University of Cincinnati logo and link
E-mail this information to a friend  

What’s Lost Is Found Again: Virtually Rebuilding Our Heritage

Through the University of Cincinnati’s “EarthWorks” project, we peer back 24 centuries to glimpse the science, religion, culture, art and design of the Adena, Hopewell and Fort Ancient peoples.

Date: 4/18/2006 12:00:00 AM
By: Mary Reilly
Phone: (513) 556-1824
Photos By: Andrew Higley and provided by John Hancock

UC ingot  

Before the Maya of Central America built their arrow-straight roadways, the creative Hopewell culture (contemporaries with the Caesars in Rome) flourished in North America’s Midwest and raised up monuments of earth that rivaled England’s Stonehenge in their astronomical accuracy. 

A ring of man-made ponds once accompanied the earthen walls of Fort Ancient high above the Littile Miami River in Ohio.

In the area that comprises Ohio, Kentucky, Indiana, Illinois and West Virginia, the early peoples (whom archaeologists would come to call the Adena, Hopewell and Fort Ancient cultures) erected hundreds of astronomical circles, octagons, rectangles (and later animal effigies) stretching thousands of feet in length and reaching 15 feet in height. Some, like the Newark Octagon, were incredibly precise in plotting and marking the moon’s subtle rhythms.

The remarkable technical capacity and culture of the Adena (who built cones and rings starting from 600 BC), the Hopewell (who specialized in geometric enclosures from 100 BC to AD 400), and later the Fort Ancient (building animal shapes from 700-1200 AD) peoples are, at best, overlooked even within the region where they concentrated their efforts, erecting earthworks of astonishing size and precision.

But a University of Cincinnati project ten years in the making is about to change that.   Begun in 1997, the “EarthWorks” project uses architectural software, high-resolution computer modeling and animation to virtually rebuild the long-lost and nearly forgotten achievements of the early Native Americans. 

Part of the Newark Great Circle in Licking County, Ohio

Directing the project is John Hancock, UC professor of architecture, who collaborated with the Center for the Reconstruction of Historical and Archaeological Sites (CERHAS) at UC. “It’s funny how I came to this project,” Hancock recalled.  “A graduate student came to me and said, ‘I want to do my thesis on the ancient earthworks of Ohio.’  I said, ‘The what?’  I’d been teaching ancient architecture here for 15 years, and I didn’t know anything about the truly remarkable roadways and geometric ceremonial monuments built by brilliant native cultures that preceded us here. I literally said, ‘I had no idea!’ and they were right here under our feet.”

Just so. The massive earthworks are a phenomenon, but remain mostly unknown even though estimates of their one-time numbers range from a few hundred to 10,000.  They survived intact up to the 19th century, but, now, it’s estimated that 80 percent of the once-extant “mounds” have been destroyed due to farming, looting, highways and sprawl.  Made of earth, they were easy to alter or erase. And so, the extent, scope and power of these works – which may have included an ancient 60-mile highway stretching between Newark and Chillicothe in Ohio – has remained hidden.

Destruction of the mounds
In the early 19th century, the existence of these mammoth works served as a launching point for American archaeology and was the subject of the first volume published by America’s newly founded Smithsonian Institution. That text, the Ancient Monuments of the Mississippi Valley, was published in 1848 and recorded the abundance of earthworks across the region.   

Mica hand recovered from an Ohio earthwork

Even the earliest archaeologists contributed to the destruction of these prehistoric monuments.  Nineteenth-century archaeologists gouged out earthworks, seeking the burial remains and artifacts (pottery, stone smoking pipes shaped like otters and ravens, headdresses with copper antlers and engraved tablets, as well as ornaments worked from copper, silver, translucent mica and stone) placed inside. 

The mounds and their function
Even though some are so large that they rival the buildings of Mexico’s empires, the “mounds” were a subtle form of architecture, according to Hancock.  They first took shape as cones and ridges (the simplest forms) and evolved to more complicated structures: giant geometric outlines, symmetrical octagons, perfect squares and, eventually, snakes and possums. 

Fort Ancient in Lebanon, Ohio, is the largest prehistoric hilltop enclosure in the United States and is still extant.

It’s thought that the earthworks were landscape markers and ceremonial centers tied to festivals (including marriage, death and burial), social and cosmological ideas of order, astronomical events and territorial agreements (likely tied to the emergence of planting and agriculture). In the case of hilltop enclosures, fortification may have been a minor or temporary – but by no means primary – motivation for construction.

The promises and pay-offs from the “virtual” rebuilding project
Given the challenge that most of the earthworks have been destroyed, how did Hancock and the team of UC students and faculty, scholars from around the country, archaeologists, graphic designers, artists, videographers and others piece the fragments together in order to rebuild and interpret these works?  How could they begin even knowing where to site them, since most have been paved, trampled, plundered, cultivated or overgrown?  First, there are the 19th-century historical records and maps.  They also made use of aerial photographs and satellite images.  Also, some ground-level remains enable them to mark and chart and make newly visible the till-now hidden ancient culture. 

John Hancock in the lab

Explained Hancock, “In our interactive video environments, people can explore the sites as if they were newly created, when the river valleys of middle America were lined with these vast, precise earthworks.  In the project, we’ve also placed related topics on life-ways of these peoples, their artistry, and practice of astronomy.”  He hopes UC’s “EarthWorks” will emerge as the primary public resource on the ancient Ohio Valley cultures.

Hancock added, “Think of the cathedrals of medieval Europe or Machu Pichu or the pyramids of ancient Egypt. Ancient cultures need vivid, iconic, architectural images in order to hold a prominent place in the popular imagination. These computer renderings will enable the modern imagination to see and to understand what has been destroyed over the last 200 years.”   

Return to main page of "EarthWorks" special report.

Digg! Digg | | Slashdot Slashdot | Reddit Reddit | AddThis Social Bookmark Button

More UC News | UC Home