Walking in the footsteps of the Moundbuilders

Squier and Davis’ map of the Newark Earthworks.

We’re standing in front of a 4-foot mound of debris beside the railroad tracks in Newark, Ohio. Jeff Gill, our guide, tells us he caught two kids huffing here once, and during that encounter he wondered if this pile of detritus might be something more, something that once was part of the ancient Newark Earthworks.

We were walking the streets of Newark on that spring day, looking for traces of a past civilization scattered among second-hand stores, golf courses and residential neighborhoods. Sometimes, the traces were easy to see. Others, it required close observation and a dose of conjecture to spot them. As we walked, we paid especial attention to alleys, which, as Gill explained, tend to follow the natural lay of the land rather than being graded like regular roads. That allowed us to see subtle swells and uneven stretches that align, more or less, with where the walls leading into the earthworks once stood.

The Newark site was surveyed by Squier and Davis in Ancient Monuments of the Mississippi Valley, a book published by the Smithsonian in 1848.

“These works are so complicated, that it is impossible to give anything like a comprehensible description of them,” Squire and Davis wrote.

While Ancient Monuments is flawed in many places, it’s an invaluable reference guide to the mounds scattered across middle America. Many of the sites Squier and Davis surveyed have been destroyed by “progress” in the intervening years. In fact, a key part of the Newark Earthworks, the Octagon, is now Mound Builders Country Club, a golf course that allows public access to the mounds only four times a year, and that only begrudgingly. A recent court ruling provides hope of greatly improved access, possibly even removal of the golf course and restoration of this archeological treasure.

Jeff Gill, wearing hat, discusses the Wright Earthworks during our tour.

This tour, unfortunately, is not held during a public access day, so all we can do is stand across a busy road and view the Octagon mounds from a distance. It reminds me, vaguely and strangely, of the first time I saw Templo Mayor in Mexico City decades ago. I marveled at the urban swirl around an archeological dig exposing the remains of the Mexica’s main temple in their capital city of Tenochtitlán. While urban Newark has little in common with Mexico City, it does share this pre-Colombian grandeur intertwined with the mechanics of 21st century life. It’s also a mortal reminder of how small we are in the stream of time. So much came before us. So much will (hopefully) continue after.

My favorite HDR shot from my trip to Machu Picchu in 2007. I took the first bus up to the site that day and was rewarded with this view.

That trip to Mexico in 1990 was the beginning of my fascination with archeological sites, ranging from Machu Picchu to Teotihuacán to Chaco Canyon to Cahokia to Serpent Mound.

At the base of the Pyramid of the Sun at Teotihuacán. Photo by BUG.

Shortly after moving to Athens, I learned Ohio is dotted with thousands of mounds, prompting me to explore Serpent Mound, Newark Earthworks and Hopewell Culture National Historical Park in short order. Even the local trails at Strouds Run State Park lead me past the remnants of mounds.

Serpent Mound in Ohio. This is the first site in Ohio I visited after moving to Athens.

While cycling in Athens, I’m constantly — sometimes painfully — reminded that brick roads tend to spread and undulate as the roadbed beneath them shifts over time. But here in Newark, Gill points out a brick alley that is more than 100 years old, each brick remaining level and true. That suggests, he says, a foundation beneath it that served as a road bed long before we arrived, the constant pressure of foot traffic compacting the soil, preparing the perfect site for this alley we’re now standing on. As he speaks, I flash to Acoma Pueblo in New Mexico, which sits atop a towering sandstone mesa. Walking up to the site, visitors tread a path marked by the indentations of human foot traffic dating back nearly a millennium. It’s all connected. Somehow.

Footprints worn into the sandstone over time. I think this is from my visit to Bandelier National Monument in New Mexico in 2003. The first time encountered something like this was at Acoma Pueblo in the 1990s.

As we viewed the Wright Earthworks, a site tucked next to a welding yard off Newark’s beaten path, several local residents said they had never been to this spot. It struck me how important it is that we educate ourselves about what came before us. Gill repeatedly cited newspaper accounts to bolster or diminish theories about the site. What will happen 100 years from now, when newspapers are long gone and digital archives spotty? Will the decimation of local media sever us from our past?

Even the street names in Newark give hints of ancient origins. Roads like Ridgeview, where there is no ridge in view, suggest that when it initially was plotted, there was in fact a ridge (part of the earthworks) that has since been leveled. Intimations of immortality are everywhere. One just has to pay attention — and find the right guide.

Gill, an engaging, erudite mashup of a preacher and John Lithgow, proves the perfect leader for this tour of Newark. He’s quick to say “I don’t know” when the answer is uncertain. Archeology can reveal only so much, leaving us to speculate about what the material facts add up to. He is, in fact, a man of the cloth, though not one who seems inclined to traffic in dogma. The walking tour takes the better part of a Saturday, leading us on a circle that starts and ends at the Cherry Valley Ellipse. This is the mortuary area, where the Hopewell buried their dead, and it’s also where the Shaman of Newark was unearthed in 1881. It’s believed the deceased were left on nearby hilltops until only their bones remained, which were then bundled up and brought to the Ellipse for burial.

At the end of the tour, there are more questions than answers. What does this all mean? What were the Hopewell trying to accomplish in this sprawling complex. Only part of it — the Ellipse — appears to have been funerary in purpose.

“The site may be more like a pre-Colombian Large Hadron Collider — a vast machine, or device, designed and built to unleash primordial forces,” posits Bradley T. Lepper in The Newark Earthworks, A Monumental Engine of World Renewal in The Newark Earthworks: Enduring Monuments, Contested Meanings.

During my first visit to Newark, I was surprised to see what appeared to be moats at the earthworks. But they were inside the walls. Why the hell would they put moats inside? Perhaps these ditches weren’t for defensive purposes. Lepper suggests they might actually have been designed to contain the spirits of the dead within the circle during the rituals conducted there. Lepper also notes that later peoples continued to treat the earthworks as sacred space. He cites Allan Eckert’s The Frontiersmen, where protagonist Sam Kenton notes the Shawnee were making pilgrimages to this area long after the Hopewell were gone.

It’s all connected. Somehow.

While visiting Peru’s Sacred Valley in 2007, I saw these folks gathered at the Incan site of Saqsaywaman.