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Ohio celebrates Hopewell Ceremonial Earthworks’ designation as UNESCO World Heritage site

A fog rises up from green earth mounds that stretch into the distance.
National Park Service
Mound City Group has 25 burial mounds on 17 acres enclosed by an almost 4-foot-high earthen wall.

This weekend, Ohioans will have a chance to see some of the state’s newest international landmarks, the Hopewell Ceremonial Earthworks, up close and personal.

Late last month, UNESCO, or the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, designated the ancient earthen mounds as a World Heritage site. The organization gives the designation to places deemed of universal importance and value to humankind.

Fort Ancient in the southwest community of Oregonia is offering tours of the hilltop enclosure earthwork there, and, next weekend, there’s a commemoration ceremony at the Hopewell Culture National Historical Park in Chillicothe.

Tana Weingartner, a reporter with Ohio Newsroom member station WVXU, has been reporting on this newsand joined the Ohio Newsroom to talk about the designation.

This interview has been lightly edited for clarity and brevity.

On their appearance

“The Hopewell Ceremonial Earthworks encompass eight locations across southern Ohio from Fort Ancient in the west to Chillicothe and then over to Newark. They’re earthen mounds, they range in height from three to more than 30 feet, and, in some places, they are miles long.

There are two types. You have large enclosures; that's what you see at Fort Ancient. It's miles of mounds that enclose a huge area atop a river bluff. It's big enough that you can fit the Great Pyramid inside this area. But the bulk of them are built in geometric patterns like circles, squares and octagons.

On their construction

“First of all, they took a long time to build — several hundred years. And they did it basketful by basketful of dirt at a time. It took many, many people who traveled here from across North America to build them. And we know they came from all over because of the tools and rocks and things found at the sites that originate in places like the Rockies or the Carolinas, things that would not have been found in this area.

These were all built in the same manner, even though they're, in some cases, nearly 100 miles apart. They understood geometry, because the mounds that are built at these different sites are all built to the same specifications. And then, of course, the construction shows that these early people understood astronomy and solar and lunar cycles, because many of the mounds line up with solar and lunar events like the equinox or the solstice. In fact, in some cases, even the eight lunar phases of the moon are encoded in the mountains. So all of this means they had to have observed and understood these really complicated concepts and then built them into the architecture over hundreds of years.

Large, grass-covered mounds sit among trees.
Ohio History Connection
Eight of Ohio's prehistoric monumental earthworks built 2,000 years ago by Native Americans are Ohio's first UNESCO World Heritage Site.

On its UNESCO designation

“You have to meet at least one of 10 criteria. The Earthworks meets two. They've been declared masterpieces of human creative genius. And then they bear exceptional testimony to a cultural tradition or civilization. But also, a few years back, UNESCO realized that they were really lacking sites representing pre-contact Indigenous American sacred architecture, and sites that represent early understandings of science, culture and astronomy. So these Hopewell Ceremonial Earthworks really helped fill that gap on the UNESCO World Heritage list.

On the impact to Ohio

“It helps preserve and protect these sacred sites. Mounds used to cover southern Ohio, but we just plowed over them for farm fields or for parking lots or for development. And a big hope for First Nations like the Shawnee, or the Eastern Shawnee, and many of the tribes that used to be here is that this recognition will start to change the way that they and their ancestors who built these mounds are perceived and depicted.

There are no federally recognized tribes in Ohio. They were removed, they were forced away from their homelands, herded like cattle at gunpoint, and a huge justification for removing these Native Americans was that they were unintelligent, or that they were primitive. They were called barbarians and savages, and these mounds are proof that that's profoundly untrue.”