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Hopewell Earthworks, including 2 Newark sites, poised to become Ohio's first World Heritage Site

A small group of people pass through an opening between earthen mounds.
Ohio History Connection
A group of people passes through the gateway of the Great Circle earthwork in Newark. Eight Hopewell Ceremonial Earthworks, including the Great Circle and Newark's Octagon are poised to become Ohio's first World Heritage Site. The UNESCO World Heritage Committee is expected to decide this week whether to give the earthworks the designation.

Ohio is poised to get its first World Heritage Site.

A UNESCO committee will decide this week whether to recognize eight Hopewell Ceremonial Earthworks – including two in Newark – with the highest designation in the world for cultural and natural heritage.

Jennifer Aultman, Chief Historic Sites Officer with Ohio History Connection, said Newark’s Great Circle Earthworks and Octagon Earthworks, five earthworks at the Hopewell Cultural National Historical Park near Chillicothe and Fort Ancient in Warren County were chosen because together, they tell a story of a cultural tradition.

She said while early World Heritage Sites often recognized single places, the trend has been to take a more comprehensive look at sites that tell a whole story.

“These eight sites really are expressions of an American Indian cultural tradition that's about 2,000 years old. And even these eight don't tell the whole story, because there were literally hundreds of related earthworks in the Ohio Valley at the time,” Aultman said.

Two earthen mounds are covered in fallen leaves.
Ohio History Connection
The south gate of Fort Ancient, a Hopewell Ceremonial Earthwork in Warren County, is covered in fallen leaves.

The earthworks

She said the sites were gathering places for American Indians. Archeological evidence shows ancestors feasted and traded items brought from as far away as the Rocky Mountains, the Gulf Coast or southern Canada. And modern American Indian tribes have said games were likely played at the sites.

“They're not really mysterious in that we know they're American Indian sites and we know that the things people were doing here are, in their specifics, unique to that culture. But in general, they're the kinds of things that people do when we gather,” Aultman said.

The earthworks likely were not built by one tribe, Aultman said, but by many people, moving one basketful of earth at a time.

“And the really special part of this story is that people were doing it collectively and without being forced or coerced. And because they wanted to,” she said.

Seven of the earthworks up for recognition are geometric, showing the importance of geography to the people who built them. Fort Ancient is a hilltop enclosure, built on an elevated area to the natural topography of the land, Aultman said.

Newark’s earthworks were the largest and most complex of the sites and some archeologists believe the sprawling site was designed all at once. Many of the geometric earthworks were once connected by parallel walled passageways, Aultman said.

“So, it just seems very clear that it was designed so that people were intended to move through the complex from one space to another in a way that had some kind of meaning to it,” Aultman said.

Newark’s Great Octagon also appears to have celestial significance, as it aligns to a complicated 18.6-year lunar cycle, much like one of the Chillicothe earthworks, High Bank Works.

An American Indian earthwork curves around a field.
Ohio History Connection
The Octagon Earthworks in Newark has eight walls, each measuring about 550 feet long and from five to six feet in height, and are joined by parallel walls to a circular embankment. The site is currently home to Mound Builders Country Club golf course.

Recognition

Aultman said building the earthworks would have been a “tremendous undertaking” and the effort deserves to be recognized alongside places like Stonehenge, Machu Picchu and the Great Wall of China.

She said Ohio History Connection’s tribal partners have said that it’s important that the sites are acknowledged for the “human genius that went into creating them.”

“Because in many tribal peoples’ living experience, genius was not a word used for their people,” Aultman said.

As a World Heritage Site, the Hopewell Ceremonial Earthworks would join 24 other sites recognized in the U.S., including many national parks, other earthworks and the Statue of Liberty.

Aultman said the goal of the designation is preservation and education. And, for central and southern Ohio, it could mean a boost in visitors. She said while the World Heritage designation is not especially well known among Americans, many people from other countries keep an eye on the list and make a point of visiting as many sites as possible.

More than anything, though, the earthworks would join a list of hundreds of natural and cultural places that are considered important to all humanity.

“They help us understand what it is to be human in all the different ways that people have done that,” Aultman said.

Allie Vugrincic is a reporter for 89.7 NPR News. She comes to Columbus from her hometown of Warren, Ohio, where she was a reporter, features writer and photographer for four years at the Tribune Chronicle and The Vindicator newspapers.