Archaeologists divide indigenous eastern North America into four periods: Paleo-Indian, Archaic, Woodland, and Historic Native Americans, or post-European contact. This series will only address Woodland culture. These terms are used to designate a general way of life.
The Woodland Period occurred in three stages beginning about 1,000 BC and lasting until the European contact; these are the Adena, Hopewell and Mississippian. Grave goods and ceremonialism of the Woodland Culture suggest a unifying belief system in an afterlife.
Adena: The Classical Era
The Adena Culture was believed to be matrilineal and dominated by ruler priests. The Adena were primarily a hunter-gatherer society supplemented by horticulture and lived in family sized seasonal campgrounds.
Religion and Ritual. The Adena were concerned with maintaining or restoring order in their environment. Death diminished and threatened stability of the community and interrupted the social order. The dead played an important role in maintaining this order. The careful alignment of the body within the earth to a sunrise direction perhaps indicated a belief in an afterlife or reincarnation. The ancestral bones represented the connection between the human and spiritual worlds and the placement of bones in the earth established a sacred territory. The conical earthworks that resulted from burials were symbols of a separate space. The type of burial and associated ritual an individual would receive was based on their social status. By the late Adena period, only the influential leaders of the community were honored with flesh burials. The majority of the population was cremated. Adena burials were used repeatedly for generations, demonstrating attachment to a particular place. Adena religion and ritual also centered on astronomical events with the worship of the sun, moon and stars.
Earthworks. The burial cult began in early Adena Tradition, a survival of the Archaic Tradition. Early mound building techniques produced large conical burial mounds that often were as much as 20 feet tall. Mound building was a community endeavor, as the group would work together to build the mound by carrying basket loads of dirt.
The middle to late Adena Culture practiced enclosure earthwork construction. Enclosure earthworks are usually found in groups of two to eight. Archaeologists suggest such earthworks reveal that early Native American’s perception of nature was cyclical demonstrated in the circular shape of the earthworks. Enclosure mounds can be circular, square, rectangular, oval, or the rare figure eight.
The development of early to late Adena Tradition is marked by the appearance of a distinctive earthwork – the sacred circle. Sacred circles have the same features as smaller circular enclosures but are much larger with a circumference up to one-quarter mile in circumference and accompanied by smaller mounds to form ceremonial centers. Sacred circles built by the Hopewell Culture can be as large as a mile in circumference, such as the Great Circle at Newark, Ohio.
Reference: Geopiety and Landscape Perceptions at Mounds State Park, Anderson, Indiana by Barbara A Perry