A publication of the Archaeological Institute of America
Who Were the Hopewell?
The Hopewell culture flourished in Ohio and other parts of eastern North America during the Middle Woodland Period, possibly as early as 100 B.C. We do not know what these people might have called themselves. The name we use comes from Mordecai Hopewell, a Chillicothe landowner on whose property mounds were excavated in the 1800s. The site exemplified all the significant features of the culture, so it became the "type site" and its name was applied to the entire culture.
Hopewell settlements were small villages or hamlets of a few rectangular homes made of posts with wattle and daub walls and thatched roofs. The people raised crops including sunflower, squash, goosefoot, maygrass, and other plants with oily or starchy seeds. They also gathered wild plants, hunted deer and other large and small game, and fished. The Hopewell used tools such as knives and projectile points made of high quality flint and obsidian and hooks and awls made of bone. Their pottery was thinner and more refined than that of earlier cultures, and included new shapes such as bowls and jars.
The Hopewell culture participated in long-distance trading networks, acquiring copper from the upper Great Lakes, mica from the Carolinas, shells from the Gulf of Mexico, and obsidian from the Rocky Mountains. Magnificent works of art were crafted from these exotic raw materials, such as an elegant human hand effigy cut from mica and giant spear points chipped from obsidian. Hopewell artwork depicts various animals, with deer, bear, and birds appearing most frequently. Animal effigies--perhaps a guardian spirit of a shaman--were carved on the bowls of stone pipes so as to face the smoker.
Earthworks constructed by the Hopewell culture were places of ceremony, not settlements. They include regular, geometrically shaped complexes and irregularly shaped hilltop enclosures. Geometric earthworks are more common and may be squares, circles, or octagons with associated individual mounds. There are also mortuary sites with earthworks enclosing conical or loaf-shaped mounds that may contain burials and cremations. Some Hopewell burials have large quantities of goods, suggesting some level of hierarchy in the culture. The mounds themselves are evidence that people from different villages could be mobilized and work together on large projects.
The most spectacular earthworks are in southern Ohio and Indiana, especially in the valleys of the great and Little Miami, Scioto, and Muskingum rivers. The Newark Earthworks is the largest set of geometric earthworks built by the Hopewell culture. The Fort Ancient Earthworks is the largest example of a hilltop enclosure. The largest set of Hopewell burial mounds is at the Mound City Group in Chillicothe. All three of these sites are National Historic Landmarks and are being considered for nomination as World Heritage sites.
By A.D. 400, the Hopewell culture and its earthwork building were all but over. What caused this is unknown, but there was a major shift in the succeeding Late Woodland period settlements and subsistence. People lived in larger villages often surrounded by walls or ditches. Corn became more important and the bow and arrow were introduced. Some archaeologists characterize the end of the Hopewell as a cultural collapse because of the abandonment of the monumental architecture and the diminishing importance of ritual, art, and trade. Yet the population seems to have increased and it simply may be that villages became more self-sustaining and inwardly focused.Share