One thing stands between the 2,000-year-old Octagon Earthworks in Newark, Ohio, and a nomination to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization’s (UNESCO) World Heritage List.
It’s a golf course that leased the land nearly 100 years ago.
The dispute over public access to the ancient ceremonial and burial earthworks landed before the Ohio Supreme Court on April 13 in a case pitting the state historical society against the Moundbuilders Country Club, within whose grounds the earthworks are located.
The Octagon, located in the city of Newark in Licking County east of Columbus, is part of the Hopewell Ceremonial Earthworks, a massive cluster of historic Indigenous sites and one of many earthworks built in Ohio by waves of ancient Indigenous civilizations beginning about 3,000 years ago.
The Great Serpent Mound, for instance, located about 100 miles south of the Octagon works, was built about 1,000 years ago. Many others were destroyed
Professor John Low, a citizen of the Pokagon Band of Potawatomi Indians and director of the Newark Earthworks Center at Ohio State University, said the Octagon ranks alongside Stonehenge, the Taj Mahal and pyramids in Giza in importance and examples of World Heritage sites.
“UNESCO’s World Heritage List is designed to recognize the incredible creativity of the human spirit and humanity across time,” Low said. “Joining the list would help protect the site and promote it for tourism.”
The country club has operated the golf course since 1933 via a lease that expires in 2078.
Representatives of the state offered the club $1.66 million for the lease, increased from an initial offer of $800,000. The club, however, wants $12 million to vacate the lease and presumably build another course elsewhere.
The Octagon Earthworks are “part cathedral, part cemetery and part astronomical observatory,” according to the Ohio History Connection, which owns the site.
The earthworks – with eight walls about 550 feet long and five to six feet high – encloses about 50 acres in a design that researchers have linked to four moonrises and four moonsets in an 18-year cycle.
In 2018, the U.S. Department of the Interior selected the Octagon and surrounding earthworks for nomination as a World Heritage site.
The Ohio History Connection, however, says it must control access to the earthworks in order for the nomination to proceed. In 2018, it took the country club to court in order to purchase the lease via eminent domain and convert the property to a park with improved public access and a visitors’ center.
The History Connection is a nonprofit organization that contracts with the state; in addition to housing archives and the historic preservation office, it manages more than 50 sites and museums across Ohio.
Currently, the country club allows public access to the mounds four times per year. According to an agreement negotiated in 2003, the public can also visit the earthworks during daylight hours from November through March and on Monday mornings the rest of the year, as long as the club hasn’t scheduled golf activities.
The History Connection, however, claims public access has been restricted since the 2003 agreement, with individuals and groups finding it increasingly difficult to schedule visits around golfer’s playing times and course maintenance, including pesticide and herbicide spraying.
A Licking County judge ruled in May 2019 that the History Connection can reclaim the lease via eminent domain. That decision was upheld in 2020 by the Ohio Fifth District Court of Appeals.
Club owners appealed the decision to the Ohio Supreme Court, claiming that the History Connection did not make a good faith offer to purchase the property as required by state law.
‘Taller than the pyramids in Giza’
The Newark Earthworks Center is an interdisciplinary academic center that develops projects and research about the Native American cultures that produced the earthworks.
Taking students to the Octagon offers an opportunity for them to see the science and technology involved in the construction of the site, as well as a chance to marvel at the astronomical and lunar alignments present in the earthworks, Low said.
“The Octagon Earthworks is a perfect STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) teaching location,” said Low, who is also a professor in the Department of Comparative Studies at Ohio State University.
The geometry of the earthworks is intricate and sophisticated. Earthen walls encoded into the site plan with long sight lines and a height that corresponds to eye level provide fixed instruments for astronomical observations, according to scholars.
The mathematics of the site are also impressive. For instance, the square footage of the square is the same as the footage within the circle and the octagon within the structure.
The horizontal placement of the earthworks and its soil-based composition, however, belies its power and monumental size.
Today, people tend to judge the importance of a monument or ancient site in vertical terms, Low said.
“Vertical size is most impressive to people; they always want to know how tall something is,” he said. “If the Octagon were placed on its side, it would be taller than the pyramids in Giza.”
The fact that the earthworks is composed of soil rather than stone also sets it apart.
“The ancients could have built the Octagon out of stone but they chose earth, creating it basketful by basketful,” he said. “They wanted to embrace the earth with their creation. For Indigenous peoples, soil is Mother Earth, the most sacred of materials.”
The people who built the earthworks preceded later tribes such as the Shawnee, Miami, Wyandot and others displaced from the area during the Indian Removal Act of 1830. The tribes are now based in Oklahoma and elsewhere but remain tied to their original homelands in Ohio.
Many of the tribes want the earthworks preserved as examples of Indigenous peoples’ accomplishments. The National Congress of American Indians, the intertribal council representing tribes in Northeast Oklahoma and the Seneca Nation in New York are among those endorsing the historical society’s application to the heritage list.
“The Removal Act also took away our place stories when the government forced us from Ohio to Oklahoma,” said Ben Barnes, chief of the Shawnee Tribe.
For Barnes, the country club’s objection to surrendering the earthworks to the History Connection is an example of cognitive dissonance emboldened by white privilege.
“It’s crazy that in this day and age that this kind of threat still exists even for a major global archeological site like the Octagon,” Barnes said.
The owners of the Moundbuilders Country Club say the criticism is unfair and fails to acknowledge that the club is also historically connected to the area.
In a 2005 interview with The New York Times, the club’s former general manager Ralph Burpee said, “Everyone would love to portray us as fat cats. This is Newark, Ohio, which pretty much precludes rich fat cats.”
Golfers at the club recently told The New York Times that they embrace the importance of the Octagon, and have nicknamed one eight-foot mound, “Big Chief.”
Club owners also contend that the historical society has neglected another nearby ancient earthworks known as the Great Circle, despite operating it as a park for nearly 80 years.
For now, all eyes are on the Ohio Supreme Court, which may not make a decision for weeks.
Although designation as a World Heritage site would bring prestige and international recognition to the earthworks, it provides no financial benefit. The UN, however, says it can help provide emergency assistance for sites in immediate danger and provide technical assistance and professional training to help safeguard designated places.
The designation would be the first in Ohio and one of only 25 nationally.
“Creating a park at the Octagon Earthworks would enable the History Connection and others to conduct research on the site on their own schedule, which would, in turn allow the History Connection to better educate Ohioans and the world about the Earthworks and their historical importance,” wrote Ohio Solicitor General Benjamin Flowers, in an October court filing with the state Supreme Court.
Including the earthworks on the World Heritage List would make the sites more accessible for tribal citizens without forcing them to first seek permission from a golf course, Barnes said.
“It will be powerful to reintroduce ourselves and reignite our connection to these sacred places,” he said, “and learn the stories they have to tell us as Shawnee people.”
This article contains material from The Associated Press.