun-pillar over the White Mountains on a winter twilight.
But Harner’s report stands out as just one more of the mystical, visionary, and supernatural experiences that are common at these ancient monuments. The staff at the Hopewell Culture National Historical Park have so many of them that they even joke about the phenomenon and the accompanying shock. “Hopewelled,” they call it. (When a sudden gust of wind swirls through the administration building or uncanny sounds can be heard only from a precise spot within one of the circles… “You got Hopewelled,” the breathless rookie is often told.) I’ve had enough of my own experiences like this at the megaliths of the British Isles. I wish we commemorated more of our own in upstate New York.
Ring of Honor
(As we come to the solstice and the time of year when we may think most of the lonely, the less fortunate, and the less abled, this article may seem timely. It concludes the chapter, “Power-Spaces,” in Iroquois Supernatural (2011), by Michael Bastine and Mason Winfield.)
Sketchy legends of monsters, witch-lights, and supernatural battles help us recognize New York’s ancient power-places; they don’t touch the richness of the traditions the old societies maintained about them. Now and then we get a hint.
Sig Lonegren is a Vermont native who lives today in Glastonbury, England. Our paths crossed a lot in the 1980s when I taught English at The Gow School and Sig was one of its most distinguished graduates and board members. A big, lighthearted, graying-blond man, even wearing a suit Sig would give the look of someone who had once been a hippie. Sig is also a polymath – an authority on diverse topics - who has written world-renowned books on dowsing, labyrinths, and “ancient mysteries.” Sig is a pretty good man to ask for insights about any paranormal subject, and, a longtime student and friend of Seneca wolf-mother Twylah Hurd Nitsch (1913-2007), he knows plenty about Iroquois country. In November 2009 I asked him about ancient monuments in New York. “I was taken to one on the Cattaraugus Reservation,” he said. “I don’t think the archaeologists know this one.
“What’s it like?”
“Very impressive. A big earth-circle, maybe on the oval side. It had a couple openings in it that could have been entrances.”
“Where is it?” I asked in the tone of asking the time. We made eye contact, and I forget who smiled first. He knew I had to ask; I was pretty sure he wouldn’t answer. Then he went serious.
“If I remembered how to find it, I couldn’t tell you,” he said. “But that was a long time ago. I honestly don’t remember. I do remember what I was told about it, though. The Seneca I was with said, ‘This is where we honored our handicapped.’
“They honored people of different abilities because they presumed that they had extra gifts.” I know he looked at me again, but I was gazing off into space. Ceremonies and monuments to their disabled! Some people in my society resent giving them a few parking spaces.
“The Creator never takes something from any of us,” says Michael Bastine, “without giving something back. The Native peoples of the world have always believed that. We don’t look down on our handicapped. To us they are powerful, but in ways that aren’t easy to see. They were put here not only to enjoy their own lives, but to be spiritual teachers to the rest of us. If we can only learn how to listen to them.”