Last updated: August 2, 2023
Hopewell Culture National Historical Park
Sherd - HOCU 837
Written by: Ben Cross, Archeological Technician
The artifact seen here is labeled HOCU 837. Described as “a rim sherd with a beveled lip and a curvilinear guilloche over cord marking,” this palm sized piece of broken pottery is a light brown on the outside, with the rim at the top, curving outwards slightly. Along the neck, three incised lines arch upwards and then back down. Despite being broken, we can just see another three incised lines arching the opposite direction, coming back up to meet the other three lines in the lower right-hand portion. These lines form a design known as curvilinear guilloche, a common design on ceramics in the Late Prehistoric period of Ohio. Looking at its profile, we see the temper, or the stuff mixed in the clay, is grit (crushed up stone). This sherd stands out in our collections not because of its size or the material it is made of, but rather due to when it was made, where it was found, and how it came to reside in our collections.
Fort Ancient is the name given to the culture belonging to groups of people living along the Ohio River and its tributaries in southeastern Indiana, northern Kentucky, Ohio, and West Virginia from A.D. 1000-1650. Fort Ancient people lived in relatively sedentary villages farming, mostly corn. Unlike the people who built Hopewell earthworks hundreds of years prior, Fort Ancient sites are not known for their monumental architecture, although they did build some mounds (often for mortuary purposes). Unlike the preceding Woodland period groups, Fort Ancient habitation sites were densely occupied for decades at a time as the residents farmed corn on rich floodplain soils. These villages were often circular, with houses built around a large, open plaza shared by the community. Often found around structures were large pits for trash and/or storage, as well as occasional burials. The amount of domestic behavior occurring at these towns during their occupation produced a significant amount of cultural material that we can now use to easily identify Fort Ancient sites without even having to dig.
The question long at the heart of Fort Ancient research is: How connected were these groups to contemporaneous Mississippian societies to the west and the south? There are two different primary views regarding Mississippian influence. Many see the Fort Ancient as a local development out of the preceding Late Woodland period with minor influences from Mississippian groups until after AD 1400. Evidence for this is found in the relatively small amounts of Mississippian style artifacts found at early sites in much of the Fort Ancient area. Others, however, argue that Mississippian influence not only happened much earlier, but possibly more directly with the migration of Mississippian peoples up the Ohio River. Some sites, particularly those in southeast Indiana and southwest Ohio, are larger towns by AD 1100 with clear evidence of Mississippian influence in the form of shell temper in pottery, Mississippian style architecture, trade goods, and even some limited biological evidence of the presence of non-local peoples buried at Fort Ancient sites. It is more than possible that both viewpoints are correct, depending upon where in the Fort Ancient world you are focusing on.
Overshadowed by the wonderous Hopewell earthworks in the region, the Fort Ancient sites along the Scioto and its tributaries have seen very little extensive research. While some much-needed investigations have been done in recent years, the continued lack of a research presence in the region is problematic for two reasons. First, Fort Ancient sites in the Scioto River Valley sits between the two research areas mentioned above and is connected to both. More research is needed to provide a better understanding of Fort Ancient development. Second, is the concern regarding the destruction of these sites. Due to the extensive cultural material produced at these sites, they are often targeted by modern collectors. While some collectors take great care in documenting their finds, a wider concern for looting/careless collecting is an obvious concern regarding the preservation of these sites.
Fort Ancient Ceramics and Curvilinear Guilloche
Fort Ancient ceramics differ from preceding periods in a variety of ways, but two traits stand out for the purpose of this article: temper and decoration. One of the most recognizable changes is the introduction of shell temper. During the preceding Woodland Period, the tempering material tended to be crushed stone of some type, sometimes referred to as grit. Around 1000-1100 CE, we see a general trend of increasing amounts of shell temper spreading across the Midwest and Southeast. While shell is a more difficult material to work with than grit, experimental research suggests that functionally, shell tempered ceramics boil water more quickly and are stronger or more durable. However, despite these benefits, grit temper is continued well into the Fort Ancient period alongside shell temper. This persistence of grit may be indicative of several things, including a lack of access to shells in upriver settings, or it may indicate personal preferences of the potter or a sign of cultural affiliation.
Our other defining feature of Fort Ancient pottery is decoration, namely guilloche designs. Guilloche is a French word used to denote decorative techniques in which a precise, repetitive pattern (typically overlapping spirals or ribbons) are engraved into a material. While the phrase guilloche is also commonly used to describe designs in the art of the ancient Near East and Medieval Europe, in North America it is probably more appropriate to use term derived from an American Indian language when describing designs inscribed on indigenous pottery. A team of Shawnee artists and pottery experts have recently been researching their ancestral pottery construction methods. They suggest using the Shawnee word pa’payea’menakwe, for weave or pattern (translates to “something is coming that’s pretty”). For more information about this project, please visit the “From Ancient Hands” online exhibit on the Shawnee Tribe Cultural Center website.
Incised into the necks of some Fort Ancient pottery are curving sets of lines crossing each other (like what we see on HOCU 837). Two primary types of guilloche have been recognized, with curvilinear (gently curved arcs) and rectilinear (angular lines). The appearance of curvilinear guilloche very early in the Fort Ancient period has led to it being diagnostic of a Fort Ancient occupation at a site. While it is impossible for us to know what the guilloche motif may have meant to Fort Ancient peoples, some have proposed that the meandering movements of the lines mimic rivers and/or snakes. In the proposed general cosmological model of Late Prehistoric groups in the Eastern Woodlands, our world floats upon a watery underworld inhabited by serpent-like water spirits. It is possible that Fort Ancient communities, living along resource rich floodplains of major rivers connected these meandering waterways with similarly moving snakes that emerged from underground burrows.
The Gartner Site
The Gartner site, where HOCU 837 was found, is a Fort Ancient village along the Scioto River north of Chillicothe (Fig. 2). Only one serious excavation occurred at the site, completed from 1902-1903 by William Mills. Composed of a burial mound and village, Gartner is located less than a mile away from the Cedar Bank Works, a Hopewell period earthwork. At the time, Mills believed the sites were contemporaneous and that the people living at Gartner had built Cedar Bank. In actuality, hundreds of years separate the two. Mills’ excavations targeted both the mound and the village.
At the time of excavations, the mound was approximately 7’5” ft tall and 75 ft in diameter. During excavation, it was recognized that the single mound was the final product of three smaller burial mounds being joined into one (Fig. 3), a pattern we see at some other Fort Ancient sites. The first section stands out from the other two based upon the method of interment. In this section, cremated remains were placed upon a clay platform. While cremations are not unheard of in Fort Ancient contexts, they are not particularly common. Non-cremated burials (both extended and flexed) more commonly found at Fort Ancient sites were found in the other two sections of the mound. Many of these burials were found with burial goods. One of these is the only complete piece of pottery found at the site, a decent sized jar with a curvilinear guilloche design like what we see on HOCU 837 (Fig. 1).
Mills’ excavations of the village are not as neatly described as the mound. Focusing south and southeast of the mound, excavations uncovered over one hundred pits, used either for refuse or food storage. In his analysis of ceramics, Mills states that nearly 80% were shell tempered. More recent reanalysis of these collections shows the opposite though, with nearly 80% being grit tempered, much like HOCU 837. Mills’ description of structures at the site is lacking, at best, merely describing them as being very similar to the Baum site, another Fort Ancient site located along Paint Creek. Despite this lack of description, what we do have indicates a circular town plan, with houses and a mound on the edge of a central plaza. This is one of the most common designs of towns in the Late Prehistoric.
How Did HOCU-837 End Up in Our Collection?
As Gartner has never been a part of Hopewell Culture National Historical Park or any of its previous iterations, how does a piece of ceramic from there make its way into our collections? Based on our current records things are still not entirely clear. The first park archeologist, Richard Faust, is documented as having collected this piece in 1962. No other information is given regarding how exactly we got it or why. At that time, there were concerns about a proposed residential development destroying part of Hopeton. The following year, Faust and others expressed interest in increased research into the daily lives of the Hopewell at their habitation sites.
Perhaps it is the mixture of these two factors that stimulated Faust to do a surface collection at Gartner. The scare of losing part of Hopeton to construction and renewed conservation efforts, as well as interest in habitation sites, may have led Faust to check out the nearby Gartner site. Mills had proposed in 1904 that Gartner was a possible habitation site of the builders of the Cedar Bank Works. Of course, though, this is speculation. It is just as likely that Faust was aware of the site’s Fort Ancient component and just decided to go see what could be found in the field. Either way, we next know that our ceramic sherd was catalogued by the second park archaeologists Lee Hanson in 1965 in the very first inventory of the museum’s collections.
A surface collection is the act of collecting artifacts found on the surface, i.e. not buried. For various reasons, most often the plowing of fields, buried artifacts are occasionally brought to the surface where they can be easily found. Archeologists often use what is called a surface survey to record, map, and collect these items. In a surface survey, archeologists will space themselves out in a line and then move across the site, flagging any artifacts encountered. Once these items have been mapped, better decisions can be made regarding where to excavate in the future or even give us an idea of the layout of the site without having to dig at all!
What To Do With Surface Finds?
Walking across a field and finding a piece of ceramic like HOCU 837 is very exciting. These finds are often what get people interested in archeology, and we are committed to continuing growing that interest at Hopewell Culture National Historical Park. However, we recommend that if you find an artifact on the surface, try to leave it where it lays. If the artifact is on park property, please leave it where it is and alert a Park Ranger to its location. Removing items from our park is against the rules! By alerting a Ranger, you are helping protect a valuable resource that belongs to every American citizen. If you are not on park property when you find the artifact, we still recommend leaving it be if you can. Perhaps take a picture and good notes on its location if you can. Only remove an artifact if you have permission of the property owner and you are concerned that the artifact might be destroyed or lost if left where it is. If you do have permission to collect the artifact, make sure that you take good documentation about where it was found. Serious local collectors are often an archeologist’s best resource in locating archeological sites in the field. The more information you have, the more it helps us piece together the past.
Watch the corresponding short video on HOCU 837, filmed by Archeological Technician, Ben Cross.
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