The Newark Earthworks are unique in at least three ways: it is the largest, the northernmost, and the most geometrically precise of the earthworks built in the Hopewell era. —Richard D. Shiels
Unless you’ve been there, it’s hard to imagine the enormity and magnificence of the Newark Earthworks. Photos do not do them justice. Words can never capture the experience of standing among these ancient structures. Scientists who have studied them for decades still do not fully grasp the precision of their astronomical alignments. And we can only guess the purposes and meanings they had for the people who built them and for others who have marveled at them over the centuries. Like so many of the earthwork structures that punctuate the eastern half of North America, they remain a mystery that continues to intrigue.
A First Encounter
Amazement and awe overwhelmed Chief Glenna Wallace of the Eastern Shawnee Tribe of Oklahoma when she first encountered the ancient earthworks in Newark, Ohio. She writes of her experience in the Foreword of the 2016 collection of essays The Newark Earthworks: Enduring Monuments, Contested Meanings: “Try to imagine the shock and total disbelief I experienced when I stepped out of the car and looked out at this intricate array of earthen walls and landscapes where my people, my ancestors had lived more than three hundred years ago. It was surreal.”
But as Chief Wallace learned more about the earthworks, their history and controversy, she experienced disappointment and then anger. These reactions soon turned to commitment as she resolved to learn all she could about the earthworks and to teach others about them. Chief Wallace also joined forces with a movement “to preserve the site and win the recognition that it deserves by winning inscription on the UNESCO World Heritage List.”
World Heritage Designation
The determined efforts of Chief Wallace and many others committed to saving and honoring the Newark Earthworks finally succeeded in September, 2023. At their conference in Riyadh, Saudia Arabia, the UNESCO World Heritage Committee included these majestic monuments in their designation of the Hopewell Ceremonial Earthworks. This is the first World Heritage listing for Ohio and the twenty-fifth in the United States. In their decision, the Committee cited the genius of the ancient builders who inscribed the North American topography with these enormous structures. They wrote:
Hopewell Ceremonial Earthworks comprises highly complex masterpieces of landscape architecture. They are exceptional amongst ancient earthworks worldwide not only in their enormous scale and wide geographic distribution, but also in their geometric precision. These features imply high-precision techniques of design and construction and an observational knowledge of complex astronomical cycles that would have required generations to codify…. They reflect the pinnacle of Hopewell intellectual, technical, and symbolic achievement.
After years of publicizing the earthworks, battling the private country club that occupied the most impressive of the ancient complexes, putting together the political support needed to put forward the nomination to UNESCO, and gathering the evidence of their Outstanding Universal Value to warrant the Committee’s approval, the legion of earthworks supporters could at last celebrate success.
A modern religiosity
The World Heritage designation adds a new chapter to the modern history of Hopewell earthwork sites. I recount some of that history in my essay “The Modern Religiosity of the Newark Earthworks,” which is included in the Enduring Monuments, Contested Meanings collection.
The essay concentrates on interpretations of modern people who “deem the Newark Earthworks special, sacred, and religious.” From Thomas Jefferson to nineteenth-century archaeologists to twenty-first-century tourists, these ancient structures have inspired an enduring fascination. My essay considers the allure of the Newark Earthworks specifically in modern contexts of tourism and consumer capitalism.
Their appeal, though, has not translated to their preservation. Most of the thousands of earthworks across the eastern half of North America have been obliterated by agriculture, cities, and other developments. And like many tourist destinations, visitation has taken a toll on those that survive, with visitors ignoring signs asking to “Please stay off” as they climb the prehistoric earthwork walls.
Without diminishing the genius of the original builders or speculating about their functions and meanings in ancient cultures, I contemplate our fascination with ancient earthworks as an occasion for better understanding our own culture. The history of modern tourism, I argue, serves as a prism for exploring how they “are very modern places of religiosity for people today.”
Walking with ancient spirits
Consider, for instance, the 2009 “Walk with the Ancients.” This sponsored event of the Newark Earthworks Center involved about thirty participants who trekked roughly seventy miles across the central Ohio countryside in the footsteps of ancient Hopewell people. Their week-long “pilgrimage” followed the route of what archaeologists speculate was an ancient ceremonial road stretching from Hopewell mounds near Chillicothe, Ohio, to the Newark Earthworks. One of the participants versed in the practice of “walking religion” described them traveling together “as Mother-Fathers and Sister-Brothers of this sacred earth, Sons and Daughters, Grandsons and Granddaughters of this hallowed land.”
Their journey with the ancient spirits, however, also elicited some disharmony among the walkers. An “immense gulf” between the Native American participants leading the walk and the non-Native walkers following behind became evident in their cultural differences. As I write in the essay, “The history of colonial imaginings of conquered peoples and Native resistance to conquest and subjugation, a history that remains integral to modern subjectivity, came crashing down on their divine journey.”
Yet their differences and the tension it produced enroute did not ruin the overall experience. In the end, nearly all expressed profound meaningfulness in the undertaking. Even religious skeptics among them described their sojourn in religious terms.
Tourists of a different kind
The Walk with the Ancients was something more than a spiritual quest. In short, as I note in my essay, it “was also a thoroughly touristic event.” It took considerable planning, coordination, and expense to create an enticing package of meaningful experiences. And like all tourist practices everywhere, it relied largely on commodifying the experience as aesthetically valuable. In this case, organizers promised an authentic connection with what I describe in the essay as “a transtemporal community” that the walkers would perceive in the presence of the ancient Hopewell people.
The participants in the Walk with the Ancients were not unlike so many millions of other tourists and travelers over the centuries seeking an imaginary experience of the past. But not all who avail themselves of the practices and traditions of leisure travel have the same intentions. My essay ends by contrasting the walkers crossing the Ohio landscape to Chief Wallace’s story of bringing her people back to Ohio.
When Chief Wallace first brought members of the Eastern Shawnee tribe to their forebears’ homeland in Ohio, they traveled much like any tourists: they rode in chartered buses, stayed in hotels, took pictures and bought souvenirs. But their travels were not primarily in the consumer mode of most modern tourists who relish the novelty of destinations staged for their recreational enjoyment. Instead, the Shawnee travelers sought to reconnect to places that their ancestors had been forced to leave. Unlike the Walk with the Ancients, their pilgrimage to Ohio was an attempt to reclaim the story of their own people grounded in the sacred places of their history.
Returning to sacred ground
Though the Newark Earthworks was a highlight of their tour, it did not compare to Wapatomica. This hidden site, long neglected, overgrown, and forbidden to public access, does not even register on any tourist itineraries. Yet, for the Shawnee people, it ranks among the holiest of places.
Waptomica had been the political center of the Shawnee people in the eighteenth century and the location of important intertribal councils. By the 1780s, conflicts with the newly established nation of the United States brought disaster. A U.S. militia drove the Shawnee out of Wapatomica and burned the village to the ground in 1786. When they were rounded up for removal in 1830, the Shawnee people camped at Wapatomica before embarking on the Trail of Tears that brought immense suffering and much death to their people.
When Chief Wallace arranged for her people to visit Wapatomica on their tour of Ohio, Shawnee people entered the sacred ground of their ancestors for the first time in over 175 years.
Monuments to human genius
By the time the Shawnee people were flourishing in Ohio in the eighteenth century, the Newark Earthworks were already ancient ruins. But like many of the historical tribes occupying North America when European colonial powers arrived, the Shawnee regarded the ancient earthwork structures as sacred sites deserving of honor and care.
Today others care for the earthworks as they continue to inspire the imagination of modern people. They remain appealing wonders for many different groups: for civic organizations promoting the local economy, for tourist visitors, for the Shawnee and other Native Americans, for archaeologists, even for historians of American religions. And now with the World Heritage listing, the Newark Earthworks rank among the world’s most magnificent sites, enduring monuments to the human genius of ancient people who erected these awe-inspiring structures on the North American landscape.