Thursday, March 30, 2017


For as long as I can recall, lost civilizations have fascinated me. I longed to visit their sites, but, as I thought that all of them were far from Michigan and Kentucky, where I've lived, I could see them only in books and in National Geographic. Imagine my chagrin when I read on a map of Ohio the legend Hopewell Culture National Historic Park. For all of my life, a lost civilization had been in my back yard and I hadn't known.

Inspired by my discovery, I read all that I could find on Mound Builders — ancestors of modern Native Americans, not Atlanteans, Ancient Egyptians, the Ten Lost Tribes of Israel, or Vikings — but the core of my fascination with them remained the Hopewell Exchange. This rose out of the Adena Culture of central Ohio about 200 B. C. with the building of monumental earthworks: ceremonial centers miles long on hilltops or geometrical figures in units of thousands of feet in lowlands. As the earthworks were built by hand, their completion took centuries. The exchange lasted for around seven hundred years and then, for reasons still unclear to archaeologists, fell apart.

While I was reading about the Hopewell Exchange and visiting Hopewell sites in neighboring Ohio, I wondered about two questions that archaeologists still haven't fully answered: what social institutions held the Hopewell Exchange together for seven centuries, and how did those institutions fail? The driving force behind the Hopewells' centuries-long building projects was clearly a religious organization analogous to the Roman Catholic Church, which held Europe together for the centuries-long construction of cathedrals during the Middle Ages. Archaeologists have determined that the Hopewell's religious organization was shamanistic, revolving around four totemic animals: deer, eagle, bear, and wolf. The Hopewell shamans used symbols, and apparently communed with spirits, that have come down to today's Eastern Woodlands cultures. How the shamans were organized and how they lost their ability to keep a wide domain in peace are questions that archaeologists still want to answer.

Those questions are also seeds of a story if you write speculative fiction. For Hopewell Dreamquest, I assumed that the shamans had gained supernatural powers from fragments of an ancient meteorite that had formed a crater on the rim of which Serpent Mound now stands. When I began to plot the story, conventional archaeology taught that Serpent Mound had been built by the Fort Ancient Culture, much later than the Hopewell Exchange, so my notion of Serpent Mound's construction as a horizon event between the Adena Culture and the Hopewell Exchange was revisionist — likely wrong. I've since learned that William F. Romain of the University of Akron, who did think of Serpent Mound as Hopewell, has shown by radiocarbon dating that the mound did rise at the horizon between the Adenas and the Hopewells, so my wild idea seems to have been right. Maybe, my fiction isn't speculative after all.

As I studied the Hopewell, I grew fascinated with one of their common symbols — the cross within a circle. Likely, this symbol stood for the world's four quarters, but, for the story, I turned the symbol into a map of the Hopewell's religious/political world: four shamanistic centers each of which was dedicated to one of the totemic animals, and a common meeting ground at the center of the four. It was easy for me to map these to actual Hopewell centers in Ohio: the deer in the east at Marietta, the eagle in the south at Portsmouth, the bear in the west at Fort Ancient near Dayton, and the wolf in the north at Newark. The center in my story is the actual center of Hopewell earthworks, Chillicothe, where Hopewell Culture National Historic Park is today.

In the story, my viewpoint character is Gregory, a middle-aged man from central Kentucky whose forebears left him a field full of "Indian" mounds. Like many other Kentuckians, he has familial traditions of Native American ancestry, but doesn't know whether those traditions are true accounts or just stories made up by long-dead tricksters. I sympathize with Gregory; as a child of Kentuckians from the Appalachian Highlands, I grew up listening to elders in my mother's family argue whether they had Cherokee ancestry. Who knows whether they did have it? The truth is that some Cherokees, to avoid the Trail of Tears, tried to pass themselves off as white. If they did, they made sure of keeping their ethnicity secret from their white neighbors and from children who might blab dangerous facts. Hence, if your ancestors claimed to be Cherokee, they were almost certainly not.

In any case, as the story opens, Gregory is living a quiet life in which he has lucid dreams of visiting Native Americans who lived at his mounds centuries before. His quiet life ends when he falls in with others like him: persons of mixed, but mostly European, ancestry with a gift of lucid dreaming about Mound Builders. From those like him, he learns that the dreams can be shared and take the dreamers into the actual lives of Mound Builders. In their world, the dreamers can talk, travel, learn, and even fight and die. Gregory's companions from modern times aren't cut from savior cloth. Gregory himself wants to be a savior, but—

You can learn more of what he becomes if you read the novel. If you do, let me tell you something about how I've handled Hopewell culture and names. You'll soon notice that I have the Hopewells living much like Eastern Woodlands Indians when Europeans made contact with them. Archaeologically, my assumption is correct, as the Hopewell culture was similar and clearly ancestral to Eastern Woodlands cultures, with the major exceptions that the classical Hopewells knew nothing of war and had not adopted the bow and arrow or maize-based agriculture. As for the names of my Hopewell characters, I did what Europeans have often done with Native American names: I translated them into English. What else could I do? The Hopewells never developed writing and vanished by 500 A. D. I'd like to provide you with authentic Hopewell names, but, unless archaeologists do develop time travel, we'll never know those names.

My story will provide you with an answer to the questions that archaeologists ask: what kind of organization held the Hopewell Exhange together for seven centuries of a golden age, and what caused that organization to fail, precipitating the Hopewells' descendants into centuries of a dark age? The answer that I've given you is a fictional, fantasy-based one, but, if you learn it, I think that you'll agree with me when I say that an organization like the one that I describe had to exist, and its fall was terrible…

Gregory was dreaming of Indian mounds…

Hopewell Dreamquest is avaiable in Kindle format. You can read the book's opening chapters by clicking on Look inside.

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