Will Ohio’s Earthworks Become a World Heritage Site?

The ancient mounds offer tantalizing clues to the American Indians who built them—and they could get even more attention if they’re tapped by UNESCO.

Illustration by The Brave Union

Thousands of years ago, people sculpted massive shapes into the face of what we’d one day call the Ohio River Valley. They raised sprawling geometrical complexes, elegant mounds, and earthen animals in silhouettes, for reasons we still struggle to explain.

At Newark, east of Columbus, they built the largest known set of ceremonial earthworks anywhere on the planet. At Ft. Ancient, near Lebanon, they enclosed entire hilltops. In Adams County, they crafted the curves of Serpent Mound. Early settlers on the river terrace that became downtown Cincinnati found decorative mounds and meandering forms. Most of the works have been destroyed, but what remains continues to expand our understanding of the artistic, architectural, and scientific capabilities of the ancient American cultures that created them.

Several sets of Ohio earthworks—Newark, Ft. Ancient, and the Hopewell Culture National Historical Park at Chillicothe—are under international scrutiny as the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) prepares to vote on whether to designate them as World Heritage sites. That status is reserved for works exemplifying “human creative genius,” including the likes of Stonehenge, the Parthenon, and the Taj Mahal. Just 2 percent are in the U.S.

The publicity that comes with World Heritage designation could bring millions of tourist dollars to the state annually. It could also increase our appreciation for the people who shaped this region before white settlers arrived, including the Adena, the Hopewell, and the Ft. Ancient cultures—modern designations for prehistoric societies we’ve identified only through the archaeological record. Later came the Miami, the Shawnee, and other organized tribes.

A great rift divides the recorded and pre-Western-contact histories of the Americas. Epidemics spread through native populations from their first interactions with European arrivals. Mass death took the elders—the keepers of memories, oral traditions, and ancient ways—who were probably most susceptible to the smallpox, bubonic fever, measles, typhoid fever, tuberculosis, and other pathogens to which they lacked immunity.

So by time the likes of William Henry Harrison and “Mad Anthony” Wayne, who led the U.S. Army’s defeat of American Indian tribes in this area, first witnessed sprawling earthworks at Cincinnati in the 1790s, rampant death had so obliterated the social order that most of the indigenous people couldn’t remember who had built them. And white settlers’ sense of racial superiority kept them from connecting the works to the people they were in the process of displacing. Theories about the “mystery of the moundbuilders” abounded. They must have been the work of some earlier race, perhaps the Vikings or a lost tribe of Israelites.

While preliminary site visits by UNESCO officials have given local supporters reason to be optimistic, political turmoil means it’s no sure thing. The U.S. has withdrawn from UNESCO, and the largest of these Ohio sites, an astronomically-aligned octagon at Newark, sits on an active golf course, a deal-breaker for World Heritage inclusion.

No federally recognized American Indian tribes remain in Ohio. They were forced west, sold into slavery, and hunted for bounties while their children were taken and trained to live as whites. But they can’t be erased from the Ohio River Valley. The landscape is tattooed with their presence, and the soil lies heavy over fragments left by a human presence that goes back thousands of years.

Tyler Swinney and April Hester work at the Cincinnati Museum Center’s Hahn Excavation in Anderson Township.

Photograph Courtesy Bob Genheimer

Across the heat-shimmering fields at Clear Creek Park in Anderson Township, Cincinnati Museum Center Archaeology Curator Bob Genheimer directs a dig team under tarp tents. This is where, every summer over the past decade, CMC’s Hahn Field School opens windows into the past. It’s part of the institution’s legacy as the Western Museum, founded by Daniel Drake and colleagues partly in response to the looting they saw of American Indian artifacts during the earliest chapters of Cincinnati’s urban development.

The dig’s location a couple of miles from Anderson High School is not lost on the cultural experts working there. District officials have rebuffed repeated attempts to change the school’s sports mascot name, the Redskins, which many consider insulting to American Indian identity.

Pottery vessel found at the Cincinnati Museum Center’s Hahn Excavation in Anderson Township.

Photograph Courtesy Bob Genheimer

A polished bird bone bead found at the Cincinnati Museum Center’s Hahn Excavation in Anderson Township.

Photograph Courtesy Andrea Roth

The fertile bottoms near the mouth of the Little Miami River have been plowed and planted for 175 years, but beneath the topmost layer they’re undisturbed. With trowels and sharpened spades, the Hahn team excavates beneath the sod to expose features and objects of note. Most of the work here focuses on pockets that Indian villagers dug as earth ovens and storage pits, then later filled with trash and sealed. There’s a horizontal layer of mother-of-pearl where leftovers from a freshwater clam bake were dumped; they mix with streaks of black, burned matter and the dark clay of pottery. The archaeologists sift what they dig through a quarter-inch mesh.

One unit has revealed a hearth that may or may not have been attached to several overlapping houses. They would have had vertical post walls, their floors dug down and edged with clay to keep the rain out, says Tyler Swinney, the Museum Center’s tribal liaison and collections manager.

Neck-deep in a pit, Swinney addresses a group of teachers from Cincinnati Public Schools. “At this village, there were about 400 people living here on about 10 to 14 acres,” he says. “With that many people living here, they produce quite a bit of trash.”

He talks about pottery “sherds,” the technical term for broken pieces. Ceramics found here traveled from as far as southern Wisconsin, made by women who carried it with them when marriage alliances were formed. The tempers and styles of ceramics allow archaeologists to trace the passage of people and cultures across the landscape.

The goal of the dig, of any dig, Swinney tells the group, is to “understand how these things are put together. Objects are really cool, but once they’re disassociated from these locations they’re just an object with no data. Why they’re where they are is far more intriguing than the objects themselves.”

That said, the objects’ allure contributed to the wholesale destruction of many local earthworks. Another artifact site in Anderson Township and one across the Little Miami in Mariemont were looted long ago. And just a few miles up the river from Hahn, where Round Bottom Road runs above gravel pits, were the Turner Earthworks, called by reporter-turned-archaeologist Henry Clyde Shetrone in his 1930 book The Mound-builders “the most remarkable of the Hopewell culture groups.” These featured a 1,500-foot oval, almost half-mile-long enclosures, 14 mounds arranged in the shape of an animal, and tunnels and burials that yielded thousands of artifacts—nuggets of copper, meteoric iron, silver, and hammered gold, plus vessels made from large ocean shells, bear teeth inlaid with pearl, and terra cotta figurines showing how the Hopewell people clothed, adorned, and saw themselves.

Mariemont, Turner, and other area sites were hastily excavated by archaeologists from Harvard’s Peabody Museum, who filled barrels with artifacts and shipped them back east and to the Chicago World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893. All that remains of Turner, if anything, is buried beneath the high walls of those water-filled gravel pits, Genheimer says. To the later Hahn site villagers, predominantly Ft. Ancient people, the Turner works would have already been ancient and massive.

The Museum Center team knows where to dig, says Genheimer, because they use remote sensing technology to map beneath the earth—an array of super-sensitive GPS-linked magnetometers that visualize anomalies in the earth’s magnetic field. Almost every hole they dig turns up something, which makes Hahn an exciting place for young people to come learn about archaeology.

It’s also special, says Mt. Healthy school librarian and Hahn Field School “unit chief” Andrea Roth. “Because when you hold things that come out of the ground that were last held by people 400 to 500 years ago,” she says, her jeans streaked with clay, “that’s a unique thrill.” Roth runs the Museum Center’s STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math) Girls @ Hahn program associated with the dig, as well as an archaeology program for kids at Pattison Elementary School in nearby Milford.

Despite the intense heat and back-breaking labor, there’s a tight camaraderie at the Hahn site. “Find anything interesting?” I ask, nodding into the gaping pit where team members gingerly scrape. They show me a dog mandible, a hoe made from a wide freshwater clam shell, and, best of all, a glossy, butter-colored bone bead. “So that polish is from rubbing against the neck, wrist, or ankle of the wearer,” says former Museum Center educator Dan Striley, who comes back to Hahn year after year to help on digs. The intimacy of that skin-shined bead seems to compress millennia into a moment. A hawk calls overhead. A jet maneuvers on the glide path into the nearby Lunken airfield.

Genheimer says his team sees evidence at the Hahn site of an occupation beginning between about 700 and 900 AD, “what we call Late Woodland.” That period refers to cultures living in the eastern U.S. from about 1000 BC until European contact around 500 years ago.

Members of the Hopewell culture built Ft. Ancient between 200 BC and 400 AD and earthwork complexes at Turner, Newark, and Chillicothe between the first and fourth centuries AD. The Chillicothe area is also rich in mounds built by the Adena, an earlier Woodland culture that lived in southwest Ohio from 800 BC to 100 AD. The height of Hahn’s occupation appears to have been by the Ft. Ancient people, noted for their relative lack of social hierarchy, who were likely maize agriculturalists, Genheimer says. Maize meant a reliable food source that supported larger villages. The floors of earth ovens found at Hahn are awash in burned corn.

“So we know that there was a very orderly village that started in 1300, something like that,” says Genheimer. About 100 years later, “something changes. Artifacts look slightly different, and then all of a sudden the occupation isn’t orderly anymore.” There’s an influx of people, they think, “filling the landscape, possibly refugees.” What caused the upheaval is a mystery. What caused more upheaval a couple of hundred years later isn’t—the arrival of European settlers.

I ask Genheimer whether he feels enough protections are in place for sites of archaeological importance. He shrugs. Sites on private land are entirely at their owner’s whim, he says.

“I’m a firm believer in letting people know where these sites are,” he says. “I would rather there was a bronze plaque there that said this is where the Hahn site is, because 90 percent of people are good and they’re not going to mess with it.”

Lasting protection necessitates ownership, whether by governmental or preservationist organizations. And in terms of getting the word out to ensure a site’s cultural importance and need for preservation, you can’t beat UNESCO’s global reach.

The job of wrangling a collaboration among national, state, and local stakeholders to gain the approval of the 21-nation UNESCO World Heritage Committee falls to Jennifer Aultman with Columbus-based Ohio History Connection. The process goes like this: Nations select and nominate promising sites, and then specialists contribute to an application dossier detailing significance and plans for preservation, sustainable tourism, and adherence to best practices. The dossier goes to UNESCO, where a special council votes on it.

We know that when you put places on this list, people want to come see them. Over the years everyone has realized there are economic benefits for the local communities.

With only 23 World Heritage sites out of 1,090 worldwide, the U.S. is generally under-represented, Aultman says. “And so, globally speaking, are indigenous sites.” The Cahokia Mounds earthwork complex near St. Louis was designated a World Heritage site in 1982, and Louisiana’s Poverty Point Earthworks, which is older than Ohio’s Hopewell sites, was added in 2014.

While UNESCO World Heritage designation doesn’t explicitly address economic impact, Aultman says, “We know that when you put places on this list, people want to come see them. Over the years everyone has realized there are economic benefits for the local communities.” Increased attention might also bring wear and tear. “So UNESCO’s governing body will also want to see that we have a plan in place to manage increased visitation,” she says.

Based on increased visits to other sites that received World Heritage site status, an Ohio University study estimated the value of annual tourist visitation in the state to be around $12.5 million. The study suggests that cooperation between site managers, visitor bureaus, and economic development entities could increase that figure significantly.

Aultman also consults with representatives from tribes historically connected to Ohio for the project. This includes Chief Glenna J. Wallace, the first woman chief of the Eastern Shawnee tribe. Wallace spoke to me from her office near the Missouri-Oklahoma border; while she calls the “Show-Me” state home, her heart is in Oklahoma and Ohio, she says. Ottawa County, Oklahoma, where her tribe is located, is home to nine federally recognized tribes, seven of which, including the Shawnee, were forcibly removed from Ohio. By 1900 her tribe was down to 69 people. Today it numbers close to 3,500.

Despite growing up poor, Wallace went to college and took a teaching position at a community college. Charged with energizing an art department suffering from a dearth of cultural resources, she began to organize trips, first to New York and then abroad, including Paris and Greece. She organized two trips a year for 25 years. “Only later did I realize that we were basically traveling to World Heritage sites,” she says.

How can my people always be referred to as savages when our ancestors created something this majestic, this scientific, that showed so much intelligence and planning? I vowed I would not be silent about that.

Wallace flew to Ohio State University in 2007 to hear a lecture by historian John Sugden on the Shawnee leader Tecumseh. The event included a visit to the Newark Earthworks, and Wallace, who had visited the Great Wall of China, the Pyramids, and the Colosseum—all World Heritage sites—ascended a viewing platform in central Ohio and experienced for the first time the monumental works of her own ancestral homeland. While the Newark site wasn’t created by Shawnee, the tribe is known to have used it later.

There was a golf tournament happening on the octagon portion of the grounds, Wallace remembers, and her group was told they were in the way. “I went from being ecstatic to angry in minutes,” she says. “How can my people always be referred to as savages when our ancestors created something this majestic, this scientific, that showed so much intelligence and planning? I vowed I would not be silent about that.” She reached out to Ohio History Connection and was soon writing letters, attending meetings, and speaking in support of the World Heritage Ohio project.

In November 2018, the Ohio History Connection filed a civil lawsuit against the Moundbuilders Country Club to reacquire the long-term lease to the Newark Earthworks; the club has operated a golf course there since 1910. In May, a judge ruled that Ohio History Connection can revoke its lease. A jury trial has been set for September to determine the financial compensation the club will receive.

I meet with UC architecture professor emeritus John Hancock, chair of the World Heritage Ohio steering committee. After studying the state’s earthworks for two decades now, he says their power comes from the medium of which they are made—the earth itself. “There’s a meaning involved that you don’t get with anything else,” he says, describing how ancient peoples sculpted massive designs precisely aligned with the heavens. Their precision evidences an intense scrutiny of the sky, here in the state where human flight was invented, the state where the first man on the moon was born.

“You discover that the Newark octagon captured knowledge about what the moon does in its complicated 18.6-year cycle,” says Hancock. It also featured an eerie replication of certain dimensions, since circles at the Newark and Chillicothe sites, more than 60 miles apart, share a precise 1,054-foot diameter. The work shows “how extremely sophisticated they are in their geometry and astronomy, especially in their size and spatial scale.” And it changes everything, he says, for the popular image of American Indians.

Members of UNESCO’s governing body recently visited the state’s earthwork sites and gave the team feedback for fine-tuning the application dossier, Hancock says. Their feedback was encouraging. And the political rift, while not helpful, shouldn’t be a problem. This isn’t the first time the U.S. has quit UNESCO. During previous lapses in membership, the organization decided to inscribe U.S. sites anyway. Non-member status simply means the U.S. doesn’t get to vote on the decision.

Financier Nick Niehoff became an avid collector of American Indian objects as a youngster when he found arrowheads near Larz Anderson Park, which overlooks the Ohio River. He became interested in ancient pottery and donated objects to museums in New York and Ohio. Today he’s an ardent supporter of World Heritage Ohio and of the creation of more museums dedicated to American Indian history.

And while Niehoff believes that the Ohio legislature does much to fund and protect sites, there’s progress to be made, he says. Their status remains precarious in their reliance on private donations and volunteer hours. “We’re just custodians,” he says. “And as such it really falls back to us to protect and maintain the sites.”

Niehoff clues me into a little-known museum in the Newtown municipal building not far from the Hahn dig site. Relics and skeletons were discovered when the building, originally a church, was constructed in the 1800s. It’s a tiny collection of artifacts, both actual and replicated, from Hahn, Turner, and other sites around the area. Effigy pipes, axe heads, flint tips, and ornaments all show their makers’ great skill.

Ohio History Connection Curator of Archaeology Bradley Lepper can’t make any guarantees on the timeline for when Ohio’s earthworks might join the World Heritage ranks. They’re shooting for 2022, he says. But he’s confident, based on feedback from UNESCO officials, that it will happen. “The past is such an integral part of who we are, our sense of place,” he says. “If we have no understanding of the roots, our deep roots, I think it gives us a diminished experience of the land that we occupy. I see that in people’s eyes when they had no idea about the mounds. They’re like, ‘You’re kidding, we have stuff like that here in Ohio?’ It opens up horizons of significance.”

This is about “sharing a vital Ohio story with the world,” Lepper says, the story of how thousands of individuals with shared values worked together to create, one basket of earth at a time, a great and lasting architecture of geometrical earthen enclosures. What they made continues to challenge contemporary thinking of what architecture even is and of how cultures overlap and share ideas. And their work enlivens our landscape with forgotten magic.

Global recognition, Lepper hopes, will inspire preservation and instill respect. Each new complexity of the past revealed expands our understanding of what unites us in the present. And of how, collectively, we’re able to speak to one another across the eons.

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