LUCAS -- The metal detector strongly beeped and the dopamine shot gave us hope. We started digging and hit something solid.
Amateur treasure hunter Jimmy Kerr began unearthing a square green metal object, the size of a small briefcase. It turned out to be just an old metal cooking pot, once hung over a fire, maybe used by someone on the frontier that was heading to Helltown. We weren't discouraged as the hunt had just begun.
Locals around the village of Lucas have heard plenty of stories about the cursed ancient burial ground called Mohawk Hill. Not only was there a secret Mohawk chief buried in a small, hidden, yet-to-be-located cave, but an archaeologist in the late 1800s did a survey and found artifacts, arrowheads and items that were prehistoric, according to legends and historians.
A true, 21st-century science-based evaluation had never been done on Mohawk Hill. The goal was to either reveal one of the greatest archaeologically significant sites in Ohio and the Midwest, or put a lot of the myths to bed.
Timothy Brian McKee wrote a history column for Richland Source about Mohawk Hill’s “cursed” history, and that was the impetus behind the treasure hunt. That and Indiana Jones and Tomb Raider and heck, they found a mastodon skeleton in Morrow County in 2013 and there are plenty of prehistoric sites and mounds in Ohio.
Undeveloped Mohawk Hill could be a treasure trove of arrowheads, bags of Spanish coins and more evidence of who actually passed through Mid Ohio. The hill may have even served as a piece of the greater astronomy mystery puzzle surrounding the ancient tribes and the hills they constructed in the state.
To get to the truth, we were going to need experts.
Professor Jennifer Williams taught Historical Archaeology at Ashland University and I reached out to her about my plan to assemble a team for a true assessment of Mohawk Hill. It turned out, she had, like, a real life and job and couldn’t help.
“I'm in the middle of a huge research project right now and I don't have time to take on any new projects that are not connected with my research. I appreciate the offer though,” Williams said.
However, she pointed me in the right direction in terms of going directly to the current sites, like Fort Ancient, where there was an established network.
So, sites in southern Ohio were contacted and I tried again along the university route (maybe a class wanted to come and do a live field study). I even pinged the natural history museum in Columbus. We received similar negative feedback concerning time, regulations, process and the biggest hurdle of all, funding.
It turned out that people didn’t want to work for free, even if it was going to be finding out that the fountain of youth was in Ohio, not Florida, this whole time.
Eventually, I was steered to the Ohio Department of Transportation. Yep, the ODOT that oversees salt on the roads also manages archaeology within the state. That link led to ODOT Archaeology Team Lead Stanley Baker.
Baker was familiar with “Doc Henderson,” the archaeologist who initially surveyed the area after tales were being spread in the 1870s.
“The reports of his findings were not surprising. There can be anywhere from five to 100 artifacts per acre lost at random. If one artifact was lost every 100 years on an acre, you’d have 1,000 artifacts on that land,” Baker said.
Archaeology is super researched-based. That’s the one thing that was actually true from Indiana Jones – he was a bookworm; he knew all the texts, manuscripts, on top of the historical narrative.
Ocean treasure hunters can scan and search entire grids of the ocean floor, one by one. But most investigate first, try to pinpoint the spot the battle took place, then go look.
If you actually find a woolly mammoth (mammuthus primigenius, ya know, like no one ever says) bone, then there’s never a question of funding or volunteers. Otherwise, you have to pay a private firm to investigate your claim.
Baker advised I go back through the work of Professor Morehead, “the dean of archaeology.” Also try and find articles written in the 1890s that may have been published through Green Quarterly. He talked about the iconic Archaeology Atlas of Ohio from 1914 that mapped prehistoric sites.
McKee mentioned the Altas in his book, “Native Son 2,” and it was fascinating to learn about the mounds and sites that were documented around Richland, Knox and Ashland Counties. Specifically, how the spaces in the mounds were actually calendars and could show things like the summer solstice and fall equinox.
There’s debate about how accurate the Altas was in terms of exact location, but most believed the charting to be a true guide in terms of the existence of a site. Nothing was marked close to Mohawk Hill on the infamous atlas.
Did that mean there wasn’t anything there? Or perhaps, more likely, that an undiscovered, undisturbed, ancient burial ground was embedded behind a sandstone cliff mask? (How cool of a job would it have been to work on the Atlas project or be in on the early documentation period? Just cruising up the Muskingum River and recording the data. Smoking a pipe while donning an animal skin cap?)
Baker advised that after doing my research, to connect with the Kokosing Chapter of the Archaeological Society of Ohio, the largest in the state. While they were not archaeologists, some had really impressive private collections of artifacts, according to Baker. They would be able to provide further guidance and could help with the initial on-site investigation.
As a last note, Baker wanted to clarify that Doc Henderson’s field notes could not have said “Hopewell,” as that name was applied to them after a site discovery on the Hopewell farm after Henderson’s study.
Mission: Mount Vernon
No one from Source Media is allowed to go to Mount Vernon without the permission of Knox Pages number one journalist Grant Pepper.
Although he was very confused as to why I was heading to the Knox Career Center for the Kokosing Chapter’s meeting, he joined me anyway.
We found meeting leader Fred Altizer, with whom I had spoken on the phone and emailed back and forth.
Altizer was super nice and helpful. Earlier in the week when I called him out of the blue, after he said hello, I got all excited and told him all in one big breath about my plan to really search Mohawk Hill. I was like, "What do you think?!?!" His response was, “Ummmm. I’m at Sam’s Club.”
Pepper and I entered the raffle for arrowheads and found a seat in the career center cafeteria and waited for the meeting to start. It was highlighted by John Boilegh, geologist for the Ohio Department of Natural Resources. His presentation was about “the iceman” Ötzi, who lived around 3350-3105 B.C. His body was perfectly preserved in ice in the Ötztal Alps on the border of Italy and Austria.
This dude was a total badass -- over 70 tattoos, zero body fat, clothes pieced together from various animals, little fire starter tinder bundle in his fanny pack, axe, bow and an arrow lodged into his back shoulder. Someone done murdered my boy Ötzi, as he was soloing mountain routes in the Alps, stomach full of ibex.
Contacts and connections were made at the meeting and I finally had enough background, help, knowledge and a good plan to attack Mohawk Hill.
To celebrate our success, Pepper and I decided to get a pint.
“What’s a great local spot in Mount Vernon?” I asked.
Well, I like Flappers. Now, they did beat Knox Pages out for “Small Business of the Year,” but I just love the place.
We proceeded to Flappers on the Mount Vernon downtown square and drank talls of Miller Lite with boxcars of whiskey.
“What? Did you say you wanted, a boxcar? You mean, sidecar?” the friendly woman bartender asked me.
It was hard to tell. Pepper just laughed.
“Did I see you on the History Channel?” she asked next.
“Why yes, yes you did,” I responded.
Poor Pepper had to be reminded of that every 30 seconds until we left the bar. Finally, I got recognized in public, and it was in his town! Love you Mount Vernon, can’t wait to go back!
The Hunt: Apr 23, 2022
As Altizer reminded us, using a metal detector wouldn’t get you prehistoric artifacts, as there wasn’t much steel in Ohio used by ancient civilizations. We’d split into two teams to cover all the angles.
We had four metal detectors, shovels, pickaxe, scraping tools, buckets, sifters, water, notebook for drawings and field notes, energy bars, sunscreen and a will to change history.
The property owners could not have been more hospitable to 1), allow strangers on their land in the name of journalism and history and 2), to give a tour and to provide background on the evolution of the land and road that ran over one side of the hill.
They wished to not be named as they didn’t want other maniacs like me attempting to treasure hunt. Based on the endless Olde English gold and maroon cans along the guardrails, people had already treated their backyard like a trash dump.
With walkie talkies, we broke out into two separate areas to cover the 14-plus acres related to the Mohawk chief that could have been buried there. (Or some native–lot of opinions as to what specific tribe it would have been.)
Team one was led by Kerr, a crazy metal-detecting young kid that had found all sorts of coins and artifacts around Columbus. Maybe they wouldn’t find things from the Hopewell, but I’d take a bag of Spanish bullion.
Team two was to investigate the rock face, which supposedly housed the crack that was the entrance to the tomb. Rock climber Andy “Boulder Baby” Kerr from Columbus was to use his experience to see about abnormalities in the wall.
Even if they allowed rock climbing in Malabar State Park or Mohican, you wouldn’t want to risk it, as the mossy sandstone can snap off like breaking a graham cracker.
Boulder Baby brought rope and a harness so we could top rope and be pretty safe, but he went off on another route and the gear wasn’t even necessary, as one could see it all from the road that hugged the wall.
“The old road used to run down there. It was washed out, so they put a new one in,” the homeowner told us.
That was a very significant detail. The true face of the cliff wall itself would have looked different in the 1800s, as it now had a road cut through its waist. After a thorough inspection, there was no evidence of gashes or a rock that had been wedged between a gap.
I climbed up to the top and noticed a very irregular patch of weed that looked like the green on a golf course. What if the entrance was on top of the rock face?
Digging down, I located an old Coke bottle and was half a shovel handle deep when the stone became impenetrable.
The metal detecting team had the most luck – in finding endless pieces of scrap and trash. Hours of digging based on a beep. We even dug random holes in different spots that coincided with what I learned about ancient settlements, flat areas beside water, etc., but no artifacts.
Couldn’t find any mounds or hills or abnormalities in the ground that would indicate a mound or human-made structure.
Conclusion: after research, consulting old texts and maps, talking to the locals, the land owners, there’s probably plenty of arrowheads and enough metal scrap in the ground to start a recycling center. But no ghosts or native burial grounds.
Mohawk Hill always be infamous, but if you want ancient treasure, search another bump.