An Ohio Site Was Just Declared One of the Most Important in Human History. Why Has It Been Ignored?

Alex Harsha
Alex HarshaSep 25, 2023, 7:11 AM
An Ohio Site Was Just Declared One of the Most Important in Human History. Why Has It Been Ignored?

Dr. Bret Ruby is a National Park Service archaeologist who drives a ruby-red Camaro with the license plate DR BRET. He is notably passionate about his work, which is why I felt a little guilty on a recent Ohio morning as he enthusiastically showed me around a historic monument that did not, honestly, look like all that much to me. We stood on a hill overlooking the Hopeton Earthworks near Chillicothe, Ohio, south of Columbus. Nearly 2,000 years ago, Native Americans built 800,000-square-foot geometric shapes in this meadow, an enormous circle and square aligning with the movements of the sun and the moon.

That is, obviously, very impressive. The problem was what had happened since then: centuries of erosion, followed by more centuries of farming and plowing, which meant that even from above, it took me a long time to see the square and circle down in that field. It mostly looked like a scrubby field with a gravel plant on the other side. Eventually I picked out a few straight lines of dark grass, a gradual curve at the far end of the meadow.

As we ambled down the hill, Ruby pointed out a swell in the landscape. “That hump there is the earthwork wall. That’s melted out from plowing. These walls were once 12 feet tall.” I nodded in admiration, and I did admire these walls, in theory. In the distance, a staffer drove a tractor; the NPS engages in “interpretive mowing,” Ruby said, using differing lengths of grass and a mix of native plants to distinguish the earthworks for visitors.

There was one visitor. She was walking her dog. This was supposed to be the United States’ newest UNESCO World Heritage Site?

The Grand Canyon. The Great Pyramids. Versailles. If you’re an avid traveler, you’ve certainly marveled at a World Heritage Site, one of more than a thousand places on Earth designated for recognition and protection by UNESCO, a special agency of the United Nations focusing on education, science, and culture. The agency started designating certain locations of outstanding natural beauty or cultural importance as World Heritage Sites in 1978. These days tourists flock to UNESCO World Heritage Sites, and the international community protests when one is endangered by conflict or extremism. They represent the pinnacles of natural beauty and human achievement on Earth, the modern-day Wonders of the World.

This month, in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, UNESCO’s World Heritage Committee considered 53 new sites for the list. Among the most curious submissions was the United States’ proposal: a group of eight sites in southern Ohio featuring earthen mounds and walls, collectively called the Hopewell Ceremonial Earthworks. For nearly two decades, a mostly volunteer group of dedicated archaeologists, historians, and Native American tribal officials has been patiently making the case that these mysterious, not particularly photogenic piles of dirt are as culturally and historically significant as Stonehenge or the Colosseum. They’ve battled local opposition and national obscurity, and in some ways, the sites themselves, which are sprawling, sometimes heavily forested, and at several locations, plowed over by centuries of farmers. One is across the street from a federal prison. Another has been turned into a golf course.

Though I’d visited dozens of World Heritage Sites in my life, I had no idea how a place actually lands on the list. If I’d thought about it, I suppose I assumed some experts in Geneva or wherever just handed the designations out willy-nilly. In fact, the road to being inscribed on the list of World Heritage Sites is arduous, requiring policy expertise, passion, and delicate international politicking. The rewards are substantial: One study cited by the Ohio History Connection, a nonprofit focused on the state’s history and an owner of some of the sites, estimates that by simply being added to the list, the average location sees its tourists immediately double. The honor generates enormous publicity, increases fundraising opportunities, and cements long-term obligations to protect and preserve a site. And becoming a World Heritage Site also confirms a kind of intangible importance: This place—like Yellowstone, Taos Pueblo, or the Statue of Liberty—matters.

The National Park Service uses “interpretive mowing” at Hopeton Earthworks and other sites to help visitors see what was once there. John Hancock, courtesy of the Ohio History Connection

So how do these earthworks fit into this tradition? I had trouble seeing it, literally. The prehistoric walls were both too subtle and too grand for my eye to comprehend. “A lot of people turn around in the parking lot” at Hopeton and other unphotogenic sites in southern Ohio, Ruby said. “They feel like there’s nothing here.” What lies beneath the plowed ground, the hidden evidence of habitation and miraculous invention, is just as important as what lies above, he said, but it’s still a challenging experience for a visitor who comes expecting great vistas or breathtaking monumental architecture. “This isn’t the easiest World Heritage Site you’re ever gonna visit,” Ruby said, looking out over the meadow. “We need to prepare the visitor for what they need to invest.”

It was just a few days before the World Heritage Committee would make its final decision. I had come to Ohio to learn how these humble fields in the Midwest had come this close to joining this list of the world’s great wonders. The Hopewell Ceremonial Earthworks don’t reveal themselves to you right away. When they do, the human history they chronicle—why they’re here, and what they were for—can be overwhelming.

The journey to this honor started about 2,000 years ago, when Native people began building the earthworks that now dot southern Ohio. Since the early 19th century, white settlers have marveled at them, misinterpreted them, destroyed them, rebuilt them, studied them, and—in recent years—made the case for their historical importance. But the quest began in earnest when a Native American chief got in an argument with a golfer.

Glenna Wallace was a professor and college administrator when she was elected chief of the Eastern Shawnee Tribe of Oklahoma in 2006. The ancestors of the Shawnee are believed to have lived in Ohio for generations before the United States pushed them out under the 1830 Indian Removal Act. “We left in 1832,” she told me. “Our ancestors walked or rode a horse the entire 700, 800 miles to Indian Territory in Oklahoma.” That’s where the tribe is still based.

A year after Wallace’s election, she visited Ohio State University to hear a talk by the author of a book on the Shawnee warrior and resister Tecumseh. The next day, she drove about 45 minutes east of Columbus, with the author and others, for a scheduled visit to Native American earthworks in the town of Newark, Ohio. To her surprise—she’d never heard of the Newark Earthworks—they were enormous. To her dismay, a substantial part of the ancient structures was located on a golf course owned by a local country club.

“There was a golf tournament happening that Saturday,” Wallace told me. As her group made its way toward the small observation platform that overlooks the course and earthworks, they got into an altercation with a group of golfers on carts. “They said, ‘You need to step back, you need to come back another day,’ ” Wallace recalled. “They actually said, ‘You don’t belong here.’ ”

When she made it onto the wooden platform, she said, she was overwhelmed with admiration for the ancestors who had made these monumental geometric shapes. She watched as golfers teed off from atop  ancient mounds and drove their carts over the earthen walls. She told me, “The longer I stood there, the sadder I became, because of how they were being used—abused. There was no knowledge. No reverence.”

Wallace learned that the country club leased the land from Ohio History Connection, the nonprofit that had owned the site since the 1930s. Though the organization capably managed other Ohio earthworks—like the nearby Newark Great Circle—she simply couldn’t understand how it was possible that someone had agreed to let a golf course live atop a millennia-old ceremonial structure. Ohio no longer has any recognized tribes within its borders, and Wallace felt a responsibility to do something. “I left there crying that day,” she told me. “I left saying, I don’t know what I can do, but someone has to speak against this travesty.”

A grassroots effort was already underway to advocate for the inclusion of various Ohio earthworks on the UNESCO list, led by academics and archaeologists who’d been researching and interpreting the sites for years. In 2008, the “Hopewell Ceremonial Earthworks,” comprising eight locations, were added to the United States’ list of tentative World Heritage Sites—an ever-evolving collection of places the National Park Service, which manages the country’s World Heritage nominations, is actively considering for submission. (Currently the list includes Central Park, Alabama Civil Rights Movement sites, and Okefenokee Swamp.)

“That was the first big moment,” said John Hancock, a professor emeritus at the University of Cincinnati who’s long studied the earthworks. “A group of folks started meeting regularly to figure out: How are we going to make this happen?” That group was soon joined by Chief Wallace, who was eager to assist the effort.

For the next 10 years or so, the team—all volunteering their time—began to make the case, as Wallace said, that “the work, devotion, genius that went into” the Ohio earthworks “was comparable to any World Heritage Site.” They made the case locally, to residents who may have visited the parks as children but didn’t necessarily think of them as cultural treasures. “People only sort of understood what we had,” said Luke Feeney, mayor of Chillicothe, the Ohio city nearest four of the eight sites. “It’s a real common summertime excursion, but on par with the pyramids?” They made the case internationally, presenting at conferences and flying in international experts in archaeology to visit the sites and advise them on their chances. Chief Wallace spoke countless times, to groups large and small, telling the story of the earthworks and the responsibility she felt for protecting them.

Most importantly, they made the case to the National Park Service staff who would decide whether to submit the Hopewell sites as the country’s official nomination. Every nation in UNESCO’s World Heritage convention may submit one site per year, though many nominate less frequently because the requirements are stringent and the proceedings slow. In the United States, the NPS’s Office of International Affairs oversees the process. Most recently, the U.S. nominated a number of Frank Lloyd Wright buildings, including Fallingwater and the Guggenheim Museum. That submission was rocky; the World Heritage committee referred it for revision in 2016, deeming it not yet ready. Only after four years of additional work were the Wright houses added to the list in 2020.

To get the NPS to advance your site off the tentative list, Hancock said, “you just have to muster your own energy and will to move up to the next level.” In practice, this means a lot of fundraising, networking, and politicking. As federal officials noticed the efforts of the Hopewell team, they flew out for their own visit. “Just like everyone else,” Hancock said, laughing, “they said, ‘We had no idea!’ ”

In the end, “this was a really easy decision to make,” said Phyllis Ellin, a longtime NPS historian who is something of a World Heritage guru, having now worked on six U.S. submissions. “Unlike a lot of places that get proposed for World Heritage these days, it’s not a convoluted argument to explain why it’s globally significant. The only downside is that it’s just not very well known to the general public.”

In 2018, the National Park Service made its pick official. Hopewell would be the next U.S. submission for the UNESCO World Heritage List. Ohio History Connection had by this point hired a full-time World Heritage director, Jen Aultman, an archaeologist who’d previously worked at Monticello, itself a World Heritage Site. “They just needed someone to think about it all day long,” Aultman told me. She took charge of the process, coordinated with the National Park Service and tribal partners, and oversaw fundraising. (In total, the OHC says they raised, and spent, about $1 million for World Heritage efforts.) Now the group had to figure out how to explain to a convention of diplomats 7,000 miles away what the Hopewell Ceremonial Earthworks are, and why they matter.

“Two thousand years ago,” said Bret Ruby, extending his arms out wide, “this was the spiritual capital of eastern North America.” Before us spread a vast square lawn the size of 10 football fields, late-summer green, dotted with dozens of gentle, rounded hillocks. The complex was enclosed in a low earthen wall about 4 feet high. “This place was known far and wide,” Ruby continued. “It was known from up in Lake Superior down to the Gulf Coast, the Atlantic seaboard to the Rocky Mountains. People were visiting this place, and visionaries from Ohio were going out, beyond the horizon of their world.”

We were at Mound City, across the Scioto River from Hopeton Earthworks. Each mound we saw here, Ruby explained, represented the location of a wooden building where ceremonies once were conducted. Each building held a clay altar in which human remains were burned, along with handicrafts and materials from across what is now the eastern United States—copper from the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, shark teeth from the coast, clay pipes in the shapes of birds. From roughly A.D. 1 to A.D. 400, such buildings sprang up in this square enclosure, were used for some period of time, then decommissioned and covered in layers of clay and earth.

An NPS archaeologist speaks animatedly near a pronounced, almost conical mound.

Bret Ruby at Mound City. Dan Kois

I retained dim memories of childhood field trips to—as it’s still named—Indian Mound Park in Sheboygan, Wisconsin, inevitably underwhelming to an inattentive fourth-grader. This was different: a concatenation of mounds on a pristine lawn, and a compelling story about why they were here. It’s the story of a religious phenomenon that seems to have swept across North America in the early part of the first millennium, focused on the movements of the sun and moon across the sky, the ceremonial burning of bodies and materials, and the construction of these mounds. All across America, subsistence hunter-gatherers who were living in tiny hamlets or family groups—people speaking different languages, eating different foods, wearing different clothes—nonetheless came together to celebrate or commemorate in places like this. “We’re seeing it now like a church that’s been closed up,” said Ruby, standing before the largest of the mounds, over 17 feet tall. “If you’d have been here 2,000 years ago when this place was in use, you’d see smoke and fire and drums. On these festival days, probably marked by solstices or once-a-generation lunar events, people from Florida and the Tennessee Valley and Michigan are coming here. They’re all tracking that same schedule, and they know that, say, 15 years from now, we’re gonna be in southern Ohio, because that’s where it’s at.”

The ceremonies at Mound City and all over southern Ohio, Ruby said, were likely related to beliefs about the journey to the afterlife. “I don’t want to make it sound like it’s all guesswork, but some of it is guesswork,” he said. “But what is religion? It’s trying to make sense of life on this Earth, and what comes next. So what we’re guessing is based on what we do know about historic Indian peoples. Essentially every tribe in eastern North America, from the woodlands to the plains, believed in an afterlife, that souls lived on. You gotta think that’s an ancient belief.” He pointed to the sky, to the ground, to the mounds around us. “There may have been certain places that were portals into that afterlife, and Mound City was one of those places.”

The Hopewell religion (the name comes from a farm where, in the 19th century, earthworks were found) apparently died out in the fifth century; people continued living in the area, but they stopped building these structures and erecting these mounds. As white people spread across Ohio in the 18th and 19th centuries, they encountered these well-preserved earthworks with wonder, confusion, and, often, disrespect. Many mounds were plowed or paved over; other earthworks exist only in fragments. Many small-town Ohioans know about the local mounds out in the woods, next to a school, or just sitting in someone’s yard.

Ohio’s Native population was being dispossessed and expelled, and part of the story that made that possible was that these earthwork ruins were “abandoned.” In fact, Ruby said, the archaeological record suggests that Native Americans continued to revere and use these sites in various ways right up until European contact. “But when white folks were coming in, it was awfully convenient to say, ‘It’s a wilderness!’ ” he said. Here at Mound City, the federal government built a military training camp during World War I: 60,000 soldiers living in barracks, with a railroad cut through the exterior wall. (Much of the surrounding area is still federal land, as seen in the prison and the Veterans Affairs hospital located across the street.) Most of the mounds were damaged or destroyed; the Ohio Historical Society, as it was then known, excavated what remained and then rebuilt them all in the 1920s.

So dogged was white determination not to acknowledge the creators of these sites that through the 1800s, a popular theory spread among archaeologists that the earthworks were simply too big and too complicated to have been built by Native Americans. After all, as Ruby put it sarcastically, “a savage, barbarian Indian could never build a place like this.” It had to be someone else, a completely different race, the Moundbuilders—a term once in common use, now something of a dirty word among archaeologists. Maybe they were Phoenicians, maybe they were giants, maybe they were the lost tribes of Israel. This notion was discredited in the late 19th century, but you’ll still find some cranks and weirdos who push it today, like “renegade scholar” Randall Carlson, seen earlier this year on Tucker Carlson’s show. “Oh yeah,” Tucker agreed during his appearance. “There’s skeletal evidence of people who bear no genetic resemblance to the current Indians.” (There is not.)

“Look,” Ruby said, “there’s a whole history of archaeology and Native Americans not seeing eye to eye, because we’ve been digging these places up.” Earlier this year, the small museum at Mound City closed to the public as the NPS pledged to work with tribal partners to figure out how to display the artifacts found at Hopewell sites, or whether to display them at all. It’s part of a transformed relationship between the agencies who manage these sites, like the NPS and Ohio History Connection, and the tribes who’ve taken an interest in the ancient Hopewell culture of their ancestors—a transformation that has come about, in large part, thanks to this World Heritage application. Ruby is quick to credit Chief Wallace in particular: “She was the agent of change,” he said. “She made a lot of things happen.”

In interviews, Jen Aultman and Chief Wallace agreed that the relationship between tribes and local historical institutions has improved enormously. “That’s one of the best things to come out of the World Heritage effort, this reconnection to the tribes,” Aultman said. “They were forced out, leaving this vacuum of explanation” for the earthworks. “All their cultural knowledge was lost. So now they’re in a reclaiming and relearning process.” Chief Wallace has brought busloads of her tribe members out from Oklahoma to visit the earthworks. “Ohio History Connection has transformed,” she said. “We are tremendously indebted to them today.”

The morning clouds were blowing away and the sun dappled the oddly perfect mounds of Mound City. Everyone I’d spoken to about the Ohio earthworks had talked about the feeling of reflective peace they found in contemplating these sites. I was still searching for that. But I was starting to understand this long-ago culture of men and women who, despite struggling every day to survive, invented rituals to help them tell the story of their own lives, and the world beyond.

A map shows the interrelated sites and their positions in modern-day Ohio.
Photo illustration by Slate. Image by Mlyons/iStock/Getty Images Plus.

“It’s not an Instagram-friendly place,” said Phyllis Ellin, the NPS historian. Unlike, say, Stonehenge, “you can’t just take one photograph and have people look at it and say, ‘Wow, that’s really cool.’ ” The team tasked with assembling the dossier for Hopewell’s World Heritage nomination would have to bring it to life.

Under Ellin’s supervision—“Coach Phyllis,” Hancock calls her—the group began the multiyear project of writing and assembling the nomination dossier. Once upon a time, such documents were 20-page typewritten essays from a historian, but by the 2000s, nations submitted elaborately designed products featuring hundreds of pages of detailed explanations as well as glossy photographs—part coffee-table book, part bureaucratic report.

Consultants and designers were hired. Sections were divvied up among team members. One challenge was making it clear what was unique about the people who created the Hopewell earthworks, even among builders of other monumental structures in prehistory. Hopewell falls chronologically between two other sets of Native American earthworks already inscribed on the World Heritage List: Poverty Point in Louisiana, built between three and four thousand years ago, and Cahokia in Illinois, built around a thousand years ago. (Another Ohio earthwork, Serpent Mound, is on the NPS’ tentative list, but is generally believed not to stem from the same time period as the Hopewell sites.) Unlike many such monuments worldwide, the Hopewell earthworks were built cooperatively, without the impetus of a central ruler. No pharaoh made Hopewell believers construct these mounds; indeed, they didn’t even live together or speak the same language. That’s fairly unusual in human history.

And while many ancient monuments were built to mark the movements of the sun—aligning with the summer solstice, for example—the Hopewell earthworks are unique in aligning to the movements of the moon, which occur on a much longer, difficult-to-track timeline. Indeed, those movements repeat only every 18 years, and so to be able to mark the outer limits of moonrise and moonset over time, these people must have been paying close attention to the movements of the moon over decades, or even centuries.

“Alignments are kind of funny in archaeoastronomy,” Ruby said. “It can be hard to prove, because there’s lots of targets, and lots of gateways.” Indeed, two researchers came to the earthworks in the 1970s eager to disprove the notion that Native builders could have aligned their ceremonial centers with celestial cycles. To their surprise, Ray Hively and Bob Horn found zero solar alignments at the Newark Octagon—a statistical improbability, given the number of gates in the structure. But what about the moon? The researchers discovered that lines drawn through opposite gates of the Newark Octagon intersected with “lunar standstills,” the points on the horizon where the moon made its most extreme rises and sets. Then they found those exact same alignments at Hopeton, built on a 90-degree angle to Newark, 60 miles away. “They start out trying to disprove the idea that ancient people knew about the sky,” said Brad Lepper, an archaeologist with Ohio History Connection, “and end up with the most convincing case that the moon was observed and encoded into this architecture.”

“The people who built those earthworks, they had to be extremely knowledgeable in mathematics, in astronomy,” Chief Wallace said. “They needed to connect the lunar alignments that come together every 18.6 years, and pass these down from century to century.”

Over several years, sitting in their homes and offices during the pandemic, Wallace, Lepper, Ruby, Hancock, Aultman, and many others wrote and revised the nomination dossier, using countless diagrams, historical maps, and photographs to make the case for the sites’ authenticity and integrity. “If a Greek temple is in ruins, you can see it, and it’s still pretty interesting,” Hancock told me. But many of the Hopewell sites were flat, or covered in forest, or simply too large in scale to be capturable. “We had to come up with a way of describing the integrity of the sites through a combination of the architecture you can see and the archaeological material you can’t see.”

And the dossier had to elegantly sidestep a few stumbling blocks. “Phyllis knew exactly what to say about the sites and what not to say,” Hancock said. “You use nuanced language all through the book, to describe things in a way that’s clear and accurate but avoids unnecessary questions.” For example, he noted, “You don’t really have to mention the prisons.” Instead, he said, they pointed out that “Mound City sits on federal land, and it’s now surrounded by maturing forest that provides a wonderful sense of peace and isolation.”

Another thing the dossier had to discuss with care: the golf course. “That was very sensitive,” Hancock said. “There’s just a couple of very short phrases in there. Basically, ‘When golfing ends, we will have a management plan in place.’ Phyllis told us not to ever say much more than that.”

Moundbuilders Country Club in Newark was bustling on a Wednesday afternoon. As we pulled into one of the parking spaces allotted for public visitors to the Octagon Earthworks, Brad Lepper eyed a golfer who parked a sports car next to his. “Just keeping an eye on him,” he said.

Lepper’s an archaeologist who’s worked just two miles down the road, at Newark’s Great Circle, for 37 years. Though Ohio History Connection owns both the Great Circle and the Octagon Earthworks, Lepper doesn’t do much work at the latter, because the country club, per the details of its lease with the OHC, only allows public tours of the course four days a year. The rest of the time, visitors can observe from the small platform or walk a short path around the outside of the wall.

Was Lepper worried the guy would key his car? “Nothing like that’s happened yet,” he said. But there’s tension. “I have neighbors who are members of this country club. We just don’t talk about it.”

A golf course sand trap lies just inside the earthen wall of the historic site.

A green, a sand trap, and several walls of the octagon at the Octagon Earthworks, which is also the Moundbuilders Country Club. Dan Kois

The tension arises from the Ohio History Connection’s legal efforts to reclaim the 113-year-old country club through eminent domain. What makes things even messier is that, as recently as 1997, the OHC renewed a lease with the club, granting them the rights to the land until 2078. “We tried, for a decade or so, to negotiate a buyout,” Aultman said. “That just wasn’t going anywhere. So eminent domain became the only viable path forward.” A local court ruled against the country club, and in December, the Ohio Supreme Court affirmed that decision.

No golfers challenged us as we walked to the observation platform, unlike when Glenna Wallace was here. (Lepper retells that story shaking with rage: “ ‘You don’t belong here’? Holy shit, she’s the only one who does belong here!”) On this beautiful afternoon a high school golf team was playing a tournament on the course, and shouts of delight echoed from the Olympic-sized swimming pool. The course is enclosed by ancient earthen walls and built literally atop the mounds, in a manner that creates an intriguing topographical challenge for the golfer but is also notably blasphemous.

At a hearing in October, a jury will determine what the OHC will have to pay the country club to break the lease—a number that should fall between the country club’s valuation of the cost of moving, which they put around $20 million, and the OHC’s offer, which is smaller than that by about a factor of 10. David Kratoville, president of the club’s board of trustees, told me that the OHC has simply never offered enough money to allow the club to rebuild a comparable facility elsewhere in the county. The best offer they’ve received, he said, “would cover our debt and leave us a little money to pay out severance to our employees, and that’s it.”

“Look, we don’t like what’s happening,” Kratoville said. “But we certainly are appreciative of these properties being granted World Heritage status. That’s something for the people of Ohio to be proud of. We simply want to be paid enough money to exist somewhere else.”

The timing of the eminent domain campaign certainly helped the Ohio History Connection make the case that this part of the site will soon return to a more respectful state of preservation. But suddenly reclaiming a golf-course-sized monument, one with sand traps, a sprinkler system, and a large neo-Georgian clubhouse, is a logistical and financial challenge—and that’s leaving aside whatever surely substantial payout a local jury awards to the country club. “There’s a lot of assessment to do,” Aultman said, as we walked along the wall of the Octagon, golf carts passing us on the path. It was the day before she and Lepper would fly to Saudi Arabia. “There will be a lot of consultation with tribal partners, who absolutely have to be part of planning what this should look like. But the main thing is increasing public access as quickly as we can.”

In the long run, she said, there’s a great potential for fundraising for the project, and when the OHC’s budget comes up again in the state Legislature, she knows the case she wants to make. And being declared a World Heritage Site, of course, helps make that case even more strongly. “But we’re not gonna turn it around in a week and make it so that there’s no sign there was a golf course here.”

“Maybe two weeks,” Lepper said behind us.

Jen laughed, diplomatically. “Brad’s more impatient about this.”

Brad laughed, undiplomatically. “Gimme a bulldozer,” he said.

On New Year’s Eve 2021, Aultman overnighted the 332-page dossier from Columbus to an NPS official’s house outside Washington, D.C. After a handoff in a parking lot, a State Department representative flew the dossier to Paris and delivered it to UNESCO. An archaeologist from the International Council on Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS), the international body that evaluates World Heritage submissions, visited all eight of the sites in the fall of 2022. Then everyone had to wait.

As the journey to Saudi Arabia neared, everyone was a bit anxious. Chief Glenna Wallace told me she was feeling intimidated. “I don’t want to do anything that would be offensive to their culture, and I don’t know their culture. I keep hearing conflicting things—that in the last five years it’s changed enormously, but that also I should wear black the whole time. I’m not a person who owns a lot of black.”

I asked if she knew what she was going to say to the UNESCO World Heritage committee when, as everyone hoped, inscription was ratified. “I’ll probably write a speech on the airplane,” she said. There’s growing awareness in her tribe of what World Heritage designation would mean, and what obligations it would create among her people. “We don’t have the right to say ‘You’re not doing this correctly’ if we’re not willing to donate our time and our knowledge to help.”

“I feel a tremendous responsibility,” she added. “I want people to know the tribes are still in existence, still striving to keep our language and culture. We’re here. We’re alive. Part of our heart will always be in Ohio.”

“The scale is ginormous,” Brad Lepper told me as we entered the Great Circle. “The Roman Colosseum, you could fit four of those inside here.” He gestured around us at the grand ceremonial earthwork in Newark, the best-preserved of the sites. At the center of the Great Circle is Eagle Mound, once the site of a large ceremonial longhouse. “Archaeologists get made fun of sometimes,” Lepper said. “They say if we don’t know what it is, we call it ‘ceremonial.’ ”

“There’s a nugget of truth there,” Jen Aultman interjected.

“But this is ceremonial,” he said. “It’s religion. It’s bringing the cosmic rhythms down to Earth.”

Each earthwork in Ohio is an archaeological marvel on its own. But the more of them you see, the more they tell a story of interconnected peoples across enormous distances making meaning for their lives. Driving an hour and a half from Chillicothe to Newark, and then walking into this circle, which clearly relates to the mounds and circles I explored 60 miles away, revealed these sites as a complex network, constructed thousands of years ago as a way for people to connect and communicate across great distances.

The earthworks at Newark, Lepper believes, represent the culmination of the Hopewell religious tradition—the lessons learned in creating all those other sites, brought to bear on one intricate, interconnected last hurrah. A smaller circle nearby has the precise diameter—1,054 feet—of the circle at Hopeton, as if the people kept a ceremonial rope and used it to mark off the distance before construction. Long, walled roadways connected the Great Circle and the nearby Octagon to each other, and to three nearby rivers—rivers that, miles away, flow into the Ohio, at the sites of other mound complexes. “It’s a coherent design that includes all the elements of earlier sites,” Lepper said, “built so this ceremonial machine can operate.”

A woman and a man stand next to a swell of earth on a sunny day.

Jen Aultman, left, and Brad Lepper in the Great Circle. Dan Kois

The Great Circle remains mostly undamaged, because it is so monumental that even 19th-century settlers recognized its value. In their own way, to be sure: The circle’s interior served as the Licking County fairgrounds, complete with a switchback railroad and horse racing track. After the Civil War, a grand reunion of Union soldiers met here, with as many as 30,000 people listening to orations delivered by President Rutherford B. Hayes from right next to Eagle Mound.

Maybe it was that I was finally starting to understand just how unlikely these earthworks’ existence, and persistence, truly is. Or maybe it was simply that the Great Circle’s 14-foot walls more closely resemble the spectacular sights I still associate with the great monuments of the world. But it was in the Great Circle that I started to feel the sense of openness and peace that everyone who is associated with the earthworks talks about. You are enclosed, but at a great distance, and the breeze seems to come from some other place. You are tiny, insignificant, within the circle, yet you are also at its center.

“Did it make any sense, in the Middle Ages, to devote all those resources to cathedral-building?” Jen Aultman said. “Of course not. But they did it, just like these people made this. They had to do it, to be the people they were.”

And, after all, what do we make, to be the people we are? I flew out of Columbus that evening, and from above, the homes and neighborhoods and parking lots were perfect circles and squares within the woodland. Subdivisions spiraled into themselves; long straight roads cut into the forest, obscured by the long shadows of sunset. A setting crescent moon peeked over the western horizon. As we rose higher, the scale of the human marks upon the Earth became more apparent, all the things we’ve built to keep us anchored to this place, just as we have done since before there was history.

The 45th meeting of the UNESCO World Heritage Committee was delayed a year, because last year it was supposed to happen in Russia, and a number of nations objected after the invasion of Ukraine. This year it is taking place in Saudi Arabia, a less objectionable nation, I guess. (No one would say much on the record about their feelings about Saudi Arabia.) There were other diplomatic dances to perform: The United States announced a withdrawal from UNESCO in 2017, along with Israel, after longtime claims UNESCO was biased against the Jewish state, and in fact had stopped paying dues to the World Heritage Fund years before that. “It didn’t look good to be making nominations when we weren’t making those payments,” Phyllis Ellin said. The U.S. rejoined UNESCO in July, and is now, Ellin says, making plans to pay those dues in arrears.

Chief Glenna Wallace sits behind a sign reading

Chief Glenna Wallace speaks at the UNESCO World Heritage Committee meeting on Sept. 19, 2023. Ohio History Commission

Because of the Russia cancellation, there was an enormous backlog of sites to consider for World Heritage designation. The process during the actual committee meeting is less a debate than a series of extremely formal, carefully planned statements made by the committee chair, representatives of member states, and ICOMOS researchers. Everyone does a lot of thanking the distinguished delegate for this and that. Emotion still somehow breaks through: The mayor of Nîmes, France, wept openly as he thanked the committee for adding the city’s Maison Carrée to the list. A representative from Iran barely kept his annoyance in check as the country’s submission of the cultural landscape of Masouleh was deferred for further revision.

The American delegation was confident. In the spring, the ICOMOS report had come through: The Hopewell sites were recommended for inscription without reservation. When it happened, last Tuesday, it happened fast: At about 5:30 in the morning Ohio time, the resolution to inscribe the Hopewell Ceremonial Earthworks was passed without debate.

Now Chief Wallace took the microphone. She was not wearing black. She acknowledged the other tribal partners in Riyadh as well: the Seneca Nation, the Miami Nation, the Pokagon Band of Potawatomi, and the Wyandotte Nation. “My immediate reaction is to shout and shout with joy,” Wallace said. “But at the same time, my eyes are moist with tears, and my lips, my chin, and my voice tremble.” Behind her, the tribal representatives looked on, standing among Aultman, Lepper, Ruby, and other members of the group that spent decades on this quest. “They were not just geniuses,” she said of the ancestors who build the Hopewell earthworks. “They were uncommon geniuses.”

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    Alex Harsha
    Alex Harsha

    Alex Harsha is a full-time writer.Before becoming a full-time writer, Alex was a public school teacher. He teaches writing workshops to children and adults. Lives in Connecticut & Works on next novel.

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