Questions and Thoughts on Writing in the Hopewell Era


Visitors to Newark Earthworks sometimes wonder about the amount of time it took for ancients to notice, track and verify the 18.6-year lunar cycle encoded in the octagon. How could this feat be accomplished without writing?

This question also interests me as an English teacher. While a definitive answer may be impossible, we should reframe the question less about writing versus oral storytelling and more about the overlap between them.

To speak of writing 2,000 years ago is to speak not of printed matter but of handwritten traditions. The difference is between producing books through the innovation of movable type and copying text by hand. A run of printed books creates many identical books. In contrast, copying by hand produces only one book, which may contain a variety of errors with skipped words or lines, deleted letters, and altered syntax. Consider copying notes from a blackboard or a long quote from a textbook.

Mary Carruthers’ book of memoir describes how the practices of manuscript cultures overlap with oral storytelling techniques. Given the commitment of time and resources to sometimes unreliable copies of manuscripts, Carruthers argues that ancient and medieval scholars could use mnemonic devices to memorize books, for example, by associating a word or concept with each finger or joint of their hands. What is important for this understanding of memorization is that it extends to memorizing a series of points, not just memorizing something verbatim. When applying mnemonic techniques, remembering the contents of a manuscript or an oral tradition becomes much more sophisticated than a phone game.

Tim Jordan, guest columnist

Comparable mnemonic techniques were available to early North American Native cultures, whether they worked from their own “handwritten” traditions or from oral storytelling. The question of why more indigenous knowledge is not being preserved relates to what can break these traditions. The destruction of unique manuscripts in European and African libraries by fire, natural disasters and war occurs to this day. The death of people puts an end to oral traditions, which happened in the Americas when European diseases killed up to 90% of indigenous people. Moreover, expecting Indigenous peoples to freely share their stories neglects the elements of trust and community that come with group storytelling, arguably strengths of oral traditions.

Yet where Indigenous stories are written, especially by Indigenous transcribers, there are underlying oral echoes to notice. This is the case of the Ojibwe collection The Mishomis Book, by Edward Benton-Banai. “Mishomis” means “grandfather”, so the very title of the book takes on the character of an intergenerational narrative. The book makes this grandfather character literal by using what is called a setting – a story within a story – where a narrator grandfather addresses readers as if they were grandchildren listening to traditional tales. . Finally, the grandfather uses birch bark scrolls as a source for his stories. The reference is interesting for two reasons. First, birchbark scrolls are a medium that archaeologists theorize for Hopewell’s writing. Even more intriguing is the grandfather’s phrase: “They will help me remember certain details. The scrolls are not the only source of the tales but an aid to remembering them.

I’m not claiming that The Mishomis Book is a key to understanding earthworks, but it offers a fascinating insight into Indigenous storytelling and its deep oral roots. Newark Earthwork Center Director John Low (Pokagon Band of Potawatomi) once explained to me how images in the Inuit scrimshaw can be a form of writing if the details are understood as mnemonic devices, and this understanding of writing can extend to other mediums. When asked about writing while on tour, Dr. Low gestured to the walls of the Octagon and said, “You want to write? It’s the writing. »

Dr. Tim Jordan has held various interpretation and site management positions for Flint Ridge Ancient Quarries and Nature Preserve and Newark Earthworks. He is also on the English faculties at Ohio University Zanesville and Zane State College and is a seminarian at Trinity Lutheran Seminary.

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