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[Video] Digging Deep to Uncover History

When it comes to the study of Anthropology, sometimes reading from a textbook just doesn’t cut it.

That all changed when Director of Anthropology at CSU Phil Wanyerka, along with a group of CSU students, recently got in the car and travelled to the Fort Hill Earthwork Complex in Rocky River to utilize a hands-on approach.

What they found was quite the discovery.

CSU: Where did the idea come from to go to this location specifically?

Phil Wanyerka:
I’ve been working at the Fort Hill Earthwork Complex since 2016. The Fort Hill Earthwork Complex is a triple earthen embankment with ditches that seal off the eastern side of a steep sided plateau some 100 feet above the Rocky River. The idea of working here began as a child when my neighbor used to take me to this site as a young boy. I was always mystified by who may have built this earthwork and when. So, after doing local Northeast Ohio archaeology for over 40 years, this site was always on my bucket list. When I was looking for a place to conduct an archaeological field school in 2017, I decided to contact the Cleveland Metroparks to inquire about an archaeological permit. After granting me one, we started doing geophysics at the earthworks in late 2016 and began our first full season of excavations in the summer of 2017.

CSU: What was the process (where to go, what to dig, what to look for)?

PW: My first major plan was to use geophysics (a non-invasive way to look below the surface of the ground for prehistoric and historic magnetic anomalies) on the earthwork itself. I thought if I could find magnetic anomalies, I might be able to excavate them to find clues as to the who, what, where, when, and how the earthwork functioned and determine a date and assign cultural affiliation. After conducting a series of geophysical surveys, they revealed more than two dozen major anomalies. These anomalies usually indicate burnt or oxidized soils, such as those commonly found in typical fire hearths or some other fire feature. After identifying two large features, we decided to excavate them in 2017. The first test unit was located atop the western-most earthen embankment.

Our excavations revealed prehistoric cultural material just a few centimeters below the surface, featuring a scattering of fire, cracked rock and charcoal. Typically, what we find at earthwork sites like Fort Hill is evidence of ritually burning. The Native Americans would clear the land, dig down to bedrock and then conduct a burning ritual to consecrate the area prior to mound building. We ended up finding evidence of that burning. Charcoal from that unit produced a radiocarbon date of between 360 and 156 BCE. This date falls in a time known as the Early Woodland Period (1,000-100 BCE) and the culture we associate with this time period is the Adena.

From just this one test unit, we could figure how old the earthwork was and who built it. The second test unit we dug that year was in the easternmost ditch and we wanted to know if the ditch once held water, since many earthwork sites include water features. We know from historic tribes of the Eastern Woodlands that water features were often used to prevent evil spirits from entering sacred places. And we discovered that the builders brought up a certain clay from the riverbank to line the bottom of these three ditches and thus, they indicate that water filled these ditches when the earthwork was in use.

Then at the same time, we began an extensive mapping survey of the earthwork and surrounding area, and we discovered two, very eroded, but still visible, small circular mounds west of the earthwork which likely served as a gateway or entry way into the earthwork itself. The discovery of these two unreported additional mounds gives credence that this was not just an earthwork, but an earthwork complex. Subsequently, we think there may be additional earthen embankments at the west end of Fort Hill too. We are currently investigating these embankments.

CSU: What were some of your findings and what did it mean?

In addition to the two new mounds, we also discovered additional prehistoric evidence of posts in the wooded area west of the earthwork. Again, additional geophysics in the woods west of the earthwork in 2018 and 2019 revealed more magnetic anomalies in this area. We excavated a few of them and they produced similar dates to those revealed in 2017. One post in particular was located about 30 meters due west of the centerline between the two gateway mounds. This was very curious since it appeared to be the remains of a lone post. The post was obviously gone, but when the post was removed in antiquity, they filled it in with trash. In this case with fire cracked rock and charcoal which produced another early date.

During our first season in 2016, we saw something truly amazing. While at the site during the spring equinox we noticed that the sun rose directly through the centerline of the gateway. The post that we excavated marks this centerline spot perfectly and so we think that the purpose of the earthwork functioned as a gigantic astronomical observatory designed to mark the yearly equinoxes.

We know from other major earthwork complexes such as the Newark Earthworks, that many of the mounds and earthen structures located their mark important astronomical phenomena and so Fort Hill appears to function in much the same way. We suspect that this was its intended ritual/religious use since we have found no evidence of people living on or near the earthwork complex. To date, we have found no utilitarian artifacts to suggest that people were living full time up on Fort Hill, which coincides nicely with our findings that this earthwork marked sacred space. We suspect that the ancient builders of this earthwork, living somewhere near the Fort Hill plateau, would meet on important astronomical events like the arrival of spring or fall which correspond to the planting or harvesting seasons. They may have also come together here for other important events like deaths or marriages or other similar events. We have found no evidence that anyone is buried here which also suggests a ritual usage for the earthwork.

CSU: What is some history regarding this site?

PW: Well, we are currently writing the history of this site based on our investigations. I’ve published three major reports that chronicle our findings at Fort Hill and so we are the first to really tell the story of the who, what, where, when and how of this important archaeological site. This is the only known earthwork complex in all the Cleveland Metroparks and so we are writing the history and telling the story of this site for the first time. The Metroparks have embraced our investigations and are happy we are telling Fort Hill’s story. I give numerous lectures every year for the Metroparks and for their annual First Peoples Day celebration in early November.

CSU: Any other comments or interesting info you would like to share?

PW: As our investigations continue, we hope to have new data to help further tell the story of Fort Hill. As for CSU’s role, I beg you to find another hands-on program where students get the opportunity for this kind of engagement. We epitomize Engaged Learning, and my students all have unique opportunities to discover history firsthand. Where else can students excavate, discover, and hold ancient artifacts for the first time in over 2300 years? I’ve been conducting archaeological investigations at numerous sites across NE Ohio with more than 120 CSU students since 2008. Many of my students have go on to prestigious graduate programs across the US to study archaeology and I have also had numerous students hired by major archaeology firms who are stationed across the country.

In addition to all of this, I have personally obtained nine Undergraduate Summer Research Awards for my students to conduct archaeological investigations with me. We have also been the happy recipients of receiving several first-place awards for our posters at the annual USRA poster day. Thus, these grants are important to our students, and we are grateful for this support from CSU. Finally, we have hosted numerous annual archaeological symposiums here at CSU where we present our findings and those of noted local archaeologists who also present their latest findings.

And of course, our own CSU students have also presented their archaeological research at these events as well. Stay tuned for further updates!