Our Landscape's Heritage, Lost Beneath Shopping Malls

University of Cincinnati reconstructions of Native Americans’ ancient monuments  allow us to peer back 24 centuries

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 to raise up monuments of earth that rivaled England’s Stonehenge in their astronomical accuracy. 

In the area that comprises Ohio, Kentucky, Indiana and Illinois, the Adena, Hopewell and Fort Ancient peoples erected hundreds of astronomical circles, octagons, rectangles (and later animal effigies) stretching thousands of feet in length and reaching 15 feet in height.  The works served as 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 an already five years’ long project at the University of Cincinnati is poised to change that.  Begun in 1997, the EarthWorks project is using architectural software, high-resolution computer modeling and animation to virtually rebuild the long-lost and nearly forgotten achievements of the early Native Americans.  Architecture Professor John Hancock of the Center for the Reconstruction of Historic Sites at UC is now set to exhibit the first fruits of his EarthWorks research in a series of museum installations that bring home the visual immensity of the earthworks.  Thus, Hancock is using technology to change how historical and ancient sites can be viewed.

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“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 the native cultures that preceded us here.  We were preceded here by a brilliant people! I literally said, ‘I had no idea!’ and they were right here under our feet.”

Just so.  The massive earthworks are a phenomena, 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 birthed American archaeology and was the subject of the first volume published by America’s newly founded Smithsonian Institution, the Ancient Monuments of the Mississippi Valley of 1848 which recorded the abundance of Hopewell earthworks across the region.   

Newark Shaman

Newark Shaman

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 nearly two millennia before.  In fact, Hopewell obsidian came all the way from what is, today, Yellowstone Valley in the Rocky Mountains. 


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. 



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 part of –but by no means all of – the picture.

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 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. 

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…images to gain a prominent place in the popular imagination.  These computer renderings…their [the mounds’] secrets, allowing the modern imagination to see and to understand what has been destroyed over the last 200 years.”   

Upcoming exhibits/funding:
The Scioto River Valley portion of EarthWorks will officially open as a permanent exhibit March 6 at the Hopewell Culture National Historical Park in Chillicothe, Ohio.

On June 21, the Miami Valley portion of the project will open as a permanent exhibit at The Cincinnati Museum Center at Union Terminal

Thus far, EarthWorks has received about $1.5 million in funding from the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Ohio Board of Regents, the Ohio Humanities Council, the Ohio Arts Council, the George Gund Foundation, the University of Cincinnati, and UC’s College of Design, Architect


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