Kindly contributed by award-winning writer Heather Hansen. To celebrate the centennial of the National Park Service, Hansen relates its wonderful 100-year history in her new book Prophets and Moguls, Rangers and Rogues, Bison and Bears: 100 Years of National Park Service. She interviewed dozens of people and traveled to many of the country's great parks, telling how the US bureau has fought to protect the country's most scenic places and defined the American national identity.
Hopewell Culture National Historical Park (NHP) is a place few people encounter by accident. A kind of worthy pilgrimage must be made to south-central Ohio where the Scioto River wends its unhurried way through a storied valley still thrumming with mysteries.
Roughly 2,000 years ago this area was a hub of American Indian activity. “Hopewell” is the name for the people who spanned much of eastern North American, but its heartland was here. There were small villages with homes of wattle and thatch where residents grew crops including squash and sunflower, hunted deer and fished, and lived amicably with shared goals. The realization of those lofty goals remains imprinted on the landscape.
What the national park protects are ceremonial places of the Hopewell—complex “monumental earthworks” constructed entirely by hand. These are huge geometric enclosures of embankments and earthen mounds, the remnants of structures used for celebrations and various rites of passage. This ancient architecture includes some of the oldest human-made structures in North America. The mind grasps for comprehension of the scale of planning, engineering and physical labor necessary to construct these sacred complexes. Millions of tons of earth were moved and remolded with precision using standard units of measure to build precise circles, squares, rectangles, even octagons, the size of football fields. Some of the sites were aligned for astronomical observations. The ingenuity, awareness and devotion expressed are nothing short of epic.
Hopewell Culture NHP has a pulse. The blood and sweat of past inhabitants seems to course through it to this day. While there I recalled Machu Picchu, Stonehenge, Altun Ha, other places with soul. Standing among those mounds and considering the tenacity and collaboration required to build and maintain these centers, one generation after the next, was akin to craning my neck to marvel at the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. This small national park is one of those rare places where past and present command equal time in the consciousness of the visitor.
When excavated, archaeologists found the mounds packed with artifacts offering clues about the beliefs, ethics, rituals, talents and habits of those early Ohioans. The materials themselves are extraordinary—shark teeth from the Atlantic coast, marine shells from the Gulf of Mexico, copper from the north, quartz and mica from the south and, perhaps most astounding, obsidian from beyond the Rocky Mountains. Once the exotic materials were tracked down the Hopewell took to crafting them into objects, often depicting deer, bear or bird, as captivating as any Rodin or Brancusi.
I took time to scrutinize these objects, imagining the hands that molded them. I spent a year on the road, driving roughly 20,000 miles from one national park to another, collecting stories for my book on the National Park Service. I was a national park kid (I became a junior ranger at age 7 at Cape Cod National Seashore). Hopewell Culture was the 167th national park unit I’ve explored and, just like my time on Cape Cod decades ago, it offered some of that alchemy of childhood--when revelations can come from any angle and journeys are limited only by imagination.