4. Book Review: Mysteries of the Hopewell: Astronomers, Geometers, and
Magicians of the Eastern Woodlands.
By William F. Romain, The University of Akron Press, Akron, Ohio
Reviewed by Mark J. Lynott, Midwest Archeological Center
Many archeologists consider the work of E.G. Squier and E.H. Davis to
be the first scientific archeological investigation in the United States.
Whether we agree with that or not, it is interesting to note that Squier
and Davis were attracted to study the same mound and earthwork sites
that today are the core of Ohio Hopewell. Exploration of Hopewell mounds
produced substantial evidence that the mounds and earthworks were associated
with highly developed mortuary rituals and artistic objects of material
culture. For about a century, the Hopewell mortuary complex was the primary
focus of research in this area. In the last forty years, researchers
have turned their attention to a broader understanding of Hopewell culture.
Archeoastronomy became a part of North American archeology following
Warren Wittry’s discovery of a series of woodhenges at Cahokia,
near East St. Louis, Illinois, in the early 1960s. Wittry demonstrated
that these wooden features were solar observatories. This discovery,
and subsequent discoveries throughout North America, have led archeologists
to believe that symbols in the art, artifacts, and architecture of prehistoric
North America are a reflection of the world-views of their creators.
Mysteries of the Hopewell, by William F. Romain, represents a summary
of the long-term research interests of the author into the mound and
earthwork sites of Ohio. Many of the ideas presented in this volume have
been presented elsewhere as a series of short papers (e.g. Romain 1991,
1992, 1994, 1995). Mysteries of the Hopewell is a well written, well-illustrated,
and easyto- read volume that discusses many of the well-known sites in
southern Ohio. The basic thesis of this work is that the world-view of
the Hopewell people is reflected in the orientation and symbolism of
artifacts and earthworks they left behind. In the first section of the
book, Romain notes the proximity of all the important southern Ohio Hopewell
earthwork sites to water. He also notes that they are concentrated in
an ecotonal area of great environmental richness, with several of the
earthworks located in proximity to important stone resources (e.g., Newark
to Flint Ridge, Tremper to Pipestone).
Chapter Two is entitled “Sacred Geometry” and includes a
description of many of the possible relationships between circles and
squares as exhibited in Hopewell earthworks, including examples of nested
squares, inscribed triangles, and truncated squares. This chapter also
argues that components of individual earthworks are interrelated
Chapter Three is entitled “Measuring and Counting” and includes
a discussion of possible standard units of measure as reflected in Hopewell
earthworks and architecture. In this section, the author argues that
the Hopewell used a basic unit of length that was 2.106 feet, which he
believes is the arm length of an average adult Hopewell male. Multiples
of this basic unit and fractions of this unit were used to lay out the
earthworks and houses in Hopewell society.
Chapter Four is entitled “Hopewell Astronomy” and includes
discussions about selected earthwork sites. The discussion is intended
to show that the major features in the earthworks are aligned with important
solstice events dating to A.D. 250. The author argues that his measurement
of the earthwork alignments show that they are consistent with A.D. 250
solstice events with an accuracy of less than one degree.
In Chapter Five, “Azimuths to the Otherworld,” the author
presents his argument that some of the earthworks and many of the Hopewell
charnel houses were aligned according to lunar events. The author uses
examples of mound and earthwork alignments at Newark and High Bank and
alignments of excavated houses at Mound City and Seip to support this
Part Two of the book is “The Hopewell Worldview” and includes
three chapters. Chapter Six, “Symbols of Earth and Sky,” presents
the author’s view of the role of geometric shapes in Native American
culture. This is a consideration of the relationship of ethnographic
data to the Hopewell archeological record. Chapter Seven, “Sacred
Ceremonies,” looks at the ritual objects of Hopewell culture as
symbols and notes some ethnographic analogies for their interpretation.
The eighth and concluding chapter is a recap and summary.
My impressions of this book are mixed. It is clear that the author is
very familiar with Hopewell archeology, and he has been able to interpret
many features of the archeological record in terms of ethnographic data.
This is a valuable and important contribution. On the other hand, I found
his interpretation that the orientation of individual sites was related
to solstice events as unconvincing. To some extent, the author tries
to prepare the reader to ignore the absence of precision in orientation
and length of earthwork features by pleading a case for “fuzzy
geometry.” The book also makes assumptions that cannot be substantiated
by current archeological data.
One of the most notable shortcomings of this book, and many other interpretations
of Hopewell culture, is that it fails to satisfactorily address time.
By the most conservative estimates, Ohio Hopewell spans at least four
hundred and more likely five hundred years. Mysteries of the Hopewell
fails to address this great span of time and treats Hopewell culture
as essentially a single event. This is most evident in the author’s
effort to relate Hopewell earthworks to solstice and lunar events in
the year A.D. 250. This theme is the basis of Chapters Four and Five.
Granted, we need more direct radiocarbon dates for construction of the
earthworks, but is it reasonable to assume all of these earthwork sites
were built in one or two generations? If in fact, each earthwork were
laid out and constructed by a single generation, wouldn’t we expect
to find less “fuzzy geometry”? The author notes that many
of the circles and squares are not true forms. For example, the north-south
diameter of the Hopeton circle is 960 feet, and the east-west diameter
of the same circle is 1018 feet (page 37). Certainly, the Hopewell knew
how to make a perfect circle. Is it unreasonable to assume this variation
may be the product of a construction interval that spans several generations?
Although I am not familiar with all of the earthworks addressed by this
book, I have had some experience working at Hopeton.
The author argues that a line from the southeast to the northwest corner
of the rectangle is an azimuth of 301 degrees, which would align with
the summer solstice sunset in A.D. 250 to within 0.75 degrees. On the
surface, this seems like reasonable precision. However, since the northwest “corner” of
the rectangle is rounded and the southeast corner is an open gateway,
there is considerable margin for error in drawing this particular alignment.
An alternative alignment of the two “corners” of only one
or two degrees would diverge greatly with the proposed A.D. 250 solstice
event. If the alignment of these points with the summer solstice sunset
in A.D. 250 had been important to the Hopewell, I believe they would
have done a better job of actually marking the points along the azimuth
of the sight-line.
In a review of other works by William Romain and others interested in
archeoastronomy, James A. Marshall (1999) has presented a detailed criticism
of trying to interpret these earthworks without precise field surveys.
Marshall also notes that archeoastronomers are selective in the potential
azimuths they choose to emphasize. In Figure 5 of his paper he illustrates
dozens of potential azimuths at the Hopeton Earthworks that are ignored
In this book, and in at least one other published paper (Romain 1991),
the author presents evidence and his interpretation that the basic Hopewell
unit of length is 2.106 feet. He then looks at the spacing of post holes
in houses at Mound City and Seip and notes where they occur at intervals
of 2.106 feet or 1.053 feet, which he defines as the sub-unit of the
basic unit of length. The author proposes that 2.106 feet would likely
be the arm length of an average Hopewell male. In looking more closely
at the patterns of posts, I noted that the spacing is far from precise,
and the author has not quantified the variation in post spacing from
the hypothesized standard. I would also note that while a standard unit
of measure is possible, most societies did not bother with this level
of precision until mass manufacturing was adopted.
While I found many of the arguments in this new book unconvincing, I
also found it thought provoking. Mr. Romain has written a book that deserves
to be read and debated. Although I am not convinced that the Hopewell
built their earthworks and houses according to standardized units of
measure, and along alignments with solar and lunar events, I am certain
they had the knowledge and ability to do this if they wished. Mr. Romain
is to be congratulated for presenting his interpretation in the form
of a series of testable models. Anyone interested in Ohio Hopewell archeology
should read this book.
Marshall, James A.
1999 A Rebuttal to the Archeoastronomers: Science Begins with the Facts.
Ohio Archaeologist 49(1): 32-49.
Romain, William F.
1991 Evidence for a Basic Hopewell Unit of Measure. Ohio Archaeologist
1992 Hopewellian Concepts in Geometry. Ohio Archaeologist 42(2): 35-50.
1994 Hopewellian Geometric Enclosures: Symbols of an Ancient World View.
Ohio Archaeologist 44(2): 37-42.
1995 In Search of Hopewell Astronomy. Ohio Archaeologist 45(1): 35-41.
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