June 2-5, 2013
A PILGRIMAGE TO THE ANCIENT MOUNDS
I first saw the ancient mounds of Ohio twelve years ago when traveling to Crestone, CO, from Massachusetts. They blew my mind. Since then, I have wanted to return and see more. In 2001, my sister and I were driving along Rt. 50, a scenic secondary road that for much of its journey across the U.S. travels through small-town America. The guidebook we used suggested various site-seeing possibilities along the way including The Hopewell Culture National Historic Park in Chillicothe, OH. I already vaguely knew about the Serpent Mound, an ancient Native American effigy site, but until then I had had absolutely no idea that there was such an extensive, elaborate, sophisticated network of earthen structures throughout southern Ohio. I also had not known that beautiful 2,000-year-old handicrafts existed as well. My previous understanding was that the local Native Americans had left little behind aside from an occasional arrowhead (like the one my mother found in our backyard south of Pittsburgh.)
I grew up in western Pennsylvania so these sites were in was my regional neighborhood. (I’ve recently discovered that a few mounds remain in PA as well). I don’t recall ever being taught about these archeological treasures. As far as I can tell, few people – local or far flung – know about them. The cliff-dwellings of the Southwest are familiar to many but these mounds remain unknown to most people. Traveling to England from the U.S. to visit Stonehenge is common, but how many tourists go to Ohio to see these remarkable sacred sites closer to home? Sadly, about 90% of the mounds that the first European settlers saw have been destroyed by agriculture and development.
The vast network of walls, giant circles, squares, octagons, animal effigies, and hill-like burial mounds were originally spread across the midwest, east and south, north to Michigan, east to PA, west to the Mississippi River, south to Georgia and Louisiana. Ohio has some of the largest remaining sites.
Most of these mounds were built between 200 BCE and 1000 AD. Some in Louisiana date to 2500 BCE. No one knows exactly what the large geometric and effigy mounds were used for, most likely a variety of ritual, ceremonial and social purposes. The Native Americans did not live in the great structures but in small temporary villages nearby. The smaller hillock mounds were used as burial places and have human ash remains inside. Much has also been made of the precise astronomical alignment of the various mounds with phases of the sun and moon. In addition, the mounds revealed an elaborate trading system between the widespread mound-building tribes. Copper from upper Michigan, mica from North Carolina, and shark teeth and shells from the Gulf Coast were found in the Ohio mound sites.
The mounds are difficult to photograph; in pictures they look small and unimpressive, like ordinary grassy knolls. So don’t judge them by my photographs! You will have to visit them yourself to fully appreciate these mysterious sacred sites and the under-appreciated history that they reveal. I have included a photo of an artists rendering of what the Newark earthworks might have looked like from above 2,000 years ago.
The Newark Earthworks site was new to me and includes circles, an octagon, a square, walls and small burial mounds. The Great Circle mound is the only part that you can visit. It’s in a state preserve and has a small museum with a few artifacts, information and an extensive selection of short videos about many aspects of this site and other mounds in Ohio. The Great Circle is perfectly round, over 1000 feet in diameter. It is the largest circular earthwork in the Americas. The entire Newark complex is the largest system of connected geometric earthworks built anywhere in the world.
At the entrance, the circle wall is 14 feet high; a trough runs along the wall on the inside, both the source of the dirt to create the circle and possibly a place to collect water. In the center are three small mounds that cover a cremated ceremonial building. Slowly wandering the inner circumference of the circle, now a grassy field with a few large deciduous trees, I reflected on the ancient people and their activities there so many years ago, wishing we knew more about them. I also admired the incredible effort, vision and skill that went into creating these awe-inspiring structures.
Sadly, some of the mounds in the larger complex of the Newark Earthworks have been destroyed by roads and houses. And strangely, the octagon, square and small circle – which still exist – are part of a golf course and not open to the public. The lease for the golf course ends in 2078 and I suspect the mounds will then be handed to the state or federal government for restoration if not before. Understandably, there are many people who protest this private recreational usage of these ancient sacred areas.
I found this quote online to help give you some perspective (I forgot to record the source!):
“Of particular note in the area of Newark is a structure known as ‘The Octagon’. Occupying an area of 3000 x 2000 feet of terrain, this incredible structure is part of a larger interlocking system of earth and stone mounds that comprises about 4 square miles of the area. To attempt to describe the massive size of the mound complex in and around Newark, I share this quote from Bradley Lepper, Ohio Historical Society Archeologist. He says, ‘The Newark earthworks were built on a scale that dwarfs many of the Old World’s most famous sites. The Great Pyramid of Egypt would fit comfortably within the square enclosure at Newark. The Octagon would hold four Roman Colosseums, and Stonehenge would fit within the small circular enclosure located at the Octagon’s southeastern gateway.’”
For more on the Newark Earthworks:
It wasn’t easy to find this mound. I knew it was in Granville, OH, not far from Newark, but most sources did not give clear directions. When we finally got to it, I knew why its location wasn’t publicized more. It is in the middle of a very well-to-do neighborhood. The animal-shaped mound is on a small knoll encircled by a road with large, fancy homes. I felt out-of-place parking there with our funny home-made camper and in our scruffy camping clothes. It’s the kind of place where I thought one of the homeowners might call security to check on us.
The mound itself was hard to distinguish and you could not determine its actually design; it was made up of several rolling lumps on the top of a small hill with a grand view over the valley. But I still felt pleased to stand on the sacred site and to wonder what it was like 1000 years ago when it was built. You can only get a sense of its real shape from an aerial view. Here is a link to a photo:
HOPEWELL CULTURE NATIONAL HISTORICAL PARK
We also visited the Hopewell National Park, with its “Mound City”, a collection of 23 mounds within a large square mounded wall. The National Park system owns five mound sites in the Chillicothe area, two of which are closed to the public for archeological work and reconstruction.
The visitor’s center houses a small but impressive collection of artifacts from the mound-builders, mainly animal shaped carved pipes, pottery and copper ceremonial objects. They have a short movie called, “Mystery of the Ancient Architects” and you can see a preview at: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AGhXB04MDeM)
Chris and I were the only ones there and walked around the grass covered park looking at the different mounds from many angles.
For more on the Hopewell Culture National Historic Park:
THE SERPENT MOUND
I had visited the Serpent in 2001 but was excited to show it to Chris. He, like most people, especially those from the west, had no previous knowledge of this mound or any of the others. There has been great interest in the Serpent Mound by archeologists since the 19th century and it has been preserved by a private organization.
It was a hot steamy day and we slowly walked the paved trail around the undulating, 1330 foot mound. They have a tall platform, like a half-sized fire tower from which you can get a better overall view of the big snake. But, like the alligator mound, you can only see the whole thing from far above.
I consider snakes to be one of my totem animals so I appreciated the vision someone had to create this grand gesture honoring the power and spirit of serpents.
To see the Serpent Mound from above go to:
For more information on the Serpent Mound:
OTHER COMMENTS . . .
In addition to the generally accepted theory that the mounds were built by early Native Americans, other, quirky and outright bizarre theories also have followers. They attribute the making of the the mounds to extraterrestrials, to an ancient race of giant humans, Vikings, a lost tribe of Israel, God, and people from Atlantis. And notably, for those of you that like this sort of thing, in 2007, a crop-circle appeared in the soybean field across from the entrance to the Serpent Mound park.
Finally, if you are ever driving past St. Louis, I also highly recommend visiting the Cahokia Mounds in Collinsville, IL, a World Heritage Site designated by UNESCO. It has a wonderful museum and there is a 100 foot high mound – essentially a pyramid – you can climb (and see the St. Louis arch). At one time, in about 1250 AD, this was a large, bustling city of 20,000.