Hopewell used cross-cultural approach to build great monuments
Brad Lepper curator of archaeology at the Ohio History Connection
This is Great Circle Earthworks State Memorial, a roughly a 1-mile dug-out circle and wall built by the Hopewell people in what is now Newark
Ohio’s Hopewell culture built numerous earthen mounds and enclosures on a truly monumental scale. A few of these sites, such as the Newark Earthworks, were enormous public works that would have required hundreds of laborers to build the earthworks and gather the food necessary to keep those workers fed.
Unlike the Egyptians and Romans, the Hopewell didn’t live in large cities with substantial labor pools. They lived in small, widely scattered communities.
Moreover, the Hopewell didn’t have an authoritarian leader, such as a pharaoh or an emperor, who could compel people to work on such large-scale projects. So, where did the Hopewell get all those people and how did they get them to work for months at a time over the course of decades?
Those are interesting questions that archaeologists have been trying to answer for more than a century without much success.
Magnus Artursson of the Swedish National Historical Museums and Timothy Earle and James Brown of Northwestern University offer some interesting ideas in the March issue of the Journal of Anthropological Archaeology. They say the Hopewell culture is similar to “low-density societies” that constructed “monumental landscapes” in Scandinavia.
Artursson and his colleagues say the answer to the question of how the Hopewell did it lies in a “political economy approach” to the problem.
An emergent leader who wanted to consolidate political power among societies made up of small, scattered communities first had to bring people together and then get them to identify as members of a large-scale corporate group with common goals.
This would-be leader couldn’t force anyone to participate, because the disparate communities were economically independent and folks could always just walk away.
There had to be an incentive to get people to want to come together. The process might have begun at particular locations with natural “spiritual allure” where, for example, the movements of the sun and moon could be tracked across prominent hilltops, bringing cosmic rhythms down to Earth.
These special places became the focus of periodic ceremonies, including the burial of ancestors in mounds and celebratory feasts sponsored by the leaders. The labor pool brought together for the ceremonies and feasting then could be employed in constructing earthen monuments to enhance the allure of the site.
As Artursson and his colleagues put it, by providing good food in abundance, enjoyable social activities and meaningful ceremonies, “the ritual economy generated a debt that turned into an obligation to leaders and their continuing project.”
Places that offered more rewarding experiences received a commensurately greater labor effort resulting in larger and more complex earthworks.
The construction of mega-monumental earthworks, such as those at Newark, added even more to the spiritual allure of the sites, making them places of “high devotional expression.” Such places became destinations for pilgrims who were welcomed, because these were “political systems of inclusion, not exclusion.”
The explanation proposed by Artursson, Earle and Brown is compelling because it is based on a cross-cultural approach to understanding how low-density societies in different parts of the world created monuments on a scale to rival those of more complex societies.