The Hopewell Ceremonial Earthworks comprise the remains of ceremonial centers of the Hopewell culture.
The site comprises eight monumental earthen enclosure complexes, often used for burials. They were constructed with geometric precision to align with astronomical cycles. The Earthworks were created during the Middle and Late Woodland Periods of North America (1-1000 CE).
Community Perspective: Hopewell Culture National Historical Park - Mound City, Newark Earthworks - Great Circle and Seip Earthworks are considered the key components among the eight locations. From the ground, the scale of these circle mounds are difficult to fully appreciate. All are best accessible by car from Columbus, Ohio.
Map of HopewellLoad map
Only a few weeks after its inscription on the WH List, I managed to visit a number of the Hopewell Earthworks in southern Ohio. I had a fine day driving around and discovering the various components, but the site doesn’t come without its issues.
To celebrate its newly won status, Fort Ancient (one of the component sites) organized special activities during the weekend of 7 and 8 October. I joined their free guided tour on Sunday morning at 9.30, and I was glad I did as it added a deep dive into the subject that I wasn’t able to get at the other locations. The tour was conducted by the Site Manager and he talked for 75 minutes about the complex history of this specific site.
Fort Ancient has multiple historic layers, of which the ‘Hopewell’ layer is only one. The visible remains are mostly original (ICOMOS called it “near pristine”), but it is hard or even impossible to get a feel of how the site looked like and was used some 2,000 years ago. For example, it now is fully covered by a forest while there was no vegetation except for grass when the ‘fort’ was developed. A lot of myths about who built it and why have been proven wrong over the years. Today’s view, in line with the other Hopewell sites, is that it was a ceremonial center where people gathered now and then (but it stayed uninhabited).
Over the day, I visited 5 out of the 8 inscribed components. From West to East, these were:
(photos in brackets, numbered top-down, left to right)
Fort Ancient (3): the odd one out, as it is a hilltop construction with a long earthen wall following the plateau’s contours. Takes a lot of walking and it is hard to see anything of interest here on your own; even the guide only stopped three times to point out a specific feature. These were the ‘southern gate’, the remains of a water reservoir and the alignment of a circle and a small mound for the winter solstice. The site has a museum as well, which didn’t add anything to the story I just listened to but could be a welcome introduction when you’re not on a tour.
Seip Earthworks (1): if you only have time for one of the locations, I would pick this one as it shows earthworks of a square, a small circle, a large circle and a large mound. They lie in an open setting just by the side of the road.
Mound City Group (2): this is a large group of tumuli within a walled enclosure. Also a good site for photos, but it has nothing but tumuli (including an elliptical one). Practically all mounds you see in the Hopewell area were burial sites.
Great Circle (4): this one in Newark has the most urban setting, and is used nowadays as a city park with dogs and kids running around. Its walled circle indeed is huge, but I found nothing of real interest and there is virtually no interpretation on site (the small visitor center was closed on Sunday).
Octagon Earthworks (5): these lie some 2km from the Great Circle in a nicer suburb of Newark. Access is limited due to the active use of the site as a golf course. There is a small wooden watchtower just outside the earthen walls that you can climb to get an overview.
Despite all the efforts of the good people at Fort Ancient, I could not bring myself to rate this site higher than two stars. It’s because it comes with issues, notably:
- It is hard to grasp what ‘Hopewell’ really means. It wasn’t a people, it may not even have been a culture (the guide at Fort Ancient called it "a set of behaviors"). You ‘just’ have these geometrically precise earthworks in what is now southern Ohio that were made in roughly the same period (1-400 A.D.). Their context still is poorly understood.
- The diverse management and lack of common interpretation. It feels like a mishmash of sites – because it is. They are managed by 3 different organizations and lie quite far from each other: there are 3 hours of driving between the 5 that I visited. The organizations operate independently, have different ways of funding, different research objectives and their own ways of interpreting their site(s). They "have to" collaborate with dozens of Native tribal leaders who view them as the works of their ancestors.
- The infamous Golf Course is still in use at the Octagon Earthworks component. ICOMOS referred to the issue as if it were done and dusted, but it isn’t. At the time of inscription, the golf club still was allowed to use the site and no settlement has been reached on what needs to be done (paid?) to evict them. In the meantime, regular visitors can hardly appreciate the site and I guess some alterations have to be made to bring it back to its original state (I did notice a paved access ramp for golf carts for example).
Read more from Els Slots here.
I've been to seven of these eight sites, and I've been to four of them (Mound City, Fort Ancient, Seip Mound and Newark Earthworks) more than once. They never cease to fill me with a sense of awe. They are immense and at the same time remarkably precise; the circular earthworks are almost perfectly round, while several of the earthworks have almost perfect astronomical alignments. I particularly like that the people who constructed the earthworks lived in tiny hamlets in a society that was, so far as anyone can tell, remarkably egalitarian. These sites are a sixteen hundred year old testimony to the skill, passion, knowledge and ability to cooperate of the Native Americans who made them. I'm glad that they have been nominated and I believe that they deserve to be inscribed.
I visited Hopewell Culture National Historical Park - Mound City (early evening) and Newark Earthworks - Great Circle (just after sunrise). Besides what I explored, Seip Earthworks is considered and often recommended as the other key remnant of "Hopewell Culture". The other components, while important archaeological sites are perhaps more for completists.
As Mound City is managed by the National Park Service the interpretation is quite good and as I arrived just before a major storm, I had a personal guide for a full hour before the downpour began. We began at the short nature trail, highlighting the native plants, including what would and would not have been present a millenia ago. As you approach the Scioto River, there are interpretive panels worth reading. An exceptional fact of "Hopewell" is that in Ancient North America, the rivers were the "highways" of their time. Scioto River connects to the Ohio River, the Ohio River connects to the Mississippi River, the Mississippi River connects to the Missouri River, and the Missouri River connects to Yellowstone River. There is a place called "Obsidian Cliff" in Yellowstone National Park (a National Historic Landmark), which includes panels about its importance to indigenous people (most visitors drive right by which is understandable). Obsidian from this cliff in Yellowstone has been found in archeological digs at Hopewell. The "Great Circle" at Newark is impressive, yet doesn't have the same amount of interpretation as the National Historic Park, which these sites really benefit from. Arriving just after sunrise added to the atmosphere, yet from the ground, the scale of these circle mounds are difficult to fully appreciate.
For logistical reasons Columbus, Ohio is the best place to access these earthworks. Hopewell National Historic Park (Mound City & Visitor Center) is about 50 minutes drive South from Columbus and Newark Earthworks are about 40 minutes drive East. Seip Earthworks would require another 20 minutes of driving past the Hopewell Culture Visitor Center.
Read more from Kyle Magnuson here.
Having had the privilege of leading group tours and school groups around the Newark Earthworks for years, I never fail to be delighted and amazed by how these mounds and enclosures affect those who visit. Some come from far away with long considered intent, and their knowledge and passion are always inspiring, but I really enjoy the reaction from people who have been driving past the mounds for their whole lives, and then "come to visit," and you see them open up to the site and the stories within. There's a look on their faces as they start to take in what they've long seen but not noticed -- World Heritage status will enhance & increase that experience.
Christine Ballengee Morris
The Newark Earthworks are incredible. The Octagon structure, at night, illustrates the lunar calendar constructs. The Great Circle is smaller in size but easy to access and includes a small museum. I have enjoyed many earth structure in the United States, Brazil, Ireland, and Portugal and the Hopewell structures are worth visiting.
The Great Octagon - the finest example of an ancient lunar observatory. This site represents a milestone in human understanding of the solar system. No other lunar site in the world is so sophisticated or well preserved. It is one of the easiest earthworks to access and so present a prime opportunity to bring this little known chapter in human development to the public eye.
I have visited the Newark Earthworks in Newark, Ohio and they truly are a wonder of the ancient world. The enormity of the Great Circle and Octagon astounded me and I will never forget the feeling I had when I first walked within the walls of these two sites.
I encourage everyone to visit!
Successor to Mound City Group National Monument FTWHS
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