When you look at a map of Ohio that shows the locations of the largest earthen enclosures built by the ancient Hopewell Native American culture between AD 1 and 400, the Newark Earthworks stands out.
Most of these extraordinary sites are in and around Ross County, in and around Chillicothe, which must have been zero for what Hop’ell described as the explosion of the late N’omi Greber. That includes the five amazing earthworks that make up the Hopewell Culture National Historical Park. Other monumental Hopewell earthworks can be found along the Ohio River and the major rivers in southern Ohio that flow into the Ohio. These include the sprawling Fort Ancient Earthworks, perched on a cliff overlooking the Little Miami River in Warren County.
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The Newark Earthworks are the northernmost expression of this native explosion of art, architecture, and ceremony. While it stands in isolation on the northernmost edge of the so-called Hopewell core, it is the largest and most complicated grouping of geometric earthworks in the Hopewell world. Ephraim Squier and Edwin Davis, who published maps and descriptions of the major Hopewell earthworks in the first volume of the Smithsonian Institution’s Contributions to Knowledge series, wrote that they were so complicated: “It is impossible to describe them in all their way. ”
Much of the Newark Earthworks has been lost to agricultural fields, roads, homes, and businesses. However, two great parts have been preserved: the great circle and the earthworks of the octagon. In addition, a tiny remnant of a square enclosure has been preserved at the Wright Earthworks.
Although the Newark Earthworks appear to be isolated on the Hopewell boundary, it has clear and compelling connections to the Hopewell earthworks further south. For example, the great circle connected to the Newark Octagon by a parallel walled avenue is the same diameter as the circles in the Hopeton and High Bank plants in Ross County. In addition, Newark’s Wright Square is the same area as the square enclosure of the Hopeton Earthworks.
Newark’s Octagon Earthworks contains orientations at the points on the eastern horizon that mark the northernmost and southernmost rises of the moon. The same orientations are built into High Bank Works and Fort Ancient Earthworks.
These examples show that Hopewell Newark earthworks companies shared the same sophisticated understanding of geometry and astronomy with their southern cousins - as well as measurement, surveying, and the soils best suited to building permanent earth walls.
I also think that the Newark Earthworks is defined by a ceremonial freeway defined by a series of remarkably straight, parallel earth walls extending from the southeast corner of Newark’s Octagon on a compass bearing pointing straight to the center of modernity, right with the Hopewell Core connected were Chillicothe. Whether this Great Hopewell Road goes that far is not clear yet, but it resembles ancient roads built by the ancestral Puebloans at Chaco Canyon in New Mexico and by the ancient Maya civilization, which were as long or even longer.
The Newark Earthworks, Fort Ancient Earthworks and the earthworks in the Hopewell Culture National Historical Park have been combined to form the Hopewell Ceremonial Earthworks. These incredible earthworks are being considered for nomination on the UNESCO World Heritage List. Each place has its own remarkable story to tell, but together they teach us about ancient Native American societies that came together without an authoritarian leader forcibly uniting them to create not only a series of giant earthen cathedrals, but a vast and as well interconnected ceremonial landscape.
The remnants of this landscape preserved in southern and central Ohio, as well as an understanding of how it was created, retain the power to inspire us.
Brad Lepper is an archeology curator with the Ohio History Connection