CHILLICOTHE, Ohio -- Capt. Mordecai Hopewell may be the most famous old-time landowner in southern Ohio's Ross County.
Hopewell's name is attached to the ancient culture that built giant, elaborate and mysterious earthworks in the Ohio Valley: the Hopewell Indians who thrived between 200 B.C. and 500 A.D.
The Civil War veteran owned the farm where an extensive archaeological dig took place near Chillicothe in 1891. Today, it is known as the Hopewell Mound Group earthworks. It is one of five earthworks that together form the Hopewell Culture National Historic Park.
The Hopewell farm, off Sulphur Lick Road northwest of Chillicothe and along the North Fork of Paint Creek, includes portions of the wall and mounds that were built 2,000 years ago with simple hand tools. It is a 316-acre site.
The main attraction at the 1,245-acre historic park is the Mound City Group, a 120-acre tract that is a cemetery, of sorts, and a ceremonial ground. It's about 45 miles south of Columbus.
It's generally considered one of the most important and well-known archaeological sites in North America, with 23 re-created mounds on 13 acres memorializing the dead that date back at least 1,500 years. Two additional mounds are outside the main tract and have not been fully authenticated.
The site was likely used for ceremonies including cremation and other community rituals. Some of the mounds may be tied to astronomy with alignments linking the Earth, moon, sun and stars. It is the only fully restored Hopewell site.
The grassy tract sits next to the Scioto River and close to the Chillicothe Correctional Institution, a state-run maximum-security prison.
Mound City includes a small visitor center where visitors can view a 17-minute film on the Hopewell Indians and exhibits of artifacts including pottery, copper items and animal-shaped effigy pipes.
A 1.5-mile trail circles Mound City with audio stations and a self-guiding brochure. But most visitors are drawn straight into the mound complex that is surrounded by a low earthen embankment. The park service offers a guided walking tour and patio talks tours during the summer.
To most visitors, Mound City looks like a grassy city park or a golf course.
The Hopewell Indians brought high-ranking dead here for cremation in wooden charnel houses. The ashes, along with material objects, were placed atop a clay platform, buried and covered by a small mound. After several burials, the charnel houses would be dismantled, leaving behind a now-larger mound.
The mounds vary in terms of numbers of burials, the layers of coverings and the kinds of artifacts they contain.
The Central Mound is the largest, perhaps 30 feet high. Thirteen cremated burials were accompanied by copper falcon effigies. Fragments of the skulls had been cut and drilled, perhaps to create ceremonial death masks.
The Mound of Pipes, excavated in 1847, included more than 200 carved stone pipes in the shape of birds, animals and reptiles. Replicas are on display.
The Mica Grave Mound, excavated in 1921, contained evidence of a wooden building with a pit lined with mica. Inside were cremated human remains, along with obsidian, tools, raven and toad effigy pipes and a human-shaped copper headdress. Nearby were elk and bear teeth, large obsidian points, 5,000 shell beads and two copper headdresses, one with antlers and the other in what may be the form of a bear.
I also visited one of the other Hopewell Culture sites, the 168-acre Seip Earthworks. The site with two circles and a square includes a 30-foot-high burial mound that is 240 feet by 130 feet. It is the second-largest known Hopewell mound.
A 122-acre portion of the site is surrounded by a 10-foot-high earthen wall that stretches nearly two miles.
Cremation shelters have been located, along with freshwater mussels and artifacts made of obsidian, silver, copper, tortoise, shell and mica.