Archaeology Magazine Archive

A publication of the Archaeological Institute of America

Special Introductory Offer!

Ohio's world-class archaeological site


The 1862 map of the earthworks by Newark residents James H. and Charles B. Salisbury (American Antiquarian Society)

The Newark Earthworks were constructed between 100 B.C. and A.D. 500 by a people we know today as the Hopewell Culture. Part temple, part astronomical observatory, and part cemetery, this is the largest set of geometric earthworks built anywhere in the world. They include Great Circle Earthworks, Octagon Earthworks (joined by parallel walls to another circle), and Wright Earthworks, a large, nearly perfect square enclosure.

The size of these earthworks is impressive. The Great Circle is nearly 1,200 feet in diameter, and the Octagon Earthworks enclose 50 acres (its linked circle encloses 20 acres). The entire complex was about 3,000 acres in extent. Today, the site is the Newark Earthworks State Memorial and covers 206 acres, including the Great Circle and a 50-foot long segment of the Newark Square (the remianing portions of this are also referred to as Wright Earthworks). The Ohio Historical Society oversees these and the Octagon. The Newark Earthworks was one of 14 sites nominated in January 2008 by the Department of Interior for submission by the United States to the UNESCO World Heritage List.

Why were these earthworks built and what were they used for? Many believe that the Hopewell culture used the earthworks as places of ceremony, social gathering, trade, and worship, and as cemeteries. Ohio Historical Society Archaeologist Brad Lepper thinks that the Hopewell built these ceremonial spaces on such a large scale because they weren't built just for the needs of the locals but for people from hundreds if not thousands of miles away.

"The Newark Earthworks is my favorite site because of its grandeur and complexity, and because of its rich history," says Lepper, "The monumental architecture creates a ceremonial landscape that encodes remarkably sophisticated geometrical and astronomical knowledge we're only just beginning to decipher." (The Octagon Earthwork is aligned to track movements of the moon.)

Many people assume that little remains of the Newark Earthworks, and that they were destroyed in the making of the golf course and county fairgrounds which have occupied parts of the site. Although the burial grounds were destroyed early on, by canal and railroad construction in the 19th century, many of the earthworks remain. In fact, inclusion of Octagon Earthworks in a country club's golf course in 1910 may have helped preserve the mounds. "We're able to decipher it only because the early citizens of Newark and Licking County found creative ways to incorporate major elements of this ancient architecture in their own 19th-century landscapes," says Lepper.

Moonrise at the Octagon Mound in Newark, Ohio, Dec. 23, 2007
(Courtesy of Tim Black; photo courtesy of The Ohio Historical Society)

According to Lepper, the parallel walls that extended in a straight line from the Octagon at the Newark Earthworks may have connected the site to the many Hopewell mounds and enclosures near Chillicothe--nearly 60 miles away. Lepper calls this "Great Hopewell Road." The road may have been a route of pilgrimage connecting the two grandest centers of the Hopewell world. If this is the case, then it makes sense that the Hopewell Road was a spiritual path uniting two centers similar to the straight roads built by the Maya culture in Mesoamerica, which they called sacbeob, or "white roads." Although the Hopewell acquired goods from much of North America, there is more evidence of exotic material, from obsidian to seashells, coming into Ohio than of Ohio goods going out. It's possible that the mica and obsidian were gifts coming into the earthworks and in return, these visitors took away a blessing rather than a commodity. Lepper believes formal roadways for the trips in and out of the earthwork centers would have enhanced the pilgrimages.

A Thematic History of Newark Earthworks: A general history of the Newark Earthworks with detailed links.

Visiting Newark Earthworks: Location, directions, and special links to Ohio's Native American sites.

Who were the Hopewell? A brief overview of the Hopewell culture.

The Walk with the Ancients, 2009

The Walk with the Ancients began Saturday, October 10, 2009, at the Hopewell Culture National Historical Park in Chillicothe, Ohio, and ended 70 miles and seven days later on Friday, October 16. In all, about 45 people walked the distance between Chillicothe and Newark along country roads, camping out and being hosted by local communities along the way. Public programs were held each evening, and the walkers shared stories around the campfire, listened to Native American music, and learned about from Native American life and culture. On Friday, October 16, the walkers were welcomed at Geller Park in Newark where they were greeted by friends, family, and local community members and together walked the last mile to the Octagon Earthworks.

On Saturday, October 17, the fourth annual Newark Earthworks Day took place. More than 200 people visited the John Gilbert Reese Center. The day included presentations by noted speakers in the Reese Center, exhibits in the ballroom, and an art exhibit in the LeFevre Art Gallery titled, "Pilgrimage through the Centuries." Original music was also presented by Mary Borgia and Gilly Running.

On Sunday, October 18, there was an open house at Octagon Earthworks. There are only four days a year when citizens are allowed into the Octagon. Visitors were able to tour the site and experience this very special place.

Malin Grunberg Banyasz is ARCHAEOLOGY's editorial assistant.