Cultural Clues found at Fort Ancient

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A small group of college students from three Ohio universities is preparing to put away their shovels and sifting screens at Fort Ancient in southwest Ohio. The group is part of a first-of-its-kind field study to explore a part of the site that gained attention last summer.

Wright State University Professor of Anthropology Bob Riordon says, “Whatever it is, we seem to be right in the heart of it.” He is excited by what he and his students have uncovered during the past six weeks. Ohio Historical Society Specialist William Pickard draws an analogy to Stoneheng, saying, “What we’ve uncovered seem to be posts sort of like a woodhenge that encircled this area.”

This newly-uncovered circular site may well be the heart of Fort Ancient, the largest prehistoric American Indian hilltop enclosure in North America. Site manager Jack Blosser says the Moundbuilders chose this site 245 feet above the Little Miami River to construct more than 18,000 feet of earth walls

“They used shoulder bones of deer and split elk antlers as digging sticks,” explains Blosser. “They filled baskets we demonstrated would hold 35 to 40 pounds of soil.”

It took the Hopewell 400 years to build the site – from 100BC to AD 290. Archaeologists, though, have had more than a century to piece together the story of the mounds. Fort Ancient is the oldest of the Ohio Historical Society’s parks – it’s been protected since 1891. But this 200-foot circle. That’s news.

Linda Pansing of the Ohio Historical Society says, “The fact that it’s here and no one knew it was here is a huge surprise to me. Maps that have been drawn over the last 100 years never depicted anything in this area except for a small mound in the very back.”

What map makers of the past century missed was discovered only last summer by remote imaging equipment that detected a large circular structure with a burn area in the center.

Professor Riordon describes the site. “We have a series of pits into which posts were stuck, placed a meter deep in the ground ,and then posts were set upright. We think they might have stood 14 to 15 feet high. That’s speculative. They had stones piled behind them, stones in the order of couple hundred pounds. If you extrapolate that to the size of circle – 200 feet in diameter -there were probably about 300 such pits and posts and collections of stones.”

Riordon says the students have uncovered a burn area in the center of the circle, just several inches below the ground’s surface. “It’s over a foot thick of completely red, burned soil. We think the soil was burned somewhere else and was brought in here and piled in.We don’t know for what reason. We do know there is a series of posts that surround it so we think this was inside a little structure – a hut-like arrangement perhaps. We honestly don’t know what we’re looking at at this point.”

Riordon says this is clearly a ritual center perhaps the physical heart of a culture, “This would be may be a place of pilgrimage.”

Katie Rippl just graduated from Wright State University with a bachelors degree in art for anthropology. She’s supervising William Laib who’s down in a trench, lifting up rocks

Laib says he’s “having a blast, moving the rocks and weighing them. We’ll take them back to Wright State for study.” Rippl says the rocks are weighed to “see how much effort people put into moving them. They could only carry so many rocks. They had no wheel barrows or anything like that. The largest rock we’ve found is more than 30 pounds.”

On a roughly four-foot-high mound of newly dug earth, another group of students huddles around a sifting screen. Kathleen Landers explains that she’s “sifting, looking for mica and pottery at the moment.”

Wright State senior Phyllis Rigney explains that the dirt falls through the screen, and the artifacts sit on top. Also sifting are Wright State adjunct faculty member Angela Chavez And WSU anthropology major Christina Davis who describes one of the artifacts they’re searching for. “Mica is imported from North Carolina..looks like aluminum foil and feels like it too. It was used for ceremonial purposes and decoration.” Chavez says ” The Hopewell had trading routes established over most of the United States. They got mica from the Carolinas and copper from Great Lakes.”

The sifting, digging and lifting end this week. Students take a final exam on their 12-credit field school in archaeology and prepare to return to classes.

Site manager Jack Blosser hopes there will be more field research in the future. He estimates the circle will require a minimum of ten years of excavation. Linda Pansing of the Ohio Historical Society is pensive as she anticipates an end to this year’s work, saying “You have to wait another year until you can read another chapter of the book.”

Many of the students plan to pursue advanced degrees in archaeology-related fields. Some of them look forward to future field work. Katie Rippl thinks she can fall back on what she’s learned during field study if her dream job doesn’t work out. “I dig really good ditches,” says Rippl. “So if it doesn’t work out to be an archaeologist, I can always dig pools.”

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