Ohio’s prehistoric earthworks seek global recognition

Hunters, gatherers, artists, astronomers, engineers, moundbuilders — today we look at the enormous earthworks of the Hopewell people who thrived in Ohio 2,000 years ago. Remnants of their culture provide a glimpse into life in this region during the same time that the Romans built the Colosseum.

A grouping of these sites — Fort Ancient Earthworks and Nature Preserve outside Lebanon, Hopewell Culture National Historical Park near Chillicothe, and Newark Earthworks State Memorial in Newark — comprise the Hopewell Ceremonial Earthworks. In 2008, the U.S. Department of the Interior put these earthworks on its “tentative list” of sites to be nominated for the World Heritage List of UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization).

To better understand why the Hopewell Ceremonial Earthworks are being considered for this prestigious list, I visited these monumental earthworks to learn more about them and what they reveal about the people who built them. Here is a picture of Ohio’s remarkable ancient history, as well as a thorny political situation that could jeopardize the earthworks’ acceptance by UNESCO. — Connie Post


Created in 1945, UNESCO is the United Nations agency that promotes global peace through international collaboration. Part of its work is maintaining the list of World Heritage Sites — natural and cultural properties recognized for outstanding cultural or geographic value in the story of humanity.

The list presently includes 981 sites such as the Great Wall of China, the Cathedral of Notre-Dame in Paris, the Taj Mahal in India as well as 22 places in the United States, including Yellowstone National Park, Grand Canyon National Park and Great Smoky Mountains National Park.


It’s an extensive process. In the United States, the National Park Service issues a call for nominations and reviews them. “Once a property is on the tentative list, the National Park Service deems it worthy to move forward with the nomination,” said Burt Logan, executive director of Ohio History Connection (formerly Ohio Historical Society).

Then the Department of the Interior presents the nominations to UNESCO.

Several U.S. sites are on the tentative list, and the next in line to be nominated is Poverty Point National Monument in Louisiana, a ceremonial earthworks that is much older than the Hopewell earthworks and constructed by a different prehistoric culture.

The Hopewell Ceremonial Earthworks will be presented to UNESCO “probably in three or four years,” Logan said. “We’ve been working on strengthening the nomination.”


Last November, the United States lost its voting privileges in UNESCO’s general assembly as a consequence of not paying its membership dues after UNESCO officially recognized Palestine as a nation in 2011. “The United States was moved from being a participating nation to an observer nation,” Logan explained.

Its influence weakened, the United States is dependent on other nations to evaluate the merit of its nominations. “A strong coalition of interested parties (including Ohio History Connection) are working with Congress so that the dues can be repaid so that the United States is a member in good standing,” Logan said.

“We’re optimistic that (UNESCO’s acceptance of the Hopewell earthworks) will happen in time,” Logan said. “Ohio has a fascinating story to tell.”


The Hopewell Ceremonial Earthworks are nine separate sites that are the remains of human-made banks of earth. While most early earthworks were used for defense (like walls of a fortress), these were built for ceremonial purposes. There is no archaeological evidence that people lived at these sites, but rather they went there for ritualistic reasons. Some features are precisely aligned to astronomical events.

“These sites deserve recognition by the world,” said Bradley T. Lepper, curator of archaeology for the Ohio History Connection (formerly Ohio Historical Society) and co-author of the UNESCO proposal.

“No. 1: the grandeur. This magnificent monumental archaeology expresses the genius of these ancient American Indian people,” Lepper said.

“No. 2: Monumental archaeology on this scale usually is only associated with a civilization. (The Hopewell people) didn’t have kings or a system of writing.

“They were mainly hunters and gatherers … most lived in scattered villages and came to the centers probably in tune to moon rises of certain times.”


On a ridge in Warren County is an enormous embankment in a 125-acre area. Early archaeologists theorized that it was built for protection. However, contemporary archaeologists believe the site was used for ceremonies. What remains confusing is its name — “Fort Ancient” is the term used to identify a subsequent culture, descended from the Hopewells, that populated the region between 1000-1750 CE.

By using objects such as deer and elk shoulder blades, clamshells and sticks, the Hopewells “constructed 18,000 feet of earthen walls used as a place of gathering for ceremonial events and religious activities,” said Jack Blosser, archeologist and site manager at Fort Ancient.

Besides the impressive embankment, other features include calendar mounds marking the summer and winter solstices.


Five separate earthworks sites near Chillicothe comprise Hopewell Culture National Historical Park, the only federal site to preserve the archaeological remains of the Hopewell people. Three of the sites are open to the public: Mound City Group, Siep Earthworks and Hopewell Mound Group.

Artifacts at these sites speak to the artistic skill and refinement of the Hopewells. More than 167,000 objects include effigy pipes, copper plates, pottery and necklaces. Materials include obsidian from Yellowstone National Park, copper from Lake Superior, shells from the Gulf of Mexico and mica from North Carolina.


Of the five sites, Mound City Group is the only one that has been fully reconstructed. Nearly two dozen mounds exist within the 15-acre embankment.

When the Civil War erupted in 1861, the area became a site for local militia. After the war, it became farmland again. In 1917, the federal government exercised eminent domain and erected Camp Sherman, a World War I training camp. The Ohio Historical Society and an archaeologist named Albert C. Spetnagel convinced officials to construct the buildings so the mounds wouldn’t be completely destroyed. Over a four-year period, 120,000 men were stationed at Camp Sherman.

Fortunately, the floors of the buildings on which the burial mounds were constructed was below the ground, which enabled post-war archaeologists to study the burials and rebuild the site. One mound is left unconstructed to show visitors the structure that was beneath a mound.

“By looking at the past, we can see how far we’ve come as a civilization,” said Melinda Repko, park ranger at Hopewell Culture. “And when we lose that past, we lose a huge piece of who we are.”


Excavated artifacts include the remains of about 100 individuals, cloth made of milkweed fibers and dyed to create a pattern of curves and circles, and about 18,000 freshwater pearl beads used to make jewelry.

The reconstructed mound is 240 feet by 160 feet by 30 feet high. It was the centerpiece of a large circle that was connected to a smaller circle and a square with astronomical alignments. The square is 1,080 feet per side — identical to the squares at four nearby Hopewell complexes: Baum Earthworks, Frankfort Earthworks, Liberty Works and Works East.

The fact that the squares are all the very same size reveals something very important about the Hopewell people. “They had a common unit of measure,” Lepper said.

“The technology they used was primitive — baskets, clam shells, sticks and ropes for surveying,” he said. “But they had a sophisticated knowledge of geometry.”

“I live very close, I’m able to take walks. I have friends who come up and exercise. At the same time we keep the serenity of the sacredness of this ground,” Nancy Jones said minutes before a family of six arrived, with the children running up to the top of the mound and tumbling down it several times.


This enormous earthwork complex with 29 burial mounds spans 130 acres. A farmer named Mordecai Hopewell owned this land and his name has been used to identify the ancient people who built these structures.


From a circle and rectangle are parallel walls that extend half a mile toward the Scioto River. Artifacts include stone tools, flint, bladelets, fire-clay basins and other items that suggest ceremonial gatherings. This site is not open to the public.


This group of earthworks features a large circle connected to an octagon of almost the same size, with smaller circles and linear walls stretching out toward the Scioto River. It is not open to the public.


The largest geometric earthworks ever built anywhere on Earth once spanned about four square miles. The Newark Earthworks State Memorial includes three remnants of that colossal structure.


Part of a community park, The Great Circle is almost 1,054 feet across. The circle’s opening functioned as a ceremonial gateway. Signs say to stay off the earthworks, but that’s difficult to enforce in a public park. Walkers and joggers have made a trail on top of the wall and local children ramp their bicycles across the mounds.


Another remnant of the enormous Hopewell complex in Newark is Octagon Earthworks. It consists of eight walls and once was attached to a large circle. The only other octagon-circle combination like this one exists at High Bank Earthworks. The points of the octagon line up precisely with the rising and setting patterns of the moon during its 18.6-year-long cycle.

“The reason for the large scale was to make the astro-alignments as accurate as possible,” said Ray M. Hively, professor emeritus of astronomy and physics at Earlharm College in Richmond, Ind.

Hively and Robert Horn, professor emeritus of philosophy at Earlham, were the first scholars to present the theory that the design of the Octagon Earthworks was aligned to the moon.

To the ancient Hopewells, “the moon would have been an object of great awe,” said Hively. “It would have been a major cosmic force, probably divine and alive with power.”

Hively theorizes that the Hopewells may have aligned the Octagon to communicate to the moon their understanding of its behavior.

On the Octagon is Moundbuilders Country Club, a private golf course. The public is invited to view the earthworks during four golf-free days each year. The next one is Tuesday, May 27. Otherwise, access to Octagon Earthworks is limited to an observation deck where visitors can look over one wall.

“They literally built the golf course around the mounds,” said retired fifth-grade science teacher Nancy Jensen of Akron when she and her husband, Gary, visited the site on April 27.

“There’s Indian stuff all around us,” Gary Jensen said as he and Nancy stood on the observation deck, watching a foursome of golfers playing among the mounds. “We take these mounds for granted.”

Ohio History Connection owns the land, which the country club leases. “Maintaining the grounds is a high priority for us,” said Joseph Moore, the general manager and COO of Moundbuilders Country Club.

The country club moved into the Octagon in 1910. Had that not happened, the odds are pretty good that the property would have been lost to commercial development,” Logan said. “Where we are today is sort of the next step of the continuing evolution of this site.”

“The investment of time and effort to build the Octagon is probably comparable to Stonehenge or our space program,” Hively said. “It’s unique in the world in scale and accuracy.

“The real message is what people can do and achieve when something inspires them.”


This 50-foot-long remnant is what remains today of a large near-perfect square that may have been the complex’s hub. Walled roadways connected it to both The Great Circle and the Octagon Earthworks.


The public sites are open every day during daylight hours. The Fort Ancient Museum (800-283-8904) is open Tuesday - Saturday, 10 a.m. - 5 p.m.; Sunday, noon - 5 p.m. April through November; admission, $6 adults, $5 seniors and students, free for children under 6. The Mound City Group Visitors Center (740-774-1126) is open 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. except Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s Day; donations accepted. The Great Circle Museum (800-589-8224) is open Monday -Friday, 8:30 a.m. - 5 p.m.; Saturday, noon - 5 p.m. and Sunday, 1 - 5 p.m, except on and around major holidays; donations accepted.

See additional photos and a video of the earthworks at our website.

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