The Trove of Ancient Monuments in Columbus’ Backyard
When you think of ancient sacred monuments, what places come to mind? Machu Picchu? Angkor Wat? Stonehenge? Giza?
How about Ohio? That’s right. Ohio. Not only has the Buckeye state produced ideas like the lightbulb, bubble gum and flight, along with a preponderance of presidents and astronauts, but it’s also home to spectacular structures from humanity’s ancient past that imply this has long been a land suited for lofty and inspired thought.
Almost as incredible as the monuments themselves, artifacts found in the area suggest that prehistoric people would travel extraordinary distances to set foot on their grounds. In fact, it appears that 2,000 years ago the region surrounding Columbus, especially to the south and east, was a cultural and ceremonial center for much of the North American continent.
While many of these features have been lost to farmer’s ploughs, modern roads and development in general, a surprising number have survived and can still be seen today. But before you grab your fedora and bullwhip as you make a mad dash out the door to dodge boulders and melt the faces off nazis, how about a little history?
When Ohio gained statehood in 1803, its founders decided to establish their first government seat at the location of a prominent Shawnee settlement now known as Chillicothe (the capital wasn’t moved to Columbus until 1816, but that’s another story). Large earthen mounds and walls of strange geometric design in the area surrounding the village suggested that it had been a place of great importance since long before the arrival of the settlers, or even the Shawnee, who, incidentally, claimed no knowledge as to the origin of the mysterious features.
In 1845 two residents of that town, Ephraim Squier and Edwin Davis, set out to investigate and map these mounds and earthworks, which they discovered in some instances to contain not only human remains but also elaborate funerary objects.
In 1848, they revealed their work in the first book to be published by the Smithsonian Institution, Ancient Monuments of the Mississippi Valley. Even though the title suggests otherwise, this includes Ohio. Decades later archeological digs at Thomas Worthington’s Adena estate and the farm of Mordecai Hopewell, both just outside of Chillicothe, would give us the names used today to refer to two of the major mound building cultures of the Ohio Valley.
The first to emerge were the Adena. Around 2,800 years ago these people signified a shift from earlier cultures when they began burying revered members of their societies with important select possessions in ceremonial buildings. Eventually they would dismantle the buildings then mound over them, only to later bury another person on top of that, mound it over again and repeat. This would result in a sort of vertical cemetery or hill of human remains that could reach heights of nearly 70 feet.
Over time, the customs of the Adena people became more and more elaborate, eventually culminating in an explosion of art, ceremony and scientific know-how which archeologists have classified as the Hopewell culture. It was during this period, between 1 AD and 400 AD, that civilization in the Ohio Valley flourished.
Just like the Adena, the Hopewell conducted death rituals in special buildings which they would later dismantle and commemorate as mounds, but the ceremonies conducted during this period seem to have been a bit more complex than mere funeral rites.
These weren’t the type of farewells where pictures of the deceased would float across a screen while “How Great Thou Art” is pumped into the room from an outdated audio system. Remains found in Hopewell graves often show evidence of intense and sometimes grisly mortuary processes that ended with cremation of the body in a basin on the charnel house floor. The prevailing theory is that this was not just an act of honoring the dead, but of using corpses in elaborate rituals meant to perpetuate the cycle of life.
Mounds from this time were also found to contain large quantities of finely crafted goods made from materials that were sourced from across the better part of North America. There were marine shell drinking vessels from the Gulf of Mexico, spear points of volcanic glass that came from Yellowstone National Park, a wand shaped like a hallucinogenic mushroom that was wrapped in Canadian silver, and great quantities of mica that had been brought here from the Carolinas.
Clearly, distance was no object for these people. This is evident not only by the exotic materials which were brought here by river and on foot from as far as nearly 2,000 miles away, but also by their immense earthworks.
These structures were not built as burial mounds but as places of great ritual and sacred meaning since lost to us. Most of the ceremonial earthworks were constructed on a scale so vast that no living person would’ve been able to observe them in their entirety. Examples of this grand scale are the Circle and Octagon Earthworks of Newark and Chillicothe’s High Bank Earthworks, which appear to have been built to correspond with each other so precisely as to deviate less than a single degree, despite being separated by a distance of 60 miles.
Not only did the Hopewell intend these sites to relate to one another across great terrestrial distances, but they also aligned them to a complex 18.6 year cycle of the moon (238,900 miles away), various movements of the sun (93 million miles away) and perhaps even to the stars. Its thought this was done to connect these sacred spaces, along with the rituals performed within and those who attended such ceremonies, to the cosmos at large.
So, where can you go to get a sense of these fascinating people that once roamed the lands where you now shop for jeans, check social media and stock up on groceries? There are burial mounds tucked away in neighborhoods and Metro Parks across the city. You can find them in Dublin, Worthington, Linden, Clintonville, Battelle Darby, Pataskala, Marble Cliff and on South Parsons, just to name a few. Some of the most impressive of the earthworks, however, are just a short drive outside of Columbus.
If it’s sheer grandeur that you’re looking for, the existing features of the Newark Earthworks, which are part of the largest geometric earthen enclosures in the world, offer an excellent introduction to the mysteries of the Hopewell. Hidden in their designs scholars have found evidence of sophisticated mathematics and a complex understanding of astronomy that is nothing short of mind blowing.
Standing in these ancient, sacred walls, it’s not difficult to imagine the feelings they must have evoked in those present 17 centuries ago, as their architecture perfectly aligned with the movement of the moon, sun and stars. Its almost unfathomable to think that these structures were created by moving an estimated 7 million cubic feet of earth using only bare hands, baskets and hoes made of clam shells tied to sticks.
Another great place to learn about this fascinating culture is in Chillicothe at the Hopewellian necropolis, Mound City. Part of the Hopewell Culture National Historical Park, Mound City is a 13-acre earthen enclosure surrounding 23 burial mounds that were found to contain a variety of treasures such as copper art and jewelry, hundreds of intricately carved effigy pipes and a ceremonial headdress made of human skulls. This is one of five locations that make up Hopewell Culture National Historical Park and has provided intriguing insight into the lives of these mysterious people.
If you drive an additional hour southwest of Mound City you’ll find the famed Great Serpent Mound. This enigmatic quarter-mile-long serpent effigy sits on the edge of a 400 million-year-old impact crater and has been found to incorporate a number of lunar and solar alignments in its sinuous design. While scholars can’t seem to agree on it’s age, the most accepted view is that it was constructed around 800 years ago by the people that followed the Hopewell, the Fort Ancient Culture.
Not to be confused with the Fort Ancient Culture (though it would be forgivable if you did) the Fort Ancient Earthworks are another impressive remnant of the Hopewell. Along with housing the most extensive museum of the aforementioned sites, Fort Ancient is the largest hill top enclosure in the United States and offers an example of a more free form style of Hopewell architecture, though they still managed to include their signature astronomical alignments in its construction.
While these four locations hardly make up the entirety of Ohio’s ancient historic monuments that are worthy of a visit, they each exemplify a unique and impressive aspect of the people who once called this land their home. They are also each on the path to being listed as UNESCO World Heritage Sites, where they will take their rightful place alongside such wonders as the Parthenon, the Great Wall of China and ancient city of Petra. Visit them now to avoid the crowds and learn more right here in Columbus at the Ohio History Connection.
To see a schedule of Columbus Ghost Tours upcoming events, including excursions to some of the ancient earthworks mentioned in this article, visit columbusghosttours.com.