NEWARK – Between AD 1 and 400, the ancient Hopewell Native American culture built a series of monumental earthen enclosures in southern Ohio.
The greatest concentration of this earthwork was along the Scioto River Valley and its tributaries near the modern Chillicothe.
The Newark Earthworks is one of the grandest Hopewell ceremonial centers, but it’s 60 miles north – seemingly isolated from the Chillicothe Hopewell heartland. However, there is compelling evidence that it was far from isolated but was directly connected by a major artery to this heart of the Hopewell world.
Great Hopewell Road is a series of low, earthen walls that frame a 200-foot-wide avenue that extends an indefinite distance southwest from the southernmost gate of Newark’s Octagon Earthworks. In the 1860s, James and Charles Salisbury tracked the walls “about six miles across fertile fields, through tangled swamps and across streams, maintaining their steady course”.
They did not follow the road to their destination, but suggested that it would lead to Chillicothe if it continued on its perfectly straight course.
When we finally find that Great Hopewell Road actually went all the way to Chillicothe, it won’t be all that surprising. We have known for a long time that there is a special relationship between these special places.
High Bank Works, part of the Hopewell Culture National Historical Park, and Newark’s Octagon Earthworks are the only large circles connected with octagons built by the Hopewell culture. The circles at both locations are the same size, and both earthworks are aligned at key points on the horizon that circumscribe the lunar’s complicated 18.6-year cycle in which ascents and attitudes change.
But why did the Hopewell need an avenue the size of a modern 16-lane highway to connect them? (The busiest freeway in Los Angeles is only 14 lanes.) Why did it have to be so straight?
I think Great Hopewell Road was a sacred processional route that pilgrims used to get to Newark’s gigantic earthen cathedral. The Mayan civilization had similar long, straight roads. When Spanish priests asked the Maya about their purpose, people told them the streets were pilgrimage routes that connected their most sacred places.
The Creek Indians in the southeastern United States traditionally travel north to make regular pilgrimages to “special hills” that were important for “ritual interactions with the cosmos”. We don’t know if these particular hills were as far north as Newark, but the Octagon Earthworks, with their exact orientations for the rising and setting of the moon, could certainly have enabled ritual interactions with the cosmos.
Pilgrims may have come to Newark to offer thanksgiving or supplication offerings from their home countries. This could explain the artifacts found in Hopewell Hills made of copper from the Great Lakes, clams from the Gulf of Mexico, and mica from the southern Appalachians. Archaeologists have found small blades from our local Flint Ridge Flint in Hopewell-era locations in eastern North America. These may have been signs given to pilgrims in recognition of their spiritual and literal journeys.
The idea that Newark Earthworks was a pilgrimage center also explains why it’s so huge. It was not built to serve just one local church; It was built to share with the world. And Great Hopewell Road was built on a similar scale – not necessarily to accommodate thousands of processions at once, but to impress pilgrims with the majesty of the road they followed.
Brad Lepper is the Curator of Archeology for the Ohio History Connection. Lepper coined the term “Great Hopewell Road”.