THE HOPEWELL MORTUARY-CEREMONIAL INTERACTION SPHERE

The Hopewell Interaction Sphere. Image courtesy of Voyageur Media Group
The Hopewell Interaction Sphere. Image courtesy of Voyageur Media Group

Anyone interested in understanding the Hopewell culture has to come to grips with the extent of its so-called Interaction Sphere. We call it an Interaction Sphere, because we don’t know for sure what’s behind all the interaction and we don’t want to presume the answer to our question by calling it, for example, a trade network – although trade most certainly was at least one part of what was going on. Interaction Sphere is a convenient and descriptive yet neutral term to apply to the widespread movement of ideas and materials that is so characteristic of the Middle Woodland period in Ohio and other regions in eastern North America.

 Mica assemblage from one 1x1 m unit in the top zone of ditch fill from Enclosure No. 1 at the Garden Creek site. Image courtesy of Alice Wright

Mica assemblage from one 1×1 m unit in the top zone of ditch fill from Enclosure No. 1 at the Garden Creek site. Image courtesy of Alice Wright

When Joseph Caldwell first elaborated the concept of the Hopewell Interaction Sphere in 1964, however, he had a definite idea of what was behind it. From his study of Hopewell archaeology, he had identified two “salient features” of the archaeological record: “striking regional differences in the secular, domestic and non-mortuary aspects of the widespread Hopewellian remains; and an interesting, if short, list of exact similarities in funerary usages and mortuary artifacts over great distances.”

Alice Wright excavating Enclosure No. 1 ditch at the Garden Creek site.  Image courtesy of Alice Wright
Alice Wright excavating Enclosure No. 1 ditch at the Garden Creek site. Image courtesy of Alice Wright

Since the interactions between the various societies appeared to be primarily “in mortuary-religious matters,” Caldwell felt it was “an interaction sphere of a special kind” – a mortuary-ceremonial, or religious interaction sphere. He went on to argue that it could have served as a mechanism for keeping developing regional societies in touch with one another over “significant periods of time” and might be one way, and even perhaps the principal way, to explain the rise of socio-cultural complexity, or Civilization: “Perhaps the relation we shall find between the World’s great religions and the World’s great civilizations is that to a large degree we have been talking about the same thing.”

I largely agree with Caldwell, but I think the mortuary-ceremonial-religious aspect of the Hopewell Interaction Sphere was expressed and maintained as a network of pilgrimage centers with devotees bringing exotic raw materials, or finished craft items made from exotic materials, to places like the Hopewell Mound Group or the Newark Earthworks as offerings. Once initiated into the mysteries, pilgrims would then return home to spread the gospel, perhaps by establishing local franchises in their distant homelands. And they may have taken home with them bladelets made from Ohio’s highly distinctive Flint Ridge flint as pilgrim’s tokens to signify that they had, indeed, been to the North American Mecca.

The Enclosure No. 1 ditch in cross-section. Image courtesy of Alice Wright
The Enclosure No. 1 ditch in cross-section. Image courtesy of Alice Wright

In my February column for the Columbus Dispatch, I discuss the research of archaeologists Alice Wright and Erika Loveland at the Garden Creek site in North Carolina. One interpretation of Garden Creek’s rectangular enclosure and craft workshop is that the site represents a local franchise of the Ohio Hopewell located at the source of the mica and crystal quartz that were such important components of the Hopewell Interaction Sphere. Although Wright and Loveland did not report any Flint Ridge flint from their limited excavations at Garden Creek, they note that the artifacts found in the Biltmore Mound, in Asheville, North Carolina, did include Flint Ridge flint bladelets.

Erika Loveland at work in the lab analyzing the lithic assemblage from Enclosure No. 1. Image courtesy of Alice Wright
Erika Loveland at work in the lab analyzing the lithic assemblage from Enclosure No. 1. Image courtesy of Alice Wright

In e-mail correspondence about their research, Wright told me that she sometimes felt like she was “coming at Hopewell sideways — as a Southeasternist by training.” She admitted to feeling overwhelmed at times by “the amount of information out there on Ohio archaeology” [Don’t we all!], but “at the same time, these sorts of inter-regional discussions are fun, and I’d argue necessary to try and come to grips with the Middle Woodland period.”

Given the extent of the Hopewell Interaction Sphere, whatever it represented, I couldn’t agree with her more! Read the paper by Wright and Loveland and see what you think.

Bird claw effigy cut from sheet mica, Ohio Hopewell culture, 100 B.C. – A.D.  400. Excavated from Hopewell Mound Group, Ross County, Ohio. A 283/000292.001. Ohio Memory image AL02824
Bird claw effigy cut from sheet mica, Ohio Hopewell culture, 100 B.C. – A.D. 400. Excavated from Hopewell Mound Group, Ross County, Ohio. A 283/000292.001. Ohio Memory image AL02824

Brad Lepper

 

For further reading:

Caldwell, Joseph R.
1964 Interaction spheres in prehistory. In Hopewell Studies, edited by J. R. Caldwell and Robert Hall, pp. 135-143. Scientific Papers No. 12, Illinois State Museum, Springfield.

Lepper, Bradley T.

2006 The Great Hopewell Road and the role of the pilgrimage in the Hopewell Interaction sphere. In Recreating Hopewell, edited by D. K. Charles and J. E. Buikstra, pp. 122-133. University Press of Florida, Gainesville.

2010 The ceremonial landscape of the Newark Earthworks and the Raccoon Creek Valley. In Hopewell Settlement Patterns, Subsistence, and Symbolic Landscapes, edited by Martin Byers and DeeAnne Wymer, pp. 97-127. University Press of Florida, Gainesville.

Wright, Alice P. and Erika Loveland
2015 Ritualised craft production at the Hopewell periphery: new evidence from the Appalachian Summit. Antiquity 343:137-153.

Garden Creek Archaeological Project Blog — “Exploring the Past in WNC”

7 thoughts on “THE HOPEWELL MORTUARY-CEREMONIAL INTERACTION SPHERE

  1. I understand archaeologists are increasingly able to look into organic remains. To what extent is it possible to analyze the exchange of perishable goods, like food and pelts? Have they been analyzed? How do they fit into the sphere and how might future investigations into them change our view of what was happening in the Hopewell world?

    1. Matt — Absolutely, food and pelts conceivably could have played a role in such a network. For example, studies of the chemical isotopes of maize cobs have revealed that maize was brought into Chaco Canyon perhaps as a kind of tribute to religious/political elites. But those kinds of resources likely would have been reasonably abundant both in the Ohio valley and at the opposite ends of the Hopewell Interaction Sphere, so they wouldn’t have been valued commodities in a trade network. Why carry several pounds of mica or quartz crystal from North Carolina to Ohio to trade for a bunch of deer hides or hickory nuts that you could have obtained for yourself, with much less effort, at home? And there is no evidence for Hopewell elites that did not have to work for a living, so most everyone would have been doing their own hunting for food and hides. The large gatherings that took place at the monumental earthworks involved feasting and someone would have had to provide that food, but Kendra McLaughlin has shown that the area around Fort Ancient was being used as a huge garden where plants of the Eastern Agricultural Complex were being grown. This would have provided some of the food to sustain the influx of celebrants. So, again, there may not have been a a big need for folks to bring food and pelts to trade.

  2. Thanks for your answers Brad, informative as always. I guess I was thinking less of trade of ‘exotic’ for ‘consumptive’ as I was an Ohio Hopewell ‘consumptive’ (I’m not sure of the exact word I am looking for here) for ‘consumptive’ sphere. If the had such varied and established interactions in exotic materials, what was the interaction like for more utilitarian items- even if that interaction was not directly related to the seemingly ceremonial and religious exchanges?

    1. Matt, I am sure the Hopewell people also traded with one another for practical items while gathered in large groups for ceremonial occasions. I suspect it will be hard to tease apart the secular and ceremonial transactions, but it should be theoretically possible to do so.

  3. I’m in Australia and this sounds rather similar to the triannual Bunya festival, which for thousands of years involved Aboriginal tribes from a huge slice (almost a quarter) of the Australian continent – tallies are given of 5,000 – 20,000 attendees. Not only was it a huge trade fair, but a 2-3 month period of feasting, sports contests, ceremonies, new dance/songs, marriage arrangements, tournaments to resolve inter-tribal disputes, and “inter-tribal parliament.” Perhaps the groups of the Hopewell Interaction Zone were similarly engaged in a regular multi-faceted festival/gathering at the Hopewell heartlands?

  4. Just thought I’d mention the southeastern green corn festival, an 8 day gathering involving fasting, feasting, forgiveness, and renewal:
    http://www.encyclopediaofalabama.org/article/h-1553

    It was timed to coincide with the first harvest of corn but it is entirely possible that a rite may have developed centered on flint ridge chert; maybe the material was considered so special it was only permissible to obtain it at a selected time of year, or when conditions were right such as an eclipse. Could the location of the quarry have been kept secret to protect its value and material only traded or offered at a ceremonial center to capitalize on its enforced rarity? Who knows, but worth speculating about.

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