Friday, July 11, 2008


Here is one of the most beautiful artifacts from pre-Columbian America, the life-sized Hopewell hand, cut from a thin sheet of natural mica by a craftsman who lived a thousand years ago in southern Ohio. I saw the hand almost half-a-century ago in the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago. For years, I had a colored transparency of the hand taped to the window of my office, aglow in the sunlight. Something about those long, graceful fingers, the delicate crook in the thumb. The universal symbol of the raised hand, palm turned outward, weaponless. "I come in peace."

The people of the mica hand were ancestors of the Algonquins, Iroquois, Cherokees, and other native American peoples. They lived in river valleys of central North America from 200 BC to 1000 AD, and left behind impressive complexes of burial mounds, temple mounds, hilltop ramparts, and earthen walls. They are generally called the Mound Builders.

Many of the ancient sites were excavated by archeologists a century ago to provide an archeological exhibit for the 1893 Chicago world's fair. One of the richest sites was on the farm of M. C. Hopewell in Ross County, Ohio, and the Hopewell name has come to signify the culture of the people who built the mounds.

The mica hand was found in a burial mound on Hopewell's farm. It is flaky-thin and subtly tinged with color. That it survived unbroken in the earth for a thousand years seems little short of miraculous.

"Peace," the appropriately-named Hopewell hand seems to say, and that is a part of its beauty.