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If academics, students and supporters at the Newark Earthworks Center at The Ohio State University have their way, the Newark Earthworks will be listed among the likes of England’s Stonehenge and Mexico’s Teotihuacán in terms of international archaeological and cultural importance. Dr. Richard Shiels, director of the newly founded center and Dr. Marti Chaatsmith, program coordinator, envision the site will become a “must see” for those touring international cultural sites.


The center, approved in 2006 by university trustees as an interdisciplinary program, is poised to reap the academic rewards from growing interest in the mounds. Their hope is that the center will become the heart of scientific and cultural inquiry into the Earthworks, drawing academic and public attention. Earlier this year, the center hosted a conference sponsored by the American Indian Studies Consortium on the theme “Native Knowledge Written on the Land,” which included faculty and students from the Big 10 universities and others.

Located in the Baker House on the Newark campus, the center has a full calendar of seminars on the archaeology and history of the site including Newark Earthworks Day, which features a celebration of American Indian culture related to the site. History, archaeology and education classes about the Earthworks are also held in the center throughout the academic year.

The Newark Earthworks, located about 30 miles east of Columbus, in the city of Newark, is the world’s largest set of geometric earthen enclosures. It was built nearly 2,000 years ago, between 100 B.C. and A.D. 500 by the Hopewell Indians using sticks, clamshells and baskets to sculpt millions of cubic feet of dirt into walls of earth forming a huge lunar observatory sprawling over several miles. Although the Earthworks was named a National Historic Landmark in 1964, the site has, until recently, languished in quiet obscurity. In the 1800s, many of the rambling mounds were destroyed by development and farming.

A burgeoning public awareness of the Earthworks is closely tied to the creation of the Earthworks Center and includes a surprising and diverse grassroots effort of community members, academics, American Indians and professional and amateur archaeologists. It all started in 1999 when the Moundbuilders Country Club, located directly on the Octagon section of the Earthworks sprawling site, announced plans to build a new club house, displacing a significant portion of the mounds. The club leases the site from the Ohio Historical Society, which oversees the public land. Shiels and a community group, called the Friends of the Mounds, were among those who questioned the club’s plans, bringing it to the public’s attention. Soon they were joined by American Indians, archaeologists and the general public who were unaware of the presence and importance of the historic landmark located in their own backyards. Eventually, the country club abandoned its plans for a new building and instead refurbished its existing clubhouse.

Remarkably, the community efforts to save the Earthworks coincided with an OSU challenge to the Newark campus to identify a means to distinguish itself and draw students to attend the small campus. About 2,500 students are enrolled this semester. Established in 1957, the school had primarily been a “feeder” campus for the main OSU campus in Columbus. Shiels recalls that in 2002 former OSU president Karen Hollbrook, challenged Newark faculty “to leverage what we have,” to highlight the campus.

What they have in Newark, according to scientists and historians, is a slumbering giant of international cultural and archaeological importance.

The Earthworks are made up of three areas covering four square miles — the Great Circle, the Octagon and Wright Earthworks connected by sets of parallel-walled avenues.

Perfectly Aligned

Dr. Ray Hively, professor of astronomy, and Dr. Robert Horn, professor of philosophy at Earlham College in Indiana, discovered in the 1980s that the mounds aligned perfectly with the cyclical movements of the earth and moon. The Octagon, they maintain, aligns perfectly with the intricate 18.6- year cycle of the moon, making it twice as precise as Stonehenge as a lunar observatory.

The Hopewell, according to Hively and Horn, encoded astronomical landmarks into the Octagon to mark the rhythmic cycle of the moon. They speculate that the Earthworks were a site of ceremony and burial and may have been the culmination of a pilgrim’s path beginning in Chillicothe more than 60 miles away. Dr. Brad Lepper, Ohio Historical Society archaeologist, speculates that a “Great Hopewell” ceremonial road once linked the High Bank mounds, believed to be a former Hopewell community in Chillicothe, to the Newark Earthworks.

“In the cosmology of many tribes in the Eastern Woodlands, the universe was composed of three layers: the sky or Above World, the middle world in which we live, and a watery Underworld,” Lepper says. “I have compared the Newark Earthworks to a functionally integrated ritual machine that drew upon the energies of each of these layers of the cosmos,” he says.

Contemporary American Indian interest in the mounds as an ancient ceremonial site is also growing. During last year’s Earthworks Day celebrations held at the center, Second Chief Alfred Berryhill of the Muskogee (Creek) Nation of Oklahoma drew parallels between the ancient Hopewell culture and Creek culture that still maintains a mound-building tradition. Carol Welsh, Sisseton- Wahpeton and executive director of the Native American Indian Center of Central Ohio in Columbus, sees growing interest in the Earthworks as a renewal of the sacredness of place among native peoples.

Shiels, his colleagues and community supporters have been galvanized by the success of the center. The Licking County Visitors and Convention Bureau is relocating its offices to the Great Circle area of the Earthworks. They are refurbishing the long-closed Ohio Historical Society’s Earthworks visitors center. Newly hired bureau executive director Susan Fryer announced, “We want to be at the center of what’s happening in the county.”

The National Park Service has the Earthworks on its short list to be sent to the United Nations for designation as a World Heritage Site. There are currently 851 World Heritage Sites designated by UNESCO, the United Nations Education, Scientific and Cultural Organization.

The Moundbuilders Country Club, however, continues to restrict admission to the Octagon Site, despite language in its lease that requires the provision of public access. Shiels is confident that public opinion will win out in the long run. The debate has drawn attention from the likes of The New York Times, which ran an article last year pointing out that the club is restricting access to one of the 70 wonders of the world. Dr. Chris Scarre, an Oxford University archaeologist, included the Earthworks in his recent book, The Seventy Wonders of the Ancient World.

Whatever the outcome, it is clear that the Earthworks Center on the Newark campus will be at the heart of it all.

–Mary Annette Pember

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