Ohio ‘earthworks’ sites seen as economic generator

Click here for the original story in the Athens News

By John Lasker


The world-famous Serpent Mound near Peebles, in south-central Ohio. Photo courtesy of the non-profit Arc of Appalachia. 



The United Nations may soon designate the Newark Octagon and other prominent Native American Ohio earthworks as World Heritage sites. The Octagon, shown here, is believed to be a 2,000- year-old lunar temple. Photo courtesy of the University of Cincinnati’s center for the Electronic Reconstruction of Historical and Archaeological Sites. 



Hartman Mound on Mound Street in The Plains near Athens. According to an informational plaque at the site, The Plains was the second largest center of Adena Native American culture activity in Ohio, with the third largest concentration of Adena burial mounds and circular enclosures in the Eastern United States. When settlers arrived in The Plains in the 1800s, they found 30 earthworks; only six remain today.


Throughout Ohio, the remnants of an ancient and highly intelligent culture can be observed in the Ohio earthworks. The Newark Octagon, for instance, is believed to be a 2,000-year-old lunar temple, designed to track the motions of the moon, and is theorized to be twice as precise as Stonehenge in Great Britain. 

Archeologists and historians have spent decades trying to decipher exactly why the Adena, Hopewell and Fort Ancient mound-builder cultures built the Ohio earthworks. They are different but distinct generations of the same Native-American cultures, historians and other scientists believe.

Some of the Ohio earthworks, which required moving millions of cubic feet of earth, were created for ceremonial reasons, according to Tom O’Grady, executive director of the Southeast Ohio History Center in Athens. 

“For all the different reasons it might have been built, the Newark Octagon appears to have been used as a giant observatory,” he said, referring to how precisely it tracks the rising and setting of the moon over many years. “If their deities were the sun and the moon, then they would want to know to the best of their ability what the sun and moon would do.”

O’Grady, who often gives presentations on Ohio’s mound-builder cultures, said it’s mindboggling to consider the many, many generations that had to observe the moon’s path in order to line it up as accurately as the Newark Octagon does over its 18.6-year major cycle.

“No longer can we refer to these folks (as) primitive people,” he said. “We can say they were early folks because clearly they were engineers, astronomers and horticulturists.” 

Centuries later, the Ohio earthworks and the Native Americans who built them are on the verge of international recognition with World Heritage Site designation by the Paris-based U.N. Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization or UNESCO, which is the U.N.’s arm protecting the world’s historical treasurers. 

Once formalized, this will be Ohio’s first World Heritage Site, joining 1,000 other properties around the world, including the Pyramids of Giza, Egypt, the Great Wall of China and the aforementioned Stonehenge.

The application process, led by the Ohio History Connection (formerly the Ohio Historical Society) of Columbus, has been ongoing for nearly two decades, and the final submission is set for this year or 2019. 

The application encompasses three major Ohio earthwork sites, collectively known as the Hopewell Ceremonial Sites – 1) the Newark Octagon and its nearby neighbor The Great Circle, 2) Fort Ancient near Cincinnati, and 3) Hopewell National Historic Park in Chillicothe. Several years ago, UNESCO placed these sites on a “U.S. tentative list.”

Once on this list, the Ohio History Connection has said it’s inevitable the sites will make World Heritage designation. The Serpent Mound of Adams County is also on the U.S. tentative list but the effigy mound’s application will be submitted following the Hopewell Ceremonial Site application. 

Several of the state’s major universities have contributed in some way to the World Heritage application. This includes Ohio University. 

The George Voinovich School of Leadership and Public Affairs at OU earlier this year completed an economic impact study on the tourism World Heritage status could bring to Ohio. The school specializes in economic-related applied research for various private and public entities with a focus on the Ohio Appalachian region, said Director G. Jason Jolley.

“What we found is that we would expect a 100 percent increase in visitation within the first three years of designation,” says Jolley. “We looked at two comparative sites, Poverty Point in Louisiana and the Cahokia Mound site outside St. Louis (both are Native American and both recently designated World Heritage sites), and both experienced a comparable increase in visitation to what we have projected.”

As far as numbers, both Jolley and the Ohio History Connection believe World Heritage status could bring several hundred thousand new tourists to the state, but this depends on how these communities strategize and invest.

Jolley has recommended to city leaders and stakeholders of Newark that building an impressive visitor or interpretive center could have a huge impact on the number of visitors and keep them coming in the future.

“At the Cahokia Mound, their visitor stream increased dramatically after they opened an interpretive center, and they actually saw an increase from 100,000 to 500,000 visitors per year,” he said. “Designation is going to get you some increase in visitors. If you want to see the increase that Cahokia and some of the other sites have had, it’s going to require coordination across the (Ohio) sites.”

But all involved with the application agree that increased tourism and the accompanying revenue is just a secondary goal. It’s about recognizing and protecting what many archaeologists and historians consider masterpieces of human creative and mathematical genius that are still sacred to Native Americans.

O’Grady, however, suggested that the push for World Heritage status, this drive for recognition and greater protection, while welcomed and celebrated, is far too late in coming. 

Athens County, for example, has The Plains, for instance, which was considered at one time the third-largest concentration of Adena earthworks in the country, O’Grady said. It was believed to be a ceremonial location, but many generations of farming plowed over the mounds, and then subdivisions of housing and retail further destroyed the earthworks.

“A lot of it is gone now, but there are still some mounds and circular enclosures,” O’Grady said. “The mounds were not highly regarded as something to be protected. Some of them have survived but mostly are surrounded by development.”

The Newark Octagon has itself been tainted by modern man. The earthwork is besieged by a golf course, the Moundbuilders Country Club, as its 18 holes twist and turn throughout the mounds. 

In 1910, the city of Newark, in an effort to save the Octagon, sold it to the country club’s founders. The Ohio History Connection acquired the property in 1933 and has leased it to the club ever since, with the current lease ending in 2078.

“I have watched people golfing there, and it’s kind of like they don’t know they are on some potential World Heritage site,” said O’Grady. “There were times when I thought it was very irreverent for them to be doing that, but you have to consciously be knowing what you’re doing to be irreverent.”

He noted that many people,  including many Ohioans, are unfamiliar with Ohio’s ancient history. He’s thrilled World Heritage status could bring greater awareness and more concern for the earthworks because he’s convinced Ohio and the rest of the nation simply haven’t “done it right.”

“We haven’t demonstrated in Ohio or America to keep our most valuable heritages not just part of our past but our future,” he said.

One group of Americans who adamantly echo O’Grady’s sentiment are, of course, Native Americans. Many descendants of the Ohio mound-builders were forced to leave Ohio in the 1800s. 

While Native Americans are welcoming World Heritage recognition, some have charged that the “white man” has co-opted their history for his own purposes. 

For instance, in 2011 a Scientology-like group called Unite the Collective damaged Serpent Mound by burying in the earthwork a number of “organites” – a piece of quartz and resin molded by a muffin pan. They said they were trying to “reactivate” Serpent Mound to detect its “life energy.” 

What’s more, the Hopewell culture is named after a captain who fought for the Confederate Army in the Civil War. Worse yet, bogus theories continue to circulate that the Newark Octagon and other earthworks were built by the Israelites or Egyptians.

Guy Jones of Dayton is full-blooded Native American of the Hunkpapa Lakota tribe from the Standing Rock reservation in South Dakota, which became a flashpoint of protest over the Dakota Access Pipeline. His life’s mission is to preserve and protect what’s left of the Ohio earthworks, and he’s offering advice to those working the application.

Jones believes World Heritage inscription will have tremendous influence in connecting all Native Americans to these ceremonial sites in Ohio, which two millennia ago possibly attracted peoples from thousands of miles away. 

Consider the artifacts that have been uncovered within the major Ohio earthworks, he said. Sea shells from the Florida Gulf Coast, mica from North Carolina, and obsidian from Yellowstone National Park.

“It will open up the doorway for Native peoples to actually participate and be involved not only in the decision making but as to what and how these sites are being preserved and their history,” Jones said. “UNESCO really encourages Native involvement. They really would involve Native people.”