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Ohio's Hopewell Ceremonial Earthworks are now UNESCO World Heritage Sites

earthen mounds
National Park Service
Mound City Group has 25 burial mounds on 17 acres enclosed by an almost 4-foot-high earthen wall.

Delegates from around the world are in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia this month to decide on the newest additions to the list of UNESCO World Heritage Sites. These are locations considered of outstanding universal value such as the Pyramids, the Great Wall of China, the Historic Sanctuary of Machu Picchu, the Great Barrier Reef, and the Grand Canyon.

They must meet at least one of 10 criteria such as representing "a masterpiece of human creative genius" or containing "exceptional natural beauty and aesthetic importance."

Of just over 1,100 sites worldwide, only 24 are in the United States. That number is now 25 as Ohio's Hopewell Ceremonial Earthworks were added Tuesday to the UNESCO World Heritage List.

RELATED: Ohio's UNESCO World Heritage bid is one step closer

earthen mounds in matching gateway formation
Ohio History Connection
The twin mounds at the north gate of Fort Ancient in Oregonia, Ohio.

“Inscription on the World Heritage List will call international attention to these treasures long known to Ohioans,” said Megan Wood, executive director and CEO of the Ohio History Connection, in a release shortly after the earthworks were inscribed Tuesday.

In a separate statement, UNESCO Director-General Audrey Azoulay congratulated the United States, writing, "Inclusion on the Heritage List will make this important part of American history known around the world."

"Just three months after rejoining UNESCO, the United States has its twenty-fifth site inscribed on the World Heritage List, which illustrates the richness and diversity of the country's cultural and natural heritage."

Ohio really was the 'Heart of it All'

Ohio may not top your list of greatest destinations, but 2,000 years ago people from across North America converged here to build giant earthen walls and mounds in precise patterns like squares, circles, octagons and large enclosures. Their design and construction indicate these early peoples had a clear understanding of geometry, architecture, and solar and lunar patterns and alignments.

"'Hopewell' is an American Indian religious movement that 2,000 years ago really swept over half the continent, and for a period of about 400 years many different native communities all across eastern North America were sort of linked together by common ideas about the cosmos and their relationships to one another in the cosmos," explains Bret Ruby Ph.D., archaeologist and chief of resource stewardship at Hopewell Culture National Historical Park in Chillicothe, Ohio.

"These earthworks in southern Ohio were sacred centers in this continent-wide religious movement."

The Hopewell Ceremonial Earthworks encompass eight sites:

large earthen mound
Tana Weingartner
One of the mounds at Seip Earthworks in Bainbridge, Ohio.

Breaking down racist stereotypes

The earthworks were built by the ancestors of America's modern-day First Nations.

Glenna Wallace, chief of the Eastern Shawnee Tribe of Oklahoma, has been involved in the World Heritage process. She says two words come to mind when she thinks about the earthworks: ancestors and sophistication.

By ancestors she says she means not just direct ancestors of the Eastern Shawnee, but all Indigenous peoples in North America who came before them.

"Unfortunately, a word that I hear too often, particularly in the state of Ohio, that is associated with our people is the word 'savages,' and they were anything but savages," she says.

The people who built the mounds were highly intelligent. The designs indicate they understood mathematics, architecture and astronomy.

"They had to be extremely intelligent, extremely sophisticated, extremely knowledgeable, extremely versatile, and extremely cooperative to have shared all of that information to come up with those aspects that we know are true today. And then, in addition to that, of the genius, I always have to think of their respect, their culture, their reverence they had for those places."

Wallace says it's disturbing to not see these places get the reverence and respect they deserve.

That's one thing inscription on the World Heritage List aims to change. To qualify for World Heritage status, a site must meet at least one of 10 criteria. The earthworks are nominated under two criteria: they're considered "a masterpiece of human creative genius," and bear "exceptional testimony to a cultural tradition or to a civilization which is living or which has disappeared."

Speaking to the UNESCO World Heritage Committee Tuesday in Riyadh, Wallace said she was humbled, honored, and "so thankful that the world at long last recognizes the commitment, the spirituality, the knowledge of astronomy, mathematics, art, geology, and aesthetic vision, resulting in the imaginative thinking, used by our ancestors to create these magnificent earthworks. They were not just geniuses; they were uncommon geniuses."

What does a World Heritage designation get you?

Inscription on the UNESCO World Heritage List takes years of research and work. The payoff doesn't include a monetary gift.

"There's not a pot of funding at the end of this rainbow," says Jennifer Aultman, Chief Historic Sites Officer at Ohio History Connection, which worked with the National Park Service on the nomination. "But World Heritage is the world's highest designation for cultural and natural sites for heritage sites, and that's the reason to do it."

RELATED: Ohio's UNESCO World Heritage bid on track despite upheaval with the World Heritage Committee

Like Wallace, Aultman sees inscription as a way to help tribes elevate their heritage. There are no federally recognized tribes in Ohio today. They were forcibly removed in the 1700s and 1800s.

Aultman says a World Heritage designation can be expected to help drive tourism, reaping economic benefits for the state and cities near the earthwork locations.

earthen mounds
Ohio History Connection
Octagon Earthworks in Newark, Ohio.

World Heritage is another beginning

After spending more than a decade working toward inscription, efforts will now pivot to planning inscription celebrations and thinking about what it means to be a World Heritage site.

"We're working on what does it look like to manage a World Heritage site. We learn from our World Heritage colleagues in the United States — What did it mean for their visitation when they got the inscription? What things did they do they wish they had known right before they got it," Aultman says.

RELATED: USA submits Ohio mounds bid for UNESCO World Heritage Site

Other considerations are updated marketing plans, exhibits, curriculum along with additional staffing, tours and signage.

But really, she says, "It's all about preserving and protecting and sharing these places, and learning how to live World Heritage."

What about Serpent Mound?

There are two other proposals on the U.S. Tentative List for World Heritage inscription: Serpent Mound and Dayton Aviation Sites.

Serpent Mound is arguably Ohio's most recognizable and widely known earthen mound, so why isn't it part of this World Heritage nomination? After all, it is the "largest documented surviving example of an ancient effigy mound in the world," points out World Heritage Ohio.

The answer is actually pretty simple: the impressive serpentine structure is believed to have been built several hundred years after the Hopewell era. Therefore it would be historically inappropriate to include it in this grouping.

It is being considered for its own nomination.

Updated: September 19, 2023 at 5:40 AM EDT
Updated to reflect the inscription decision of the UNESCO World Heritage committee.
Senior Editor and reporter at WVXU with more than 20 years experience in public radio; formerly news and public affairs producer with WMUB. Would really like to meet your dog.