The Portsmouth Hopewell earthworks spread out approximately eight miles around the city beginning at the conflux of the Ohio and Scioto rivers.
Built by the Hopewell Native Americans sometime between A. D. 100 to 500, the Portsmouth earthworks could be the longest human effigy in the world, and at least in one man’s opinion, could and should be a major local tourist attraction.
Have you lived in the Portsmouth area your entire life and never heard of an eight-mile long Native American mound running through Portsmouth? There are a couple of reasons that is possibly, maybe even probably, so.
For one thing, only about two percent of the mound survives intact, according to Brad Lepper, Senior Curator Of Archaeology for the Ohio History Connection in Columbus.
“Most of it is buried under modern Portsmouth,” he said.
Lepper added the two percent which still exists likely includes the Native American mounds visible in Portsmouth’s appropriately named Mound Park. Some of the Portsmouth Hopewell mound extends across the Ohio River into Kentucky and is still visible there.
Another reason the Portsmouth Hopewell mound is not more famous is somewhat harder to explain. Archaeologist Terry Stocker and collaborator, George Horton, who is not an archaeologist, in May published a scholarly article on the Portsmouth Hopewell mounds, putting forth the original theory the mounds were a human effigy built in the shape of “The Woman Who Fell from the Sky,” a human origin story once common throughout the eastern area of North America.
“It’s been in front of you the whole time,” Stocker told the Daily Times regarding the large mound.
Stocker and Horton’s article appeared in the online Journal of Ohio Archaeology and Stocker claims the piece applies for the first time what he referred to as Native American ethnography, that is Native American thinking or philosophy, to the mystery of the Portsmouth Hopewell mounds.
“We (the authors) are fortunate to have Native Americans as life-long friends, because without specific learning from those individuals, we might never have written this article,” the Stocker/Horton piece reads at one point.
Horton especially appears to have spent a lot of time speaking with the Meskwaki Indian tribe, now based in Iowa, and judging from the recent article, possible descendants of the ancient Hopewell culture.
Stocker and Horton note there are many versions of the story of the Woman Who Fell from the Sky in Native American culture. In regard to the Portsmouth mound, the pair seem no doubt to believe the Meskwaki version is intimately connected with the history of the mound.
The Meskwakis traditionally believed they are descended from a woman they call “He-nau-ee,” or “mother.” He-nau-ee came down from the so-called Upper World in a storm. She fell into the water but lived on an island – another version of the same story has her living on the back of a giant turtle – for 80 days, during which time she gave birth to two sons, who grew to manhood in a matter of hours. After receiving some instruction from their mother, they built a boat and headed to the mainland.
Based on their research as well as two drawings, or maps, dating back to 1848, Stocker and Horton postulate Portsmouth’s Hopewell mounds were built to represent He-nau-ee or at least some version of the Woman Who Fell from the Sky.
“We propose that the two long sets of parallel earthworks extending west in Figure 1 are Sky Woman’s arms upraised, and the circular enclosure in between them is her head. Notice that the arms are connected with a curvature in the upper mound thus connoting the neck and clavicle region of the human body. The two sets of parallel earthworks (one long and one short) extending east are Sky Woman’s spread legs,” Stocker and Horton wrote.
Due to the age of the two drawings, Stocker and Horton admitted the accuracy of either can be called into question. Lepper said, interestingly to him, they initially appeared in the first edition of what became the magazine of the Smithsonian Institution. Like Leper, Stocker said he assumes the mound at Mound Park is part of the large effigy but could not say for sure which part.
For his part, Lepper expressed a certain amount of skepticism the Portsmouth mound is or was an effigy mound.
Not incidentally, an “effigy” mound is simply a mound built in the shape of something or meant to represent something. One obvious example is the famous Serpent Mound not far from Portsmouth, which clearly is in the shape of a serpent.
“I just don’t know for sure that we can say it was intended to be an effigy,” Lepper said of the Portsmouth mound. He did say it is well known the Hopewell culture built massive effigy mounds in various shapes. The biggest complexes are in Newark and Chillicothe.
“They are ceremonial, they are sacred. In many cases, they are like giant cathedrals.” Lepper said of the mounds spread throughout the Scioto River Valley. Many are burial mounds, though not all. The Portsmouth mounds apparently were not burial mounds.
Lepper advertised himself as somewhat of a specialist on the Newark mounds, which in a roundabout way, adds to his skepticism regarding Stocker’s claims for the Portsmouth mounds. Lepper noted the two men who drew the early maps of the Portsmouth mounds reported being thoroughly confused by what they found in Newark. Lepper contends the Portsmouth mounds were even more complicated, which in his mind, casts some doubt on the accuracy of the early drawings done in Portsmouth.
“Many of the details of those maps might not accurately detail what was on the ground,” Lepper said.
Still, for all his skepticism, Lepper began his comments on the work of Stocker and Horton by describing their article as presenting “an interesting and tantalizing idea.” He said the article is too new to have been fully vetted by academics, but noted it also went through a rigorous peer review process before being accepted for the Journal of Ohio Archaeology. If the drawings don’t look much like a woman to you, Lepper noted the so-called Eagle Mound in Newark does not, to many people – including him – come close to actually resembling an eagle.
“It’s kind of an inkblot test with these things,” Lepper quipped. He said he can see aspects of a female figure in the 1800 drawings, but said the figure clearly is not anatomically correct and perhaps sort of abstract.
“I think it’s a fascinating interpretation and one well worth pursuing,” Lepper said in summing up his thoughts.
In their article, Stocker and Horton postulate there may be a reason the Hopewell built their giant effigy where they did, namely at the point where the Scioto and Ohio rivers come together.
“The meeting of these two rivers would have been (is) a large body of water, and the spiritual leaders of the Hopewell might have designated it as the actual spot where the Woman Who Fell from the Sky landed, thereby explaining the extensive earthwork site created there,” they wrote.
Stocker expressed confidence the work of Horton and himself will inspire other archaeologists and further work on the Portsmouth mounds.
“I just can’t believe there won’t be excavations there in the next few years,” Stocker said.
He is equally convinced the mounds could become some kind of tourist attraction benefiting Portsmouth. According to Stocker, the famous rock formations at Stonehenge in England didn’t exist 100 years ago. What most people think of when they think of Stonehenge is a rebuilding of what academics believe existed there long ago. Stocker seems certain somewhat the same thing could happen with regard the Portsmouth mounds.
“Beyond interpretations, we hope that the Ohio and Kentucky departments of tourism might make use of Portsmouth to draw attention to Native American ideology. We feel that the Portsmouth mounds, if developed and presented ‘properly,’ can rival settings like Stonehenge,” Stocker and Horton wrote in the conclusion of their article.
However, to paraphrase their final line, if someone builds it, will they, tourists, come?
Those interested can find the entire Stocker-Horton article online at:
Reach Tom Corrigan at (740) 370- 0715. © 2019 Portsmouth Daily Times, all rights reserved.