Ohio Hopewell: Ancient Crossroads of the American Midwest

Collection History

The World Columbian Exposition was held in Chicago in 1893. Frederic Ward Putnam was made chief of the archaeological exhibits, and he hired Warren King Moorehead to conduct excavations for the Exposition. Moorehead began work at the archaeological site of Fort Ancient but was unable to locate the variety and quantity of amazing artifacts that Squire and Davis had found and included in their book Ancient Monuments of the Mississippi Valley. Moorehead moved his excavation team to the Hopewell Mound Group and their excavations in 1891 and 1892 produced an immense and diverse range of artifacts from beneath the numerous mounds at the site.

The collections from Moorehead’s work at the Hopewell Mound Group are curated by the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago. This collection includes approximately 800 catalog numbers, but the number of individual pieces numbers in the thousands. These objects tell the story of the far-flung Hopewell trade network that linked the Gulf Coast to the Rocky Mountains, enchaining the Midwest into a continent-wide network where ideas, materials, and objects were exchanged through ceremonial practice.

Over the past century the collection has been impacted substantially as artifacts were moved, traded from institution to institution, and sometimes lost. The collection and documentation methods implemented during Moorehead’s 1891–1892 fieldwork reflected the archaeological methods of the era, which focused on rapid, large scale excavation and the prioritization of artifact retrieval over contextual relationships. Inconsistencies and contradictions in documentation as well as missing data thus make this a difficult collection for researchers to use without significant research into the collection’s provenance.

The effort to document and properly catalogue the extensive Hopewell collection was initially recognized in 1985 by Dr. Patricia Essenpreis. She and Dr. Michael Moseley began a National Endowment for the Humanities funded project in association with the Ohio Historical Society to organize and re-catalog The Field Museum’s Hopewell collection. Through their efforts, the Hopewell collection was organized, photographed and documented in order to produce a synthetic, multi-authored volume. This manuscript was well underway through 1985 and 1986. Several artifact analysis chapters written by individual scholars and over 500 professional photos were taken. The manuscript was intended to be published through the Ohio Historical Society but did not come to fruition. A portion of the photo collection and general text summaries were compiled on a CD-Rom entitled The Hopewell Mound Group: Its People and Their Legacy.

A number of the documents from Essenpreis’s manuscript project were housed in the Field Museum Archives until they were rediscovered in 2003 by Tristan Almazan. Almazan was working under the direction of Steve Nash on a Save America’s Treasures project. Nash and Almazan, along with a number of colleagues, aimed to pick up where Essenpreis’s team had left off in the late 1980’s. Between 2003 and 2005, Nash and his team further documented the Hopewell collection (more information about their cataloging project is available here). The products of this project included three finding aids for the Hopewell archives and collection, as well as a database containing extensive artifact information.

Our work began in January of 2015 and has resulted in a variety of digital products. This collaboration between the University of Nebraska-Lincoln’s Center for Digital Research in the Humanities, the University of Illinois at Chicago, Northwestern University and the Field Museum of Natural History combines institutional resources in the form of museum collections, archives, and digital humanities computing. We have both digitized and aggregated hundreds of digital assets including Hopewell excavation photo albums, Field Museum photographic collections, artifact inventories, and a collection of archival documents. Some of these resources were produced through the considerable efforts of Essenpreis and Nash, others were created through the efforts of this project.

We hope the documents, inventories, and photographs presented here will foster research and interest in the Hopewell Culture of the Ohio River Valley and serve as a catalyst for future work to create a larger, more comprehensive, repository.