The Hopewell culture was a virtual explosion of monumental architecture, art and ceremony centered in southern Ohio between about 100 B.C. and A.D. 400.
One of the most striking features of the Hopewell culture was a far-flung interaction sphere that brought exotic raw materials into Ohio. Hopewell artisans acquired copper from southern Ontario, mica from the Carolinas, seashells from the Gulf of Mexico and obsidian from Montana.
Ohio’s principal contribution to this interaction sphere was rainbow-color Flint Ridge flint — now Ohio’s official gemstone.
The Hopewell quarried countless tons of flint from quarries at Flint Ridge in Licking County. Skilled flint-knappers worked the flint into two highly standardized forms — small, leaf-shaped blades and variously shaped, but frequently conical, cores.
These cores were not tools. They were carefully prepared and portable blocks of flint that could be used to make large numbers of similarly shaped, long, thin bladelets. These products of Ohio’s first industry can be found across much of eastern North America.
Pinson Mounds in western Tennessee is the largest Hopewell earthworks site outside Ohio. It includes a huge circular earthwork — similar in size to Newark’s Great Circle — and a number of mounds that extend over about 400 acres. At a number of places around the site, archaeologists have recovered many bladelets made from Flint Ridge flint.
Archaeologists Marvin Kay and Robert Mainfort Jr. have studied the Pinson Mounds bladelets and have some ideas about their purpose and meaning. The results of their analyses are presented in the current issue of the Journal of Archaeological Science.
Kay and Mainfort examined bladelet edges under extremely high magnification to look for clues to how they had been used. They found that many of the Pinson bladelets had been hafted to handles, much like modern replaceable razor blades. Many bladelets served principally as burins — a sort of gouge used for working bone, antler or wood. Others were used as gravers, knives and scrapers. These little tools were highly versatile — Kay and Mainfort compare bladelets to our modern screwdriver, which has a variety of “creative and productive” ways it can be used, they said.
In spite of the bladelet’s versatility, when the Hopewell culture collapsed, the technology was abandoned. The use of Flint Ridge flint in general declined markedly as well. Why would later peoples have given up such a useful technology and such an important source of flint?
Kay and Mainfort conclude that “at its core, the Hopewell Interaction Sphere communicated information about social identity and status.” And bladelets, particularly those made with Flint Ridge flint, were the “quintessential symbol of the Hopewell Interaction Sphere.”
Evidently, the circumstances that brought about the end of the Hopewell culture produced such strong feelings in the people who formerly had identified themselves through the use of such symbols that they decided emphatically to reject them even though it meant giving up a useful tool and a valued raw material.
Archaeologists are still trying to uncover exactly why the Hopewell culture collapsed, but Kay and Mainfort have shown that artifacts have much to contribute to our understanding of this unwritten history.