Fort Ancient


Fort Ancient

6123 St. Rt. 350
Oregonia, Ohio 45054
513.932.4421 or
Fax 513.932.4843



10 a.m.–5 p.m.
Sunday: Noon–5 p.m.
Closed on Mondays




Adult: $7 
Seniors (60+): $6
Students (6–16): $6
Child (5 & under): Free

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Ohio Prehistory

Middle Woodland 50 BC - AD 450
canine earpiece point This period is marked by the emergence of the Hopewell people, who are remarkable for their elaborate burial practices, large and complex earthworks, acquisition of massive and diverse collections of exotic raw materials, refined artistic styles, and innovations in stone tool and ceramic technology. Although the term “Hopewell” is used to describe many contemporary peoples throughout all of Eastern North America during the Middle Woodland, the Ohio Hopewell are regarded by most archaeologists to be the most extraordinary of all these various peoples. Many would regard the Illinois Hopewell as a similarly spectacular cultural fluorescence, though it is no accident that the term Hopewell by which many prehistoric people are denoted is a term that originated in Ohio. Indeed, the Ohio Hopewell intrigued early scholars to such a degree that this mysterious culture undoubtedly played a major role in starting American archaeology. Unfortunately, the physical prominence of Hopewell earthworks to early American explorers resulted in extensive damage to most of our largest and most famous earthworks. Destructive indiscriminate excavations, especially during the late 1800s, yielded large collections of artifacts still present in many museums, but often with poor associated contextual data.

Within Ohio, Hopewell earthworks are most prominent in the valleys of the Great and Little Miami rivers, the Scioto River, and the Muskingum River. There are few comparable sites in surrounding states. Hopewell communities were located in small clearings with a rich environment – mostly on the Glaciated Allegheny Plateau of south-central Ohio. Here the groups had access to a variety of resources including those of primeval forest, prairie, and river.

Though the structure of Hopewell economy and settlement is similar to those of the Early Woodland period, there are more settlements, with a higher concentration in major valleys. Despite the impressive accomplishments of the Hopewell, most settlements are not what could be described as “villages.” They are more accurately termed “hamlets.” These hamlets were multi-seasonal and permanent, but were comprised of only one or a few houses.

Houses were generally square and constructed of log posts woven with small branches and twigs that were then covered with bark or daub (a clay and grass mixture). Most houses were about 20-30 ft long and the roof was covered with thatch, reeds, or bark. Each house probably had cooking and activity areas surrounding it with the trashpits, or middens, located downwind or out of sight.

Like their Early Woodland predecessors, the Hopewell people grew plants of the Eastern Agricultural Complex and also relied on hunting and gathering. The Hopewell did not practice an economy that yielded massive surplus or material wealth, but instead practiced an economic strategy that was diverse and consequently stable. Although the production and harvesting of resources was simple, it was one that was sustainable for nearly half a millennium.

The artwork of these people depicts various animals, with deer, bear, and birds appearing most frequently. In particular, animal effigies are common in the form of carved stone pipes. The bowls of the pipes are carved into effigies in which the animal effigy would face the smoker. This is thought to represent the guardian spirit of the shaman. Spectacular caches of effigy pipes have been recovered from two mounds – one at Mound City in Chillicothe and Tremper Mound near West Portsmouth. Hopewell effigy pipes are diverse in the species of animals depicted and if all known effigy pipes were gathered together in one place, they would likely represent most of the large animal species known to the Hopewell. The human form is rarely depicted in Hopewell art, though geometric shapes are also common. With the exception of hilltop enclosures, most earthworks are in the shapes of circles, squares, and octagons.

The Hopewell people of Ohio sought and utilized large amounts of exotic raw materials. They obtained more copper from the Great Lakes region than any other culture, which was used for objects such as earspools and celts. They acquired obsidian from the Rocky Mountains, marine shell from the Atlantic and Gulf Coasts, mica from North Carolina, galena from Illinois and Missouri, fresh and marine pearls, steatite, silver, and hematite. This acquisition of exotic materials suggests that they were trading regularly with many other groups in a system labeled the “Hopewell Interaction Sphere.” Although high-quality Ohio flint is found in distant locations, archaeologists do not seem to find equivalent Ohio raw materials distributed across the region to indicate reciprocity. This suggests several interpretations, one of which might be that Ohio Hopewell people traded non-physical offerings, such as specialized ritual knowledge.

Most of what is known about the Hopewell comes from mortuary and ceremonial contexts, with few domestic sites identified. Mortuary sites are often large earthworks enclosing burial mounds that may contain small or large numbers of human burials and cremations. Cremation of the deceased and accompanying burial goods was common, with these cremations taking place in specialized structures known as “charnel houses.” The remains of large wooden structures have been found underneath some large oval-shaped burial mounds. Some of these wood structures are interpreted as “charnel houses” or “Big Houses” which typically are associated with processing and interacting with the deceased, but may have also served other purposes. Some Hopewell burials have been found with large quantities of accompanying goods. The variety of burial practices suggests some level of hierarchy in regards to social status. Women and men are both represented in high status burials and it is likely that women played different, but equally important roles in society.

The Hopewell are most widely known for the building and use of elaborate earthworks and mounds. Earthworks usually fall clearly into two groups: regular geometrically-shaped earthwork complexes and irregularly shaped hilltop enclosures. Geometric earthworks are more common and are often conjoined squares, circles, and/or octagons with associated individual mounds. The regular and consistent layout of geometric earthworks demonstrate that Hopewell people had a consistent unit of measure, and an understanding of mathematics, geometry, and astronomy. Some of the earthworks, such as Newark Earthworks, have astronomical alignments, both lunar and solar to mark certain important times of the year. Some archaeologists claim that there was even a “Great Hopewell Road,” a 60-mile stretch of parallel walls of earth that connected the Newark Earthworks in Newark to Mound City in Chillicothe.

Hilltop enclosures, such as Fort Ancient, are fewer in number and are more predominant in southwestern Ohio. These enclosures are composed of earthen walls that surround a flattened hilltop, sometimes with elaborate gateways. Early scholars in the nineteenth century assumed that these enclosures were defensive in nature and most of them have been given names with the word “Fort” in them such as Fort Ancient in Warren County. More recent work on sites such as the Pollack Works in Greene County has revealed that they are primarily ceremonial with only a secondary defensive function, if any. Hilltop enclosures vary greatly in size, number of “gateways” or openings, and presence of interior mounds or other features.

The Hopewell prospered for perhaps six centuries, but around A.D. 500, the culture “collapsed.” There are many hypotheses and possible causes, but no consensus and little direct archaeological evidence. Culture collapse in general is a subject that archaeologists and historians struggle to define and address. Disease, warfare, and economic failure have been proposed to explain the disappearance of the Hopewell, but modern archaeologists have suggested more sophisticated and complex explanations as well.

For example, the behaviors that archaeologists label as Hopewell may be evidence of status competition between different communities and their corresponding leadership. Assuming this to be an accurate working explanation, the lack of evidence for continuing this social competition could reflect a diverse set of possible causes: a loss of confidence in local leaders due to economic or environmental difficulties; a failure of trade networks supplying those local leaders with prestigious non-local material; or the resolution of that competition to the satisfaction of the participants. In addition, the Hopewell people may have abandoned this competition for status as the needs of local communities changed. If Hopewell people lived in dispersed communities that were led by small groups of leaders whose authority was based on personal status, charisma, and socio-religious position, perhaps those communities grew to the point that such leadership was no longer necessary or productive. In this hypothetical scenario, the Hopewell abandoned that status-based leadership in favor of simple administrators who could manage the economic and social needs of villages and whose authority was not based on competing for status.

Most archaeologists conclude that the evidence does necessarily indicate that the Hopewell people left the Ohio River Valley, were physically harmed by disease or warfare or other causes, or were otherwise eliminated as a population. Although the relationship between the Hopewell and their Late Woodland successors is unclear, there is no doubt that a native population continued to reside in southern Ohio after the demise of the Hopewell culture. There is also, however, no question that these successors did not practice the extravagant and complex behaviors that we define as Hopewell, leaving archaeologists to debate what “Hopewell” represents.