Reconstitution of a prehistoric burial. Representative image.

Bones of the Child, Tools of the Shaman: Ritual and Cosmology at the Hopewell Tunacunnhee Mounds

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Near Trenton in Dade County, Georgia, is a place called Tunacunnhee, supposedly named after a Native American word meaning “Lookout Creek”. Located just a few hundred yards east of Lookout Creek is an archaeological site known as the Tunacunnhee Mound Group. The Tunacunnhee site consists of four earthen mounds featuring an outer layer or mantle of limestones. Located near the mounds are two prehistoric burial pits.

In the winter of 1973, the Ani-yun-wiya Society of amateur archaeologists of Tennessee and Georgia brought the site to the attention of professional archaeologists—following an incident during which   Mound C was looted and six burials were destroyed. In fact, the site had been routinely vandalized for around 50 years by the time archaeologists arrived to perform excavations and research. At that point, the archaeologists realized that the decades of vandalism had somehow spared the most important features of the site! What the professional diggers found was considered “of extraordinary archaeological importance”, for the Tunacunnhee Mounds turned out to be the work of people affiliated with the ancient Hopewell Culture.

Hopewell mounds from the Mound City Group in Ohio

Hopewell mounds from the Mound City Group in Ohio (Herb Roe/ CC BY-SA 3.0 )

Elaborate Earthworks and Mounds

The Hopewell Culture is usually considered a prehistoric manifestation of the Ohio River Valley, dating to between 200 BC and around 450 AD, spanning the entire Middle Woodland time-period. Hopewell people in Ohio are famous among archaeological researchers for constructing incredibly elaborate earthworks centers and burial mounds, as well as helming an exchange system that reached from the Gulf Coast to Canada.

The tombs in Hopewellian Mounds in the Ohio Valley, Illinois, Michigan, Wisconsin, Indiana, and Iowa have been found to contain exotic artifacts of mica, shell, copper, and silver. The heartland of the Hopewell Culture is considered to be the Paint Creek—Scioto Valley confluence in Ross County, Ohio, where it evolved from the earlier Adena Culture. While the Midwestern and Northern manifestations of Hopewell are widely known, the same cannot be said for sites of the southern extension—such as Tunacunnhee.

The Tunacunnhee mounds ended up producing what at the time represented “the greatest variety and quantity of Hopewellian artifacts reported from the interior Southeast.” The tumuli described here are mounds A, C, D, and E—the remaining mounds from the site are not prehistoric. 

Mound A was found to consist almost entirely of limestone rocks and lacked an inner clay core like the remaining mounds. The limestone rocks used to build the mound weighed from two or three to up to 100 pounds. Beneath the mound was a central pit, which contained burned human remains, along with a Hopewellian copper earspool. A human mandible on the northern side of the mound was found near a strip of mica and a copper panpipe. Two further burials were found in the northern edge of Mound A, placed in rock-lined basins.

Copper ear spools from Spiro Mounds, Oklahoma - Northern Caddoan Mississippian archaeological site located in Eastern Oklahoma. Representational image.

Copper ear spools from Spiro Mounds, Oklahoma - Northern Caddoan Mississippian archaeological site located in Eastern Oklahoma. Representational image. (Heironymous Rowe/ CC BY-SA 3.0 )

The artifacts from Mound A demonstrate the far-reaching connections of the Georgia Hopewell at Tunacunnhee. For example, Hopewellian copper panpipes (sometimes also coated in silver) have been found throughout the Hopewell Interaction Sphere, from the southeast to Canada. Recent research suggests that these musical instruments were first crafted and used by Hopewell people in Wisconsin, from where they diffused to other groups. The same research suggests that the panpipes had different functions in different Hopewell communities across eastern North America.

Hopewell copper earspools, while most predominant in Ohio, are believed by some researchers to have actually been first fabricated and worn by the Middle Woodland mound builders in Illinois or the Tennessee River Valley. The copper used for Hopewell earspools, panpipes, and other copper artifacts is generally considered to originate from the Great Lakes region. The copper earspools and panpipes are perfect illustrations of not only the general hybrid nature of the Hopewell Culture—which incorporated a diverse array of exotic artifact types from many far-flung regional traditions—but also the long-distance connections of the Woodland people buried at the Tunacunnhee site.

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