One of the biggest puzzles in North American archaeology is how the relatively small bands of hunter-gatherers living at that time could have built monumental architecture on this scale without food surpluses provided by farming or the centralized leadership of a king or chief.
One theory is that many small groups of hunter-gatherers came together on a seasonal basis year after year for generations to slowly construct this complex of parallel embankments and mounds.
However, the results of new excavations into the largest of Poverty Point’s mounds refute this theory.
Mound A is a massive conical mound about 72 feet tall with a broad, roughly rectangular platform extending off its eastern side. Anthony Ortmann of Murray State University in Kentucky and Tristram Kidder of Washington University in St. Louis excavated a 32-foot-deep trench into Mound A.They reported their results this month in the journal Geoarchaeology.
Ortmann and Kidder carefully examined the mound and found no evidence of any interruptions in its construction. They estimate that the entire mound was built in three months.
This, of course, implies that a large number of hunter-gatherers were somehow mobilized to undertake this massive public works project. Ortmann and Kidder conclude that “whatever the structure of Poverty Point society, it is unlike anything documented in the historic or contemporary hunter-gatherer ethnographic record.”
The conundrum of Poverty Point also is at the heart of our attempts to understand the achievements of the Ohio Hopewell culture. The Hopewell were mainly hunter-gatherers who lived in small groups that had no authoritarian political leaders.
And although some monumental Hopewell earthworks, such as Fort Ancient in Warren County, were constructed in stages over centuries, I believe that the sprawling Newark Earthworks was built, as Poverty Point was, in a remarkably brief period.
Newark encompasses several discrete earthworks that include two gigantic circles, a square, an ellipse and an octagon. Each has particular design elements that suggest different functions. A network of parallel-walled roads linked the earthworks, and subtle geometrical and astronomical connections tied them together into a unified composition.The site is akin to a ceremonial machine with separate, specialized components that worked together to fulfill a larger purpose.
Ortmann and Kidder argue that the “absence of any indication of material and social inequality at Poverty Point suggest that ritual practices may have provided the social sanctions that enabled a limited number of people to direct and lead the construction of monumental architecture.” I agree and believe that the same argument could be applied to Newark.
Unlike Poverty Point, however, the Newark Earthworks are not a one-off. A series of earthworks in the Scioto Valley share similar geometries and astronomical alignments that indicate far-flung interregional connections.
Poverty Point was unprecedented for its time. The Hopewellian achievement was equally unprecedented for its time.
Lepper, Bradley T. 2013. “Archaeology | Ancient earthworks share similarities”. The Columbus Dispatch. Posted: January 27, 2013. Available online: http://www.dispatch.com/content/stories/science/2013/01/27/ancient-earthworks-share-similarities.html