Key Adena Earthworks and Preserve Saved in Ohio

A consortium of preservation groups made history on March 18 by winning an auction for one of the most important Adena earthworks of the Ohio Valley.

A consortium of preservation groups made history on March 18 by winning a land auction for one of the most important surviving Adena earthworks of the Ohio Valley.

Pledges came in even after bidding had commenced, which made for a tense and emotional end. Preservationists walked away the incipient owners not only of the tract with the main earthwork cluster, but all the wooded parcels adjoining the tract, as well as the strip of creek bank to assure future protection—fitting because the ancient works appear to have been constructed originally as part of a wildlife preserve. A local farmer won the remaining crop land, so developers present left empty-handed.

The territory of Ohio hosted between 10,000 and 30,000 Native American burial mounds and related earthworks at the time of seizure by Euro-Americans, according to different estimates. The vast majority are gone to plows and pavement.

The Junction Group, however, will now be saved from destructive development “in perpetuity.” Donors from around the country who pledged on short notice, without even time for an educational campaign about the site, have accomplished more than they know, because the Junction Group earthworks may be one of the premiere archaeoastronomical sites on the planet, as well as playing a special role in demonstrating the original purpose of these earthworks and the linkage between the prehistoric Adena Civilization and the historic Shawnee and their Algonquian kin, a linkage already suggested by genetics, linguistics, and archaeology.

The Junction Group is the remnant of an enigmatic set of nine clustered geometric earthworks that lies in a farm field at the southwest border of the city of Chillicothe—four circles, three semicircles, a square, and a unique enclosure that resembles a four-leaf clover. A video to support the fundraising campaign showing the site as it is today can be seen here:

(Warning: the video was produced quickly and not everything is accurate.)

Though no radiocarbon dating is available, the earthworks were likely built between 400 BCE and 1 CE, during what is known as the Early Woodland Period, based on similarities with other dated sites. These, then, are Adena works, though often erroneously described as “Hopewell.” Well-known Serpent Mound, which slithers along a ridge 20 miles to the west, has recently been radiocarbon dated to that same period. Algonquian Indians, ancestors of the Shawnee, Miami, Fox, Sak, Kickapoo, Ojibwe and related tribes were the builders.

Preserving an Ancient Preserve

The name Junction Group refers to the major fork in Paint Creek, a tributary of the Scioto River important to American Indians for its iron-based pigments (hence its name). The earthwork cluster is the easternmost of a string of earthwork complexes that line the valley of Paint Creek and its westward extension as Rocky Fork. This position provides the key for understanding the plan of the region’s earthworks as well as their function, which has eluded explanation within establishment archaeology: It’s agreed that they were not defensive works (for humans), nor were they habitations, agricultural enclosures, or places of recreation, as various discarded theories have held. They also were not “ceremonial sites,” as the reigning non-explanatory explanation would have it and as is readily apparent by looking at the Junction Group structures and their arrangement.

The unusual nature of the structures is clear from an 1847 drawing of the site, where the black bars represent internal moats that once held water, and the lighter rings around them represent earthen walls, with some conical burial mounds at various locations, as seen below.

Plate XXI, No. 1 from E. G. Squier and E.H. Davis, Ancient Monuments of the Mississippi Valley, Smithsonian, 1848.

We think of ancient architecture as revolving solely around “two-legged” concerns. But to the ancient Ohioans, protecting bird nests and other life from natural predators with walls and moats fit the concept of sacred mission. These extensive clusters of protective walls and moats around sensitive bird nesting and roosting areas were, in effect, the first bird sanctuaries in North America, a good 2,000 years before Teddy Roosevelt.

Wouldn’t this be a more potent generator of modern interest than just another place where humans allegedly assembled to worship sky gods unknown in the Western Hemisphere?

The Resurrected Ones

In pre-Columbian Algonquian cosmology, humans resurrect as pigeons and other migratory birds, in order to reach the celestial destination of the afterlife journey, explaining why a civilization would undertake extraordinary labors to protect birds during nesting and migration. A second function of the earthworks appears to have been to guide the birds along the proper celestial path, which accounts for why many but not all of the earthworks were built with celestial alignments, or as “star maps” that reflect the heavens just as they would be reflected in the water-filled moats. Modern ornithologists did not discover that migratory birds navigate in part by the stars until the 1990s, but American Indians apparently gained that knowledge long ago.

The Junction Group may be the stellar example of a “star map” because the earthwork cluster appears to be a mirror-image of the Pleiades, a star cluster used worldwide for celestial navigation and marking the change of seasons. The Pleiades were considered by Algonquians as a group of children resurrected in bird form as stars, and as the possible portal to the sky world (world of the dead) mentioned often in Algonquian folktales.

In the Shawnee language, the Pleiades are called Pekwilenegi, a name that translates literally as “people from the ashes” in reference to a myth similar to that of the Greek phoenix, a bird that rises from the ashes with allusion to cremation of the dead, or simply put, “the resurrected ones.”

Following are the nine principal structures of the Junction Group as revealed by magnetic imaging in 2005, a diagram of the nine principal stars in the Pleiades as named by the Greeks, and the Pleiades as they appear in the sky (with telescopic lens):

Plate XXI, No. 1 from E. G. Squier and E.H. Davis, Ancient Monuments of the Mississippi Valley, Smithsonian, 1848.

The Junction Group was not a “ceremonial site” but a funereal one.

Whose Confederacy?

Purchase of the site bodes well for the ability of preservation groups in the Ohio Valley to cooperate in saving what remains of the area’s prehistoric heritage. However, the unity that made site acquisition possible may strain over some contentious issues that the earthworks themselves spotlight.

Chief among these is the name and identification of the Indians who built these works. Slap-dash fundraising materials named those Indians as “Hopewell” or “Hopewellian”—the latter name used to avoid the embarrassment that “Hopewell” now brings. While the Hopewell name is now the most recognizable in describing Ohio mound-builders, it honors a 19th-century Chillicothe man who had fought with lack of distinction for the Confederacy and whose contribution to so-called archaeology was to open the Indian cemeteries on his Ohio property to looters. Yet his Anglo-Saxon whitebread name has now been stuck onto a whole indigenous civilization, a people who certainly hoped better than to be remembered as “Hopewell.”

Scientific archaeologists also are done with the Hopewell name, because evidence no longer supports a demographic distinction between “Adena” and “Hopewell”—from at least 1000 BCE to 500 CE, the Ohio Valley was principally populated by one continuous Algonquian civilization, best referred to as Adena, a name with fortunate cognates in Algonquian language.

The naming issue rises to prominence as the planned nomination of eight Ohio earthwork sites to the UNESCO World Heritage List proceeds—with anticipated addition of the Junction Group. If identified as “Hopewell,” UNESCO would be asked to list a set of sacred structures under a name patently offensive to the indigenous people who built them, just as the descendants of the mound-builders, removed from the State of Ohio before 1832, are newly asserting their rights of authorship. In both 2012 and 2013, Chief Glenna Wallace of the Eastern Shawnee Tribe, now located in Oklahoma, visited Ohio earthwork sites and made it clear that these works are the heirlooms of her people, calling Ohio the once and future Shawnee “homeland.”

Given the timing of the Junction Group acquisition, the Algonquian tribes now far removed to other states were not actively involved. But that situation is sure to be different for development of a site management plan, including choice of the name attributed to its creators, assuring that Tecumseh’s confederacy and not the Confederate States of America gets the honor. This lends new meaning to the Junction Group as a site of “resurrection” and the common hope that we may be among the Pekwilenegi.

Geoffrey Sea is a writer and historian and director of Adena Core, a heritage preservation organization in the Ohio Valley. Check out Adena Core's Facebook page here.