HOPEWELL COPPER IN CONTEXT AT MOUND CITY GROUP

Jarrod Burks

Hopewell Culture National Historical Park

Over eighty years ago William Mills conducted one of Ohio's earlier and more extensive salvage excavation projects at Mound City Group (Mills 1922). Despite the extensive damage to the site caused by the construction of a vast World War I training facility, Mills found intact portions of half of the original 24 mounds identified by Squier and Davis in 1848. Since the 1920s, all but three of the remaining known mounds at Mound City have been re-excavated, revealing submound building plans beneath each. Together, these excavations recovered approximately 200 copper objects, from earspools and cutout plates to awls and clay-filled beads.

 

Just below the graded down surfaces of the mounds, Mills and others encountered the remains of buildings (postholes), crematory basins, discrete deposits of smashed and burned artifacts (referred to as special deposits) and numerous deposits of cremated human bone in four different burial settings: (1) in piles on the building floors, (2) in shallow pits below floor level, (3) on platforms built up to about floor level from the bottoms of shallow pits, and (4) on platforms extending up from the floor. Copper was also found in deposits above the building floors, presumably placed on the surface of smaller mounds that sometimes covered the platforms prior to the construction of the final, larger mound.

 

The graph in Figure 1 shows the frequency of six different kinds of depositional context at Mound City and the number of those contexts that contained copper objects. Out of more than 120 contexts in which copper could have accompanied human remains or other ceremonial deposits, it occurred in just under 30-the most of any other raw material type. Floor burials by far contained the most copper items, nearly all of which were beads and button-like objects (ca. 70). However, these copper objects were confined to only a handful of the possible floor contexts, which were predominantly devoid of accompanying artifacts. The remaining contexts have an almost 1:1 ratio of copper to context frequency. In particular, platform contexts almost always contained copper objects. In fact, at Mound City the larger and more elaborate copper artifacts almost always occur on platforms. Figure 2 shows a partial reconstruction of Burial 9 in Mound 7, a platform in a log-lined basin. The gray area in the middle of the platform is a small pile of cremated remains covering Mound City's most unique copper object-what Mills called "a remarkable effigy of a mushroom, evidently intended to represent the so-called death-cup" and he suggested it "served as a wand or baton" (Mills 1922:369). Surrounding the wood-covered copper mushroom were four, symbolically rich plate copper objects, a headdress of "some animal" with copper horns, and numerous other items made from copper, pearl, and shell (Mills 1922:313). Like a number of other platforms at Mound City, Burial 9 was completely covered by sheets of mica before it was heaped over with earth.

Figure 1
Figure 1.

 

 

In summary, copper is the most widely distributed raw material type, out of more than a dozen, at Mound City. Worked copper items of various shapes and sizes were attached to costumes, hung on necklaces, and assembled as components of other complex objects, including a rattle belt composed of 18 small copper turtle shell rattles. While most of the copper objects were deposited in floor burials, the more elaborate objects were placed on platforms. This distribution of copper objects is one of numerous lines of evidence suggesting that Hopewell mortuary ceremonialism at Mound City was a process with multiple stages. At death, Hopewell individuals were brought to the mortuary center at Mound City and cremated in a crematory basin within one of the mortuary ceremonial buildings. Many copper objects show signs of intense burning and may have been a part of the death costume. Following cremation, the remains were collected and may have been placed on a platform for display with other important symbols, many of which were made with copper. Whether all individuals went from the crematory basin to a platform is unknown (cf. Brown 1979). If we assume that all individuals were accorded the same basic treatment at death, then after some period of time the displayed remains were gathered up and taken to their final resting place near the outside edge of the building-either on the building floor or in a shallow, subfloor pit. However, the important symbolic objects were not moved to the graves. Instead they were reused in other ceremonies. While the processing of the dead through multi-staged mortuary ceremonies is not a new idea in Hopewell studies, understanding the context of copper at Mound City provides evidence that such staged ceremonies were in use nearly two thousand years ago along the banks of the Scioto River.

Figure 2
Figure 2. Burial 9 platform, Mound 7.

 



References Cited

 

Brown, James A.
 1979  Charnel Houses and Mortuary Crypts: Disposal of the Dead in the Middle Woodland. In Hopewell Archaeology, edited by D. S. Brose and N. Greber, pp. 211-219. MCJA Special Paper No. 3. Kent State University Press, Kent, Ohio.

 

Mills, William C.
 1922  Exploration of the Mound City Group. In , pp. 245-406. F.J. Heer Printing Co., Columbus, Ohio.

 

Squier, Ephraim G., Edwin H. Davis
 1848  Ancient Monuments of the Mississippi Valley. Contributions to Knowledge No. 1. Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C.