I’ve always been intrigued by the Moundbuilders, possibly because my area of Ohio is rich with mounds, so it was always something we studied growing up. We’re only about half an hour away from Newark and have been to the Great Circle Mound several times. Once, when I was taking a class, I also was able to visit the Octagon Mound, which, although owned by Licking County, is under a long-term lease to a private golf course and so is unavailable for the general public to visit most of the time. For people who didn’t grow up in this area, or who aren’t particularly interested in this aspect of history, you may be unfamiliar with the ancient Native American cultures about which we know almost nothing for sure – likely ancestors of the tribes living here when the Europeans arrived, but even that cannot be known for sure, especially since those tribes had no particular oral history associated with the mounds.
The Great Serpent Mound and Fort Ancient are probably the most famous of Ohio’s earthworks, and are both well-worth looking up and visiting if the opportunity arises. But I’ve always had a soft spot for Newark’s earthworks, partially because they are so close to home and partially because they always seem somewhat neglected by historians. When I was in college (almost 20 years ago!) I took an Ohio history class with my favorite professor. He assigned us various famous Ohioans about whom we had to write a report and also give a lesson about to the rest of the class (since the course was a required one for education majors, he liked having us do some of the teaching). One of my Ohioans was “Oog – a Moundbuilder,” and the professor told me later that he had specifically given me the assignment because he knew that I absolutely HATE the way people make assumptions about ancient history and then state them as facts. The truth of the matter is that we know incredibly little about past cultures for certain. We can make guesses and assumptions about them, but literally KNOW almost nothing. The way theories and actual guesses are presented as facts fills me with rage, so I had a great time with my Moundbuilders report, which turned into a bit of a lecture on the importance of separating theories from facts haha
ALL THAT TO SAY – a while ago I stumbled across this book and was genuinely excited because when I did my college report back in 2003, this book didn’t exist – in fact, the number of books about the Newark Earthworks at that time numbered exactly zero. (For the record, it now numbers exactly one, so while progress has been made, it isn’t much!) This book, published just a few years ago, is actually a collection of essays, each written by a scholar in a field related to history/ancient cultures/archeology/etc. The subtitle for the book is Enduring Monuments, Contested Meanings and in the introduction the editor explains that while they wanted to hear from a variety of voices on the topic of the earthworks, they also wanted to recognize the fact that there are different theories about both the mounds’ past and future. Thus, not all of the essays are in accord with one another, and I really appreciated the acknowledgement that that’s okay. It’s important to explore different theories and ideas in order to see what pieces fit together.
This book was written because the Earthworks are being considered (or at least were at the time – I’m not sure where they are in the process five years later) as a UNESCO World Heritage site, a title that I think that they deserve. So the idea for the book was to provide an introduction to the Earthworks, their known history, their theoretical ancient history, and various ideas for their future. While I did overall enjoy this book and I learned a lot, it’s an incredibly scholarly book in tone. It wasn’t particularly friendly to the layman and there were many areas that went over my head because I’m not actually any kind of expert in archeology (or math). I understand why they went the route they did with this book, but it would be amazing if someone would write a book on the topic that was more approachable for an everyday person.
Part One of the book is titled “The Newark Earthworks in the Context of American and Ohio History” and the essays in that section look at the known/recorded history of the Earthworks, discussing what parts of them were destroyed as the city of Newark was being built and what areas have been preserved (and how) and the basic original layout of the mounds. The main section of the mounds consist of a gigantic circle (3309 feet in circumference) which was originally connected to a large square by means of a road between oblong mounds. The square, in turn, was connected by a much longer road to an octagon linked to a smaller circle. There were also various other smaller mounds and roads that were part of the original complex. All that now remains are the Great Circle, the Octagon plus its smaller circle, a small piece of the Square, a few other odd and end mounds. The rest have tragically been destroyed over the years.
My favorite essay of the entire book was by Ray Hively and Robert Horn and is titled “The Newark Earthworks: A Grand Unification of Earth, Sky, and Mind.” This essay delves into the connections between the Earthworks and the moon and is absolutely fascinating, even if much of the math went over my head. The authors talk about how we can’t assume that just because one aspect of an ancient creation lines up with something in the sky that it means it was meant to do so – but when multiple things connect, we can start to assume that it was purposeful. In Newark, the Octagon has a complicated but precise relationship with the lunar cycle –
The moon completes its north-to-south-and-back excursion in only 27.3 days. A more careful and persistent observer would note over time that the precise location of the lunar extreme rise and set points oscillates much more slowly between maximum and minimum extremes, spanning a period of 18.6 years.
Despite the fact that this lunar pattern only repeats once every two decades, the mounds that comprise the Octagon correlate with the maximum and minimum northern and southern rises to an amazing degree of accuracy. This type of observation is something that would have to take place over many years in order to make sure that the mounds were being placed directly. Further, Hively and Horn go on to explain how the actual location for the earthworks complex is ideal in association with not just the lunar observations, but with various solar notations as well.
This post is already getting completely out of control length-wise, but I still have so much I want to discuss! Several essays connected the mounds to other mysterious works of the ancients around the world – these connections were also tenuous – they were an attempt to compare things that have been learned about other locations and also methods that have been used in the preservation and current usage and then connect those things to the Newark mounds. However, since I had picked up this book to learn more about the Newark earthworks, I found myself losing interest at page after page talking about about earthworks and buildings in other places around the world, especially when the emphasis was on how those locations were “definitely” used by the ancients so now we can “definitely” know how the Newark earthworks were used as well. I’m sorry, but you simply weren’t there. We can make many educated guesses and create complex theories, but that’s as far as we can go – and we literally will NEVER know the answer.
Another section of the book contained essays arguing that Native Americans should have more/complete control over the future of the Newark Earthworks. While I could appreciate the spirit of these essays, I couldn’t bring myself to completely agree with them. There is no actual oral history connecting the modern American Tribes with the moundbuilders – the mounds were not being utilized for ceremonial or other uses when the settlers moved into this region. I’m not convinced that the Shawnees, currently living in Oklahoma, should have more to say about how the mounds should be used than the actual people who currently live around them. There is no doubt that many horrific things happened in the past to the Native Americans and to their sacred places and burial locations, but there is also no evidence that the Newark Earthworks were either of those things for any people still living.
Consequently, essays that took the traditions of modern Native Americans and retrospectively applied them to the builders of the Earthworks also annoyed me. Thousands of years have passed, there is absolutely no oral history recorded that explains the mounds, and we have no idea what the actual beliefs or political systems of these people were, so condescendingly explaining to me that “obviously” the moundbuilders had similar beliefs concerning the (non) ownership of land as did the native tribes that lived in the area when the Europeans arrived doesn’t really fly with me. Ideas on land ownership, political hierarchy, and religion are constantly evolving and shifting – do you really think that the people themselves died out so completely so as to not be remembered by their descendants, yet somehow all of their beliefs passed down through those same generations completely unchanged?
For instance, one essay discusses “Indigenous Views on Land and Place” and goes on to explain that, “Land and spiritual places are of central importance to indigenous nations. … Indigenous peoples did not own land in the Western sense of fee-simple holding. Rather the people belong to the land, like the plants, animals, places, and sacred bundles. ‘We do not own the land, we are of the land, we belong to it,’ according to Lenape teachings.” The essay goes on to claim that, because of this, only indigenous people have the right to say what should happen with the earthworks (in Newark and elsewhere) because those are sacred places. This is all well and good but… there is literally no evidence to show that the people who built the earthworks had the same feeling about land and its relationship to people as the beliefs of current Native tribes.
I’m also always amazed at how modern interpretations of the ancients ALWAYS uses some form of religion as an explanation for EVERYTHING. Because obviously the only reason anyone would ever want to study the lunar cycle is because they worship the moon, apparently. This modern-day arrogance that states that no earlier cultures could have ever been interested in science for the sake of science really grates on my nerves. It comes from a place of insisting that humanity itself is growing ever better, stronger, and more intelligent – when I actually believe that the opposite is true. At best, we cycle through highs and lows, and there is absolutely no reason why there could not have been a high point of civilization, science, and society during the time that the Earthworks were constructed – that things could have been built and studied from the sheer curiosity and interest of doing so rather than from some deep need to appease a god or usher the spirits of dead ones into the afterworld. Yet this concept is virtually NEVER explored in anything I read about any ancient cultures. Our modern day superiority insists that even though these cultures may have been “intelligent”, the only thing that could actually drive them to accomplish anything so amazing and involving such intricate and dedicated long-term study is… religion. (And I say this as a religious person!)
In the end, this was an interesting read, especially for someone with an interest in ancient cultures in general and the Newark Earthworks in particular, but I felt that far too much emphasis and weight was placed on the interpretation of these mounds rather than what we actually KNOW and can observe for ourselves. I would have loved more information about the lunar cycle and the connections to other high points in the region – basically, I wanted the first section to be the entire book lol This is a book worth looking into if the topic really interests you, but someone needs to write a version that is more accessible for everyday readers if they actually want to interest “regular” people in the earthworks and their future.