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Ohio Hopewell Culture

Zoned Pottery Vessel, c. 200 B.C.E. - 100 C.E., Middle Woodland period, Ohio Hopewell culture, 25 cm high, Mound City, Ohio, North America © Trustees of the British Museum
The Adena complex, in the middle and upper Ohio valley, is the most significant evidence of an Early Woodlands society in the last millennium B.C.E. The economy was based on hunting and fishing, and from 100 B.C.E. apparently also on the growing of squash, pumpkin, sunflowers, goosefoot and marsh elder. ​Burial mounds were constructed in several stages, with log-lined pits containing burials with fine grave goods, including smoking pipes. Mounds were constructed within large earthworks that were probably built for ceremonial and economic purposes, rather than as defensive strongpoints.
One or two double pots of this type have been recovered from mound sites. They are decorated with figures which represent aquatic and/or raptorial birds, suggesting the ancient Woodlands dichotomy between creatures of the upper and lower worlds.
Excavations in mounds in Ohio have uncovered superbly carved pipes and other exotic trade goods and fine artworks. The pipes may have been smoked for purification during rituals, and to ensure the good standing of the particular form of native government, whether clan, lineage, or larger grouping.
This tobacco pipe was made by the Hopewell people, and is in the shape of an otter's head. Otters were an important religious animal to the Hopewell, because they were equally at home on both land and in water. The tobacco was placed in a hole in the top of the otter's head, and the smoke breathed in through the flat base which is pierced with a hollow tube. 
North American Otter pipe, c. 200 B.C.E. - 100 C.E., Middle Woodland period, Ohio Hopewell culture, stone, 10 x 5.1 x 3.3 cm, Mound City, Ohio, North America © Trustees of the British Museum. Excavated in 1846. This is one of the approximately 200 pipes found in Mound 8, most of these pipes being animal effigies, and many of those being animals that either fly, or as is the case with this pipe, swim. The deep carved empty eye sockets would have originally had fresh water pearls, and it is thought that originally there was a fish in the mouth of this otter.
A number of pipes in the form of aquatic mammals were found at Mound City. They were to become important in perhaps the most significant archaeological debate of the mid-nineteenth century: were the mounds built by people related to the present-day Native population? If not, who built them?

The "Moundbuilder Myth"

Most American antiquarians thought that the scale and magnificence of the earthworks indicated that they had been erected by an unrelated people, the "Moundbuilders," whom the Native Indian replaced. To support their theory, they claimed that the otter pipes represented vegetarian manatees, living 1000 miles away in the seas around tropical Florida. The "Moundbuilder Myth" eased nineteenth-century guilt at the rapidly disappearing Indian population. Just as the Indians had replaced the Moundbuilders - perhaps coming from the Old World—so Americans, it was thought, would entirely replace Indians.
Suggested readings
J.C.H. King, Smoking Pipes of the North American Indian (London, The British Museum Press, 1977).
G. Milner, The Moundbuilders: Ancient Peoples of Eastern North America (London, Thames and Hudson, 2004).
S. Rafferty, and R. Mann, Smoking and Culture: The Archaeology of Tobacco Pipes in Eastern North America (Knoxville, The University of Tennessee Press, 2004).
© Trustees of the British Museum

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