A new Web site, ancientohiotrail.org, offers a 21st century way to discover little-known historic places in the wooded hills and lush farmland of south-central Ohio: Hundreds of Native American earthworks ranging in age from 550 to 3,000 years old. Hidden in plain sight in cities, towns, fields and even backyards are solitary mounds, or artificial hills; animal forms sculpted into hilltops; and monumental earthen-walled complexes in the form of precisely sculpted circles, octagons, squares and free-form shapes enclosing scores, or even hundreds, of acres.
“Native people quietly visit these sacred places with prayers, sage, and tobacco to honor the ancients who built them, and to let the spirits know they are not forgotten.” -Marti L. Chaatsmith, Comanche/Choctaw and program coordinator of the Newark Earthworks Center
The Web site provides maps, photographs, links to tourism information, a free travel brochure, and videos you can watch on a computer (choose MP4 format) or download to your cell phone. The electronic Ancient Ohio Trail was put together by a consortium, including University of Cincinnati’s Center for the Electronic Reconstruction of Historical and Archaeological Sites, Ohio State University’s Newark Earthworks Center, and Ohio Historical Society. The easy-to-use site is worth a visit; junior high and high school teachers will find it an attractive, informative, respectfully written classroom tool.
It’s important to get information about these sites to the public, according to Carol Welsh, Sisseton-Wahpeton Oyate and executive director of Native American Indian Center of Central Ohio. “Native people can take pride in them, and they show non-Native people the richness and complexity of our heritage.” She and her husband, Mark Welsh, Ihanktonwan Dakota and NAICCO program director, are part of a team assembled by the Newark Earthworks Center to give tours of sites in Newark, Ohio.
“It may not be widely understood that Ohio was once a center of Indian country,” said Marti L. Chaatsmith, Comanche/Choctaw and program coordinator of the Newark Earthworks Center. “Indigenous people lived here long before 2000 BCE and built earthworks into the landscape to mark the progression of the moon or the sun with ceremony.”
At once massive modifications of the land and masterpieces of subtlety, the grass-covered forms rise gently from their surroundings. Some of the best-known – the Newark Earthworks, Serpent Mound, Fort Ancient and Hopewell Culture National Historical Park/Mound City, all in south-central Ohio – are being considered for inclusion in UNESCO’s list of World Heritage Sites, where they would join the Great Wall of China, Chartres Cathedral and other notable places.
Photo by Stephanie Woodard A view of Hopewell Culture National Historical Park/Mound City, a U.S. National Park Service site in Chillicothe, Ohio.
The ancient Ohioans’ imagination encompassed not just architecture and astronomy, but also the adornment of their personal and ritual lives. They made shirts and dresses of hide and woven plant fibers and embroidered them with thousands of freshwater pearls and shells. They also fabricated stone statuary and pipes, copper jewelry and headdresses, trumpets and other musical instruments, pottery and ghostly open hands made from sheets of translucent mica. Though the ancients left no written language to let us know what they called themselves or how they thought of their vast and varied material culture, they survive in the oral histories of contemporary Native communities.
“Native people who recognize their blood connection with the ancients quietly visit these sacred places with prayers, sage, and tobacco to honor the ancients who built them, and to let the spirits know they are not forgotten,” Chaatsmith said.
Here’s a quick look at what you’ll find on the Ancient Ohio Trail. Recent budget cuts have meant that open hours have been curtailed; before you go, check current days and times:
Newark Earthworks: The Octagon
For two millenia, the Octagon has framed a view of the lunar standstill: The moment when the moon rises at the northernmost point of its 18.61-year cycle. In 2006, I watched this moment with a small group organized by the Newark Earthworks Center. Surrounded by the hulking walls, we faced the opening in the Octagon through which the moon would appear. Behind us was the flat-topped mound where the ancients likely stood to watch this event. Just after midnight, a brilliant white crescent soared into the velvet-black sky. This experience has, however, been clouded by contention since 1910, when a country club leased the site and began building a golf course on top of the earthworks. The course remains in use to this day, to the consternation of many. (125 North 33rd St.; Newark, Ohio 43055; (740) 364-9584; firstname.lastname@example.org)
Newark Earthworks: The Great Circle
Inside this immense walled enclosure, you feel far from the modern world, though you’re in the middle of a busy city. The Octagon and the Great Circle were once part of the world’s largest set of geometric earthworks. The grouping covered four square miles and encompassed many other forms, now mostly gone, including parallel walls that were likely ceremonial passageways. Native people tend to agree with archaeologist Bradley Lepper, who believes that one of the passages extended 64 miles to connect with earthworks in Chillicothe. Recently archaeologist William Romaine reported that on the summer solstice this passage matches the path of the Milky Way. (455 Hebron Road, State Route 79, Heath, Ohio, 43056; (740) 364-9584; email@example.com)
This 1,000-year-old, 1,330-foot-long snake is the largest effigy earthwork in the world. Sculpted into a grassy hilltop, its gently rounded coils are about 20 feet wide and three feet high and align with various celestial events. A footpath leads you along its body to the head, which overlooks gently rolling hills and aligns with the summer solstice sunset. Once at the head, you’ll see that the snake’s open mouth is swallowing something oval. (3580 Route 73; Peebles, Ohio 45660; (937) 587-2796; www.ohiohistory.org)
Around 2,000 years ago, using deer shoulder blades and other tools, this place’s builders sliced the top off an hourglass-shaped 125-acre bluff. Using the resulting 553,000 cubic yards of dirt, they enclosed the space – one basket-load at a time over several centuries – with 18,000 feet of undulating earthen walls. Today, as in ancient times, you enter via a gateway at the site’s north end, proceed through the northern lobe of the hourglass, traverse a narrow, walled-in land bridge, and finally arrive at the southern lobe. There the site opens up to a glorious, panoramic view of the wooded river valley below. (6123 State Route 350; Oregonia, Ohio 45054; (513) 932-4421 or (800) 283-8904; www.ohiohistory.org).