By: Emily Uldrich, Portsmouth Earthworks Researcher and Executive Director, Main Street Portsmouth In Bloom
Scioto County has been a prime location for human settlement since the end of the last Ice Age. The Scioto and Ohio River Conflux provides a bounty of wild game, as well as edible plants, nuts, and berries. These resources attracted Paleo-Indian Culture hunter/gatherers for thousands of years.
The presence of Indigenous Cultures persisted in the area through the time when European explorers first made contact with the people of the New World. In the 18th century, the Shawnee Nation operated a popular trading post at Lower Shawnee Town in both Ohio and Kentucky. The Shawnee are thought to have arrived in the area in the 1730s.
Lower Shawnee Town was located in West Portsmouth, Ohio, in and around what is now Earl Thomas Conley Riverside Park. Repeated flooding drove the village to the opposite bank of the Ohio River in Kentucky in 1756. By the time the Declaration of Independence was written in 1776, all of the Shawnee were driven out of Lower Shawnee Town.
By the early 1800s, the Shawnee were removed from Ohio. The last Native American tribe living in Ohio, the Wyandot, signed a treaty declaring their move to Oklahoma in 1842. The Shawnee Nation is now three federally recognized tribes living on reservations in Oklahoma: The Absentee-Shawnee Tribe, The Eastern Shawnee Tribe, and The Shawnee Tribe.
The prehistoric indigenous presence in Scioto County remains today in the form of monumental landscape architecture and artifacts left behind hundreds and even thousands of years in the past.
Scioto County is home to what was once the largest prehistoric earthen mound complex in the entire world: The Portsmouth Earthworks! The majority of the complex is thought to have been created by the Hopewell Culture around 2,000 years ago. The Portsmouth Earthworks were the largest of all Hopewell Culture constructions.
The footprint of the Portsmouth Earthworks covered over 25 square miles or over 50,000 acres! These mounds occupied the cities and hilltop ridges of Portsmouth, West Portsmouth, Lucasville, Sciotoville, and Wheelersburg in Ohio, as well as South Portsmouth and South Shore in Kentucky.
The center of the complex was the Twin Horseshoe Mounds Enclosure at Mound Park in Portsmouth. Four sets of Parallel Earthen Embankments formed paths of procession leading in the intermediate directions to the satellite elements of the complex. The purpose of this massive construction is thought to have been ceremonial.
Though there are a number of burial mounds included in the Portsmouth Earthworks, many of the mounds were used for different purposes. For example, no burials have ever been discovered at Mound Park. There were never any burials reported to be associated with any of the four sets of Parallel Embankments.
While some of the mounds served a mortuary purpose, it is thought that additional ceremonies were performed at some Portsmouth Earthworks sites. Astronomical, directional, and seasonal alignments documented in the Portsmouth Earthworks suggest that some components may have functioned as a type of calendar.
The Portsmouth Earthworks were altered and repurposed by subsequent prehistoric peoples, including the Intrusive Mound Culture (~AD 700-1000) and the Fort Ancient Culture (~AD 1,000-c.1675). Mound construction is thought to have begun in Scioto County by Archaic Cultures (~8,000-1,000 BC).
In fact, Scioto County houses the oldest earthwork in Ohio: The Scioto County Infirmary Mound. This mound is thought to be nearly 6,000 years old!
There are a small number of Portsmouth Earthworks sites still in existence today. Mound Park in Portsmouth features the East Twin Horseshoe Mound, the Mound Park Conical Mound, and the so-called Natural Elevation, which is also an earthwork. Mound Park is open to the public.
Archaeological testing and monitoring in 2020 during the installation of paved walking paths and lighting at Mound Park uncovered nearly 4,500 Woodland Period (~1,000 BC – AD 1,000) Native American artifacts! Archaeologists confirm that these objects are consistent with those created by the Hopewell Culture. The artifacts are in the collection of the Ohio History Connection in Columbus, Ohio.
The Tremper Mound and Enclosure in West Portsmouth is still present in the modern landscape. Tremper Mound is now part of a nature preserve under the stewardship of the Arc of Appalachia, an Ohio archaeological and ecological conservancy. The Arc of Appalachia has plans to open the Tremper Mound Nature Preserve to the public sometime in 2024.
The Tremper Mound was excavated in 1915 by the Ohio Archaeological and Historical Society (now known as the Ohio History Connection). The mound is famous for the discovery of around 60 Hopewell Culture effigy pipes carved in the images of local wildlife.
The Tremper Mound covered a Hopewell Culture Charnel House which was thought to be the resting place of around 400 individuals, most of whom were cremated. Hundreds of artifacts were discovered in the 1915 excavation, and many were documented with photographs in William C. Mills’ 1916 book, “Certain Mounds and Village Sites in Ohio, Volume 2: Part 3, Exploration of the Tremper Mound.” These artifacts are now in the collection of the Ohio History Connection.
The Scioto County Infirmary Mound still exists in West Portsmouth. The mound is owned and cared for by Scioto County and the Scioto County Commissioners. The site was slotted for development in the 1980s, and the Commissioners allowed a salvage excavation because the site was known to have archaeological significance.
This excavation was led by Martha Potter Otto, Director of the Ohio Historical Society (now the Ohio History Connection), and spearheaded by David Kuhn, Esquire, and Jonathan E. “JEB” Bowen, Professional Archaeologist. The excavation uncovered hundreds of artifacts thought to range from the Archaic Period through the Late Prehistoric Period (~AD 1,000-1,500). Reports of this salvage excavation may be found in the “Ohio Archaeologist” journal.
During this excavation, it was discovered that the Scioto County Infirmary site is actually a prehistoric mound. This finding led to the preservation of the mound as it stands intact today. The Scioto County Infirmary Mound is open to the public by appointment. It may be viewed from Earl Thomas Conley Riverside Park, which is open to the public.
There are additional intact Portsmouth Earthworks sites located on private property in Kentucky. These locations are closed to the public.
The Southern Ohio Museum and Cultural Center houses a collection of over 10,000 prehistoric Native American artifacts, many discovered in and around the Portsmouth Earthworks. This collection is displayed in the museum’s “Art of The Ancients” permanent exhibition. For more information about the Southern Ohio Museum and Cultural Center or to schedule a free guided tour, please visit www.somacc.com or call the museum at 740-354-5629.
The Raven Rock Overlook is a prominent destination for hikers in West Portsmouth showcasing a vista of over 10 miles up and down the Ohio River. The overlook was utilized by prehistoric people, as evident from the Raven Rock Stone Cairn, an earth and rock mound which used to set at the top of the ridge just to the north of the lookout.
Hopewell Culture artifacts are reported to have been found beneath the Raven Rock Stone Cairn. A cache of Leaf-Shaped Adena Culture Blades (~800 BC) were recovered from the cairn. These colorful flint knives or spear points are now part of the Southern Ohio Museum and Cultural Center’s “Art of The Ancients” exhibition.
The Raven Rock Overlook is open to the public by permit. The location is part of the Ohio Department of Natural Resources’ Raven Rock State Nature Preserve. The overlook may be accessed by a hiking trail rated moderate, as it climbs from an elevation of around 500 feet at the base to over 1,000 feet at the peak. A Free Permit for The Raven Rock Hiking Trail may be obtained from the Division of Natural Areas and Preserves through the following website: https://ohiodnr.gov/buy-and-apply/special-use-permits/nature-preserve-access
A Same-Day Permit for hiking to the Raven Rock Overlook may be obtained from the Shawnee State Park Office, located at 4404 State Route 125 in West Portsmouth. The Park Office may be found at the base of the hill leading the Shawnee State Park Lodge and Conference Center.
A Same-day permit for hiking to the Raven Rock Overlook may also be obtained from the Shawnee State Park Ohio River Campground and Marina Office, located at 11152 U.S. Highway 52 in Stout.
Andrew Feight, Ph.D., Professor of History and Director of The Center of Public History at Shawnee State University has created a tour of the Portsmouth Earthworks sites remaining in Ohio. This tour is hosted on the Scioto Historical website and smartphone app: sciotohistorical.org
The Scioto Historical virtual or driving Portsmouth Earthworks Complex Tour may be accessed at the following link: sciotohistorical.org/tours/show/22
As part of the Scioto Historical Portsmouth Earthworks Complex Tour, a virtual rendering of the Portsmouth Earthworks as they are thought to have existed around 2,000 years ago was commissioned. Herb Roe, a visual artist and graduate of Portsmouth High School, created the virtual images of the Portsmouth Earthworks based on historic documentation and professional input
The scope of the Portsmouth Earthworks is so large that it is best witnessed from the air. Herb Roe’s Virtual Flyover of the Portsmouth Earthworks Complex may be viewed on the Scioto Historical app and on YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FcZrGnCRKB8
Evidence from Scioto County attests to the monumental and sophisticated prehistoric civilizations that once thrived in the region. Scioto County remains a land of abundance, attracting modern day visitors and residents for many of the same reasons prehistoric people chose to make this place their home.