The Dayton Society of Natural History presents a new exhibit at the Boonshoft Museum of Discovery showcasing ancient (and some not so ancient) ceramics. “Impressions of the Past: exploring the cultural properties of pottery” includes examples of Native American ceramic vessels from all over North and South America. It also features a focus on the pottery of Ohio’s SunWatch Village and a case of historic-era European-American ceramics.

The exhibit explores “the dual nature of pottery as both a functional tool and a symbolic representation of people and culture.”

Interspersed with the pottery are pieces from the Dayton Society of Natural History’s other collections, including beautiful samples of the minerals used to make the pigments used on the pots and taxidermy specimens of the animals that are featured as decorations on several of the pottery vessels.

The exhibit is a wonderful introduction to the importance of cermics in the lives of people across the Americas and through time.

Brad Lepper


The Wilderness Center, a non-profit Nature Center and Land Trust, produces the Wild Ideas podcast. I am featured in the latest program discussing the origins of plant domestication in the Ohio Valley.

We frequently are taught that the reason ancient people decided to become farmers was to take advantage of the obvious benefits of being able to grow your own food rather than having to rely on what nature provided. You might be surprised, therefore, to learn that the benefits may not have been quite so obvious to hunters and gatherers.

In fact, the biologist Jared Diamond has written that humanity’s collective decision to shift from hunting and gathering to farming may have been the “worst mistake in the history of the human race.”

Check out the podcast to find out why.

Brad Lepper


During the summer of 2012, Elsa Ricaudinitiated a study of the mounds and earthworks of eastern North America as part of a research project supported by a Richard Morris Hunt Fellowship sponsored by the American Architectural Foundation, the French Heritage Society and the group Lafarge.

According to the American Architectural Society website, “her interest lies in the preservation and maintenance of North American earthen architecture… She plans to survey pre-Columbian earthen heritage sites in the Mississippi, Missouri, and Ohio River valleys as well as pueblo and earthen heritage sites in the Four Corners region.”
As part of her project, she created a blog and has graciously allowed us to publish the following entry, which includes her observations on the on the Fort Ancient Earthworks and the Newark Earthworks, on the Ohio Archaeology Blog.


WEEK 6 : The Earthworks of Ohio and St-Louis (MO)
I left the Finger Lakes for Ohio, where several pre-Columbian cultures are referred to as the “mound builders,” because of the very large earthen mounds they built. The “Adena Culture” lived between about 1000 BC and AD 100, the Hopewell Culture between 100 BC and AD 400 and the “Mississippian Culture” between AD 800 and 1500.
Several of the Ohio Hopewell earthworks are on the World Heritage Tentative List. These geometric structures occupy a very large area of land. They were made for ceremonial and burial purposes attracting thousands of Natives Americans and were linked with astronomical observations and beliefs. One of the best sites to experience the extraordinary scale is the Newark Earthworks (Hopewell culture) where I had the pleasure to visit with Richard Shiels (Ohio State University) and Bradley Lepper (archaeologist – Ohio Historical Society).
I also visited the Fort Ancient site (also Hopewell Culture) with its huge earthen enclosure network. Here I walked the site with John Hancock (architect – University of Cincinnati). (Although the Fort Ancient Culture is named for the site, it is actually a Mississippian era culture.)
These pre-Columbian populations settled on fertile lands along tributaries of the Ohio River and also used the clayey soil to raise up their sacred shrines. Their burial mounds are usually conical and made of several layers of soil, clay and sand, alternating with  mortal remains, like the Mound City site (Hopewell Culture). Some of them also utilized sod. Some others are reinforced with stones, like the Serpent Mound (Fort Ancient Culture), a very long mound depicting a sacred snake, that I visited with Dave Kuehner (formerly the site manager).
Excavations at Fort Ancient revealed that the natives mastered several techniques to allow the waterproof quality of the ditches that might have held water, thanks to clay coatings. They also knew how to improve the coherence of the mounds, mixing together different kinds of soils and dried clay and also may have practiced some collective ceremonies that consisted of covering the ground of sacred spaces with clays of different colors, an action that we can consider as a metaphor of some present Indian Creation myths describing that humanity was made from the clay of a sacred hill. The Creek and the Shawnee tribes, considered as possible descendants of these pre-Columbian cultures, still believe in this myth and I saw, during my trip to New Mexico, that this social and religious aspect of collective clay coating, is also well established among the Puebloan tribes.
The dwellings around these ceremonial places were first dispersed (Hopewell Culture) and began to form villages under the Mississipian Culture. Excavations revealed that building techniques were quite similar from one culture to another and were based on a wooden frame with wattle-and-daub walls. I visited two sites showing this kind of house. The East St-Louis town, where I met Joe Galloy (archaeologist – Illinois State archaeological survey), is now under excavation because of highway contruction and is now considered as one of the main examples of Mississipian Culture towns. The second one, SunWatch Village, that I visited with Andrew Sawyer (archaeologist – site manager), is a reconstruction of a village of about the same period. Both of them show the archaeologists’ interesting deductions about building techniques, from very scarce clues like holes left by posts into the ground, or grassprints left into dried clay.
The recognition of these earthen sites as part of the national heritage is now accepted, but their conservation is still an important concern. The great Monks Mound platform at Cahokia (Mississipian Culture), that I visited with Joe Galloy (Research Coordinator), Mark Esarey (Site Manager) and William Iseminger (Assistant Site Manager), is considered as the largest earthen structure in the USA. Recurrent slumpings of its eastern side necessitated some technical enquiries to identify the best restoration process. Such excavations are often prone to tensions between scientists and Native Americans who still engage in prayer at these sites. But these relations are now more and more improved thanks to the use of nondestructive techniques such as ground penetrating radar or LiDAR.
Earthen mounds also have to be protected against erosion and invasive vegetation, so some are regularly burned and covered by a special grass developped by agronomists.
These earthen mounds can also be a source of inspiration for contemporary artists. The landscape design of the Cincinnati campus, that I visited with John Hancock  (architect – University of Cincinnati), was realized by the architect George Hargreaves, after he visited the Ohio earthen mounds. Thanks to a landscape vocabulary based on months, organic shaped embankments and holes, he managed to homogenize the heterogeneous architecture of the campus, and the result is relevant.
Elsa Ricaud, Richard Morris Hunt Fellow 2012


Archaeological landscapes have been compared to palimpsests — parchment pages from which the text has been scraped away to allow new layers of text to be added. With careful study, however, those old layers often can be recovered.
Some pages of Ohio’s landscape can appear to be blank — perhaps because not much happened there (I am reminded of the brass plaque my Dad attached to our house that read “On this site in 1897, nothing happened”) or possibly because geological processes have scoured away the traces of past human activity.
There are, however, certain places that, because of some special quality, have been written upon again and again throughout the millennia. The archaeologist Sarah Schlanger has written that the special qualities that draw people back again and again to, what she describes as, “persistent places” can be the result of either a feature of the natural landscape, such as the reliable presence of fresh water, or cultural modifications to a landscape that leave a lasting imprint and are, for whatever reasons, attractive to later generations.
Matthew Purtill’s new book, A Persistent Place:a landscape approach to the prehistoric archaeology of the Greenlee Tract in southern Ohio, presents the rich prehistory of an 85 acre swath of Adams County situated between the Ohio River and the steep-sided bluffs to the north. I summarize a bit of this prehistory in my September column in the Columbus Dispatch.
Purtill is an archaeologist who works for Gray and Pape, Inc., a Cincinnati-based Cultural Resource Management (CRM) firm. CRM archaeology refers to archaeological investigations conducted when projects that, at some level, include the involvement of the federal government potentially threaten archaeological sites that might prove to be nationally significant.
In the case of the Greenlee Tract, the property owner, Dayton Power and Light proposed to expand its fly-ash disposal fields beginning in the early 1990s. Archaeological investigations were undertaken presumably because the planned construction would take place along the Ohio River, a navigable waterway, and so U.S. Army Corps of Engineers permits were required.
Kevin Pape, the President of Gray and Pape, Inc., wrote in the Foreward to Purtill’s book that since around 1993, Gray and Pape has been working together with Dayton Power and Light “to balance the requirements of on-going power generation with the company’s commitment to stewardship of archaeological resources on station property.” The result, according to Pape, was “an opportunity seldom available to archaeologists working in the context of cultural resource management: singular focus on a suite of archaeological resources set in a location occupied across the span of 12,000 years.”
Purtill’s book represents the fruit of this partnership and everyone involved deserves to be congratulated. Most CRM archaeology reports are seldom seen by anyone outside a small circle of CRM professionals, but this book is accessible to a wide audience and deserves to be read by anyone interested in Ohio’s ancient history.
Curiously, Purtill concludes that “no single unifying quality or characteristic completely accounts for why groups persistently utilized this property. Instead, throughout its industrious prehistory, multiple factors account for why the Greenlee Tract was a destination for various groups.”
All of us should be grateful for the fortuitous confluence of factors that not only produced this persistent place, but also placed it in the hands of responsible corporate stewards and dedicated archaeologists who recovered these pages of unwritten history and who now share them in the pages of this splendid book.
I hope it serves as an example for other CRM firms and their clients — and not just in Ohio!


Brad Lepper


I am used to thinking of Ohio’s Hopewellculture (circa 100 B.C. – A.D. 400) as the time when a far flung interaction sphere brought enormous quantities of exotic raw materials and artifacts into Ohio. It’s becoming increasingly clear, however, that virtually all ancient American Indian societies valued rare and beautiful things and did their best to acquire them.

In my book Ohio Archaeology: an illustrated chronicle of Ohio’s ancient American Indian cultures, I wrote that there was “little evidence for trade during the Late Prehistoric period” (circa A.D. 1000 – 1650). I argued that increasing intergroup conflict largely had eliminated the need for these kinds of social symbols and created an environment in which long distance travel and trade would have been too risky to undertake — at least on a regular basis.

I was wrong.
Ohio’s Madisonville site, a major Late Prehistoric village and cemetery now encompassed by suburban Cincinnati, was an important center of interregional trade. In my July column in the Columbus Dispatch I point out that a number of artifacts that originated in Europe found their way to Madisonville long before any Europeans had set foot here. Those artifacts certainly are the most spectacular evidence of trade during this period, but they are far from the whole story.

Also found at Madisonville are grooved stone mauls and bone rasps from the upper Mississippi valley, pipes from southern Wisconsin, a ceramic head-effigy pot from Missouri, and engraved shell gorgets from eastern Tennessee.

Clearly, trade was an important activity during the Late Prehistoric period and the rare commodities obtained through these extensive networks must have been important status symbols. The evidence for warfare during this period also is clear, however, so this interaction may have taken place in the periods between intermittent eruptions of violence — possibly in the context of neighboring groups negotiating alliances with one another.

This is very different from what was happening in the Hopewellera for which there is virtually no evidence of intergroup violence of any kind and the flow of exotic materials into Ohiowas orders of magnitude beyond anything seen either before or after. Trade almost surely was a part of what was going on, but the sheer volume of hyper-exotic material accumulating at Ohio earthwork centers and the lack of almost anything from Ohio showing up at the other ends of the interaction sphere suggest to me that the monumental Hopewellian earthworks were pilgrimage centers.

Madisonville, on the other hand, was something much more down-to-earth and familiar. It was a large village and a center of trade and commerce for many generations of Late Prehistoric folks.

In fact, I would argue that what we see at Madisonvilleis exactly what more or less ordinary trade should look like in the archaeological record. The accumulation of prodigious amounts of precious materials at Hopewellearthworks may not represent the offerings of pilgrims, but it’s something more than trade.

For more information about the Madisonville site, I recommend Penelope Ballard Drucker’s marvelous book The View From Madisonville: prehistoric western Fort Ancient interaction patterns.

If you want to read more about my ideas on Hopewellpilgrimage, the best place to start is my chapter in Recreating Hopewell, edited by Doug Charles and Jane Buikstra: “The

Great Hopewell Road


and the role of the pilgrimage in the Hopewell Interaction sphere.”

You also can check out the following related blog posts:
The Newark Earthworks: a place of pilgrimage

The Fort Ancient Earthworks — place of pilgrimage

Ancient American pilgrimage: communitas or costly signaling?

Special thanks to Bob Genheimer, George Rieveschl Curator of Archaeology at the Cincinnati Museum Center, for taking the time from a busy field season to take the picture of the Clarkdale Bell.

Brad Lepper


The Columbus Historical Society has a great new exhibit at COSI celebrating the bicentennial of the City of Columbus.

The Ohio Historical Society contributed a number of artifacts to the exhibit, including a 9,000-year-old flint spear point and a 1,000-year-old pottery vessel both found in the vicinity of Columbus.
These ancient tools remind us the history of Columbus did not begin in 1812. In fact, it began long before the city’s namesake, Christopher Columbus, is said to have discovered America. American Indians and their ancestors have been living here for more than 13,000 years and Columbus was their home long before it was ours!
We thank the Columbus Historical Society for acknowledging our ancient American Indian heritage in their new exhibit! And we are proud to have played a small part in telling this important part of the story.For more information about the Columbus Historical Society and the COSI exhibit, check out the CHS webpage:


Roger G. Kennedy, former director of the National Park Service, former director of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History and all around Renaissance Man, died at the end of September last year.

I had the great pleasure of meeting Roger in 1990 when he was working on filming the first episode of Roger Kennedy’s Rediscovering America for the Discovery Channel. The program was to cover the grand sweep of eastern North American prehistory, with a focus on the great mound-building civilizations and, what he would go on to refer to as, America’s “Hidden Cities” (see his book with that title). Although Cahokia, the great Mississippian-era city in Illinois, qualifies as a city under almost any definition, archaeologists generally do not regard the large Hopewell earthworks as “cities.” Roger, however, was expansive in his definition: “…by city we mean a place in which a large number of people gather for common purposes.” Therefore, he was perfectly justified in encompassing Ohio’s Fort Ancient, the Newark Earthworks, Mound City and Serpent Mound within his marvelous narrative.

In 1990, I was a relatively new curator at the Newark Earthworks State Memorial. Roger, with characteristic flair, referred to me in his book as “chatelaine” for the earthworks. (I still wish I could make that my official job title!)
Roger and his film crew interviewed me at the Munson Springs site, a Paleoindian camp site between Granville and Newark, as well as at the Newark Earthworks. We also enlisted a troop of local boy scouts and experimented with (mostly) aboriginal tools to see how long it would take to build the earthworks. (It turns out a motivated team of young men can move a lot of earth in a surprisingly short period of time!)

Roger became interested in the idea of the Great Hopewell Road, which I was then only beginning to formulate; and he decided we needed to rent a helicopter and fly the route. So he arranged for the helicopter and we did just that. It was August, so we didn’t see much through the morning haze except a profusion of vegetation, but Roger became convinced that a Hopewell Road did, indeed, connect Newark and Chillicothe and even extended on to Portsmouth! I have never been willing to go that far – literally or figuratively, but I agree that if there was a Great Hopewell Road connecting Newark and Chillicothe, there should be other Hopewell roads connecting other great Hopewell earthwork sites.

There is a funny story regarding the Rediscovering America video. You may notice in the picture of Roger and me together that we have a very similar build. (I only look taller in the image because I’m standing uphill.) Anyway, Roger had gone back to Washington, while the film crew continued shooting video at several of the sites. The director decided he needed footage of Roger walking around Serpent Mound to go with the close-up footage they had shot earlier in the week. Instead of waiting, they had me come to the site, put on a wig and Roger’s hat and walk around pretending to be Roger while they shot their video. So if you get a chance to see the program, the guy that appears to be Roger walking around the Serpent is actually me.

My most recent contact with Roger was nowhere near as much fun as our helicopter ride. We corresponded in March of 2010 regarding our joint involvement in another video project — the Lost Civilizations of North America video. Roger elected not to sign the statement that several of us who were involved wrote and which I posted on this blog in December of 2010, but that didn’t mean he was happy with the way his interview had been used.

I will miss Roger. And Ohio’s ancient earthworks have lost a mighty champion.

Brad Lepper


Recently, I had another opportunity to talk to the folks at Ohio’s Wilderness Center. On this occasion, science educator Joann Ballbach, general naturalist Gordon T. Maupin, and conservation biologist Gary Popotnik and I chatted about Serpent Mound as well as Ohio’s other, less renowned, effigy mound, the so-called “Alligator.”

Our conversation was recorded and has been posted as part of the January 19th “Wild Ideas” podcast.

Serpent Mound, at more than 1400 feet long, is the largest effigy mound in the world whereas “Alligator” Mound is a much smaller 200 feet long. Radiocarbon dating and other evidence situate both of these effigies in the Late Prehistoric era (circa AD 1000-1650), which not coincidentally overlaps the time period when all of the hundreds (or even thousands) of effigy mounds were being built in the Upper Midwest.

My sense is that the Serpent and the “Alligator” mounds represent the Great Serpent and Underwater Panther, masters of the Beneath World in the traditions of many Native American cultures. The folklorist George Lankford, in his book Reachable Stars, argues that the Serpent and Underwater Panther actually are manifestations of one supernatural being: “…the Native view, rooted in shape-shifting and symbolic imagery, seems to find much less distinction between the two.”

These mounds, then, may have been monumental shrines dedicated to this potent spirit.

If you’re interested in learning more, here is a link to the Wilderness Center webpage:

My interview is on Podcast #145 and starts at about the 20 minute mark, but you also may enjoy the wide-ranging discussions of various aspects Ohio’s natural environment that precede the conversation about Ohio’s effigy mounds.Here are links to a few related blog entries:The Serpent and the “Alligator”: Ohio’s ancient effigy mounds

The Snake’s Tale: How Old Is Serpent Mound?

New Discoveries at Serpent Mound

And for even more information about Ohio’s effigy mounds, check out my articles in Timeline:

Lepper, Bradley T.
1998 Great Serpent. Timeline Vol. 15, Number 5, pages 30-45.

2001 Ohio’s “Alligator.” Timeline Vol. 18, Number 2, pages 18-25.

Brad Lepper


The inaugural issue of the Journal of Ohio Archaeology features my article, “Ohio — ‘the heart of it all’ for over 15,000 years.” It is an overview of Ohio prehistory focusing on the most current interpretations of what David Hurst Thomas has called “some of America’s most spectacular archaeology.”

“Located between the Great Lakes and the Ohio River valley with a cornucopia of natural resources, including abundant high quality flint, is it any wonder that Ohio was a Paleoindian Garden of Eden, one of the world’s few hearths of plant domestication, and a setting for one of the most spectacular cultural florescences in this (or any other) hemisphere?”

I also call for professional archaeologists to devote more energy to public education about our ancient American Indian heritage:

“In this period of deficit reduction and budget slashing, it is even more important that we convey to the public the value of the past, else they may decide it does not warrant their support . That value is not just abstract and esoteric. With Ohio’s incredible archaeological resources, heritage tourism could be an economic engine for the state.”

Published by the Ohio Archaeological Council, the Journal of Ohio Archaeology is a fully electronic, refereed journal that publishes original papers on the archaeology of Ohio and the surrounding region.

You can read the entire text of my paper at the following link:

Brad Lepper