Enigmatic Ridgetop Enclosures

Prior to European immigration, native peoples transfigured Ohio’s landscape by building over 10,000 mounds and 600 earthwork enclosures. Only three dozen or so of the earthworks were large elaborate geometric complexes built on the floodplain terraces of major waterways. Steel and Junction are actually on the smaller end of this class of mega-earthworks. Much more common in Ohio were simple, often solitary, ceremonial enclosures in the shape of circles and squares.

The Hopewell built one additional class of earthworks. These were irregularly shaped walled enclosures on the bluffs of flat ridgetops that overlooked the waterways below. Although sometimes quite large in size (Spruce Hill enclosed 150 acres), they did not always enclose mounds. Ridgetop earthworks are suspected to have been built – just like the lower elevation earthworks – for ceremonial purposes. The idea that they were primarily forts for community defense no longer seems as likely. Ridgetop earthwork enclosures were not a particularly common Hopewell construction.

To our knowledge, only fourteen of them were ever built in the Hopewell heartland, and few outside it. Because most ridgetop enclosures lie on poor agricultural soils in rural locations,they have survived much better than their sister sites on the floodplains. The names of some of the ridgetop enclosures that have been successfully protected may be familiar to the reader, including Fort Ancient, Fort Salem, Pollock Works, Fort Hill, and Spruce Hill. The Arc of Appalachia manages two of these sites: Fort Hill on behalf of the Ohio History Connection; and Spruce Hill, the later in partnership with Ross County Park District and Hopewell Culture National Historical Park.

Hilltop Conflagrations

A striking and enigmatic characteristic of at least four of Ohio’s ridgetop enclosures is the evidence of extreme heat. When Frederic Putnam from the Peabody Museum studied Foster’s Crossing in 1879, a hilltop enclosure near the Little Miami River, he described the wall construction as follows: “…behind and over these stones a mass of clay was burnt to all degrees of hardness, from that only slightly burnt to great masses of slag, showing that the clay had been subject to very high heat, in places forming a vitreous surface over the slag which resembles that from a blast furnace.” Discovery of similarly burned ground at Pollock Works and other ridgetop enclosures led to many bold speculations among history enthusiasts, including the theory of Vikings or Celts operating iron forges. However, careful archaeological investigations at Pollock Earthworks by Dr. Robert Riordan, an archaeologist with Wright State University, suggest the heat source at Pollock was likely common timber and ordinary fie – just lots of wood and very large fires. Riordan’s research showed that the Hopewell had built, and later burned, a massive timber stockade above the earthen walls at Pollock. The stockade was made out of horizontal posts lashed to upright timbers, the uprights ranging from 8 to 18 inches in diameter. Imagine what a dramatic scene the burning of an entire ridgetop stockade must have been, whether it was part of deliberate ceremony, planned deconstruction,or fires lit by unwelcome vandals or marauders.

Singularity of Glenford

Although there are no signs of burned walls at the Glenford Fort site, there are notable features associated with the site. The walls that encircle the 24.4 acre interior are unusual in that, like those of Spruce Hill, they are made entirely of stone. Glenford Fort’s one mile of walls averages 20 feet in breadth and 3-6 feet in height. Being mostly intact, they are readily apparent to even the casual eye.In earlier years the most arresting feature at Glenford Fort was a stately stone mound that rose from the interior enclosure, its footprint still marked by a canopy of trees as can be seen in modern day aerials. In addition to the mound and walls were two additional features: a squircle enclosure (rounded off square) directly in front of the main gateway, and in front of the squircle, a small mound.

Stone Mound Excavation

Much of Glenford Fort’s enclosure has been in the hands of one family, the Cooperriders, ever since 1831. Each generation of the Cooperriders has faithfully continued the family tradition of guarding and protecting the earthworks and, fortunately, their strong commitment continues forward in time. In 1987, James Dutcher, an avocational archaeologist and history enthusiast, received permission from the Cooperrider family to excavate the large stone mound on the Cooperrider property in an attempt to reveal its contents and try to date the structure. Dutcher uncovered a collection of Adena spear points, many pottery shards, a copper bracelet, pipe fragments, and postholes, the latter revealing the previous existence of an oval building at the base of the stone mound. Radiocarbon dating placed the structure’s age at 280 B.C., near the end of the Adena era, indicating that the mound was likely several centuries older than the stone wall and the squircle enclosure which are of classic Hopewell design. Since most archaeologists now consider the Hopewell to be the cultural descendants of the Adena in Ohio, it is not necessarily surprising to have both cultures in evidence at one site. The Cooperriders have expressed hope that a carefully researched reconstruction plan may prove to be a feasible future development.

Scenic Glenford

Glenford Fort is not only a historic site, but an exceedingly attractive natural area. Below the upper elevation of the earthworks is a healthy Appalachian forest dominated by Oaks and Hickories. The upper hillsides are studded with moss and handsome fern-covered sandstone outcroppings. Glenford Fort looks over a tributary of Jonathan’s Creek, which in turn is a tributary of the Moxahela, which flows to the Muskingum River.