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Spruce Hill is Safe...for Now June 19, 2007
by Laura Sexton

Preservationists try to acquire an important Hopewell site in Ohio


Illegal four-wheel ATV races on the Spruce Hill property have damaged the original rock and earthen wall. (Courtesy Jeffrey Wilson)

Just a few weeks ago, Spruce Hill, one of the most important archaeological sites in Ohio, was in danger of being auctioned off to paper companies eager to profit from its premium forest timber. A sacred stone hilltop fortification enclosing 150 acres of land, Spruce Hill was built by the Hopewell Indians nearly 2,000 years ago. Although it was surveyed in the mid 1800s, few archaeologists have investigated the site because it was privately owned up until now. Had Spruce Hill been auctioned off, the site's structures and artifacts, along with their valuable evidence about the Hopewell culture, could have been lost forever.

In a heroic effort, four preservation groups joined together to purchase the land just one day before it was set to go to auction. Highlands Sanctuary led the Archaeological Conservancy, Wilderness East, and Ross County Park District in raising an astonishing $217,000 in cash and $150,000 in no-interest loans. To accomplish this feat, they contacted scores of archeological groups across the country, including the Archaeological Institute of America, all of which were overwhelmingly supportive. Jeffrey Wilson, a key player in the fundraising, stated, "I can't remember a single person that didn't say they wanted [Spruce Hill] preserved." Their work isn't finished yet, though.


Spruce Hill was surveyed in the mid-nineteenth century by E.G. Squier and E.H. Davis. A plan of the site appeared in their 1847 work Ancient Monuments of the Mississippi Valley.

Although preservation groups raised enough to convince officials to remove the site from auction, they are still far short of the total sale price: $612,000. An additional $245,000 must be raised before the closing day scheduled for July 16, 2007. Their plan is to continue their nationwide grassroots campaign, collecting donations from archaeological groups and Native Americans who want the site protected. They will also try to obtain funds from Clean Ohio, a government program designed to preserve green space and farmland. Larry Henry, co-director of Highlands Sanctuary, stated, "We've got a long ways to go, but we've got 30 days to [fundraise], and if we stay focused, I'm sure we'll pull it off."

Upon purchasing the property, the long-term goal is to transfer ownership to the National Park Service (NPS). Since Spruce Hill borders Hopewell Culture National Historic Park, the government could extend the park border to include Spruce Hill. Park status is not only important from a preservation standpoint, but also because the NPS has expertise in managing public traffic through archaeological sites. The public could therefore visit and appreciate Spruce Hill without damaging the cultural treasures it holds.


Earthworks at Mound City, one of the sites within the Hopewell Culture National Historic Park. A bill in the House of Representatives would expand the park's boundaries to include Spruce Hill. (NPS photo)

A committee hearing in the House of Representatives was held Thursday, June 14, to discuss H.R. 2197, a bill to modify the boundary of the Hopewell Cultural National Historical Park. Sponsored by Ohio representative Zachary Space, the bill would extend the border to include Spruce Hill. According to Space, "We have an obligation to support efforts to explore the traditions of these early people and share this knowledge with coming generations so the Hopewell Culture is not lost forever."

While many are optimistic, and the Department of the Interior is reportedly supportive, the bill still needs to be passed by Congress and approved by the President. If H.R. 2197 is not approved, then Spruce Hill will likely become a nature preserve. In other words, the preservation groups would retain ownership, and the land would be left undeveloped.

The final word from Congress may be years away, but in the meantime, Ross County Park officials plan to increase security at the site with additional fencing; they will also increase awareness about the sanctity of the site by adding signage in the area. Even if park status is not gained, the artifacts at Spruce Hill will at least remain protected for the time being.

Laura Sexton is studying history, philosophy, and social studies of science and medicine at the University of Chicago.

© 2007 by the Archaeological Institute of America