- Historic Sites
Elaborate earthworks engineered two thousand years ago by an impenetrably mysterious people still stand in astonishing abundance throughout the Ohio River Valley
April 1995 | Volume 46, Issue 2
The headquarters of the complex, which includes a museum, is located in the twenty-six acres known as the Great Circle Earthworks, enclosed by an earthen wall eight to fourteen feet high and twelve hundred feet in diameter. (An unusual moat running along the inside of the wall reflects “principles of military science now lost or inexplicable,” a puzzled observer wrote in 1839.) Two smaller, nearby sites—the six-foot-high Owen Mound and the Wright Earthworks, a surviving section of a large enclosure—are also part of the complex.
The second major section, the 120-acre Octagon State Memorial, includes the large earthen octagon covering 50 acres that is now part of the groomed golf course of the Mound Builders Country Club, which has held a lease from the Ohio Historical Society since 1933. Some years before that it was the site of a National Guard camp whose members damaged an embankment while practicing gunnery.
I met Lepper at his cubbyhole of an office in the museum at the Mound Builders State Memorial, but we were soon trudging our way through a cornfield headed for a distant thicket of trees and the remains of a walled highway that, Lepper is convinced, the Hopewell built from Newark straight to Chillicothe some sixty miles to the southwest.
Lepper warned me not to expect too much, and he was right: the remnants of the road’s walls were hardly more than brush-covered irregularities in the surface of the ground. But these irregularities were eloquent to Lepper. “This is the first evidence we have of a great road in the eastern Woodlands. Not only is it monumental in size, it’s older than any other we know about.”
A walled roadway from the Newark earthworks to a creek about two and a half miles away appears on early maps, like the one Squier and Davis published in 1848. In 1990 Lepper rediscovered an unpublished map from 1862 that took the road another three miles toward Chillicothe. When he first saw the map, Lepper says, “It was as if I had gotten into a time machine and been transported back to 1862.” Beyond that, aerial photographs and physical evidence of the wall have convinced him of that thoroughfare’s reality.
Building a straight road is not that difficult—“Three men holding sticks could do that,” says Lepper—but the fact that this one appears to go straight to a destination sixty miles away is astonishing. If the road can be confirmed, it will throw a new light on the Hopewell culture, says Bob Petersen, an archeologist at the Hopewell Culture National Historical Park, a burial-mound grouping in Chillicothe at the other end of the putative highway. “It will show a greater commitment of time and energy than we thought them capable of and greater engineering skills than we thought they had.”
Lepper describes the Newark earthworks as “monumental architecture that we usually associate with kings and queens.” But there is no evidence that the Hopewell had a nobility or that the common people were coerced to build the earthworks, so it is possible that the architecture is the result of a common goal and vision shared by the populace over a span of generations. This is a difficult concept for us to grasp today, Lepper says, “when we can’t seem to sustain a national vision for more than the four or eight years of a Presidency.
“There seems to be a message here from the past. We can work together.”
For nearly two centuries Chillicothe has been the pre-eminent place to go to see mounds; it has a number of its own, and it is at the geographic center of mound country. Most of the other sites I visited, even those in West Virginia, lie within a hundred miles of it.
Chillicothe also has a firm place in the history of American archeology. The names archeologists have given to two principal prehistoric cultures come from there: Hopewell from the farm of Capt. M. C. Hopewell, where three dozen mounds were found in and around a 110-acre enclosure, and Adena from the estate of the same name belonging to Thomas Worthington, Ohio’s governor from 1814 to 1818. With the excavation of a large mound on Worthington’s estate in 1901, the Adena and the Hopewell began to emerge as clearly separate cultures.