Thousands of years ago, people who inhabited Ohio’s rolling hills used the bones of deer and elk, and other primitive tools to fashion huge monuments in the form of a serpent, conical and oval mounds, complexes of interconnected circles and squares, and even an octagon — all out of dirt. These ancient architects were sophisticated sky watchers who acknowledged the journeys of the sun and moon in the construction of their earthworks.
Nature lovers, hikers and history buffs can all enjoy visiting these amazing sites that offer a glimpse into Ohio’s earliest human cultures. They’re all worth a drive.
HOPEWELL CEREMONIAL EARTHWORKS
Nine separate sites are the remains of human-made banks of earth. There is no archaeological evidence that people lived at these sites, but instead gathered at them for ritualistic purposes.
Fort Ancient Earthworks and Nature Preserve
Early archaeologists theorized that this 18,000-foot-long embankment in Warren County was built for protection. However, contemporary archaeologists say 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.
Calendar mounds at the site mark the summer and winter solstices. The 25th Annual Fort Ancient Celebration will be held June 13-14, including storytelling, tomahawk throwing, and American Indian dancers and music.
Hopewell Culture National Historical Park
Five separate areas near Chillicothe comprise Hopewell Culture National Historical Park, the only federal site to preserve the archaeological remains of the Hopewell people. Three are open to the public: Mound City Group, Siep Earthworks and Hopewell Mound Group.
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.
At Siep Earthworks, 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 connected to a smaller circle and a square with astronomical alignments.
Hopewell Mound Group is an enormous earthwork complex where 29 burial mounds once spanned 130 acres. The name Hopewell comes from a 19th-century farmer named Mordecai Hopewell who owned this land.
At Newark Earthworks State Memorial, the largest geometric earthworks complex 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.
• 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 points of the octagon line up precisely with the rising and setting patterns of the moon during its 18.6-year-long cycle.
Built on the Octagon is Moundbuilders Country Club, a private golf course. The public is invited to view the earthworks during several golf-free days each year. The next open house dates are April 12-13.
• At Wright Earthworks, a 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.
HOW TO GO
The public sites are open every day during daylight hours. The Fort Ancient Museum near Oregonia (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 in Chillicothe (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 in Newark (800-589-8224) is open year round, Monday -Friday, 8:30 a.m. - 5 p.m.; between Memorial Day and Labor Day, also on Saturday, 10 a.m. - 4 p.m. and Sunday, noon - 4 p.m, except on and around major holidays; donations accepted.
Spanning 1,348 feet long from head to tail, Serpent Mound near Hillsboro in Adams County is an archaeological marvel. A one-of-a-kind effigy mound with Adena graves nearby, its head faces the setting sun on the summer solstice, its coils in sync with the moon’s various phases.
Who built this enormous geoglyph that celebrates the longest day of the year? Researchers disagree.
Brad T. Lepper, curator of archaeology for Ohio History Connection, and a team of archaeologists tested bits of charcoal excavated from the serpent in 1991. The radiocarbon dates of the samples were both around 1120 CE, pointing to the Fort Ancient people who lived between 1000 and 1750 CE.
In 2011, a team of archaeologists led by William Romain, director of the Serpent Mound Project, collected samples dating to 321 BCE, which suggests Serpent Mound was the work of the Adena people. Romain’s team theorizes that the previously collected samples indicate that the geoglyph was repaired or modified during the Fort Ancient era.
Archaeology, like all science, is based on the evidence available at the time, and research on Serpent Mound continues. What is certain is that this unique geoglyph is a treasured part of Ohio’s ancient history and worth seeing with one’s own eyes.
HOW TO GO
Serpent Mound State Memorial is located at 3850 State Route 73, Peebles OH 45660; 800-752-2757. From the West, take State Route 73 south of Hillsboro. There are no vending or beverage machines at Serpent Mound, so bring your own water, pop and food. There is a shelter as well as numerous picnic tables.
Serpent Mound is open every day from dawn to dusk. The park will be open extended hours for Summer Solstice, Sunday, June 21, 2015; 6 a.m.-9:30 p.m. Dogs are allowed on leashes.
Museum hours: In April, open daily 10 a.m.- 4 p.m.; in May, Monday-Thursday, 10 a.m.- 4 p.m.; Friday-Sunday, 9 a.m.-5 p.m. In June – October, Friday-Sunday hours are extended to 6 p.m. In November-Dec. 20, open Saturday-Sunday, 10 a.m.-4 p.m.
FORT HILL EARTHWORKS AND NATURE PRESERVE
After a visit to Serpent Mound, it’s a 12-mile drive to see another earthwork. A steep trail leads to a flat-topped ridge where the ancient Hopewell constructed a large embankment of earth and stone around 2,000 years ago. Expect to spend 1-2 hours getting up and down the ridge on Fort Trail.
Below the ridge and to the south side of the park is a well-preserved circular embankment. Fort Hill’s park and five hiking trails are open daily dawn until dusk. Dogs are allowed on leashes. There’s a picnic shelter, but no water or concessions.
HOW TO GO
The Fort Hill museum is open May-October on Saturdays, noon to 5 p.m. Located at 13614 Fort Hill Road outside Hillsboro. (800) 283-8905. To get from Serpent Mound, go northwest on SR 73, turn right on County Highway 13/Louden Road, take first right on Strait Creek Road/County Highway 45, turn left on SR 41, then left on Fort Hill Road.