Ohio’s Hopewell earthworks earn esteemed World Heritage designation

By Sue Ann Painter

Ohio has long been known for the beauty of its Native American earthworks, which are concentrated in the southern and central parts of the state. These were designed and built by the indigenous Hopewell people thousands of years ago. One of the most extraordinary aspects of the Hopewell culture was the geometric designs, along with the solar and lunar alignments incorporated into these constructions. The grand ceremonial spaces attracted festivals, memorial services and celebrations of disparate peoples from faraway places.

At a meeting of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) in 2023, Ohio’s Hopewell Ceremonial Earthworks were recognized for their “Outstanding Universal Value” and inscribed upon the World Heritage List. The addition of the earthworks to the list is the first such designation for Ohio and only the 25th entity for the United States. 

John E. Hancock

For John E. Hancock, Ph.D. – professor emeritus of architecture with the University of Cincinnati’s College of Design, Architecture Art and Planning (DAAP) – the UNESCO designation was the fulfillment of a decades-long quest. Hancock, a Northern Kentucky resident, chaired the World Heritage Ohio Ambassadors, whose persuasive brief and presentation to evaluators at the United States Department of the Interior, and later to UNESCO, advanced the successful nomination. 

The Ohio team included staff members and volunteers from the Ohio History Connection, Hopewell Culture National Historical Park and the U.S. National Park Service Office of International Affairs. Other Greater Cincinnati Ambassadors were former Ohio Gov. Bob Taft and his wife, Hope Taft; attorney/author H.C. Buck Niehoff; and landscape architect/urban planner Gary Meisner. Cincinnati foundations and firms contributed generously to preparation of the illustrated nomination brief with its 332 pages of text, scenic photographs and diagrams.

John Hancock lecturing to Ambassador group at Fort Ancient,
with Hope Taft and former Ohio Gov. Bob Taft

To be considered for the World Heritage List, a cultural or natural site must demonstrate Outstanding Universal Value and be sponsored by the host nation. The U.S. was already represented on the list by sites such as the Grand Canyon, Niagara Falls and a series of architectural masterpieces by Frank Lloyd Wright. The Ohio History Connection and the United States National Park Service are the sponsor organizations and owner/managers of the Hopewell sites.  

Hopewell Ceremonial Earthworks is a series of eight monumental complexes built between 2,000 and 1,600 years ago along the central tributaries of the Ohio River in east-central North America. Their scale and complexity are evidenced in precise geometric figures as well as hilltops sculpted to enclose vast, level plazas. Huge earthen squares, circles and octagons are executed with a precision of form and technique across thousands of acres.

The structures were built by loosely organized groups of itinerant people, who subsisted by hunting, foraging and rudimentary farming. They were skilled in arts and crafts, as demonstrated by the recovery of ritual objects fashioned from exotic raw materials in excavations of some of the mounds. 

Newark Earthworks Great Circle Gateway in Newark/Heath, Licking County
Property of Ohio History Connection. Photo by John Hancock for OHC

Over the last two to three decades, the site organizations have established connections with the tribes that hold significant historical ties to the Hopewell earthworks. The Hopewell Culture National Historical Park and Ohio History Connection, together with Ohio-connected tribes, have developed inclusive processes so that Native Americans are increasingly involved in the interpretation and management of these sacred grounds.

Hancock cited the Native American leader Charles Dawes (1923-2001) on the significance of lunar cycle markers. Dawes’ words appear in the Hopewell nomination: “We still plant crops by the moon. We de-horn calves by the moon. Practically every functional daily thing we do involves the moon signs.”

Having witnessed the excitement shared by observers of the recent solar eclipse on April 8, we can understand how important such events as the spring solstice might have been to a society of emerging farmers. The movement of the celestial bodies intrigues us still. 

Octagon in Newark Earthworks at Moundbuilders Golf Club

Hancock was especially interested in seeing that the creators of the Hopewell Ceremonial Earthworks be recognized for their genius. Many early surveyors and authors had refused to believe the ancestors of the Native American tribes they encountered could have designed these sophisticated structures. 

In guest columns she wrote for the Newark Advocate, Hope Taft wrote about the amazing experience of watching the moon rise through the aligned gateway of the Great Circle. It was akin to the experience people are now describing of witnessing a solar eclipse. In another column, she described walking a portion of the Ancient Ohio Trail in the company of World Heritage Ambassadors, including Niehoff. Their stories make us want to put on hiking boots and set out on this great Ohio adventure.  

Visitation and tourism

UNESCO’s recognition of the outstanding universal value of the Hopewell sites is a marvelous tribute to Ohio and its people. Media attention has been widespread, and tourism is expected to grow. 

Hancock is founder of the “Ancient Ohio Trail,” a website with videos by academic experts on Native American culture and architecture. The videos offer insights into multiple topics that enrich and enlighten our contact with the earthworks. The website provides helpful information for travelers to plan trips to the Hopewell sites and to nearby monuments. 

A dedicated website, hopewellceremonialearthworks.org contains essential, timely information about events and access. There is also a Facebook page. And all state historic properties are profiled on ohiohistory.org  

Nearby History 

Newark Earthworks and Great Circle Earthworks
455 Hebron Rd.
Heath, Ohio 43056

Octagon Earthworks
125 N. 33rd St.
Newark, Ohio 43055
(Leased by Moundbuilders Golf Club, only partially visible from an observation tower.)

Fort Ancient Earthworks & Nature Preserve
6123 State Route 350
Oregonia, Ohio 45054

Fort Ancient is the largest prehistoric enclosed hilltop earthwork in the United States. It is in a small village with few accommodations. Fort Ancient is about seven miles from Lebanon, Ohio.   

Learn more…

Sue Ann Painter is a cultural historian and executive editor for Cincinnati Book Publishing. Her most recent book is “Gathering Places of Greater Cincinnati” (2021) with art by the late Beverly Erschell.

Discover more from Movers & Makers

Subscribe to get the latest posts sent to your email.