Early winter solstice ritual brought to life
Artist captures Hopewell Indian lighting of mound

By Carrie Whitaker • cwhitaker@enquirer.com • December 21, 2008

Volunteers grabbed caribou hides, drums and deer toenail rattles before sunrise Saturday morning and walked out to a mound at Fort Ancient, the historic site in Warren County built by the Hopewell Indians 2,000 years ago.

Two young men dressed in traditional Hopewell attire lit the mound on fire, and the group whooped and played the ancient instrument replicas, as Cincinnati artist Mary Louise Holt stood on a platform above them, taking pictures.

"You are thrilled to death to have longer days coming," Holt shouted, coaxing energy from her extras as they re-enacted a Hopewell winter solstice ritual.

Last night was the longest night of the year in the northern hemisphere - the winter solstice - which occurs between Dec. 20 and Dec. 23.

At the Hopewell site, there is a break in the man-made, earthen wall where the sun shines through on the winter solstice. There is also a place in the wall for the summer solstice.

It is believed, because of burned limestone found on the mound lit afire, that the Hopewell would celebrate by lighting the mound, said Fort Ancient Site Manager Jack Blosser.

With overcast skies Saturday morning, the group of about 60 volunteers and Holt didn't see the sun, though it didn't hamper their efforts in the ritual.

"This is the first time we've ever had a winter solstice ceremony and the first time we've ever lit a mound," said site manager Jack Blosser.

The re-enactment was staged for Holt, who is commissioned to do a painting of the ceremony as a fundraiser for Fort Ancient, which attracted 1,500 school children on field trips alone in November, and is open to visitors April through October.

Once the painting is completed, prints will be sold to raise money for operation of the landmark, where archeological digs are continuous.

Holt has been a professional artist for 25 years. She has formal training in fine portraiture and paints portraits on commission for private collectors. One of her exhibits, "Charles Darwin - A Portrait Biography," was a featured exhibit for two years in Charles Darwin's home in Downe, England.

Her painting is commissioned by Montgomery residents Charlie and Dee Wright.

"We think it's important to be able to show the Hopewell as the people who they were," Charlie Wright said. "So often when we look at relics - and even to a degree, Fort Ancient - it's hard to get a sense of the people. You don't know what they were like when they were alive, and that's our interest."

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