Archaeology Day digs into Hopewell Culture at Fort Ancient

Photo: Participants throw spears using the ancient atlatl, a device that helped the spear travel farther and faster, at Archaeology Day, this year July 15, at Fort Ancient

By Terri Gordon

In the late 1700s, as the United States was establishing itself and its citizens were taking inventory of the land, they came across an 18,000-foot enclosure made of earth just outside Lebanon, Ohio, above the Little Miami River. Authorities at the time decided it must have been some sort of fort—so they named it Fort Ancient and declared that the people who built it were of the Fort Ancient culture. While these terms are still used today, much more has been discovered about the hilltop “fort” and the people who used it. The walls themselves were created by people filling baskets with dirt, emptying them in place, and stacking them to achieve the desired height.

“Fort Ancient is classified as the largest and best preserved hilltop enclosure in the United States,” says Jack Blosser, Fort Ancient’s site manager and an archaeologist whose specialty is Ohio Valley Hopewell Culture. “When the Native Americans built Fort Ancient, they used nothing more than the shoulder bones of deer and elk, split antlers, clam shell halves, and sticks, placing the soil in baskets that we’ve demonstrated would have held no more than 30 to 40 pounds. An estimated 400 years of time was required to build Fort Ancient. At a time when the average life expectancy was only 38 for a man and 28 to 32 for a lady, we’re looking at a minimum of about 19 generations to build.”

Multiple entrances—which would have been difficult to guard—have lead experts to rethink their initial opinion as to the function of the earthwork. They now feel the enclosure was not for defense, but perhaps for a social or religious purpose. The discovery of a buried, wooden henge, or earthwork, in 2005 bolsters this notion. They have also realized that the Fort Ancient culture they had attributed its building did not, in fact, build it. They simply used it—perhaps adding on to it—when they found it abandoned.

So, who did build it? The easy answer is people living in the area 2,000 years ago, people referred to as the Hopewell Culture.

“The culture spanned from about 100 B.C. to A.D. 500,” Blosser explains. “The people we call the Hopewell were Native Americans, living in the Ohio Valley. We don’t know their true tribal, or group, identities. There were some DNA studies done 20 years ago in one mound in Chillicothe, and there were five different tribal representations. So, basically, any Native American living in the Ohio Valley 2000 years ago, we lump into a culture called Hopewell.”

And: Before the Hopewell Culture, there was the Adena Culture. These peoples apparently did not write down their histories, at least, none have been found, and those who stumble upon their sites have been left to logic and speculation. Glosser sees them along the same continuum.

“The Adena Culture were the first mound builders from 800 B.C. to 100 B.C.,” Blosser says. “Then the Hopewell Culture kicks in. So, you can probably bet that some of the Adena Culture folks, culturally, became the Hopewell Culture, and then some of the Hopewell Culture probably became part of the Fort Ancient Culture.

“The way I look at it is—look at your grandparents. Your grandparents could be the 1950s bobby socks-Mickey Mouse-and-Elvis-was-king culture. Parents are the Space Age culture—the moon landing in ’69, the space shuttles of the ’80s. Now, the children are called the Internet culture. They’re still related, but the technologies we associate with the culture determines the culture,” Blosser explains. When it comes to the Adena-Hopewell-Fort Ancient cultures, those defining technologies are seen in weapons and in pottery, with each cultural group having its idiosyncrasies. The groups are also identified through their use of agriculture. The Adena diet consisted of 20 percent crops, the Hopewell, 40 percent, and the Fort Ancient, 80 percent.

To foster appreciation for Fort Ancient, its pre-history, and archaeology in general, Fort Ancient hosts an annual Archaeology Day. Attendees can take tours, explore the construction, visit the museum, and walk the grounds to get an idea of how Native cultures lived.

Other activities will offer tastes of native life. Folks can try on 18th century clothing that natives would have worn, much of it obtained from the European settlers streaming into their lands. Those interested can throw spears using the ancient atlatl, a device that helped the spear travel farther and faster. The ancient game of Double Ball, using sticks and connected balls, will also be demonstrated and can be played. Experts will be on hand from noon until 3 p.m. to identify fossils and artifacts for anyone who brings them.

Archaeology Day takes place Saturday, July 15, from 12-4 p.m., at Fort Ancient, 6123 St. Rt. 350 in Warren County. Picnic lunches are encouraged. Admission is $7 for adults, $6 for students and seniors; children under 6 and members are free. For more information, please call 513.932.4421 or visit

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Freelance writer Terri Gordon writes across a range of topics, including nature, health, and homes and gardens. She holds a masters in English and occasionally teaches college composition and literature. Her blog, WordWorks ( is a "bulletin board" of some of her favorite things.

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