The Scippo-Scioto Earthworks, A newly Discovered Earthwork in Pickaway County, Ohio

15 Apr
April 15, 2017
Jerrel C. Anderson
Vienna, West Virginia

Introduction

The government Agriculture Department aerial photographs taken of the Ohio landscape in 1938 have again proven (Anderson, 1980) to be a fertile ground for the discovery of ancient earthworks. I am preparing a series of articles on what I have discovered over the last 50 years of the archaeology of southern Pickaway and northern Ross Counties of Ohio. In line with this, the government aerial photographs and the much more recent Google Earth ones are being used in the search for undiscovered earthwork sites.

The earthwork complex covered in this article was very obvious in the 1938 aerials and also in later aerials. It is incredible that this earthwork was not found by someone before this. The salient feature evident in the 1938 photo was a circular earthwork situated on the high bluff above the Scioto River a short distance west of its junction with Scippo Creek. This circle lies very near the southern end of the Pickaway County Airport runway. Inspection of other aerial photos revealed that this circle is surrounded by other features making this earthwork a complex one of major size and also one with a unique character.

Location

The Earthworks are located at the southern end of the Pickaway Plains on a level bluff- top at the edge of the steep bank descending to the Scioto River bottoms on the south and to Scippo Creek on the east. To the west, the land slopes more gently to a relatively level terrace that is bounded in turn on the west by Davenport Pond, a spring-fed slough. The landscape to the north is so level that it was chosen to hold the Pickaway County Airport – the type of landscape so often chosen by the Mound Builders for their earthworks: level, above flood level, and near water courses and/or lakes. The land here may have been level, but the earthwork builders positioned their complex constructions too close to the bluff edge and subsequent erosion by the Scioto River over the last several thousand years destroyed significant portions of them. The center of the main circle lies at 39°30’20”N, 82°59’61”W, while the gateway into the square in the eastern wall lies at 34°30’13”N, 82°59’70”W. The elevation here is 670 feet above mean sea level while the Scioto river elevation immediately to the south lies at about 635 feet. The location can be found near the bottom of the U. S. Geological Survey’s Circleville, Ohio, quadrangle. The soil is a gravelly clay-loam.

The Earthworks

The earthwork area is shown in the 1938 government aerial BCQ-2-105 in Figure 1. The 1951 Aerial BCQ-3G-144 is shown in Figure 2 and the 1964 BCQ-1EE-252 aerial is shown in Figure 3. All these aerials show the circular work in good relief. When the information from all these photos are combined with the June 12, 2012, Google Earth Aerial of this area (Figure 4), an intriguing earthwork complex is revealed. The sacred circle so evident in all the aerial photographs turns out to be accompanied by another, smaller, circle partially eroded away by the Scioto River bank. And there appears to be another circular work, if not two, further to the southeast. So this earthwork complex appears to be in a class with the enigmatic complexes located to the south in Ross County: Junction, Steel, and Blackwater that all contain many small circles, squarcles and crescents. All of these latter complexes are situated near stream junctions, as is the Scippo-Scioto Works. These complexes are considered to be early woodland (Adena) constructions; however, no firm dates have been determined for any of them.

The Scippo-Scioto Earthwork complex

Figure 1. The Scippo-Scioto Earthwork complex on an enlarged section of the 1938 Agriculture department’s Aerial Photograph BCQ-2-105. Only the large circle shows on this aerial. It was in pasture (grass) in 1938.

The Scippo-Scioto Earthwork complex 1951

Figure 2. The Scippo-Scioto Earthwork complex on an enlarged section of the 1951 Agriculture Department’s Aerial Photograph BCQ-3G-144. As in Figure 1, only the large circle shows.

The Scippo-Scioto Earthwork complex Pickaway County Ohio

Figure 3. The Scippo-Scioto Earthwork complex on an enlarged section of the 1964 Department of Agriculture’s Aerial Photograph BCQ-1EE-252. This aerial was taken on May 21, 1964, and the field appears to be bare dirt. Here the large circle is well defined and the smaller partial circle also shows as well as a suspicious soil stain (arrow) just south-east of the large circle. The perimeter wall is also apparent.

Google Earth Aerial Image of the Scippo-Scioto earthwork

Figure 4. The June, 12, 2012, Google Earth Aerial Image of the Scippo-Scioto earthwork locality. The circle and perimeter wall show quite well even in 2012.

There appears another feature of the Scippo-Scioto Works that confounds the picture as to its placement in the early woodland time frame; the circles are enclosed in a giant Hopewell style walled enclosure! The known and suspected circles with the walled enclosure are all included in the map shown in Figure 5.

 

Map of the Scippo-Scioto Earthworks

Figure 5. Map of the Scippo-Scioto Earthworks. This map is based on all the aerial photographs and Burks’ magnetometer data. More magnetometer surveying is needed on the remainder of this earthwork as it appears to be large and complex. The airport runway is oriented nearly true north.

Figure 6. Ground level photograph at the site taken on November 28, 2014. The view is to the south and the person (Dr. Richard Sutton) is standing in the locality of the larger circle.

It is evident that the Scioto River has eroded away a large portion of this most intriguing earthwork complex. At least two of the circles are partially eroded away down the bank and the south wall of the enclosure (assuming it existed at all) was also completely eroded away. This enclosure wall to the north (heading in a west north west direction) is complete and most of the eastern wall is still visible, although an unknown length of its southern end has been eroded down the bank. When I first observed this eastern wall, I thought it was the side of a typical square enclosure, for the northeast corner is at a right angle and there is an obvious gateway 450 feet to the east of this corner. If we assume this gateway to have been at the center of the square enclosure wall, the un-eroded wall would have been 900 feet in length: this length fits right into the dimensional ball park for Hopewell square enclosures. For example, the sides for the Seal square measure 852 feet, the Newark square 928 feet, the Circleville square 841 feet, the Milford square 950 feet, the Anderson square 900 feet, the Mound City square 880 feet, and the Hopeton square 957 feet. If a square enclosure, it is typically Hopewellian in character and length. However, careful inspection of the aerials reveals that the enclosure is not a square at all. It is an elongated bell-shaped enclosure with that flat bottom on the east end and a northern wall headed north west toward the bigger circle. I thought at first it all might have been a classic circle/square work, like the Circleville work, where the square is conjoined to the circle by a walled avenue, but instead the wall arches around the circles, and even is tangential to them. This is a very unusual arrangement for an Ohio earthwork.

In 2015, I informed Dr. Jarrod Burks of this circle visible in the 1938 aerial photograph and he subsequently surveyed the western end of the earthwork complex using a magnetometer (Burks, April 30, 2015) His survey confirmed the large circle as a classic inner ditch/outer wall sacred circle and the same for the nearby smaller circle located just to the southwest. His map shows this smaller circle to be partially eroded away. It also shows a small section of the western enclosure wall arching tangentially around the two circles. Hopefully he will be able to conduct more magnetometer surveys on the remainder of the site, as there is much more to uncover here.

There most likely will be other small works discovered within the larger walled enclosure and possibly others outside its perimeter. There are suspicious soil shadows in the area directly south of the airport runway on the roughly triangular spit of level ground directly above the junction of Scippo Creek with the Scioto River.

The larger circle has a diameter of 264 feet measured from the outer edges of the circle’s wall. This is exactly ¼ of the OCD (Observatory Circle Dimension) of 1053 feet established by Hively and Horn (1984) and emphasized by Romain (2000), and this fact probably indicates a Hopewell origin for the circle and possibly for the entire Scippo-Scioto Earthwork complex. The diameter measured from the middle of the ditch is about 222 feet. There is a definite gateway heading out of the circle into the heart of the walled enclosure space. The gateway is oriented at 132.5 degrees from true north, i.e. oriented to the east south east.

The partial circle just to the southwest of the larger one measures about 176 feet in diameter from outer wall edge-to-edge and 148 feet across the circular ditch. It is almost exactly 2/3 the size of the larger circle lying just to the northeast of it. Any gateway, it almost certainly possessed, is no longer in existence because of the erosion down the embankment.

Settlements

There are no Adena or Hopewell settlements in really close proximity to this earthwork complex, and in this it is not an unusual situation. There is a substantial Hopewell habitation site 0.95 miles to the west at Yellowbud that includes several nearby mounds. The DuPont site, a buried and substantial Hopewell site lies 3.2 miles up the Scioto River and several small Hopewell sites lie on the Scioto bottoms to the west and north of the works. An Adena artifact cache was plowed out of a natural sand dune above the Scioto River about 1.6 miles north of the earthworks. A large white Flint Ridge Robbins point was plowed up years ago along Scippo Creek somewhere to the east and north of the works. I have not surveyed the fields directly to the south in the Scioto flood plain and this should be done; however, others who walked these fields cannot recall finding Hopewell artifacts there. That flood plain undoubtedly suffered major erosion episodes gauging from the severe erosion that removed much of the Scippo-Scioto Earthwork complex on the bluff above it. This lack of substantial woodland settlements in close proximity to the earthwork is typical for Ohio. There are numerous late archaic sites around and even close to this earthwork complex, and whether there is any connection to the earthworks is an open and intriguing question.

Mounds

Sometimes there are mounds in these earthwork complexes. For example, there were mounds incorporated within the Junction and Blackwater Works and some of them were built inside sacred circles. Whether that was the case with the Scippo-Scioto Works is not known nor is it obvious from ground surveys. Burials have been plowed out of natural dune-like features lying on the terraces above the Scioto River just to the north of the earthworks. The only known burial mounds close to the earthworks were about 1 mile away at Yellowbud. Warren K. Moorehead excavated one of them in the late 1800’s, but what he uncovered remains unknown.

This earthwork lies at the southern edge of the Pickaway Plains, a well-known and extensive Ohio Pocket Prairie. Two substantial mounds lie in or near this prairie: the Westenhaver Mound was located on the western bank of the Scioto River 3.0 miles north of the Scippo-Scioto Works, and the List Mound lies on a promontory on the eastern edge of the Prairie 5.5 miles north-north-east of the Works. Neither of these large mounds can be considered associated with the Scippo-Scioto Works. The Yellowbud habitation site and mounds are close to the Scippo-Scioto Works and could definitely be associated with them. And of course, there is the famous Circleville Earthwork and associated mounds lying 6.6 miles to the north. The relationship between the Scippo-Scioto and the Circleville works will be the focus of a later article in this Journal.

Conclusions

The Scippo-Scioto Works are enigmatic: they incorporate several small circles in an arrangement similar to those in other Works such as Blackwater, Junction and Steel that are conjectured to be Adena (early Woodland) in association and age, but it includes a large hopewell-like enclosure wall surrounding the circles, and this is unique and unusual for such earthwork sites. A somewhat similar site that comes to mind is the Snake Den Group, where a small enclosure and three substantial mounds are enclosed by a wall (Jarrod Burks, Pickaway County Historical Society presentation). The Snake Den site remains unassigned as to cultural period, but it could be early as one radiocarbon date of ca. 900 B.C. came from charcoal found in a pit feature located within the enclosure. The wall around it is non-descript and certainly not a typical Hopewell geometric wall construct.

This combination of a large Hopewell-like enclosure surrounding a complex of smaller “sacred circles” leads to several possible conclusions: (1) the complex of sacred circles was a classic early woodland (and/or late archaic?) one that the later Hopewells co-opted, and by building the enclosure wall they converted it to an acceptable Hopewell configuration, or (2) the whole complex was Hopewellian to begin with and represents an earthwork complex continually used from early Hopewell (or late Adena?) to middle and possibly late Hopewell times. Favoring the second conclusion are several facts: the larger circle within the walled enclosure has an outer diameter of 264 feet and that is precisely ¼ the Hopewell standard unit of length of 1,053 feet, and the eastern end of the walled enclosure probably was 900 feet in length with a central gateway which is another Ohio Hopewellian dimension and design. The assumption being made here is that the Hopewells invented these standard dimensions, but they could have been adopted by the Hopewells from an earlier people. We have much more to learn about the Mound-Builders.

Earthwork building in Ohio probably began at a much earlier time than we now assume; the Adena early woodland peoples are thought to be the builders of the earliest earthworks and mounds in the Ohio River valley; however I suspect that such constructing began in the late archaic period. It certainly began in the late archaic in Lousiana at sites such as Watson Brake and Poverty Point. Why wouldn’t it have started at such an early time in the Ohio Country – the heart of North America’s earthwork and mound building?

The Blackwater, Steel, Junction, and now the Scippo-Scioto works all contain collections of numerous small circles, “squarcles”, crescents and other forms, and these types of works were certainly social and religious centers for their ancient builders. Squier and Davis excavated one of the mounds in the Junction Works and they stated that it contained materials “common for the Mound Builders”. This disappointingly inadequate description of the artifacts uncovered does not help in making an assignment as to the cultural period involved. Even if they were typical Adena or Hopewell artifacts, it does not mean that the earthwork complex was actually built by them. It could have been built by Late Archaic Peoples and later co-opted by the later people, i.e. the mound could have been added inside the circle at a later date. And, in fact, these complexes could have had a continuum of use all the way from late archaic times to the end of the Hopewell era.

Figure 7. Map of the Junction Earthwork complex taken from Squier and Davis.

Figure 8. Map of the Blackwater Earthwork complex taken from Squier and Davis.

More magnetometer surveying is needed at Scippo-Scioto to flesh out this complex. Based on subtle soil shadows in the aerial photos, there certainly could be more small enclosures inside the walled area as well as outside it to the southeast and even possibly to the north and west.

There are other earthworks along Scippo Creek that are described in forthcoming articles. A follow-up article will be published that includes all these earthworks plus information on the surrounding habitation sites that I and others have discovered over the last 50 years. All of this information will be incorporated in an analysis of the archaeology of the Pickaway Plains area. It is turning out that the discovery of these new earthworks and the “rediscovery” of other known ones in this area makes the archaeological analysis of the Pickaway Plains area more complex and interesting.

Acknowledgments

Ms. Tawn Seimer of the Pickaway County Soil & Water Conservation District office helped greatly with the aerial photographs, and Dr. Jarrod Burks generously shared his initial magnetometer data with me.

References

Anderson, Jerrel C.
1980 “A Recent Discovery – The Anderson Earthwork”, Ohio Archaeologist, 30 (1) : 31-35.

Hively, Ray and Horn, Robert
1984 “Hopewellian Geometry and Astronomy at High Bank”, Archaeoastronomy 7: (Supplement to Volume 15, Journal for the History of Astronomy.)

Romain, William F.
2000 Mysteries of the Hopewell, Astronomers, geometers, and Magicians of the Eastern Woodlands, The University of Akron Press, Akron, Ohio, 2000.

 

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