When I was a little kid, studying Indiana history in school, there were a few lines in our textbook about some Indians called the Mound Builders. They lived in southern Indiana and they built mounds. Probably burial mounds. But they were gone now, and nobody knew who they were or where they went. Dead Indians in a burial mound didn't sound all that exciting to me, growing up amid giant sand dunes next to a Great Lake, so I pretty much forgot about it.
Then last weekend, enticed by a sign for something called the "Great Circle Earthworks," I made a detour off I-70 in the middle of Ohio. I figured it might be a hippie colony or something. What I found was a monumental remnant of those Mound Builder Indians, and it pretty much knocked my socks off.
The Great Circle Earthworks is part of a larger complex known as the Newark Earthworks. It's located in present-day Newark and Heath, Ohio (the Great Circle is in Heath). The Newark Earthworks were designated a National Historic Landmark in 2006, and it's been nominated for UNESCO World Heritage status.
The builders are known to us as the Hopewell culture, and they constructed the site between 100 and 500 AD. Another monument on the site, the Octagon Earthworks, was designed to line up with the northernmost point of the moon's rise -- a cycle that takes 18.6 years. Some sites on the intarwebs have made a big deal of the fact that the Newark Earthworks are in line with the Pyramids in Egypt -- which sounds really cool and woo-woo-ish until you realize that moonrise would be on an 18.6-year cycle in Egypt, too. I mean, I don't know enough about the pyramids to know why their site was chosen and how their orientation was settled on. But I'm pretty sure the whole "chariots of the gods" theory has been debunked multiple times by now.
What it did put me in mind of, however, was Ireland's Newgrange -- a structure that's thousands of years older (it was built around 3200 BC) and that's oriented to catch the first rays of the rising sun on the winter solstice.
Anyway, I spent most of my time at Newark Earthworks at another of the site's major structures -- the Great Circle Earthworks, the one that lured me off the interstate. Behind the placard in the photo just above is the entrance to the Great Circle. The circle itself is 1,200 feet across, and that mound you see at the entrance is 14 feet high. The mounds taper in height toward the back of the site, where they drop to four feet high. And there's a five-foot-deep moat that begins just inside the entrance and circles the ring of mounds on the inside. At least it used to be a moat; centuries of tree roots have cracked the clay bottom of the trench so that it no longer holds water.
Keep in mind that the builders used rudimentary digging tools and baskets to move all that earth.
The Great Circle is no burial mound. This was a ceremonial site. There's another mound in the middle of the circle that archaeologists have named the Eagle Mound. When the circle was in use, a wooden structure sat there, with wings extending to either side. I could envision shamen conducting rituals at the site and using those screens to shield their secret activities from the attendees. In any case, the wooden structure was dismantled at some point and the mound that exists today was created on top of it.
Anthropologists say many Woodland Indian tribes view waterways as a way to reach the Beneath World -- the world of the spirits. Archaeologists speculate the moat was meant to bring the Beneath World into the sacred circle.
As I walked around the perimeter of the Great Circle, I was reminded of another site I visited in Ireland in April: Tara, the home of the ancient Irish kings. There, too, the visitor finds a series of concentric banks and ditches, and a sense of sacredness. But the Great Circle is more recent, and the experience I had there was more visceral than the one I had at Tara.
I'm told these types of mounds are all over Ohio. One of them is Serpent Mound, near Chillicothe, which I think I've heard of but have never been to. And there are those mounds in southern Indiana, too -- and Cahokia, the abandoned city in southern Illinois that's a thousand years newer than the Great Circle. I am seriously thinking about a trip to visit as many of these sites as I can. And you can bet one or more of them will turn up in a book at some point soon.
Have any of you ever visited any of these sites? Anybody got any travel tips?
These moments of sacred-mound blogginess have been brought to you, as a public service, by Lynne Cantwell.