Discovering Ancient Ohio

While the Caesars were ruling Rome 2,000 years ago, a flourishing American Indian culture was building huge, intricate monuments of earth and stone across central and southern Ohio. They were pilgrimage centers for a religious movement dominating much of North America at the time. Many of these remarkable sites still stand today among the river valleys and hilltops of our region.

Archaeologists call this ancient culture “Hopewell” after a site near Chillicothe. It is one of eight being prepared for nomination to the prestigious UNESCO World Heritage List next year. That’s the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization, whose World Heritage program was inspired in the 1970s by the United States’ National Park System and now features more than 1,000 natural and cultural sites in nearly every nation on earth.

World Heritage recognition will bring new travelers to the region, with new expectations and new tourism development opportunities. You don’t need to wait, though. You can discover these ancient sacred places now.

This past spring, Ohio’s former First Lady Hope Taft joined retired Cincinnati attorney and author Buck Niehoff and a small group of friends in walking back-roads across the state to visit these earthworks. Niehoff is an experienced long-distance walker who has published memoirs of his adventures in England. The group’s Ohio goal was to find a scenic, interesting, off-the-beaten-track tourist route that could connect these ancient sacred places.

Beginning at the hilltop enclosure of Fort Ancient, in Warren County, the group followed back-roads into Ross County, where they toured the several major earthworks comprising Hopewell Culture National Historical Park. Then they headed north to Licking County, finishing at the two spectacular geometric earthworks in Newark and Heath.

The World Heritage nomination calls these sites the “Hopewell Ceremonial Earthworks” and explains how they meet stringent criteria established by UNESCO. It would join Stonehenge, the Parthenon, the Pyramids and the Great Wall of China on the prestigious list. The genius of their makers is evident in their brilliant geometrical precision, with exact shapes and dimensions used across the whole region, and in their exact alignments to solar and lunar cycles. Archaeological records also reveal the builders’ distinctive way of life, dazzling artistic skills and widespread influence and interaction across the continent.

At Fort Ancient, a series of 84 earthen walls and ponds enclose 100 acres, perched high above a narrow gorge of the Little Miami River. Three monumental gateways invited ancient pilgrims to enter for ceremonies of feasting, giant fires and observation of sunrises and moonrises.

Mound City is a gathering of two dozen burial mounds beside the Scioto River at Chillicothe. A museum displays beautiful artifacts made from precious materials brought to Ohio 2,000 years ago, many of them from far away. This site also is the headquarters of the national park, where staff can advise you on how to visit several other earthwork complexes in the area – Hopeton Earthworks, Seip Earthworks and the Hopewell Mound Group.

Newark’s Octagon and Great Circle Earthworks are the most spectacular remnants of an ancient complex that once covered more than 4 square miles. Their evident size, beauty and precision may make them the most astonishing of all the Hopewell Earthworks. And the Octagon’s geometric and astronomical properties are more precise and sophisticated than much more famous places like England’s Stonehenge.

“World Heritage inscription will bring the global recognition that these remarkable sites and their ancient builders deserve. It will be good for Ohio in so many ways,” said Taft at one of the events along their route. In fact, new World Heritage sites often attract more “cultural heritage” travelers – folks interested in spending more time and having a deeper and more authentic experience of places.

Taft, Niehoff and their group walked upwards of 160 miles, but most people coming to Ohio to see the earthworks and discover their makers will be driving. “We definitely discovered that rural Ohio is not set up for walkers, in the same way that England is, though it was still a very rewarding experience,” said Niehoff.

The committee working on World Heritage also is planning new, regional approaches to the visitor experience, emphasizing scenic routes (like the Paint Valley), historic towns (like Granville and Chillicothe) and unique local accommodations.

To focus on the World Heritage candidates, follow a route (in either direction) between Fort Ancient (northeast from Cincinnati) and Newark (east of Columbus), by way of Greenfield or Hillsboro, Bainbridge, Chillicothe, Lancaster and Tarlton. Allow at least a half-day to appreciate each of the earthworks in the series. At any of the site visitor centers, pick up a copy of the new booklet, “Guide to the Hopewell Ceremonial Earthworks,” for a well-balanced orientation, or follow the mobile version of the Ancient Ohio Trail.

Thanks to the achievements of a brilliant culture, Ohio was the “heartland of Ancient America.” Their greatest monuments survive, right here in our backyard. You don’t need to walk as Taft and Niehoff did; you can drive. And you don’t need to wait for World Heritage; you can experience these astonishing, world-class monuments now.

Visit the National Parks Service site for more information about these ancient earthworks.

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