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The Quest to Save One of Ohio’s Last Intact Native Sites is Underway

Jesse Bethea Jesse Bethea The Quest to Save One of Ohio’s Last Intact Native Sites is UnderwayImage via archaeologicalconservancy.org
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The next few days could mean either preservation or loss for the Fortified Hill Earthwork, an ancient site constructed by the people of the Hopewell culture about 2,000 years ago in what is now Butler County. Since it was surveyed by James McBride in 1836, Fortified Hill has fascinated and baffled archeologists, and by the end of the week, the secrets of the earthwork and the ancient people who built it could be lost forever.

Fortified Hill lies on the property of the late Dr. Lou Barich, who died earlier this year without leaving any instructions on what should happen to the earthwork in his will. On Saturday, the late doctor’s property will go to auction, and so will four parcels of land that contain the bulk of Fortified Hill. In an effort to save the ancient earthworks for future generations, Dr. Jeff Leipzig, a friend of Barich, has stepped up and organized a variety of historical preservation groups to raise money for the auction.

“It’s a beautiful place, a special place, a sacred place,” said Leipzig of Fortified Hill.

As of September 25, the coalition organized by Leipzig, which includes the Heartland Earthworks Conservancy and the Archeological Conservancy, as well as members of the Butler County community, had raised more than $462,000 — enough to secure the minimum acceptable bid for Lot 15 of the property. According to the Heartland Earthworks Conservancy Facebook page, this would include “a big chunk of the earthwork and access to a road — the basics we need to create a park.” But the coalition hopes to acquire the other parcels as well, particularly Lot 18, which contains Fortified Hill’s elaborate gateway structures.

Leipzig’s biggest concern is that the parcels could end up in the hands of developers, or even a single buyer who might destroy the earthwork or its hidden artifacts with new construction on the virtually untouched land.

“Can you imagine just wiping all of that off the earth? All of that?” said Leipzig. “It would just be a tragedy.”

Leipzig hopes the coalition can preserve the land as a public park, and limit excavation to responsible archeologists and historians, so as to permanently protect a rare window into Native America and the forgotten ancient world.

“It’s for science,” said Leipzig. “This isn’t gonna be somebody randomly digging up a mound and trying to find treasure in it, which is the risk… That’s the risk with any of these properties, people dig into them and they destroy them. They’re cemeteries, they’re spiritual sites, they’re sacred sites.”

Image via Wikimedia Commons

When Ephraim George Squier and Edwin Hamilton Davis published Ancient Monuments of the Mississippi Valley in 1848 — the first publication of the Smithsonian Institution — they wrote of Fortified Hill, “The character of this structure is too obvious to admit of doubt.”

“From the manifest judgment with which their defensive positions were chosen, as well as from the character of their entrenchments, so far as we comprehend them, it is safe to conclude that all parts of this work were the best calculated to secure the objects proposed by the builders, under the modes of attack and defence then practised.” Squier and Davis concluded that Fortified Hill must have had a mostly military purpose, and thus it received its English name.

Today, archeologists have some different theories on the purpose of Fortified Hill, and other Hopewell earthworks that populate the Midwest.

“The thing about Hopewell is…we think it wasn’t just a single group that spoke a single language,” said Jen Aultman, World Heritage Director for the Ohio History Connection. “It was almost like a religious movement, a spiritual, religious movement, across a large space, multiple states, although Ohio ended up becoming the center at some point. And so we don’t know specifically about the people that built and used Fortified Hill.”

Aultman is responsible for coordinating the OHC effort to have eight Hopewell Ceremonial Earthworks in Ohio added to UNESCO’s World Heritage List — the Newark Earthworks, Fort Ancient, Hopewell Culture National Historical Park, Mound City, the Hopewell Mound Group, the Seip Earthworks, the Hopeton Earthworks, and the High Bank Earthworks. Each of these sites is unique, said Aultman, and each site can teach archeologists more about the people who built them, what was important to them, and how they made sense of their world.

Many opportunities to learn about the Hopewell culture have already been lost. On September 10, the Heartland Earthworks Conservancy Facebook page noted that of the ancient earthworks in the Miami Valley mapped by Squier and Davis in 1848, only Fortified Hill remains intact. Fortified Hill is not on the list of nominations for World Heritage status, but because every Hopewell site is different, and this particular Hopewell site has been left mostly untouched, Fortified Hill could represent archeological fortune and glory.

“This is one we can save,” said Leipzig. “This is our opportunity to save one.”

And as desperately as archeologists want to preserve Fortified Hill, there are people for whom the earthworks have spiritual significance today, just as they did 2,000 years ago.

“We have tribal partners that we work with at the History Connection…we know they respected the earthworks when they came through more recently, in the last several centuries,” said Aultman. “These places are really important to them. We know that they did not destroy them. We know that the tribes we work with today say their ancestors helped to protect and honor these places, so it’s important both for learning what was happening here 1,500 to 2,000 years ago, but also respecting the fact that they have more recently been, and in some cases really still are, spiritually important to American Indian people whose tribes were forced out of this state.”

The estate auction is set for Saturday, September 28. The Archeological Conservancy is currently accepting pledges to reach the minimum acceptable bid for the bulk of Fortified Hill.

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