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A COLUMN BY ANDREA NEAL

Bicentennial series: Mounds leave evidence of indigenous Hoosiers

Wednesday, July 3, 2013 - 12:01 am

Editor's note: This is the second in a series of essays leading up to the celebration of the Indiana bicentennial in December 2016. The essays will focus on the top 100 events, ideas and historical figures of Indiana, beginning with the impact of the Ice Age and ending with the legacy of the bicentennial itself.

Indiana's name means “Land of the Indians.” A trip to Mounds State Park in Anderson reminds us why. Among the first inhabitants of our state were the Adena, a hunting and gathering people who lived in east central Indiana beginning around 1,000 B.C. They left behind earthen monuments — deep ditches surrounded by embankments — that give clues to a complex society that understood astronomical events and seasonal calendars and based religious celebrations around them.

Visitors to Mounds State Park go to camp, hike, fish or swim. While there, most stand in awe at the 10 mounds and earthworks ranging from a few inches to several feet high that have been on the National Register of Historic Places since 1973.

“The earthworks at Mounds State Park are some of the best protected of any in the state, and many improvements in protection have been instituted over the years,” says archeologist Donald Cochran, professor emeritus at Ball State University, who with a colleague, Beth McCord, conducted much of the recent research there.

“It is only one of five large earthwork complexes in east central Indiana. These five large sites as well as many mounds and other enclosures make up a cultural landscape that is unique in Indiana,” Cochran noted.

Although little is known about the daily lives of the Adena, their mounds and artifacts gave scholars enough data to generalize about these early Hoosiers. They were part of the Woodland Tradition that relied on hunting, fishing, berry-picking and cultivation of maize. They made ceramic pots and traded with other native peoples.

When the Adena left they were replaced by the Hopewell, who used the mounds, and constructed more, for burial and ritual purposes. More than 300 of their ancient earthworks could once be found in east central Indiana, but today fewer than 100 remain.

Indiana is fortunate that Frederick Bronnenberg was the first private-property owner of the land that is now Mounds State Park. A native of Germany who immigrated to the United States around 1800, Bronnenberg protected the mounds from plowing and vandals. His son, Frederick Jr., did the same and “extolled their virtue as a community point of interest and destination,” according to state park documents.

The area functioned from 1897 to 1929 as an amusement park, which marketed the mounds as a tourist sight.

The park shut down due to lagging attendance during the Great Depression and was sold to the Madison County Historical Society, which transferred ownership to the state in 1930, thus protecting the mounds from commercial and agricultural development — though not from public use or natural erosion.

State officials hope to implement more protective strategies in coming years.

Their commitment is welcome and essential if Hoosiers are to preserve this vestige of prehistoric Indiana for future generations.

Neal is a teacher at St. Richard's Episcopal School in Indianapolis and adjunct scholar with the Indiana Policy Review Foundation. Contact her at aneal@inpolicy.org.