Road Trip 2021: The Indian Mounds

You may have heard of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. The ones that are still standing for us modern humans to see include the Great Wall of China, Chichén Itzá in the Yucatán, Petra in Jordon, the Great Pyramids of Egypt, Machu Picchu in Peru, the Colosseum in Rome, and the Taj Mahal in India. The list does not include the Indian mounds near Columbus, Ohio.

In our travels around the world Embry and I actually have seen every one of these spectacular places. They are in fact extraordinary and something to marvel at. We will remember them for as long as we live. But this road trip (Embry’s idea) was to drive to Columbus in search of Indian mounds created by what is called the Hopewell Culture (named for the person who owned the farm where the first mound was discovered in the late Nineteenth Century). The Hopewell Culture includes a number of pre Columbian, Native American civilizations that existed from around 500 BCE to 500 CE, flourishing for about a thousand years in the eastern forests from  Lake Ontario all the way to Florida. The Native Americans that lived in this area did not leave behind giant structures like Machu Picchu or the Great Wall but rather mounds of dirt or earthworks where they buried their dead and honored the sacred. Many of these earthworks are called effigy mounds and are shaped like animals. Effigy mounds were not burial mounds but had spiritual and mystical significance, which no one understands since we do not have any written history or written language from that period.  Most of the mounds have not survived today due mainly to us modern humans destroying them to make room for agriculture and modern settlements, but for some reason the area around Columbus is one of the few places where many of these mounds still exist.

Well, I will have to admit that I was a skeptic about the value of a road trip to see Indian mounds. The Hopewell culture extended through Middle Tennessee where I grew up, and I remember as a child playing on mounds of various sizes in the woods and forests near Nashville. We knew they were Indian mounds because bits and pieces of pottery were always around along with occasional arrowheads. We thought nothing of playing on these sacred places, and my guess is that few remain today as Nashville has expanded. Besides, how interesting could a grass covered mound of dirt be anyway? I suggested to Embry that if she really wanted to see what an Indian mound looked like, all she had to do was to visit virtually any golf course and marvel at the berms around greens and bunkers.

Wrong again. I was correct about the visual impact. We are not talking about oohing and awing over the Great Wall of China. A mound of grass covered dirt is, well, a mound of dirt. We visited a half dozen mounds of various sizes–some over a hundred feet tall– about 40 miles south of Columbus spread out in different locations, mostly in rural and forgotten places. The most famous was the Serpentine effigy, a mound in the shape of a giant serpent, over a football field long and soon to be designated a World Heritage landmark. There was nothing dramatic about viewing the Serpentine earthwork or the other mounds, but still the experience was something special and, yes, there was something sacred about these places.

Human beings lived here over two thousand years ago. The pottery, carvings, and metal work that has come out of the excavated mounds indicates they were sophisticated for their time and that there was a lot of trading happening throughout the eastern part of what is now the United States. We do not know what happened to these people or why centuries before Europeans arrived, the building of mounds stopped. But standing near these sacred places awakens the soul to how connected we are to others who preceded us and how our time as “modern” humans has been so short-lived. We are just a blip on the screen of history of a small, blue planet about four-and-a-half billion years old.

What will happen next, I wonder. What will happen to our civilization? Will those who follow us in some distant future, perhaps many centuries into a post-apocalyptic world, plow over the mounds we have created for our civilization? What will be left? Will we even be remembered some two or three thousand years from now? And what will we be remembered for?  These are the lingering questions that I will associate with the Road Trip 2021, to see the great mounds of the Hopewell Culture .