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Modern interpretations on the Sugar Run Mounds

Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission image An image that depicts the layout discovered when the Sugar Run Mounds were excavated in the 1940s.

Before we get into some modern commentary on the Sugar Run Mounds discovery and its significance, I think it will be helpful to define just who these people were.

We know them as “Hopewell” but, as was mentioned last week, that’s a term modern scientists have applied to them.

According to information from the National Park Service, “these groups developed a variety of Woodland cultures known for their agricultural economy” by 1,000 B.C.

“The Hopewell perfected the use of copper to make intricate handicrafts, and are credited with achieving the highest level of Indian artisan culture in the prehistoric Eastern North America,” according to the NPS. “Southern Ohio served as the cradle of Hopewell culture, and although sites have been identified throughout the ‘Old Northwest’ and as far west as Nebraska and Kansas, they do not exhibit the high level of achievement found in Ohio.”

Sugar Run would have been one such site.

Photo courtesy of the Warren County Historical Society A Pennsylvania Historical Marker was once located on Rt. 59 in the area of the Sugar Run Monds. It was dedicated in Oct. 1946 but was ultimately removed from its location when the Kinzua Dam was built and the area was flooded.

“The earthworks themselves indicate an advanced, well-organized society. Objects found with burials in the mounds indicate the Hopewell did not limit themselves to Ohio or the surrounding region,” according to the NPS. “Hopewellian trade networks stretched to the Gulf of Mexico for sea shells, North Carolina’s Blue Ridge Mountains for mica, the Chesapeake Bay for fossil shark teeth, Michigan’s Isle Royale and Keweenaw Peninsula for copper, and Yellowstone for obsidian.

Similar to Sugar Run, the NPS says few Hopewellian habitation sites have been found and much of what we know is based on the discovery of burial grounds.

“Around A.D. 400, Hopewell lifeways changed,” they conclude. “Because the Hopewell left no written records and aboriginal peoples present at the time of European contact were as mystified as anyone about the ‘Moundbuilders,’ anthropologists can only speculate as to their demise. Disease, dwindling food supplies, changing climate, and pressure from outside enemies have all been suggested as reasons why the Hopewell culture changed to a pattern known as ‘Late Woodland’ or ‘Mississippian.'”

A different NPS source helps define the term “Woodland.”

“The Woodland period is a label used by archaeologists to designate pre-Columbian Native American occupations dating between roughly 500 BC and AD 1100 in eastern North America,” that source states. “This time period traditionally is divided into Early, Middle, and Late subperiods, which refer to intervals characterized in very general terms by the first widespread use of pottery across the region, the rise and then decline of a vast exchange network throughout eastern North America, and finally, a period of increasing agricultural intensification and population growth in many areas.”

There have been various theories about just when the Hopewell lived but the latest estimate speculates 1,500 to 2,000 years ago.

Shifting back to Warren County specifically, information from the Pennsylvania Historical Museum Commission notes that the county is home to at least eight burial grounds dated to the Middle Woodland period.

“Interestingly, the excavation of the Sugar Run Mound was conducted by a crew of Seneca Indians from the Allegheny Reservation,” per the PHMC. “The Sugar Run Mound site contained three mounds that slightly overlapped each other. Although these had been plowed down to almost level with the current ground surface, it was possible to determine the construction sequence of the three. There were at least three stone lined crypts, each surrounded by a cobble pavement. It is believed that the cobbles under Mound Unit #1 were arranged in the shape of a raptorial bird on one side of the stone lined crypt and in the shape of a celt on the other side.”

The best sources I found for modern interpretation of the Sugar Run site from Mark McConaughy, who is identified as the western Pennsylvania regional archaeologist for the Bureau of Historic Preservation (part of the PHMC).

He wrote a couple articles focused on interpreting the burials at the mounds, which he described as a “Squawkie Hill phase Hopewellian burial mound.”

The Squawkie Hill piece appears to be an identifier for a specific piece of Hopewellian culture.

“Wesley Bliss, an archaeologist who had received his Ph.D. from the University of New Mexico, was hired to direct excavations of Sugar Run Mound and Village,” he wrote, noting that the mounds were located on the Cornplanter Grant. “The United States entered World War II on December 7, 1941 causing all work to cease at the mound. Bliss only published a brief report of the excavations before he and Carpenter joined the war effort in 1942.”

McConaughy explained that a summary of the work was published as part of a broader survey in 1949.

“Excavations revealed that Sugar Run mound was composed of three smaller mounds that had lost their above-ground individuality due to modern cultivation,” he continued. “A total of 62 burials within the three mounds were excavated by the CCC crew.”

“Sugar Run Mound is an important Squawkie Hill phase site because it demonstrates Middle Woodland mounds had a number of ceremonial functions,” he argued.

McConaughy concluded that Mound Unit 1 was “likely” constructed as part of “a world renewal ceremony involving stone effigies with cremation burials…. The location was recognized as sacred and a place imbued with supernatural power for a relatively long period of time.”

The second mound appears to have been constructed “so that two shaman could be entombed close to this sacred area,” he continued. “It is likely it took a couple of hundred years for all three mound units to be emplaced during the late Middle Woodland Period.”

McConaughy said the bird and ax or celt effigies make Mound 1 “particularly unusual…. No other Squawkie Hill Phase mound has yielded these features.” The grave goods found there indicate that “it was the placement of the dead and ritual(s) associated with them that was of importance.”

The bird effigy may also indicate “Thunderbird iconography.”

He acknowledged that the interpretations are speculative

“The ceremonies and changes in burial types through time indicate this location was somehow imbued with power,” he concluded. The location on a broad terrace of what was then Sugar Run Creek is not one that clearly stands out from other places in the valley. There was no swampy area, pond or waterfall adjacent to it. It is not on a promontory. Perhaps there was a lightning strike at this location that indicated to the inhabitants it was important. This would make some sense if the bird effigy was that of a Thunderbird.”

Another McConaughy article, this one written with Janet Johnson, states that the excavations “were undertaken with the hope of discovering the habitation remains of the people who built Sugar Run Mound and said that the mounds were “plowed nearly level to the modern ground surface prior to excavation by the PHC.”

That inconspicuous appearance probably resulted in the preservation of the mounds from looters.

This article takes a stab at dating the mounds via radiocarbon dating.

One sample? 250 AD.

“Sugar Run Mound and some elements from Sugar Run Village indicate local inhabitants participated in the

Hopewell Interaction Sphere. Exotic materials such as mica. galena crystals, copper objects, Flint Ridge chalcedony, marine shell and possibly an exotic pot demonstrate that local people had access to the Hopewell trading network,” they conclude. “The mica was presumably coming from the southeastern United States, galena from the Upper Mississippi Valley, copper from the western Great Lakes region, and Flint Ridge chalcedony from east-central Ohio.

“It is also possible that all of the exotic materials were channeled through one of the major Hopewell ceremonial centers in Ohio before passing along the trade network into Pennsylvania.”

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