Upon entering the "Art of the Ancients" exhibition an etched glass panel orients visitors to the prehistory of the Adena and Hopewell peoples who built the mounds, rock cairns, parallel embankments, and other earthworks of the Portsmouth Complex.
“When the last Ice Age ended in the Ohio valley about 14,000 years ago, the people who wandered into this area found flood prone rivers winding through hills of hardwood forests filled with animals to hunt and plants to gather. Starting more than 3000 years ago and lasting about 1500 years, the people we call Adena (1000 BCE-100 CE) and Hopewell (200 BCE-500 CE) prospered throughout southern Ohio and northern Kentucky, settling primarily along the streams and rivers feeding the Ohio River.
“While many details about these two cultures remain unknown, it is possible to uncover clues about their lives by closely examining the objects of stone, bone, shell, and other durable materials recovered from home sites, fields, and burial grounds throughout the area. While you are imagining the lives and stories the objects have to tell, consider that the Adena and Hopewell people were much like us, valuing stability, hard work and family life amid the hills and floodplains of this river valley.”
The exhibition displays over 10,000 items, all of which were collected locally by William V. Wertz (1913-2002) and his father, Charles V. Wertz (1872-1936). Following the death of Charles in 1936, the Portsmouth Daily Times noted that “Mr. Wertz collected relics out of scientific interest rather than a source of profit. W. C. Mills, late director of the Ohio Archaeological and Historical Society, was a close friend and H. C. Shetrone, present director of the society, also was a great admirer of the local student of archaeology.” In 1915 and 1916, Charles V. Wertz assisted Mills and Shetrone in their excavations of Tremper Mound and the Feurt Village and Mounds.
Charles’ fascination with the prehistoric inhabitants of the Ohio Valley was sparked as a child when his father worked on the construction of the Sanford, Varner & Co. Building (known today as the Kricker Innovation Hub) at the corner of Third and Chillicothe Streets. While digging the foundation, workers discovered “an Indian boat” thirty feet below the surface. The mystery captured his imagination and inspired his interest in the local earthworks and mounds and the people who built them. This interest, along with his collection, would be passed down to his son, William V. Wertz, who continued to add items to the collection until his own death in 2002.
Madeline A. Wertz, William’s wife, then donated the collection to the Southern Ohio Museum. At the time, Sara Johnson, the museum’s long-serving Director of Visual Arts, told the Community Common newspaper that “it seems fitting that these remarkable objects remain in proximity to the same lands where they were made. We accept these objects in humility and with reverence for their makers, whom we will honor with a quiet, sensitive installation as we hold them in trust for the public good.”
Following Madeline’s death in 2014 a previously unknown catalog to the Charles V. Wertz Collection was discovered by the Salvation Army, which had received, as a donation, the remaining contents of her house. The catalog had been created in the mid-1940s by Aurelia Hucksoll, a trained archeologist who volunteered her services when the collection was on display at the Portsmouth Public Library. Hucksoll was the wife of Rev. Laurence L. Hucksoll, who served as the minister of Portsmouth’s First Presbyterian Church from 1939 to 1947. Aurelia had received a Master’s degree in Archeology from Columbia University. The Hucksoll catalog was based upon a meticulous inventory, which included item numbering, a physical description, hand-drawn illustrations, and, when known, the item’s site-specific provenance.
“The true significance” of the Wertz Collection, “as a record of sophisticated civilization with a continental trade network tied to the Portsmouth Earthwork Complex, was not fully revealed until the discovery of the Hucksoll Catalog,” notes Emily Uldrich. It is thanks to the provenance recorded by Hucksoll, as well as additional records associated with items added to the collection by William V. Wertz, that it is possible today to associate artifacts with specific mound and village sites that were part of the Portsmouth Earthworks Complex. Uldrich, in her study of the collection and its associated records, explains that although the collection provenance is site specific, “there is no detailed information about the context of the artifacts within the site or mound in which they were found. The artifacts could have been cached below ground level, near the surface, or found on the surface. Unfortunately, this is information we will never know, but we are indebted to the Wertz’s for preserving the artifacts, as most of the sites … are now destroyed.”
Historian Margaret Jacobs in After One Hundred Winters: In Search of Reconciliation on America's Stolen Lands, writes that “Indian grave desecration grew out of brutal Indian massacres." Over time, from the earliest days of European colonization, "it morphed into a pseudoscientific enterprise and then a tourist bonanza. A huge number of settlers took part in this desecration of graves, as they appropriated the land of Native peoples, up to the late twentieth century. The effect has been to eliminate the physical evidence of indigenous people from the land, to make it possible to narrate American history as if it begins with European settlement.”
Amateur excavations and salvage operations during construction projects occurred regularly over the decades, but the area mounds and village sites were also systematically dug by credentialed archeologists from across the United States. Thousands of indigenous artifacts, mortuary objects, and human remains were removed, sold, and dispersed in private and public collections, located far from the Portsmouth area. Looking back now, considering the known history of the mistreatment of Native American peoples, the methods and practices of our predecessors are really not surprising, however disturbing they may be to our present-day moral senses and professional standards.
Thanks to the Wertz Collection, however, it is possible to narrate and illustrate the long history of humanity at the confluence of the Scioto and Ohio Rivers, a history that began thousands of years before European settlement. We know that over the millennia, many different indigenous peoples of different cultural traditions have made their home here, leaving their own mark upon the land and only adding complexity to the surviving archeological record.
The destruction of the mounds and earthworks, along with the unscientific archaeological methods used by local collectors at the time, have only added to the mystery, reminding us today of the importance of preserving what remains. As one of the panels in the “Art of the Ancients” exhibition explains: “We will never know the intricacies of the culture and daily lives of the region’s prehistoric people. Because they left no written language, the knowledge we have of North American prehistory comes from the objects that remain. The purpose of many of these artifacts remains a mystery. However, we do have a shared humanity, evident in our continued interest in tools, ornaments, jewelry, music, games, paint, and figurines.”
The entire Wertz Collection is on public display in an admission free gallery, open to all. For more information on the Southern Ohio Museum and Cultural Center, including their hours of operation visit the museum website at https://somacc.com.
Richard Bussa, ”At SOMACC: Golden Age of Native American History,” Community Common (16 October 2002): 1.
Margaret Jacobs, After One Hundred Winters: In Search of Reconciliation on America's Stolen Lands (Princeton University Press, 2021).
Aurelia C. Hucksoll, "Indian Lore Student Cites Wealth of Relics Displayed in Portsmouth's Library," Portsmouth Daily Times (31 March 1951).
“Late Realty Operator Known as Foremost Archaeologist. Charles V. Wertz Made Hobby of Studying and Exploring Mound Builders Earthworks,” Portsmouth Times (31 July 1936).
“Rev. Hucksoll to Leave City,” Portsmouth Daily Times (17 Oct. 1947).