A Hopewell Woodhenge

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Jarrod Trombley excavates sediments in the ancient ditch that marks the outer edge of the Great Circle.
Jarrod Trombley excavates sediments in the ancient ditch that marks the outer edge of the Great Circle.

Winter 2014 A Hopewell Woodhenge By Dave Ghose

Two excavators dug a long, narrow trench in the flat, vacant landscape. They were part of a small crew that worked quietly in an unremarkable patch of the Hopewell Culture National Historical Park. Though the size of the crew and the scope of their excavation seemed unremarkable, the project’s discoveries appear to be anything but. The archaeologists have uncovered evidence of a massive earthen and wooden Hopewell monument that stood here almost 2,000 years ago. “The archaeological record is totally intact,” said Bret Ruby, the park archaeologist leading the excavation. “It’s just buried.”

On a hot day in early July, Ruby—wearing sunglasses, work boots, and a wide-brimmed hat—stood at the edge of the Great Circle, the focus of his investigation at the Hopewell Mound Group, one of six sites that make up the park near Chillicothe, Ohio. Though archaeologists have known about the feature for nearly 200 years, Ruby is the first to excavate it.

According to conventional wisdom, the circle, which is nearly 400 feet in diameter, was destroyed by two centuries of plowing. Historical accounts described it as a circular embankment and ditch, but Ruby contends it also included close to 100 wooden posts. Several small white flags mark spots along the circle where Ruby believes the posts once stood. Earlier this summer, his team opened two four-foot-deep excavation units near two of the flags. The digging hasn’t uncovered remnants of the actual posts so far, but it has revealed other important information.

Using a rolled-up map, Ruby pointed to an oddly colored, U-shaped stain in the soil profile. That stain, he said, is where a post once stood. The color and texture is different from the surrounding reddish, gravelly soil, suggesting the natives removed the post and then backfilled the hole, a decommissioning practice that occurred at other Hopewell sites. The dimensions of this and other postholes indicate they could have supported posts as tall as 16 feet. This suggests that the largest Hopewell timber circle, or “woodhenge,” ever recorded once stood in this earthworks complex. “There aren’t a lot of [alternative explanations],” Ruby said.

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