I grew up in Ohio and was educated here from first grade through my doctoral program at The Ohio State University. All I knew about earthworks was that the Serpent Mound in southwestern Ohio was famous; I had visited once when I was in grade school. When I learned about the Hopewell culture and the existence of about 10,000 mounds in Ohio, I was intrigued and started asking people what their experience was of these ancient treasures.
People sometimes say, “Isn’t there a golf course on top of those mounds in Newark?” Or, “Yeah, I went to Serpent Mound once as a kid.” But when I tell them that the stretch of land from Chillicothe to Newark was perhaps the most significant spiritual center in North America two thousand years ago, they are incredulous. “Here? Why don’t we know anything about them?”
One reason is their descendants – Shawnee, Miami, Delaware, Ottawa, and others – were “removed” from Ohio to make way for colonial settlers. They were pushed mostly into Oklahoma where they still live. Today, there are no American Indian tribal nations living in Ohio. Nevertheless, 47 separate tribal governments are consulted when decisions are being made that affect American Indians or the lands of their ancestors in Ohio. This land was once rich in indigenous culture and now many Ohioans know almost nothing about it.
I asked myself why people around here don’t know more about the Native Americans who lived in Ohio?
How I Learned About the Newark Earthworks
For many years I have investigated ritual postures among the artifacts of indigenous cultures around the world. They are the basis for the early research by anthropologist Felicitas Goodman and for my books and the Ancient Ritual Posture Oracle cards. Ohio is my home, and I have only recently began exploring the postures of the indigenous people who lived on this land. Sites in Ohio show evidence of habitation nearly 14,000 years ago. The most significant early inhabitants, the Adena-Hopewell, lived here 2,000 years ago. Their cultures were named after landowners on whose property artifacts were excavated.
When I learned that the mounds in Newark, Ohio, are considered to be among the largest and most complex set of ancient earthworks in the world, I was inspired to learn more about them. After a long application process, seven Ohio Hopewell mound sites are due to be inscribed as UNESCO World Heritage sites, which would help bring these prehistoric monuments the recognition and preservation they deserve.
The Ohio History Connection and the National Park Service look after the properties and their archeologists present lectures and publish articles. The Newark Earthworks Center is an independent research center within The Ohio State University with plans to build a physical Center in the next few years. There is a lot of activity surrounding the mounds but frankly for me something was missing.
The Great Circle Alliance is Born
My colleague and friend Marcus Boroughs and I have teamed up to deliver creative programs to honor the indigenous people of Ohio and the traditional sacred sites of this land, in particular the Newark Earthworks. Our purpose is to bring together Native and non-Native people – artists, scholars, and the public – to generate more in-depth appreciation for the Hopewell earthworks, and especially the Newark Earthworks.
Marcus was the executive director of Aratoi: The Wairarapa Museum of Art and History, in Masterton, New Zealand, where he was responsible for developing exhibitions and programs with indigenous Maori, working within bicultural frameworks. His expertise led on to several key programs and exhibits at the Auckland Museum.
Many of you know that I served as Vice-President of the Cuyamungue Institute under anthropologist Felicitas Goodman, and became President when Felicitas retired at 88. The Institute is on land near the Pojoaque Pueblo, north of Santa Fe, New Mexico. For 20 years I participated in Pueblo feast days, ceremonies, artist exhibits, and everyday life in several of the local Pueblos.
Our collective experience supports our vision of engaging with people in honoring the indigenous people of Ohio and the traditional sacred sites of this land, in particular the Newark Earthworks. Working in alliance with Native artists and tribal leaders, along with the Ohio History Connection, the Newark Earthworks Center and other relevant organizations, our hope is that this vision can be realized.
Great Circle Alliance Projects
The Great Circle Alliance has several active projects. Very soon we will learn if the New Projects Committee of the Ohio History Connection has approved installing ten text panels as an informative self-led program at the Great Circle Earthwork. The story is based on our adaptation of a children’s book by Dr. John Low, Director of the Newark Earthworks Center and a Potawatomi citizen. While the main characters are three school age children and their teacher who are visiting the Great Circle Earthwork, the texts are highly informative and fun for families and adults.
A primary project of The Great Circle Alliance is an artist residency to bring established and emerging Native American artists to Ohio. Ideally they will come from tribes whose ancestors once lived in Ohio. Our intention is to immerse the artists in the ceremonial sites and to encourage their artistic response to the Earthworks and the history surrounding them. Painters, sculptors, dancers, poets, performance artists, photographers and others will have an opportunity to create tangible and contemporary works of art that speak about the connection between the ancestors and people alive today.
We believe artists can creatively unlock subjects in a way archeologists cannot. Contemporary artists can enrich a sense of culture surrounding these monuments that have many times been overlooked. The Moundbuilders were incredibly skilled engineers, astronomers, and mathematicians. The Earthworks are burial and ceremonial sites that are unsurpassed using sophisticated geometric precision and astronomical alignment.
The stories passed down to later descendants speak to a profound understanding of the relationship between the earth and the stars. This wisdom was not simple astronomy but reflects a spiritual connection with the Sky World.
The Great Circle Earthwork
The Great Circle is an immense quiet space, just off Highway 79. Stately old trees are scattered throughout the 30 acres of the Circle. The site is maintained by the Ohio History Connection. In the center is an effigy mound, known as the Eagle Mound for its approximation of the body and wings of a great bird. Eagle is prominent in myths of the Sky World and the Path of Souls attributed to indigenous people in this part of Ohio.
A few miles away is the Octagon Earthwork, a 50 acre pre-historic site currently serving as a golf course for the Moundbuilders Country Club. Can you imagine playing golf at Stonehenge?! In fact, the circle made by those mammoth standing stones in England is much smaller than any of the monumental earthworks here in central Ohio.
Across the U.S. there were once over one million mounds and related sites, magnificent structures for burial and ceremonial gatherings. Ohio has some of the most complex and extraordinary examples remaining in North America.
How Were the Earthworks Built
In 1873, geologist J. W. Foster, then head of the Chicago Academy of Sciences, wrote that the idea that Indians built the mounds was “preposterous,” saying the mounds were evidence of skill and knowledge that exceeded anything Native Americans could possibly produce. For many years there were theories of lost tribes or mythical races who had built the mounds. Archeologists set about researching the mysterious architects and astronomers who could design monumental sites in precise alignment with significant star patterns. Eventually they concluded that indeed the local indigenous people had constructed these elaborate and beautiful configurations of earth and stone.
Brad Lepper, the archeological curator for the Ohio History Connection, says the mounds reflect “ancient American Indian societies that came together, without an authoritarian leader to forcibly unite them, to create not just a number of huge earthen cathedrals, but a vast and interconnected ceremonial landscape.” Specifically, “the Newark Earthworks were linked directly to the Hopewell Core by a ceremonial highway defined by a set of remarkably straight, parallel earthen walls that extended from the southeastern corner of Newark’s Octagon on a compass bearing that points directly to the center of modern Chillicothe. Whether this Great Hopewell Road reached that far has not yet been determined, but it is similar to ancient roads built by the Ancestral Puebloans at Chaco Canyon in New Mexico and by the ancient Mayan civilization that were as long or even longer.” Click here for more on the Neward Earthworks by Brad Lepper.
Thousands of artifacts have been unearthed from Ohio mounds. Beautiful and finely crafted, these sacred objects were fashioned from materials that came from throughout North America. Through their extensive trade routes, the Hopewell people acquired copper from the Great Lakes, shells from the Gulf of Mexico, and obsidian from the vicinity of Yellowstone National Park.
Since some of the mounds are burial sites, many of the artifacts are funerary objects. The numbers and quality of these objects probably indicate the importance of that person to the community or to their family. Since not all the population were buried in mounds, the people whose remains were found here were likely community leaders, political leaders, religious leaders, noted artisans or warriors. The objects buried with them reflect a rich culture that we are only beginning to understand.
The Adena Pipe Artifact
My introduction to the Adena culture was through an Ancient Ritual Posture unearthed from the first mound that was excavated. The Adena Pipe, as it has been called, is carved from pipestone. It is a human effigy pipe representing a man wearing a decorated loincloth, a feather bustle, and ear spools. Some archeologists have argued that it represents a dwarf because of the proportions of the body, with a large head, wide shoulders but a smaller torso and short legs. In a conversation with Brad Lepper, he talked about how probably the sculptor of this little pipe was not attempting to replicate the model exactly but simply carved a ceremonial object in a human form.
I agreed. In my exploration with Ancient Ritual Postures from around the world, I have found that most of them are not carved or shaped or painted with a focus on accurate representation of the person’s body. Usually there is an emphasis on certain parts of the body to draw our attention. In holding the posture, the squared shoulders are important in opening the chest. The deeply bent knees put pressure on the legs and back. For many people holding this stance evokes a sense of being deeply grounded. The effect of the posture seems more significant than possibly depicting a person who was malformed.
In our practice we use Ancient Ritual Postures to mediate connection with the world of the spirits, and the Adena Pipe Posture is an old friend. We have classified it as a divination posture, one that seems to help with finding answers to questions or clarification that supports deeper understanding.
The Hopewell Shaman of Newark
Another human effigy artifact is called the Wray figurine or the Hopewell Shaman of Newark. It was discovered in 1881 at the base of one of the burial mounds near the Great Circle, one of the Newark Earthworks. It was not uncommon for the spiritual leaders or shamans of many cultures to dress themselves in the skins of powerful animals who were likely their allies. In addition to the head of the bear worn over the head, the hands in this statue are covered by bear paws with claws intact.
This is a sophisticated sculpture. The body is positioned with precision, with the legs bent and the feet resting on, or even pushing against, a footrest. The angles are also reflected in the bent elbows of both arms. It appears that there is a human head lying in the lap of the shaman. Heads were war trophies but this may have been part of a burial rite.
Learning From Our Ancestors
The Hopewell traditions are known to us through reports from as long ago as Hernando de Soto’s foray through the southern United States in his rapacious search for gold. Upon encountering the mound builders, he described them as a religious people with highly refined rituals related to dying and burial.
Our indigenous ancestors understood the relationship between the earth and the stars, something that is lost from our culture today. Their wisdom was not simple astronomy but reflected a spiritual connection with the ancestors, the animal spirits, and other spirit beings that lived in the Sky World and the Underworld. The wisdom embedded in the Mounds challenges contemporary culture to expand the scope of our understanding of our place in the multiple worlds of creation.