Ancient Ohio Trail: Travel the web to the historic places of south-central Ohio

Published in Indian Country Today in May 2008.

A new website, ancientohiotrail.org, offers a 21st-century way to discover ancient places in the wooded hills and lush farmland of south-central Ohio: hundreds of ancient Native American earthworks ranging in age from 550 to 3,000 years old. Hidden in plain sight in cities, towns, fields, and even backyards are solitary mounds, or artificial hills, that are up to 30 feet high; animal forms sculpted into hilltops; and monumental earthen-walled complexes in the form of precisely sculpted circles, octagons, squares, and free-form shapes enclosing scores, or even hundreds, of acres.

The website provides maps, photographs, links to tourism information, a free travel brochure you can print out, and videos you can view on a computer (choose MP4 format) or download to your cellphone. The electronic Ancient Ohio Trail was put together by a consortium, including University of Cincinnati’s Center for the Electronic Reconstruction of Historical and Archaeological Sites (CERHAS), Ohio State University’s Newark Earthworks Center, and Ohio Historical Society. The elegantly designed, easy-to-use website is itself worth a visit; junior-high and high-school teachers will find it an attractive, informative, respectfully written classroom tool.

It’s important to get information about these sites to the public, according to Carol Welsh, Sisseton-Wahpeton Oyate, executive director of Native American Indian Center of Central Ohio (NAICCO), an intertribal nonprofit. “Native people can take pride in them, and they show non-Native people the richness and complexity of our heritage,” she says. She and her husband, Mark Welsh, Ihanktonwan Dakota and NAICCO program director, are part of a team put together by the Newark Earthworks Center to give tours of sites in Newark, Ohio.

At once massive modifications of the landscape and masterpieces of subtlety, the grass-covered earthworks rise gently from their surroundings. Once there were many thousands; despite centuries of plowing and development, hundreds still exist. In addition to being skilled engineers, the earthworks’ builders were virtuosic astronomers. Portions of the installations, including walls and gateways, encode the movements of the sun and moon. In this way, they are comparable to Stonehenge and Chaco Canyon.

The ancient Ohioans’ imagination encompassed not just architecture and astronomy but also the adornment of their personal and ritual lives. They made shirts and dresses of hide and woven plant fibers and embroidered them with thousands of freshwater pearls and shells. They also fabricated stone statuary and pipes, copper jewelry and headdresses, trumpets and other musical instruments, pottery, and ghostly open hands made from sheets of translucent mica. Though the ancients left no written language to let us know what they called themselves or how they described their vast and varied material culture, they survive in the oral histories of contemporary Native communities.

Some of the best-known places — the Newark Earthworks, Serpent Mound, Fort Ancient, and Hopewell Culture National Historical Park/Mound City (shown above), all in south-central Ohio — are being considered for inclusion in UNESCO’s list of World Heritage Sites, where they would join the Great Wall of China, Chartres Cathedral and other notable places.            

Here’s a quick look at what you’ll find when you travel the Ancient Ohio Trail. Recent budget cuts have meant that open hours have been curtailed; before you go, be sure to check on current days and times:

Newark Earthworks: The Octagon
For 20 centuries, the Octagon has framed a view of the lunar standstill: the moment when the moon rises at the northernmost point of its orbit’s complex 18.61-year cycle. In 2006, I watched this moment with a small group organized by the Newark Earthworks Center. Surrounded by hulking walls, we faced the opening in the Octagon through which the moon would appear. Behind us was the flat-topped mound where the ancients likely stood to watch this event. Just after midnight, a brilliant white crescent soared into the velvet-black sky. It was an extraordinary experience that has, however, been clouded by contention for nearly a century. In 1910, a country club leased the site and began building a golf course on top of the earthworks. The course remains in use to this day, to the consternation of Native people, scholars, and many Newark residents. (125 North 33rd Street; Newark, Ohio 43055; 740-364-9584; earthworks@osu.edu)

Newark Earthworks: The Great Circle
Inside this immense walled enclosure, you feel far from the modern world, though you’re in the middle of a busy city. Both the Octagon and the Great Circle were once part of the world’s largest set of geometric earthworks. The grouping covered four square miles and encompassed many other forms, now mostly gone, including parallel walls that were likely ceremonial passageways. Native people tend to agree with archaeologist Bradley Lepper, who believes that one of the passages, now called the Great Hopewell Road, extended 64 miles, to connect with earthworks, now a national park, in Chillicothe. Recently archaeologist William Romaine reported that the Great Hopewell Road matches the path of the Milky Way on the summer solstice. Materials found at the Newark Earthworks — including obsidian from the Rockies, copper from the Great Lakes, mica from the Southeast, and shells and pearls from the Gulf of Mexico — imply that they were a pilgrimage destination, attracting travelers from around the continent. To this day, Native people visit the Newark Earthworks to pray and leave offerings. (455 Hebron Road, State Route 79, Heath, Ohio, 43056; 740-364-9584; earthworks@osu.edu)

Serpent Mound
This 1,330-foot-long snake is the largest effigy earthwork in the world. The 1,000-year-old serpent is subtly sculpted into the grassy hilltop, with gently rounded coils that are about 20 feet wide and one to three feet high. For a bird’s-eye view, you can climb a 35-foot viewing tower. Atop the tower, you’ll see that at the far end, the snake is opening its mouth to swallow something oval, possibly an egg, multiplying the fertility associations of the place. Descend the tower, and follow a footpath along the snake, whose head aligns with the summer-solstice sunset. Trail markers inform you that certain coils align with other celestial events. Just past the head is an overlook with views of gently rolling hills. (3580 Route 73; Peebles, Ohio 45660; 937-587-2796, ohiohistory.org)

Fort Ancient
Around 2,000 years ago, using deer shoulder blades and other tools, this place’s builders sliced the topsoil off an hourglass-shaped 125-acre bluff. With the resulting 553,000 cubic yards of dirt, they enclosed the space — one basket-load at a time over several centuries — with 18,000 feet of undulating earthen walls. The experience of traversing Fort Ancient implies renewal or rebirth. Today, as in ancient times, you enter via a gateway at the site’s north end, proceed through the northern lobe of the hourglass and cross a narrow, walled-in land bridge to arrive at the southern lobe. There the site opens up to a glorious, panoramic view of the wooded river valley below. You can explore more of the landscape on two miles of hiking and bike trails. Behind a museum and shop is a replica of an ancient home, made of mud plastered over woven saplings. (6123 State Route 350; Oregonia, Ohio 45054; 513-932-4421 or 800-283-8904, ohiohistory.org)

c. Stephanie Woodard; photo by Joseph Zummo.