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A Site to Be Seen: Ancient Earthworks Electronically Rebuilt, Now to Travel


The Midwest’s immense earthworks, structures built by ancient Native American cultures, have been all but lost to plow and pavement. No longer. An ambitious effort by the University of Cincinnati has rebuilt the mounds of two millennia ago. These virtual earthworks will soon be set to travel.


Date: 5/22/2006 12:00:00 AM
By: M.B. Reilly
Phone: (513) 556-1824
Photos By: Corson Hirschfeld and provided by John Hancock

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Native American cultures that once flourished in Ohio, Kentucky, Indiana and West Virginia constructed geometric and animal-shaped earth works that often rivaled Stonehenge in their astronomical accuracy.

Rendering of how a Hopewell village might have looked.
Rendering of how a Hopewell village might have looked.

A few are still extant – Serpent Mound in Adams County, Ohio, for example – but most of the region’s ancient architecture was all but squandered. Earthworks, from as early as 600 BC that stretched over miles and rose to heights of 15 feet or more, were either gouged out or plowed under in the 19th century or paved over for development in the 20th.

But now, this lost heritage from the Adena, Hopewell and Fort Ancient cultures is returning in the form of a traveling exhibit that will include virtual reconstructions of earthworks from 39 sites. The electronic recreations represent nearly ten years of work by an extensive team of architects, archaeologists, historians, technical experts and Native Americans. Project director is John Hancock, professor of architecture at the University of Cincinnati, working in partnership with the Center for the Reconstruction of Historical and Archaeological Sites (CERHAS) at the University of Cincinnati. The title of the project and the coming traveling exhibit is: “EarthWorks: Virtual Explorations of the Ancient Ohio Valley.”

Seip Earthworks in Ross County, Ohio, once held elaborate tombs.

The “EarthWorks” reconstructions will be the centerpiece within a 500-square-foot traveling exhibit fabricated by the Cincinnati Museum Center, which is also managing and administrating the national tour. The traveling exhibit will not only feature the electronic reconstructions of ancient earthworks but will also include a graphic timeline wall with cross cultural comparisons; a giant map wall of the Ohio River Valley (from the approximate location of Pittsburgh to Louisville) indicating placement of Native American earthworks; panels with diagrams, photos and text; and 3-D topographic models of five earthwork sites. The exhibit opens June 20, 2006, at the Cincinnati Museum Center. It remains at the museum center till Sept. 7, 2006. Discussions are underway for national exhibits over the next three years. Confirmed upcoming venues include

  • Cincinnati Museum Center, with opening on June 20, 2006 to Sept. 21, 2006. 
  • Ohio Historical Center, Columbus, from Oct. 4, 2006 to Jan. 4, 2007.
  • The Field Museum, Chicago, (became a part of a permanent exhibit) March 2007.
  • East Kentucky Science Center, Prestonburg, Ky., from Jan. 27, 2007 to May 20, 2007. 
  • SunWatch Indian Village/Archaeological Park, Dayton, Ohio, set to open May 26, 2007 to Sept. 9, 2007
  • Cleveland Museum of Natural History from Sept. 28, 2007 to Jan. 6, 2008.  

Set amid the physical elements of the exhibit, the 3-D virtual reconstructions by Hancock and his team recreate the earthworks for school children and scholars alike. The centerpiece of the exhibit is a large screen on which the 3-D explorations of “EarthWorks” by a user at the touch-screen computer can be shared with a larger audience. Virtual exploration of a gallery of period artifacts is also possible at two stand-alone kiosk stations.

Shaman figure found at Newark earthworks in Licking County, Ohio. The shaman is wearing a bear skin.

The project is built upon archaeological data gleaned from such modern technology as sensing devices and aerial photography as well as frontier maps and other aids provided by archaeologists to re-establish the location, size, shape and appearance of many of the region’s earthworks. Then, using architectural software and high-resolution computer modeling and animation, the UC-led team virtually rebuilt these massive structures and further created animated, interactive, narrated “tours” among them..

Funding for the traveling exhibit has been provided by the National Endowment for the Humanities. In all, the NEH has provided close to $500,000 for the project. Additional development support over the years has come from the Ohio Board of Regents, the Ohio Humanities Council, the Ohio Arts Council, the George Gund Foundation, and in-kind donations from the University of Cincinnati. Add up all funding and in-kind donations, and project support totals around $1.5 million.

 

 

 

 

Below are links with additional information about the project:

  • An inventory of the virtually rebuilt sites as well as other Adena, Hopewell and Fort Ancient cultural sites treated in “EarthWorks”
  • “EarthWorks” components: Traveling exhibit, DVD to take home, Web site
  • Previous projects by CERHAS (Center for the Electronic Reconstruction of Historical and Archaeological Sites) at the University of Cincinnati