A version of this article appeared in Indian Country Today in June 2012.
Deep inside the borders of what is now Ohio sits a complex of ancient earthworks so precisely aligned with the rise and set of the moon that modern surveying equipment could not do better. And this summer, lots of public events means you can enjoy and marvel as the ancients must have done.
The 2,000-year-old site in Newark, Ohio is the largest geometric earthworks complex in the world, with approximately 12-foot-high, grass-covered earthen walls outlining huge circles and other forms. Arising gently from its surroundings, the place--including the tiny portion of the 30-acre Great Circle shown at left--is both a massive modification of the landscape and a masterpiece of subtlety.
Built two millennia ago, one basket-load of dirt at a time, the biggest enclosures would swallow up several football fields; Stonehenge could be tucked into a tiny corner of one of these gigantic shapes. Newark and other Ohio earthworks--Serpent Mound, in Peebles; Fort Ancient, in Lebanon; and Hopewell Culture National Historical Park/Mound City, in Chillicothe--are being considered for UNESCO’s list of World Heritage Sites. “The Newark Earthworks are proof of our ancestors’ genius,” says Carol Welsh, Sisseton-Wahpeton Oyate and director of the Native American Indian Center of Central Ohio (NAICCO), in Columbus.
What the earthworks’ builders called themselves is not known; archaeologists refer to them as “the Hopewell culture,” after the owner of a farm where artifacts were found during the 19th century. People often assume that mounds involve burials. “This is not necessarily so,” says Welsh. “Some did, but most appear to have been places of celebration, where folks came together to pray and honor the gifts of the Earth.”
Many of the summer earthworks events are in and around the Newark site, which has been particularly well studied by mainstream and traditional scientists. In 2006, Ohio State University set up the interdisciplinary Newark Earthworks Center. Its director, history professor Richard Shiels, and program coordinator Marti Chaatsmith, Comanche/Choctaw, encourage both research on the earthworks and community outreach, especially via collaborations with Native people. Find out more at newark.osu.edu; scroll down and click on “Newark Earthworks Center.” (Shown above right is Alligator Mound, which overlooks the Octagon and Circle, a portion of which can be seen below.)
Bradley Lepper, Ohio Historical Society curator of archaeology, is a prominent authority on the Newark complex, which he has termed a “ceremonial landscape of unprecedented scope.” Community historian and Ohio Archaeology Council member Jeff Gill compares Newark’s multiple celestial alignments and immensely complicated design—melding man-made creations with natural features of the surrounding, hill-ringed river valley—to Egypt’s Valley of the Kings. Astronomer, physicist and Earlham College professor Ray Hively, who worked with Earlham colleague Robert Horn to plot the Newark site’s moonrise and moonset alignments, found that its lunar alignments precisely encode the orb’s complex cycle, with moonrises and moonsets rotating north and south over an 18.61-year cycle.
Welsh claims that shows the site celebrates female power. “The 18.61-year period is essentially a generation,” she says. “So the lunar emphasis at Newark and similar places honors women and the cycle of life.”
It’s clear the ancients were virtuosic geometers and astronomers. Lepper describes the research on their sophisticated mathematics in a 2010 paper, The Ceremonial Landscape of the Newark Earthworks and the Raccoon Creek Valley. In one of many examples Lepper provides, he notes that the circumference of one of the massive Newark circles is equal to the perimeter of a nearby square. The diameter of another circle appears to have been used as a gigantic measuring stick for laying out the site.
Further, the construction of squares and circles with equal areas solved a primordial math problem—squaring the circle—that fascinated and flummoxed mathematicians as far back as the fifth century B.C. in Ancient Greece. For millennia scholars have considered solving this problem to be so difficult that the phrase “squaring the circle” has come to mean doing the impossible.
Equally astonishing, the geometry and the lunar alignments of the Newark Earthworks appear to coordinate with those in other complexes many miles away, according to Chaatsmith. Lepper has shown that one set of parallel walls exiting the Newark site point directly to the collection of burial mounds now protected as Hopewell Culture National Historical Park, in Chillicothe, 60 miles away (shown below). The Newark walls may demark a ceremonial passage to the Chillicothe complex, says Lepper, though centuries of development and agricultural plowing have destroyed much of the evidence needed to prove that.
Additional parallel-walled pathways in Newark connected the earthworks complex to encircling rivers. If anything like today’s Eastern Woodlands cosmology was operating back then, according to Lepper (and there’s evidence that it was, he says), travelers arriving by canoe may have traversed the walled paths not just physically but also spiritually. As visitors moved from the waterways to the ceremonial site, they made a concurrent voyage through the three layers of their universe—from the “Underwater” or “Beneath World” of the rivers to the “Middle World” of ordinary life and finally to the celestial “Above World” of the ritual place.
Though many of Ohio’s earthworks and mounds have been obscured or taken to the ground by farms and towns, their energy endures. During a recent visit, a hawk—the bird revered by the ancients—surfed the thermals above a mound outside Chillicothe that had been plowed flat. The bird appeared to be guarding the site 2,000 years after its builders had walked on.
Summer in the Earthworks: 2012 Events
This summer, you can enjoy the Ohio places during earthworks-themed concerts, lectures, night-sky events, children’s programming and more throughout the verdant, mostly rural south-central part of the state. For information on Newark and other sites, including Serpent Mound and Fort Ancient, go to ancientohiotrail.org, and click on “Events.” “I love being able to share the earthworks with Native and non-Native folks,” says Carol Welsh, of NAICCO. “They reinforce the good of being Indian.”
c. Stephanie Woodard; photographs by Joseph Zummo.