One of the distinguishing characteristics of Ohio’s indigenous American Indian Hopewell culture, which dates from around AD 1 to 400, is the use of unusual raw materials that found their way into Ohio from across a huge swath of North America.
These included large conch shells from the Gulf of Mexico, copper from around Lake Superior, and even obsidian, a black volcanic glass, from Yellowstone Park in Wyoming. These materials weren’t just admired as curiosities. The ancient American Indian people would have believed they were endowed with great spiritual power.
The largest array of ceremonial regalia crafted from these and many other extraordinary materials came from the mounds of the Hopewell Mound group in Ross County.
In a paper published in the current issue of the Midcontinental Journal of Archaeology, avocational archaeologist George Colvin and American Museum of Natural History paleontologist Neil Landman consider “one of the lesser known but more unusual and exotic items recovered from the Hopewell Site.”
The item in question is a culturally modified fragment of an ammonite fossil. Ammonite fossils are the mineralized spiral shells of squid-like critters that went extinct at the same time as most of the dinosaurs — about 66 million years ago.
Ohio’s rocks are all much older, so this fossil must have come from somewhere else. According to Colvin and Landman, it came from the Badlands of southwestern South Dakota.
The fossil is D-shaped and is about 2½ inches long. The flat side was ground down, which would have allowed the fossil to stand upright. It has two holes made through it, so Colvin and Landman suggest it might “have been worn attached to a garment or headband.” The fossil shell is iridescent, which, based on documented American Indian traditions, likely made it particularly special. Colvin and Landman note, for example, that the “Hopi and the Ancestral Pueblo collected ammonites” and that those with iridescent shells, “were highly venerated and used in medicine bundles.”
Fossils aren’t common in Hopewell ceremonial offerings, but fossil shark teeth have been found at several sites and mastodon tusk fragments and fossil horn corals were found at Mound City Ohio in Chillicothe – one of the eight Hopewell mound groups that is being nominated for inclusion on the UNESCO World Heritage List. This specimen is, so far, the only ammonite fossil found in a Hopewell mound.
Colvin and Landman propose that Ohio Hopewell travelers collected the ammonite fossil and other special raw materials, such as obsidian, on journeys to distant lands. This certainly may be one of the ways these remarkable materials found their way to the great Hopewell Ceremonial centers in Ohio, but I also think it’s likely that pilgrims, perhaps from as far away as Wyoming and South Dakota, journeyed to Ohio, much as Christian pilgrims travel to Jerusalem and Muslim pilgrims make the hajj to Mecca. They may have brought the obsidian and ammonite fossil as offerings of thanksgiving or supplication.
This would help to explain not only how the Ohio Hopewell acquired these extraordinary objects, but also why many of the Hopewell earthworks are built on such a grand scale. For example, the octagonal enclosure at the Newark Earthworks could encompass four Roman Colosseums. So these places clearly were not built to serve only local congregations, but were instead vast earthen cathedrals that, at least on some special occasions, drew large numbers of people from across much of North America.
Brad Lepper is the senior archaeologist for the Ohio History Connection’s World HeritageProgramblepper@ohiohistory.org
This article originally appeared on The Columbus Dispatch: D-shaped fossil found in Hopewell Indian Mound not common, expert says