Ohio's Hopewell Ceremonial Earthworks are now a UNESCO World Heritage site
Updated September 19, 2023 at 8:33 AM ET
There are now 25 UNESCO World Heritage sites in the United States. Delegates from across the world meeting in Saudi Arabia on Tuesday approved adding Ohio's Hopewell Ceremonial Earthworks to the prestigious list. UNESCO awards the designation to places deemed of universal importance and value to humankind. There are just a thousand sites worldwide and Ohio's Earthworks now take their place alongside such wonders as the Grand Canyon, with its awe-inspiring layers of sculpted rich, red rock, the Statue of Liberty and the 20th-century architecture of Frank Lloyd Wright.
"Just three months after rejoining UNESCO, the United States has its twenty-fifth site inscribed on the World Heritage List, which illustrates the richness and diversity of the country's cultural and natural heritage," said UNESCO Director-General Audrey Azoulay in a statement.
What are the Hopewell Ceremonial Earthworks?
The Hopewell Ceremonial Earthworks encompass eight sites — a collection of historic earthen mounds built by Indigenous peoples:
All the sites were built 1,600 to 2,000 years ago by peoples formerly referred to as Hopewell.
"In the past we might sometimes say 'Hopewell culture' or 'Hopewell people,' but what we really understand 'Hopewell' to be now is not a new peoples," explains Bill Kennedy, site manager and site archeologist at Fort Ancient Earthworks and Nature Preserve. "It's a new religious movement of people. It's happening all throughout eastern North America. It reaches a fluorescence, though, in southern Ohio that it doesn't reach anywhere else."
Fort Ancient is located about 45 minutes north of Cincinnati, high atop a river bluff. Despite names like 'Fort' Ancient, the earthworks served as ceremonial centers, not military ones.
"Fort Ancient is one of the types of earthworks that these people build – it is what we will call a hilltop enclosure. This is the type of earthwork we see mostly in southwest Ohio," he explains. "Whereas in south central or eastern Ohio, we see mostly geometric earthworks. Earthworks are in the shapes of circles, squares, or octagons."
The mounds across Ohio range in height from three to more than 30 feet, and are miles long in some places.
Fort Ancient is huge. It is the largest hilltop enclosure in North America, with room to fit the World Heritage site the Great Pyramid of Giza inside.
"Just the walls alone of this site," Kennedy says of Fort Ancient, "are the equivalent of 125 million basket loads of soil at 30 pounds apiece."
"But how does such a relatively small group of people build something so monumental," he asks.
It's a pretty easy answer, he jokes.
"Slowly, really slowly."
Marvels of engineering and astronomy
It might be unusual to consider huge mounds of dirt as anything significant, however, UNESCO calls the earthworks a "masterpiece of human creative genius." That's one of 10 possible criteria for inclusion on the World Heritage List. Another calls for bearing "exceptional testimony to a cultural tradition or to a civilization which is living or which has disappeared."
The design and construction of the Earthworks show the people during this early era had a clear understanding of geometry, architecture, and solar and lunar alignments and multi-year cycles.
Chief Ben Barnes of the Shawnee Tribe, who was involved in the earthworks nomination, also sees its inscription on the UNESCO World Heritage List as a step toward combating racist and ignorant stereotypes about his people and his ancestors.
"They're great civil engineers. They're artists, they're astronomers, mathematicians, and for my people, that's not the way that Shawnee people, or any Indigenous peoples in this country, are typically portrayed in media," he says.
In addition, the Hopewell Ceremonial Earthworks address gaps in the World Heritage List identified by the World Heritage Committee. Specifically, a lack of sites representing pre-contact Indigenous American sacred architecture and sites that represent early understandings of science, culture and astronomy.
All together, 54 nominations are being considered at this month's UNESCO World Heritage conference. No locations were inscribed last year. Russia was to chair the World Heritage Committee, and a number of countries, including the U.S., objected given Russia's war on Ukraine — which puts half a dozen World Heritage Sites in Ukraine at risk.
Ohio's decade-long effort for World Heritage Site recognition
Jennifer Aultman is chief historic sites officer at Ohio History Connection, which worked with the National Park Service on the nomination. She says this day has been in the works since before 2008, with thousands of hours of research, meetings, site visits and finally, in the midst of the COVID pandemic, a 330-page nomination dossier.
"When we sent this off, it was New Year's Eve of 2021. FedExed it off to one of the Department of the Interior employees, to his home, because everyone was working from home. Then he needed to get it to the State Department, but they met in a parking lot and passed off a box because no one was working in the office," she recalls. "And then someone from (the) State Department actually carried it, I think, to Paris and hand delivered it."
Aultman jokes World Heritage status doesn't come with a pot of money at the end of the rainbow, but it could be an economic driver, attracting tourists from around the world to see and experience something so monumental.
"That's really an incredible idea — that there's something that all people, no matter their nationality, no matter where they grew up, that we should care about, because they help us understand what it means to be human," she says. "Then there are more local reasons. We work with our tribal partners, who (were) removed from Ohio in the 19th century, and this is a way to help elevate their heritage."
Today no federally recognized tribes remain in Ohio. They were all forcibly removed in the 17 and 1800s. Yet it was their ancestors who created these massive feats of design and engineering.
Glenna Wallace is chief of the Eastern Shawnee Tribe of Oklahoma and has been active in the World Heritage process. She says inscription on the World Heritage List is part of her mission to teach people about the earthworks that her ancestors built.
Speaking to the World Heritage committee after Tuesday's decision, she said she was humbled, honored, and "so thankful that the world at long last recognizes the commitment, the spirituality, the knowledge of astronomy, mathematics, art, geology, and aesthetic vision, resulting in the imaginative thinking, used by our ancestors to create these magnificent earthworks.
"They were not just geniuses; they were uncommon geniuses."
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