The Great Mound Builders’ Debate and Origins of Our First Field Office

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Introducing the Origins of Our First Field Office: the Midwest Regional Office

by Paul Gardner, Midwest Regional Director

When modern Americans think of the nation’s archaeological heritage, most probably conjure up images of the adobe ruins and cliff palaces of the Southwest. The combination of visible prehistoric architecture and dramatic landscapes can capture the imagination of anyone with even a casual interest in the past.  However, in the 19th century, American archaeological interest was firmly centered on the American Midwest.

As American settlers moved westward from the Atlantic seaboard and encountered  the sprawling earthworks and towering mounds that lay abandoned across the landscape, a dispute arose as to who had created them.  Many believed that a lost race predating the American Indians had created the monuments, while others championed the ancestors of the modern American Indians as their makers.  This “Mound-builders debate” would stimulate much intellectual effort and lay the foundation for modern American archaeology. The first book published by the United States government, Smithsonian Contributions to Knowledge Vol. 1, The Ancient Monuments of the Mississippi Valley, was published in 1848 and addressed the Mound-builders debate.

The very first private fund-raising effort to preserve an archaeological site took place in 1886 to protect the Great Serpent Mound, Ohio, perhaps the epitome of an enigmatic Midwestern earthwork.  Early in the Twentieth Century, many of the techniques and methods of modern archaeology would be pioneered by the University of Chicago’s “Chicago Field School” as archaeologists labored to systematically investigate Kincaid Mounds in southern Illinois, and the first notable attempt to create a framework for organizing the burgeoning corpus of archaeological data was the “Midwest Taxonomic System” developed at The Milwaukee Public Museum in the 1930s. It is not an exaggeration to say that the Midwest was the crucible in which modern American archaeology was formed.

Serpent Mound from the Air.
Serpent Mound from the Air.

The Midwest has played a notable role in the history of The Archaeological Conservancy as well. TAC’s first acquisition was Powers Fort, a Mississippian Culture Mound and Village Center in southern Missouri purchased in 1980, the Conservancy’s first year of operation. In fact three of TAC’s first four acquisitions would be in the Midwest – Hopewell Mounds, Ohio, and Savage Cave, Kentucky being the other two. Unsurprisingly, when TAC opened its first “branch office”, it would be in the Midwest.  In 1987, TAC opened an office in Cincinnati, staffed by one person, to handle all acquisition projects east of the Mississippi. Happily, the fortunes of the organization soon advanced to a point where a Southeastern office could be opened in Atlanta in 1989 and an Eastern office in 1997.

Hopewell Mounds, Hopewell Culture NPS
Hopewell Mounds, Hopewell Culture NPS

Since 1992, the Midwest Regional Office has headquartered in Columbus, Ohio.  I have served as the Regional Director since 1994.  Josh McConaughy has been the field representative since 2007.   The region  itself encompasses Ohio, the western portions of Pennsylvania and West Virginia, Michigan, Indiana, Illinois, Kentucky, Missouri, Iowa, Wisconsin, Minnesota, and North Dakota. It is made up of the prehistoric cultural regions of the Upper Ohio River, the Upper Mississippi River, a portion of the Northeastern Plains, and the Great Lakes region except for New York and Canada. TAC has created archaeological preserves that represent nearly the entire corpus of the culture-history of the region from Ice Age encampments to Nineteenth Century freed slave communities.  These include portions of the Cahokia Mounds, a UNESCO World Heritage site, and two National Historic Landmarks; Silver Mound, Wisconsin, a prehistoric quarry; and New Philadelphia, Illinois, the first town in the United States to be platted and registered to an African-American. There is much work we can be proud of  here in the Midwest, and always more to do.

Aerial photo New Philadelphia by Tommy Hailey using powered parachute funded by The National Center for Preservation Technology and Training, National Park Service)
Aerial photo of New Philadelphia by Tommy Hailey using powered parachute funded by The National Center for Preservation Technology and Training, National Park Service

3 COMMENTS

    • Hi Kiffon,

      Of course you are right! None of those generally are considered to be Midwestern. However they are in our Midwest regional division. In part due to historical accident of the very first of our regional offices being the ‘midwest/east/south’ office located in Ohio and only slowly over time have we been able to open other regional offices and divided up the states among them.

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