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Ohio Mounds Top USA's UNESCO World Heritage Site Bid

Fort Ancient features mounds and embankment walls winding across a 126-acre plateau above the Little Miami River in Warren County. [Tana Weingartner / WVXU]
Fort Ancient features mounds and embankment walls winding across a 126-acre plateau above the Little Miami River in Warren County.

A recent effort to preservea historic Native American earthwork in Butler Countypoints to a broader effort to recognize and honor Ohio's early mound builders. Eight ancient earthworks sites dating to the Hopewell era comprise the United States' first Ohio-centric bid for UNESCO World Heritage Site status.

On an overcast November morning, elementary school students learn about early Native American civilizations and games at Fort Ancient State Memorial in Warren County. They're quick to raise their hands and shout answers to questions posed by Fort Ancient Program and Volunteer Manager Pam Hall.

"Fort Ancient is the largest hilltop enclosure in all of North America," she explains to a chorus of "oohs" and "wows."

Students are equally impressed when Hall tells them the site and others like it could soon be voted World Heritage Sites, declaring them "outstanding works of human genius."

Atlatl spear throwing is a big hit with elementary school children who visit Fort Ancient on field trips. [Tana Weingartner / WVXU]

"There is no other place in the world that has this dense (of) a concentration of large scale earthworks, especially geometric earthworks," says Ohio History Connection's World Heritage Director Jennifer Aultman.

Collectively referred to as the "Hopewell Ceremonial Earthworks," the bid is on the U.S. Tentative List and is considered the country's most ready site for nomination.

"It's a very long lead time on these," Aultman points out. "Right now, 2023 is a likely target. You want it to be good. You want to submit the best nomination you can."

Aultman concedes 2023 sounds far away, especially for a bid that first joined the tentative list in 2008, but she points out the final bid needs to be complete at least two years in advance of the UNESCO vote in order to give all voting members time to review it and make site visits.

The locations are:

The eight sites in the bid were selected because, Aultman says, "they meet that bar of being internationally significant. They're the largest, best preserved, have the most integrity to them, can demonstrate that they're authentically from this era that archeologists call the Hopewell culture, which is from about 1,500 to 2,000 years ago."

John N. Low is an associate professor in comparative studies at the Ohio State University - Newark where, as a citizen of the Pokagen Band of Potawatomi Indians, he also serves as director of the Newark Earthworks Center.

He points out that what is now Ohio was the epicenter of Hopewellian culture lifeways, and it's impressive that these sites are so well preserved, standing as monuments to the world about the artistry, ingenuity and sophistication of those who created these legacies.

"As an indigenous person, I look at this as not just a legacy or an inheritance for indigenous peoples, for native peoples, but for all peoples. This is a site celebrating the wonder of humanity," Low says.

When it comes to what the mounds were used for and why they were important to early civilizations is a matter of speculation and conjecture based on studying artifacts. There's a sense they may have been sacred, Low says, but that could be modern people placing our current sensibilities onto them. Though, "since native peoples seem to be holistically pretty spiritual about everything they do, these were probably spiritual or sacred sites."

Low says he senses that the sites are sacred and says he's seen elders from his tribe (based in Michigan) and others visit the sites and sense that as well.

Archeologists believe certain mounds were placed to precisely line up with the sun on important days like the summer and winter solstice. [Tana Weingartner / WVXU]

The science behind the mounds is also illuminating; the precision with which they were built to align with various phases of the year.

Honoring that work is important. Low says a lot of effort has gone into creating the UNESCO World Heritage Site application.

"I think it is perhaps reminiscent of the way these sites were built in the first place because what I love about Hopewellian sites is that these were very egalitarian societies. They weren't stratified, they weren't rulers with a priestly class, then a military class, then the rest of us doing the grunt work. These were egalitarian societies where people could see themselves as basically equal and nobody was coerced into doing something. They had to be convinced to do something.

"These sites were built with the most sacred materials available to them: earth. Not rock, not limestone, not marble, not gold, the most sacred material to native people was earth ... and they collaborated together to get it done and it took quite a while to get it done, and they continued to be doing it for quite a while. I just think that deserves to be acknowledged."

The bid faces several complications. For starters, the U.S. withdrew from UNESCOin 2019 and therefore is not currently a voting member. Also, the fact that one of the earthworks, an octagonal mound at the Newark Earthworks, sits within the bounds of a golf and country club could lead to questions of integrity.

What About Serpent Mound?

One of the most well-known earthworks in Ohio is missing from the UNESCO bid, and for good reason. Serpent Mound in Adams County is set aside on the U.S. Tentative List for its own World Heritage Site listing. Aultman points out there's ongoing scholarly debate about whether Serpent Mound pre- or post-dates the Hopewell culture. Either way, the earthwork doesn't fit the tight criteria for the Hopewell Ceremonial Earthworks bid.

What Is Hopewell Culture?

A popular misconception about the term "Hopewell" is that it refers to a particular tribe or group of Native Americans. In fact, there's nothing indigenous about the term at all. It comes from the name of a landowner in Ross County who, in the late 1800s, owned land containing what is now the Hopewell Mound Group near Chillicothe. Early archeologists recognized that all of these sites fit a similar pattern which they called "Hopewell."

The term is applied to indigenous cultures that existed across the Midwest between 200 BCE to 500 CE with Ohio at its epicenter.

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