The Liverpool Mounds in Illinois: Part 1 - Rediscovering Hopewell Ritual and Meaning
“Archaeology seeks to explain the inner workings of cultures in which even baked clay jars were animated with their particular spirits. But, until as archaeologists we develop more than a little empathy for the prehistoric Indians we presume to understand, prehistory may never be more than what it has become, the soulless artifact of a dehumanized science.”
--Robert Hall, “Ghosts, Water Barriers, Corn, and Sacred Enclosures in the Eastern Woodlands”, American Antiquity Vol. 41, No. 3, 1976, pp. 360-364.
The quote above from the great anthropologist Robert Hall (1927-2012) encapsulates one of the most pervasive issues in the archaeology of the Eastern Woodlands and the Plains of North America: it lives in the shadow of an altogether soulless legacy. During the late 1800s and early 1900s, both antiquarians and archaeological institutions, whose only purpose was the recovery and documentation of exotic artifacts, wantonly destroyed a vast number of important burial mounds and other sites in the greater Mississippi Valley.
Grand Mound located along the banks of the Rainy River. (CC BY-SA 3.0)
Path of Destruction
For example, between 1882 and 1886, the Bureau of American Ethnology of the Smithsonian Institution excavated over 2,000 mounds in 140 U.S. counties, obtaining 40,000 artifacts. And yet, in spite of having the resources to conduct such a massive operation and the opportunity to cast a serious light on the ancient cultures whose graves they plundered, the agents of the Bureau were working under a mandate issued from director John Wesley Powell, which insisted that all discoveries made in the mounds could only be interpreted as evidence of a savage and barbaric people.
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Grave Creek Mound. (Tim Kiser/ CC BY-SA 2.5 )
By the mid-twentieth century, things were changing in American archaeology, as archaeologists such as William S. Webb, Don Dragoo, Ernest Sutton and Olaf Prufer began to delve into the possible cultural history and meaning behind the extravagant burial mounds of the Ohio Valley. Unfortunately, this work was offset by the contemporary “research” of individuals like Raymond S. Baby of the Ohio Historical Society, who used bulldozers and dynamite to excavate some of the most important burial mounds in Ohio.
In more recent times several philosophical researchers, most notably Cheryl Claassen, Robert Hall, George Lankford, William Romain, and Christopher Carr, have contributed colossal efforts to understanding the prehistoric cultures as the legacy of living people, whose own traditions can be found embodied in the rites and practices of the ancients. In this article we follow in the footsteps of these figurative giants in re-examining a little known group of Hopewell mounds in Illinois.
Sinnissippi Site, Sinnissippi Park, Sterling, Illinois. U.S. National Register of Historic Places. The site contains several Hopewellian Indian Mounds built between 500 BC and 500 AD. (IvoShandor/CC BY-SA 3.0)
The Liverpool Mounds
The Liverpool Mound group consisted of five Hopewell burial mounds (F°77, F°78,
F°79, F°80, and F°87) situated on the west side of the Illinois River in Fulton County Illinois, one half mile below the village of Liverpool. The mounds were subjected to excavations on several occasions between 1926 and 1930, including explorations by Frank Solomon (a commercial digger), the Dickson brothers, and the University of Chicago. Cole and Deuel recorded many of the findings in a volume published in 1937. It is possible that the Liverpool site was multi-component (used by more than one culture over time). As such, only the definitively Hopewellian material will be discussed in this article.
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Liverpool Mound F°77 - Log Tomb A
At the center of Mound F°77, a rectangular log tomb (hereafter Log Tomb A) had been constructed by stacking logs 6-8 inches (15.24-20.32 cm) in diameter three deep at each side and end. Two saplings had been placed at each corner to function as supports for a bark roof over the tomb. In the Northeast of the tomb was a 6-8 inch deep clay pit, which exhibited evidence of burning. Three burials were found in Log Tomb 1, two of which were associated with bead necklaces and a copper celt, while the third wore a necklace of bear teeth.
Log Tomb B
The second log tomb of Mound F°77 (hereafter Log Tomb B) featured ends and sides one log high, and a covering of split logs. In the northeastern corner was a cremation pit lined with heavy clay, burned to a deep red. The bottom of the pit was covered with wood ash, in which were three scorched bone skewers. Over the ash was a deposit of artifacts including a Hopewell platform pipe with a frog effigy, a copper adze, and a cut human upper jawbone. There were eight human burials in Log Tomb B (5 males, 2 females, and 1 child).
An artist's depiction of a log-tomb burial from Wright Mound (Henderson and Schlarb 2007). Artwork modelled after Feature 22, Burials 20 and 21 (Webb 1940, 44). Original artwork by Jimmy A. Railey. Credit: Kentucky Archaeological Survey.
Burial 1 included a necklace of marine shell beads and a piece of horn shaped fossil and was surrounded by 13 bone skewers which may have held down a covering. Burials 2 and 3 both wore necklaces, and a copper awl was found between them. Burial 7 featured a necklace of river pearls including a bear tooth pendant with inset pearls, and a copper adze. At the center of Log Tomb B was a conch shell with a large deposit of lime, and mica flakes, galena fragments, and quartzite pebbles were scattered about the floor.
Mound F°77 also included a “Mat Burial”, where an extended body was found covered with burned pieces of a bark or reed mat pegged down with three bone skewers. Upon the mat were fragments of lime and copper flakes. The overall burial had been covered with a canopy, which was also burned. The skeleton featured a deposit of stones near the head, a necklace of 120 silver beads, between 400 and 500 pearl beads (once attached to a garment). A copper adze, copper blade, and a cut human upper jaw had all been all placed below the feet.
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Representative image of an old skeleton. (Public Domain/Detail)
Liverpool Mound F°78 Log Tomb C
Liverpool Mound F°78 contained yet another log tomb (Log Tomb C), which was between 3 and 4 feet (0.91-1.22 meters) in height and constructed of oak logs. The tomb contained multiple burials with such artifacts as 37 bone daggers and/or awls, 10 split bear teeth, 2 bear canine teeth cut into dagger shapes, 6 copper awls, 1 Hopewellian platform smoking pipe, around 300 pearl beads, and 1 string each of pearl and shell beads.
Liverpool Mound F°79 - Rock Wall Tomb
Liverpool Mound F°79 contained a rock walled tomb 10 feet (3.05 meters) long and 20 feet (6.10 meters) wide, which featured a puddled clay lining holding the stones in place. Within the tomb were around 40 burials, each surrounded by smaller circular rock walls 2-10 inches (5.08-25.4 cm) wide. An ash-covered area was located in the southwestern corner of the large tomb.
A number of artifacts were found with the dead in the F°79 tomb, including 27 bone skewers, 1 frog effigy pipe, 1 pearl bead necklace, around 1200 pearl slug beads, 82 copper beads, 1 copper wedge, 10 imitation bear teeth made of sheet copper, 2 pink flint cores, and 4 human upper jaws and 1 lower jaw, which had been cut and perforated for suspension.
Hopewell Platform Frog Effigy Pipe. (Mike Ruggeri’s Adena and Hopewell Art)
Having described the features of the Liverpool Mounds, the second part of this article will focus on the possible symbolic meanings of this site in the contexts of Hopewell studies and the traditions of historic Native American peoples.
Top Image: Hopewell Platform Frog Effigy Pipe. (Mike Ruggeri’s Adena and Hopewell Art)
This article is dedicated to Cheryl Claassen, Robert Hall, George Lankford, William Romain, and Christopher Carr, whose work has done so much to illuminate the ancient people of North America.
J. W. Powell, “On Limitations to the Use of Some Anthropologic Data”, Annual Report, 1881.
Faye-Cooper Cole and Thorne Deuel, Rediscovering Illinois, University of Chicago Press, 1937.