Ohio earthen embankments show evidence of sophisticated ancient culture

Share with others:

Print Email Read Later

NEWARK, Ohio -- On first glance, the circular earthen embankment abutting state Route 79 between a shopping mall and car dealerships isn't particularly awesome.

But consider this: It was created nearly 2,000 years ago, making it among the oldest man-made structures in North America.

But built how, why and by whom? Those are the mysteries of this sprawling grass- and tree-covered mound and others in this bustling central Ohio town.

The massive stone Mayan and Aztec edifices of Mexico and Central America offer irrefutable evidence of the advanced civilizations that existed there long before the Europeans arrived. But these remnants of even older architectural accomplishments lie within a three-hour drive from Pittsburgh.

These mounds have mystified people since Isaac Stadden stumbled on them in October 1800. The early pioneer was hunting deer in the woodlands south of Raccoon Creek, a tributary of the Licking River, when he happened upon this high embankment. Returning the next day with his wife, Stadden explored what turned out to be a perfect circle 1,200 feet in diameter with level-topped walls that ranged between 8 feet and 14 feet high, depending on the outside terrain. A deep ditch ran around the inside walls, enclosing a leveled area of 26 acres, with three small mounds in the center.

Subsequent explorations revealed at least four other major structures spread across four square miles: another circle nearly as large joining an octagon with walls 610 feet long; a square enclosure 930 feet on a side and an even larger oval. Broad avenues defined by low, parallel embankments ran between openings in the geometric structures.

Neither the Staddens nor any of those who came later to marvel at the discoveries could more than guess about who had built them or for what purpose. Even the Native Americans living there could offer no answers.

Apart from small burial mounds inside the oval structure, there were few tangible artifacts to provide clues. Someone had moved more than 7 million cubic feet of dirt with extraordinary dedication and piled it with precision into complicated and exacting shapes.

Two centuries of civilization have erased as much as two-thirds of the earthen evidence before it could be properly examined. Newark, founded in 1802, gradually spread across and leveled the earthworks near the creek and river. Canal and railroad construction sliced through other structures. Survey maps drawn about 1840 are the primary evidence of the complete plan, but fortunately several structures have survived, primarily because they were adapted for other purposes.

The Great Circle served as Licking County Fair Grounds, a military barracks and an amusement park before it was deeded to the Ohio Historical Society in 1933. The octagon and its adjacent circle were also used for farming and military encampments before they were deeded in 1911 to a local county club, which incorporated them into its golf course, preserving them for generations.

These structures are now designated as Newark Earthworks State Memorial and are managed by the Ohio Historical Society.

According to Bradley T. Lepper, an archeologist with the society, the mounds were created during the period known as the Hopewell culture, which ran from about 100 B.C. to A.D. 400.

Richard Pirko photo
This aerial shot of Moundbuilders Country Club in Newark, Ohio, above, reveals the ancient Octagon and Circle, earthen embankments built by Hopewell Indians nearly 2,000 years ago.
Click photo for larger image.David Bear, Post-Gazette
A corner of the Great Circle of Newark Earthworks, an earthen embankment 1,200 feet in diameter with walls ranging between 5 and 14 feet high.
Click photo for larger image.   
If you go ...
Newark Earthworks

Newark Earthworks is located on Ohio state Route 79, 10 miles north of Interstate 70, a three-hour drive from Pittsburgh. The parking lot of the Great Circle site is open daylight hours from April through October, but even in winter visitors are free to walk around the site.

Viewing of the Octagon at Moundbuilders Country Club is limited to a wooden platform and a short walking path, except for six occasions during the year. On Oct. 11 there will be an observation of the most northerly moonrise in the 18.6-year lunar cycle, and special celebrations are planned. For more information contact the Ohio Historical Society at 1-614-297-2300 or www.ohiohistory.org.

Unfortunately, the Historical Society's museum at Newark Earthworks has been closed for budgetary reasons, but you can get information about these ancient cultures at the Interpretive Center at Fort Ancient near Lebanon in southwestern Ohio (1-800-283-8904) and the National Park Service's Hopewell Culture National Historical Park in Chillicothe, Ohio (1-740-774-1125 at www.nps.gov/hocu).


"But I think this complex was actually completed within a generation," he said, "and was likely the culmination of the vision of one charismatic individual, or perhaps a small group of leaders. How such a detailed plan could have been sustained over a longer period is hard to imagine."

Hunters, fishermen and plant gatherers who lived in small villages and moved frequently, the Hopewell peoples were also prolific mound builders. Up to 10,000 mounds once existed around the eastern United States. Maybe 1,000 have survived. Most are heaped burial mounds or "effigy" mounds built in the shape of animals. The Hopewell people built other ceremonial centers, but Newark and one at High Bank near Chillicothe, Ohio, 60 miles to the south, are their grandest architectural achievements.

In 1992, researchers dug a trench down to the base of the Great Circle. Carbon-dating of those soils indicated that the mounds were begun at least 2,000 years ago.

"It's likely that the builders arranged a series of low mounds in a circle," said Dr. Lepper, who participated in the effort. "They scooped dark brown earth from the inner ditch and piled it over the circular array of mounds. Then they dug up bright yellow brown earth from deep nearby pits and mounded it along the inside of the dark brown embankment."

The precise shapes and sizes of the Newark mounds testify to the Hopewell people's understanding of geometry and measurement. A large number of people were involved, who despite the sparseness of their lives were motivated by forces other than coercion, since there is no record of slavery among the Hopewells. And because their culture had no hard metals or wheels, they likely dug earth with wooden sticks and moved it in woven baskets.

But there's more.

In the 1980s, astronomer Ray Hively and philosopher Robert Horn of Earlham College in Richmond, Ind., analyzed the celestial orientation of the octagon and its adjacent circle. This showed that the sight lines taken from various key points across the two shapes through openings in the embankment walls correspond exactly to the eight highest and lowest rising and setting points of the moon as it tracks an 18.6-year cycle across the horizon.

Schematic: Newark Earthworks State Memorial

The Earlham scientists also discovered that the High Bank complex mirrors the shape and size of the Newark octagon and circle, but its center line is oriented exactly 90 degrees to the Newark shapes. In addition to all eight of the lunar points, High Bank also incorporates sight lines for the summer and winter solar solstices.

Dr. Lepper also has identified traces of what has been labeled the Great Hopewell Road -- parallel earthen embankments 192 feet apart and straight as an arrow that he believes once extended for the 60 miles between the two sites. He believes it was a pathway for pilgrims and calls it "Ohio's first highway."

These findings demonstrate that the Hopewell Indians' knowledge of the pattern of heavenly movements allowed them accurately to predict the changing of the seasons. These great earthen calendars likely served as places of spiritual ceremony, but also of social gathering and perhaps commerce.

As advanced as the Hopewell culture was, about 500 A.D. it began to change. Small villages grew larger, and conflict broke out among them. Mound building ceased. In the late 17th century, inhabitants of the Ohio Valley were driven out of the area by Iroquois and Delaware peoples.

By the time settlers like Stadden arrived, knowledge of the Hopewells had entirely vanished -- except for their great mounds.

Post-Gazette travel editor David Bear can be reached at 412-263-1629 or dbear@post-gazette.com .


Create a free PG account.
Already have an account?