BY ANDREW WALTERS
There are three factual errors on the sign that marks the Hopewell Indian burial mounds at Sinnissippi Park in Sterling.
Most noticeably, the Indian head silhouette is that of a 19th century plains Indian, which was quite different from the ancient people who thrived in the area 2,000 years ago. Also, the dates, 500 B.C. to 500 A.D. are slightly misleading as well, as that includes the Adena civilization that preceded the Hopewells. Finally, the wording itself that calls the Hopewells an "Indian Tribe" does not tell the full story.
"They were not a tribe; this was a full, complex civilization," said amateur historian Wolf Koch, of the Sterling Rock Falls Historical Society.
Koch, a chemical engineering professor, has spent the last few years researching the lost mound builders of the Sauk Valley and spoke Sunday afternoon about the latest information now known about the Hopewells, to a crowd of about 60 people at the Ryberg Auditorium at CGH Medical Center.
"When we first moved to Sterling four and a half years ago, and started asking questions about the mounds, we found there weren't a lot of answers," said Koch. "I thought maybe we could renew some interest about something that is a real asset to the community."
Because of their mystery, the mound people have long been the fodder of theorists. People at different times have tried to link them to prehistoric Europeans, or even the lost tribe of Israel, though those myths have been largely discredited, Koch said.
According to Koch, who has visited Hopewell sites across the Midwest from the civilization's centers in southern Ohio to Cahokia, Illinois, the Hopewells of the Sterling area were at the center of a vast trade network.
Their No. 1 export was a unique type of soft stone, called pipestone, which they mined here and fashioned into ceremonial tobacco smoking pipes. The pipes were an integral part of the civilization's religious life, and were only mined here and in Southern Ohio.
Then like today, moving products was the heart of the economy of the time. The Hopewells traded their pipes with people up and down the Mississippi River valley for seashell jewelry from the Gulf of Mexico and copper and silver from Michigan.
"Here in Sterling we are at the center of a very significant society 2,000 years ago," said Koch. "They were at the center of distributing goods, and here we are again with the Wal-Mart Distribution Center 2,000 years later." Sterling-Rock Falls Society Curator Terry Buckaloo praised the research done by Koch for shedding light on the latest that historians now know about a piece of ancient history in our own backyard.
"He has investigated in depth and put what we know about our mounds in line with the latest theories," said Buckaloo. "The pipestone connection has really put us on the map."
The mounds at Sinnissippi are similar to dozens of others from the same time period, that are spread across the Midwest, from Southern Ohio to Michigan to the Mississippi River. The "mound people" lived in permanent villages, one of which Koch believes was near the mounds where the lagoon at Sinnissippi park is today.
They constructed the mounds with the precision of modern geometry, complete with their own measuring system. The dead, along with many of their possessions were buried inside. Curiously almost all the items from tools, to arrowheads were purposely broken before burying.
Koch believes that was to dissuade others from robbing the graves. Larger mounds were believed to include several layers of burying and remains of up to 400 people.
The mark of the Hopewells stretches across Whiteside County, with notable mounds also still visible near Albany. According to Koch pottery and other evidence of the civilization still frequently turns up whenever a new building project is begun.
"Everywhere in the last 20 years that we have had to dig we have come across new artifacts," said Koch.
Archeologists have been able to conclude much about the Hopewell lifestyle from excavating mounds like whose at Sinnissippi, which were themselves excavated twice, once in the 1870s and again in the 1890s.
The Hopewells apparently were an egalitarian society and deeply religious, Koch said. They smoked a highly potent form of Tobacco in an effort to communicate with the afterlife. The mounds themselves indicate a significant commitment to religion, as they were no small undertaking to create.
The Hopewell civilization died out around the year 1100 A.D., said Koch. At their height the town of Kahokia would have been one of the largest in the world, with about 30,000 people living there.
Some historians have linked the demise of the mound builders to invading tribes of the Delaware Indians. The Hopewells engaged in a battle for land with the Delaware spanning five generations before succumbing.
"I think there is a lot of credibility to that account," said Koch.
The mounds to this day continue to inspire intrigue among local residents. Jakob Sedig, a senior anthropology major at Illinois State University was on hand for the lecture. He credits the mounds for inspiring him to study ancient history and to even write his own thesis on the Hopewell Indians.
"I am a Sterling native and we used to play in Sinnissippi Park as kids. But the sign, 'Hopewell Indian Tribe 500 B.C. to 500 A.D.' says so little. It inspired me to want to know more," said Sedig.