The Lost Genius of the Hopewell
By Matt Bayman
The reconstruction images in this article were created for Ohio History Connection by the Center for the Electronic Reconstruction of Historical and Archaeological Sites (CERHAS) at the University of Cincinnati. Black and white images are from Ancient Monuments of the Mississippi Valley, Squier and Davis, 1847, public domain. Historic relic images from Ohio History Connection.
It is a privilege to walk through the Octagon Earthworks in Newark, Ohio with archaeologist Brad Lepper and to see the ancient Native American structure through his eyes.
As the Curator of Archaeology at Ohio History Connection, Lepper (pictured above left) is an expert on the Newark Earthworks and ancient Native American traditions. In fact, he wrote the book on the subject, Ohio Archaeology: An Illustrated Chronicle of Ohio’s Ancient American Indian Cultures.
Four times per year Lepper and other members of Ohio History Connection (formerly known as the Ohio Historical Society), along with the National Park Service, host a free open house at the Octagon Earthworks. During these times they provide guided tours to the public, one of which I attended in 2019. During the rest of the year, the more than 2,000-year-old geometrical structure, which was built by the Hopewell tradition and has been called “the greatest ancient wonder the modern world forgot,” is a golf course and mostly closed to the public.
However, thanks to the efforts of many people around the world, the earthworks, and many others like them in Ohio, may soon belong to us all. This is because, since 2009, an effort has been made to inscribe the Newark Earthworks and seven other Hopewell sites in Ohio known collectively as the Hopewell Ceremonial Earthworks as a UNESCO World Heritage site.
(UPDATE in 2023 - The Hopewell Ceremonial Earthworks is now officially a World Heritage site! Learn more HERE.)
World Heritage inscription is based on stringent criteria and signifies that a site possesses outstanding universal value to humanity. The goal is to recognize and encourage the protection of the world’s most important cultural and natural treasures. Examples of cultural sites include the Great Wall of China, the Pyramids of Giza and Stonehenge.
Of the more than 1,000 sites that have been inscribed so far in the world, including natural sites, only 23 are in the United States.
Along with the Hopewell Ceremonial Earthworks, Ohio currently has two other nominations on the U.S. Tentative List for inscription – Serpent Mound in Peebles and the Dayton Aviation Sites connected to the Wright Brothers. If all are accepted, Ohio would have more Cultural World Heritage Sites than any other state.
This is exciting news for those of us living in the Miami Valley. We essentially have front row seats to the action. Along with being minutes away from Dayton, most Hopewell sites are within a few hours drive of the Miami Valley, as is Serpent Mound (believed to have been built by either the earlier Adena or later Fort Ancient tradition). As these sites are further developed, we’ll be able to see the growth with our own eyes.
This growth will also have a positive economic impact on Ohio.
Jennifer Aultman, World Heritage Project Coordinator for Ohio History Connection, said international travelers, not to mention people throughout the Americas, often use the World Heritage List as their basis for vacation planning.
“Economic studies have shown that tourists stay longer and spend more, and that both domestic and foreign visitation increase dramatically following inscription,” she said.
Guide to the Hopewell Ceremonial Works adds to this by stating: “The Hopewell Ceremonial Earthworks inscription will have a positive economic and cultural impact in many central and southern Ohio counties, not only where the sites are located, but also along the scenic and historic routes connecting them.”
Lepper said in 2019 that it is not if, but when inscription occurs for the Hopewell sites.
“It’s going to be a World Heritage Site, there’s no question about that. It’s just a matter of when,” he said.
The First Nomination
The first nomination for inscription in Ohio, and the focus of this article, is the Hopewell Ceremonial Earthworks, which includes eight monumental Hopewell sites in Warren, Licking and Ross counties. Together they are the largest concentration of geometric and monumental earthen architecture in the world. Specifically they are: Fort Ancient, five earthworks within the Hopewell Culture National Historic Park in Chillicothe and the Newark Earthworks.
While most people are familiar with the Pyramids of Giza and Stonehenge, and even Serpent Mound, few know about the significance of the Hopewell sites in Ohio.
For instance, the Newark Earthworks (pictured above), and specifically the Octagon Earthwork there, is essentially a giant astronomical machine that tracks the 18.6-year lunar cycle by marrying geometric shapes and angles on the ground with celestial positions on the horizon.
As pointed out by Lepper during our tour, the lunar cycle tracked by the Octagon culminates with an event known as a Major Lunar Standstill, where the Moon appears to stop in its tracks during its maximum northern moonrise before proceeding on its next 18.6-year dance across the sky and back. If that’s not enough, the Octagon also points to three other moonrises and four moonsets that mark the limits of the 18.6- year moon cycle. (See top of page right)
This understanding of complex astronomy and mathematics is just one of the reasons the Hopewell sites are up for UNESCO inscription.
As stated in Guide to the Hopewell Ceremonial Earthworks, “The builders of the earthworks lived in tiny, dispersed settlements; their way of life was based on hunting and gathering, but also domesticated many plant varieties. Over just a few generations, they gathered, organized and worked together to plan and build monumental public works on an astonishing scale, with precise geometric shapes and astronomical alignments. Using precious materials brought from distant places, they created ceremonial artifacts of exquisite beauty and deposited them in the mounds. Their achievements made them a dominant cultural influence across much of North America.”
A "Mecca" of North America
Lepper said he believes that 2,000 years ago the Newark Earthworks was “the Mecca of this continent,” serving as a ceremonial center for sacred rituals and gatherings that brought as many as 28,000 people at a time to Newark from societies scattered across half of North America, possibly to celebrate the Major Lunar Standstill and other celestial events.
These huge ceremonies helped unify a people who lived far and wide, but who appear to have held the same common beliefs and lived in relative peace and harmony for hundreds of years.
Interestingly, Lepper also believes that the sophisticated knowledge it took to design the Octagon most likely came from one individual among the Hopewell – a Hopewell Einstein if you will, who then taught and led others to build.
Regardless, the intelligence demonstrated in Ohio at this time is on par with, or exceeding some of the greatest civilizations of the era, including the Romans, the Mayans and the Chinese.
Above: The Newark Earthworks with “The Great Hopewell Road” extending south on the bottom left side of the map and potentially pointing, or leading to the High Bank Works, pictured at left. Image at left, of the High Bank Works from Squier and Davis. Above image by James H. and Charles B. Salisbury (American Antiquarian Society)
Click on images to enlarge.
The Road to High Bank Works?
The Newark Earthworks become even more interesting when learning that a matching set of earthworks (a circle and octagon) is located 60 miles to the south of Newark near present day Chillicothe. It’s at another Hopewell Ceremonial Earthworks site called High Bank Works, pictured above left.
Along with being the only pair of their kind, Lepper discovered that the axis of the High Bank Works is oriented at precisely 90 degrees to that of the Newark Earthworks, as if they’re pointing at each other over this great distance.
“This suggests a deliberate attempt to link these sites through geometry and astronomy,” Lepper said.
This “link” is further enhanced by another theory of Lepper known as The Great Hopewell Road, which puts forth that a 60-mile ceremonial path or road linked ceremonial sites in Newark with those in Chillicothe, which is considered the “Hopewell Homeland.”
Possibly not by chance, and as noted by American archaeologist William F. Romain in his academic paper, “Tracing the Relational: The Archaeology of Worlds, Spirits, and Temporalities,” the “road” leading out of the Octagon in Newark is orientated exactly at right angles to the summer solstice sunset, essentially framing it. This means that someone standing at the Octagon and looking south during the summer solstice sunset would see the Milky Way in perfect alignment with the road, making it appear as if it continued up into the sky.
Romain believes that it may have been during these special times that relatives brought the remains of deceased loved ones to these special ceremonial sites for burial. When the earth and sky locked into position, a “path of souls” opened up in the Milky Way and the living could ceremonially walk their relatives into the afterlife, which churned above as a constant and comforting reminder of their presence.
Romain writes that relatives might have walked the remains through the various geometric shapes and paths in Newark, possibly as a way of purifying them, before walking the 60-mile ceremonial path of the Milky Way (a “path of souls”) to Chillicothe for burial.
In his academic paper “The Newark Earthworks: A Monumental Engine of World Renewal,” Lepper writes that “groups from varying distances came to the earthworks bearing offerings along with the remains of their honored dead. In what likely was a highly choreographed sequence, the bodies were carried through the ceremonial spaces undergoing a series of sequential operations, including ceremonies of mourning, spirit release, spirit adoption and burial, each with their particular ritual and architectural requirements.”
There were burials around the Newark Earthworks, but modern-day Chillicothe is where the most Hopewell burials are found.
Lepper said he believes that, along with cremation ceremonies, many visitors came to Newark from far and wide just to experience the earthworks for themselves.
“Like a pilgrimage, they came to this ‘cathedral’ in Ohio and they brought offerings and gifts with them,” he said.
This is backed by the fact that artifacts found in the earthworks and burial mounds contain artwork, pipes and other objects that were crafted from materials found hundreds and even more than a thousand miles away. This includes obsidian from Yellowstone National Park, copper from upper Michigan, shark teeth from the Atlantic Ocean, shells from the Gulf of Mexico and mica from Tennessee. These items may have belonged to the deceased and were brought by relatives for burial, or they were offerings from the living who visited the site, possibly while attending a burial ceremony for a treasured leader or loved one.
Of course, discussing what purpose the earthworks served is all conjecture, as we don’t know what the Hopewell thought. One college professor I talked to at the Newark tour said he believed the earthworks were sports fields where a game we can’t yet understand was played.
The Hopewell left no written history, but through the study of their earthworks, artwork and burial practices, we are starting to understand just how advanced their society was.
A New View of Ohio's Past
Up until now, it may seem that Hopewell earthworks were confined to these few areas in Ohio. But the fact is they were all over the place. Unfortunately, after Ohio was settled in the early 1800s, most mounds and earthworks were destroyed. A good example of this is Circleville, which was named for and built over a giant Hopewell circular earthwork. No trace of it remains today. And it should be noted that even modern Native Americans living in Ohio at the time of European settlement didn’t know who built the earthworks, or why. They were as mysterious to them as they are to us.
But imagine traveling back in time 2,000 years and looking down at Ohio from above. What you might see is an endless forest occasionally interrupted by a massive elevated clearing with artificial walls, reflecting ponds and geometric shapes and paths, all connected together and kept perfectly Zen. It might even look like a giant circuit board or blueprint from above.
No one lived in the ceremonial spaces, but there would be families living in group-dwellings along every major river and stream in the state, including near some of the major ceremonial sites, and in the Miami Valley.
Interestingly, some of the few fragments of Hopewell fiber that have been found indicate that at least some of their clothing was decorated with geometric shapes and patterns.
According to Ohio History Connection, the Hopewell people did not live in large villages, which makes their ability to organize and complete massive construction projects all the more interesting.
“No more than three Hopewell homes have ever been discovered in one place,” the organization states on its website. “They may have lived in single extended family units scattered along the waterways of the great forest. Yet, even with this relatively simple social organization, the Hopewell people created immense public works that required complicated engineering. These walled complexes were likely the gathering places of people who wanted to form community even though they were not living together in villages. The reasons for their gatherings could have been both religious and social, but many important ceremonies were conducted.”
During times of large ceremonies and celebrations, the Ohio and Mississippi rivers must have been busy with canoe traffic as people traveled from throughout the eastern United States to reach Ohio.
According to Ohio History Connection, the Hopewell tradition does not refer to just one specific tribe, but “an artificially observed way of life that seems to have developed simultaneously across the great Midwest – from Nebraska to Mississippi, Indiana to Minnesota, and from Virginia to the Hopewell epicenter in Ohio.”
As travelers from far and wide entered “the epicenter,” if their destination was the Hopewell heartland in Chillicothe, they would pass through modern-day Portsmouth, Ohio, where the Scioto River meets the Ohio River. Here, they would see giant earthworks on both sides of the river (pictured below). They would then travel north on the Scioto River to reach the homeland, where even more geometric earthworks awaited.
Those traveling to the Newark Earthworks would enter Ohio through modern-day Marietta (where elaborate earthworks also existed) and use the Muskingum River to reach the Licking River and then Newark.
Lepper said during the tour that there is no indication of any warfare during the peak of the Hopewell tradition, and that all work on the earthworks was done voluntarily. Even more, Lepper said he believes that it was most likely a privilege to work on the projects, and that there may have been healthy competition between groups of people to see who could build the best earthworks.
This all means that a very large group of people scattered far and wide developed bonds that allowed them to live in peace and prosperity for many generations.
At the end of every tour at the Newark Earthworks, the question inevitably comes up – what happened to the Hopewell? And Lepper’s answer is, “We don’t know.”
Lepper and others at Ohio History Connection speculate that war was their downfall. It may have been due to colder climate conditions driving away game animals, or the introduction of the bow and arrow placing a strain on the local food supply. Scarcity of food then may have led to warfare. But, again, there’s only speculation and no way of knowing.
Whatever the case, the Hopewell way of life eventually faded away. It was not discovered again until the mid-19th century, and it’s only now coming into clearer focus.
Reading about the Hopewell is endlessly fascinating, especially the two academic papers mentioned in this article, which are available online and free to access, and the Ancient Ohio Trail website at ancientohiotrail.org. But there’s no better way to get to know the Hopewell than by visiting their earthworks.
Three of the best ways to see them is to attend one of the tours in Newark and to visit the Hopewell Culture National Historical Park in Chillicothe and Fort Ancient Archaeological Park in Oregonia.
Tours in Newark take place several times each year (see HERE for details). Tours last 45 minutes and depart at noon, 1 p.m., 2:30 p.m. and 3:15 p.m. Along with guided tours, the National Park Service has a variety of booths set up at the event, as well as a series of mini-lectures that address a variety of interesting topics, including World Heritage inscription. Booths display artifacts and free literature and also contain activities for children and adults. The entire event is free and the tour is very eye-opening.
Along with tours of the Octagon, visitors can also explore the Great Circle in Newark, where a small but power-packed museum offers more information and also has experts on-hand during tours to answer questions from the public.
Hopewell Culture National Historical Park
As a national park, Hopewell Culture National Historical Park (imagined above) is open daily from 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. and is free to visit. The museum at the park is very impressive and contains a wealth of information and well-designed displays, including dioramas that show what life may have been like for the Hopewell.
Along with the museum and self-guided tours of Mound City, the national park is near several other Hopewell mound sites, including Seip Mound, High Bank Works, Hopeton Earthworks (which is in the early stages of re-development), and the Hopewell Mound Group. Each is free to visit.
The closest Hopewell site for people living in the Miami Valley, and that is up for World Heritage inscription, is Fort Ancient Archaeological Park, imagined above.
Although it was not mentioned much in this article, Fort Ancient is truly one of the most impressive earthworks on the list. It contains incredible astronomical alignments and a scale that is hard to match. It’s also a beautiful part of Ohio to visit.
Along with being able to hike along the edges of this massive hilltop structure, a very extensive museum on the property covers Hopewell life better than any other museum. There is a fee for Fort Ancient and the museum, but they are greatly worth it.
One Last Thing
In the next issue of This Local Life magazine, this series will explore Serpent Mound, which, like Newark and other Hopewell sites, contains astronomical alignments and sophisticated geometry.
What is very interesting when researching the Adena and Hopewell Mound Builders is the fact that, long before they existed, groups of archaic hunters and gatherers had already built sophisticated earthworks in North America.
For instance, 1,400 years before the Hopewell (about 3,700 years ago), a geometric earthwork that resembles a giant amphitheater, and that contains solar alignments, was built in a place called Poverty Point, Louisiana. It became a World Heritage Site in 2014 and is known as “The World’s Largest Prehistoric Solstice Marker.” One has to wonder how far the tradition goes back.
It may have been the Poverty Point tradition, as they’re now referred to, who passed along this type of knowledge to the Adena, who then passed it on to what we now refer to as the Hopewell, then the Fort Ancient, before it was finally lost to time.
Again, only speculation. But with World Heritage Inscription on the horizon, not to mention a growing interest in the Mound Builders, maybe answers are closer than ever before.
To read the second part of this story, click HERE.