September 2007 Issue
The southwestern Ohio earthworks known as Fort Ancient were a place of ceremony, not warfare.
Fort Ancient, though it's reasonably well known, may also be one of Ohio's greatest historical misunderstandings: First, it was never a fort. And the ancient people after whom it's named were not the ones who built it — in other words, either the Fort Ancient culture shouldn't be called that, or Fort Ancient should be called something else if it's supposed to be attributed to them.
To get to the bottom of it all, you have to go back to the beginning. >>
The area in question is in Warren County between Dayton and Cincinnati, in the woods along the Little Miami River -- a remarkable, complex series of low-rise earthworks that were constructed by hand more than 2,000 ago. They are one of the largest remaining structures left by prehistoric Native Americans anywhere in the country.
And they are a place of wonder, surprise and mystery.
They were built by people who probably used deer bones, stones and wooden tools to scrape earth into wicker baskets, which they dumped and stacked and shaped to form three and a half miles of walls that enclosed 126 acres on a plateau overlooking the river. Some of the walls were 50 feet wide, and up to 23 feet high. As many as 67 breaks in the walls are now known as "gateways," which can still be seen. Some 553,000 estimated cubic yards of earth that make up the site were moved -- one basket at a time.
Today, the tree-covered mounds -- eroded several feet from their original height -- stand as silent testimony to the fact that people have always felt a deep-seated need to build things: to change, manipulate and affect the landscape in a way that will show later generations that somebody came before them and did something important.
We don't know what the people who made these mounds called themselves, for despite the pots, weapons, tools and bone shards they left behind, they produced no written record of their life or work. We have come up with a name for their culture: Hopewell.
Native Americans of the Hopewell culture lived in central and south central Ohio between 100 B.C. and around A.D. 400. They worked on the site in Warren County in stages, from about 100 B.C. to 300 A.D., expanding the site gradually according to their abilities, manpower and needs.
And what, exactly, were those needs? Scholars, archaeologists and the Ohio Historical Society caretakers who keep an eye on Fort Ancient today say that it was built as a ceremonial and religious site -- basically, a combination church, city hall and town square for the people of the Hopewell culture who lived in and around the area, and who felt a civic responsibility to keep adding to the site.
And add they did. Fort Ancient consists of three distinct but interconnected areas -- the "North Fort," "South Fort" and "Middle Fort," each known by its own special features. There are four mounds in the North Fort, for instance, that form a square with sides 512 feet long, and which seem to align to the sun at the summer solstice -- a clue, perhaps, to how the nature-attuned, agriculturally sophisticated people used the site.
At some point, around A.D. 400, the Hopewell culture ceased to exist for reasons we'll never know. Ohio was home to a host of overlapping, neighboring Native American cultures, and just as the Hopewell emerged from and may have lived alongside the Adena Mound Builders before them, the people of what we now call the Fort Ancient culture arrived in the area around A.D. 1000 and stayed until about 1500. They shared Ohio with the Native American Whittlesey of northeast Ohio, the Late Woodland "Cole People" of central Ohio, the eastern Ohio Monongahela and the northern, lakeshore Sanduskys.
The Fort Ancients, as it happens, were opportunists. They moved into the area and found the comfortable, convenient and possibly sacred-seeming earthworks left behind by the Hopewells several hundred years before and declared them home, settling into them and creating villages within the walls.
Those remnants were found centuries later by the 19th-century archaeologists who first gave serious Anglo study to the site. They looked at the still-tall earthen walls and mistakenly concluded that they had been built for defense by the later dwellers. The complex, they decided, was clearly a fort -- especially in the eyes of a white culture that still couldn't imagine that the American Indians who were still being beaten down and fought with at that time out West might have at one time built something so grand, and so much in the white man's midst. It was ancient, it was a fort -- the name of the people who built it seemed obvious.
To scholars today, the levels of white misunderstanding are as complex as the layers of Indian history that lie beneath the surface waiting for rediscovery.
"The vast majority of people who come to the site don't differentiate between cultures," says Jack Blosser, who for 19 years has served as the Ohio Historical Society's site manager at Fort Ancient. "They still assume it was a fort. It wasn't a fort, but was a place for religious and social gatherings."
Whether or not they fully understand the park, which today comprises more than 760 acres of wild, natural, state-owned forest, visitors are coming in greater numbers. Blosser reports, with both pride and a trace of surprise, that annual visitation to Fort Ancient was up 35 percent in the last fiscal year, to a total of 25,000 people.
He attributes that to "better marketing," but also to "a surge of interest because of increased archaeology at the site." Yes, even after all these centuries and so many rounds of excavation, Fort Ancient is still giving up its secrets.
The latest discoveries are being led by Dr. Robert Riordan of Wright State University, who is in his second year of leading a team of student diggers to explore a 200-foot-diameter circle that was found by magnetic imaging of the soil in the northwest section of the site. They're finding the charred remnants of posts arranged in the ground in a thrilling pattern, just waiting through the years to be found. It's been dubbed Moorehead Circle -- after Warren Moorehead, the scholar who in the late 1800s did the most important archaeological and preservation work on Fort Ancient.
"It was a Woodhenge," Blosser says. "Maybe 220 posts. We don't know what it was used for, but it was some sort of ceremony."
Today, local Native Americans use the site for occasional ceremonies, and join other visitors for quiet reflection and the chance to visit and commune with nature. Fort Ancient's trails provide light, pleasant woodland hiking, and its overlooks show off the Little Miami River valley -- the north overlook offers a gorgeous view of the Jeremiah Morrow Bridge that rises some 275 feet over the river.
And if one wants to feel close to the Native American peoples who once walked and loved this land, the mounds are all around -- beckoning and yet teasing with their mystery. Some of that is unraveled and explained in the visitor's center, which has 9,000 square feet of exhibit space. Located at the entrance to the park, the center describes the entire history of Native Americans in Ohio, from the first arrivals to the warriors who met the first unwelcome white settlers. "It's a place of education, and of retreat," Blosser says of today's park.
But what became of the Fort Ancients? Scholars today don't think they disappeared. Rather, they stuck around and became the very same Shawnee who were here to make the blue-coated American soldiers feel like encroachers. "The Shawnee, in their oral tradition, talk of being here in the 12th, 13th, 14th and 15th centuries," Blosser says.
And what would he most like people to learn when they come to visit? That's simple: "Fort Ancient," he says, "was a place of ceremony, not of warfare. This was a prehistoric church."
Fort Ancient Museum and earthworks is located at 6123 St. Rte. 350 in Oregonia. For more information, call 513/932-4421 or 800/283-8904, or visit www.ohiohistory.org/places/ftancien. Admission is $7, students $3. Hours: April–Oct.: Sat. 10 a.m.–5 p.m.; Sun. and holidays, 12–5 p.m. Memorial Day to Oct.: Wed.–Sat. 10 a.m.–5 p.m.; Sun. and holidays 12–5 p.m.
To learn more about the Wright State University archaeology work at Fort Ancient, visit ohio-archaeology.blogspot.com.