Published November 20, 2023
• 9 min read
An earthen circle large enough to contain the Empire State Building on its side. An octagonal earthwork capable of holding four Roman Coliseums. A vast hilltop enclosure overlooking a dramatic river gorge.
These wonders are among the eight sites in central and southern Ohio that UNESCO recently placed on its World Heritage list as the Hopewell Ceremonial Earthworks. The first recognized in the state and the 25th in the United States, these structures are the largest geometrically shaped earthworks on the planet, now on par with fellow World Heritage sites Stonehenge, Machu Picchu, and the Great Wall of China.
The prehistoric Hopewell culture, which flourished in the river valleys of southern Ohio between roughly 200 and 500 B.C., is one of several North American Indigenous people archaeologists once collectively referred to as “mound builders.” Some experts argue that the Hopewells (named for the farmer on whose land the mounds were discovered in the 1890s) were among the most advanced of all North American Indigenous cultures in mathematics, civil engineering, and astronomy.
Their trade networks swept across most of the continent. They gathered materials for their artwork as far as the Yellowstone region, the Great Lakes, the Carolinas, and the Gulf of Mexico. At a time when all roads in Europe famously led to Rome, something similar was happening in North America, converging on Ohio.
Those achievements are all the more stunning considering that scholars believe the Hopewells had no written language nor centralized form of government. Despite having no leader decreeing the building of such structures, the Hopewells periodically gathered from tiny villages scattered across great distances to erect these elaborate structures, one basketful of dirt at a time.
“The people who built these earthworks achieved something extraordinary … in how they wove a profound understanding of geometry and astronomy into these places,” says Jennifer Aultman, chief historic sites officer at the Ohio History Connection, which manages some of the sites. “The earthworks also bear witness to cultural connections across much of North America, bringing both people and objects to the Ohio River Valley 2,000 years ago.”
What motivated them? What was the purpose of these structures? Archaeologists continue to uncover answers. Travelers, too, can mull these questions as they explore three key sites. Here’s how to visit.
455 Hebron Road, Heath
These earthworks are collectively located in the charming towns of Heath and Newark, about 30 miles east of Columbus. Experts estimate that it took roughly seven million cubic feet of dirt to build this four-square-mile complex including a square, an ellipse, and walled avenues, most of which has now disappeared with only two structures—The Great Circle and The Octagon—remaining.
Brad Lepper, curator of archaeology at Ohio History Connection, says these earthworks, comprise an important religious site reflecting the Hopewells’ deepest-held beliefs in the cosmos and their place in it. “This was their Jerusalem, their Mecca,” he says.
(Could Ocmulgee Mounds be Georgia’s first national park?)
The Great Circle, 1,200 feet in circumference, offers the best visitor experience, with a small museum (open Thursday-Saturday, April-October) highlighting Hopewell mounds throughout Ohio. You can also walk into the center of the circle to take in the earthwork in its entirety.
The Octagon is even more impressive, with sides enclosing approximately 50 acres and openings that scholars say mark the major rising and setting points of the moon over an 18.6-year cycle. In fact, the central axis of the Octagon looks to the point on the horizon where the moon makes its northernmost rise at the end of this cycle.
Currently, the Octagon is open to visitors four times a year, since the site is leased to a country club that uses it as a golf course. But there are plans in the coming months to make access easier. In the meantime, visitors can get a good overview from a wooden platform where the Octagon connects to a large circle via a passageway, which may have been used for ceremonial processions.
(Here’s how World Heritage status helps destinations around the world.)
Hopewell Culture National Historical Park
16062 State Route 104, Chillicothe
About 60 miles southwest of Newark, the broad fertile valley of the Scioto River once held as many as 30 geometric complexes. Late archaeologist N’omi Greber called this area “the epicenter of the Hopewell universe,” possibly because of a large concentration of Hopewells that lived close by.
Most of these structures have been lost. At three of the five sites in Chillicothe named in the World Heritage declaration, the mounds have degraded to mere swellings in the earth. But a large 30-foot hill still exists at the Seip Earthworks. A fourth site is closed to the public.
The best site to explore here is the Mound City Group, a collection of two dozen densely clustered hillocks ranging from about 3 to 18 feet tall undulating across 17 acres. Visitors can walk through an enclosure to the embankments, but a better vantage point is to trace the perimeter of the walls, getting a view of the entire area. A visitors center and museum stand near the main entrance.
(Discover Europe’s newest UNESCO World Heritage sites.)
Fort Ancient Earthworks & Nature Preserve
6123 State Route 350, Oregonia
Located about 35 miles northeast of Cincinnati, Fort Ancient is encircled by a breathtaking earthen wall—as tall as 25 feet in some sections. It slinks across three and a half miles, making it the largest of the Hopewell earthworks by far. Once thought to be a fortress, experts now believe it’s another religious site, especially for observing the summer and winter solstices.
Built on a plateau overlooking the Little Miami River, Fort Ancient today is a tranquil forested state park with winding trails and overlooks to the river-carved canyon below. A large museum near the park’s entrance has trail maps and details not only of the life of the Hopewells but also the history of all Indigenous peoples in the state.
Learn more: Hopewell Earthworks gives a good overview of the World Heritage sites. The University of Cincinnati’s Newark Earthworks Center has historic information and itineraries, including stops at nearby quaint small towns and other tourist attractions. Allow two to three days to visit all of the earthworks, with potential overnights in Chillicothe and Lebanon.
Don’t miss: Not constructed by the Hopewells, the Serpent Mound is an earthwork along the Hopewell route under a separate application for UNESCO recognition. Located on a hilltop plateau, it snakes across an open field, its “tail” spiraling into a coil and its “head” swallowing what appears to be a giant egg. Its artistry is best appreciated by climbing a high platform at the structure’s edge.
Rich Warren is a writer based in Columbus, Ohio. Follow him on Facebook and Instagram.
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