For the Mounds

9 Jan

On New Years Eve I visited my friends Grace and Mary. Mary graciously gave me a tour of the Great Circle Mound in Newark Ohio.


The Great Circle, (upper left) Observatory Circle and the Octagon (upper right) the Great Square (also called Wright Earthworks) and the Ellipse (lower left.)  Photo Courtesy of John Hancock

Ohio is speckled with ancient mounds, but the Newark Earthworks are particularly remarkable.  Covering several square miles, they are the largest complex of earthwork mounds in the world.  They were built on a massive scale and made with a great deal of precision.   For example, the walls of the Great Circle Mound at their lowest point are eight feet tall and ringed by an inner moat five feet deep.  The walls are even larger at the opening, creating a dramatic entryway to the space within the circle.

Curiously a common dimension, approximately 1,054 feet is repeated throughout the Earthworks.  It is found in the diameter of Observatory Circle, and a square with sides of that same dimension would fit perfectly into the Octagon.  If you were to multiply that number six times you would find the distance between the Octagon and the Square and between Observatory Circle and the Great Circle.  Even more mathematically obtuse, the circumferences of the Great Circle and the Square are identical.  Ironically it is this complexity and scale of the mounds that led early European scholars to assume that the mounds could not have been built by the ancestors of the Native Americans.  For many years their construction was credited to a race called “the Mound Builders” which were often believed to be a lost tribe of Israel.  It wasn’t until 1982 that a new generation of researchers found new measurements that were more significant; the earthworks at the Octagon are aligned to within half a degree of the moonrise at significant points in the lunar cycle.

Photo courtesy of Timothy E. Black.

Another remarkable thing about the Earthworks is that we still don’t know precisely what they were used for.  We know through archeological evidence that the mounds were built about 2000 years ago by a group of people that we have named “the Hopewell Culture.”  Excavations also tell us that the complex was not a permanent settlement of significant size, that the structures don’t seem to have been built for defensive purposes, and there are a large number of burials located in the ellipse that include artifacts from as far away as the Rocky Mountains, the Atlantic Ocean, and the Gulf of Mexico.

Sadly, only a small portion of the original complex remains.  Part of the earthworks lay in the path of the Ohio and Erie Canal, and much of them were covered by the city of Newark.  The Great Circle Mound is the best preserved and is cared for by the Ohio Historical Society.  They also own a small remnant of the Square, today known as the Wright Earthworks.  Much of the the Octagon remains intact, but only escaped development by becoming a golf course.

The Newark Earthworks, along with the equally fascinating Serpent Mound, several mounds at Hopewell Culture National Historic Park, and Fort Ancient are up for nomination as UNESCO World Heritage Sites.  They would share this designation with places like Stonehenge, the Pyramids at Giza, and Mesa Verde.  Part of the nomination process requires a demonstration of community support.  If you would like to help support the nomination process you can take a few minutes and sign a petition.  You could also find information here about sending letters to Ohio representatives and the National Park Service asking them to support the nomination.  The deadline if you would like to do either of these is Wednesday, January 12.


Photo Courtesy of Timothy E. Black.

It’s hard for me to put my finger on why this nomination process has suddenly become so important to me.  Part of it may be that I am still struck by my first encounter with a World Heritage site when I visited New Grange in Ireland five years ago.  It may also be that Mary and her sister Grace have a way of pulling other people into their passions with a magnetism so strong it could counteract a black hole.  But there was also something extraordinary about walking into the Great Circle, through the same entrance that the Hopewell would have used two millennia ago.  It makes me wonder what sort of wonder and excitement did this place hold for them?



2 Responses to “For the Mounds”

  1. David Gano January 11, 2011 at 9:27 am #

    I grew up just a few miles from the mounds. It is ironic to me that at 38 years old, I just happened to read your blog… and I learned more about the mounds and have more interest in the mounds than ever before. Even more curious, I have been to weddings in the circle and still wasn’t aware of the significance. Thanks so much for taking the time to write this article. It should be printed and placed at the mounds for others to enjoy.

    • wanderdrossel January 11, 2011 at 11:41 am #

      I’m glad to have piqued your curiosity!

      Unfortunately, access to the Octagon is pretty limited, but there’s a cool little museum by the Great Circle. If you haven’t made an expedition to see the Serpent Mound in Adams County, it’s a pretty cool place too!

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