At Large  September 25, 2023  Rebecca Schiffman

A Golf Course on Ancient Earthworks Is Now Part of a UNESCO Site

© Ohio History Connection, Photo: Bradley T. Lepper

Mound City: Aerial View

A golf course in Ohio is now part of a World Heritage site, the first for the state. UNESCO, which last week approved 42 new sites, included Hopewell Ceremonial Earthworks, a property which is a series of eight monumental earthen constructions, or mounds, created between 2,000 and 1,600 years ago by people now referred to as the Hopewell Culture. One of those sites, the Octagon Earthworks, sits on property that since 1910 has been home to the Moundbuilders Country Club. 

The Ohio History Connection together with the National Park Service and the Interior Department persuaded UNESCO, during a vote last week, at the annual World Heritage Convention in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia (which ran September 10 - 25), to recognize the eight Native American earthwork sites in central Ohio, including the Octagon Earthworks.

In addition to being Ohio’s first World Heritage site, Hopewell Ceremonial Earthworks are the 25th World Heritage listing in the United States. Though the golf course is still in operation, it was ruled in Ohio’s Supreme Court last December that it will have to turn over its lease to the Ohio History Connection, a non-profit situated in Columbus, which manages over 50 museums and sites across the state with the aim of preserving and sharing information on Ohio's history, and plans to turn the site into a public park. 

© Ohio History Connection, Photo: Bradley T. Lepper

Octagon Earthworks: Avenue at Sunrise

The Hopewell Ceremonial Earthworks are important not only to Ohio’s indigenous history. They also serve as a testament to the creative genius of the Hopewell people over two millennia ago. The eight ancient earthworks are managed in part by the National Park Service

According to the National Park Service's site, the Earthworks include Hopewell Culture National Historical Park in Chillicothe, including the Mound City Group, Hopewell Mound Group, Seip Earthworks, High Bank Earthworks, and Hopeton Earthworks, as well as Ohio History Connection's Octagon Earthworks and Great Circle Earthworks in Newark and Fort Ancient Earthworks in Oregonia.

The Hopewell Ceremonial Earthworks were built around 160 B.C. and range from a few inches tall to over thirty feet high. The mounds of earth were used for ceremonial purposes and celebrations. They were created with geometry in mind as they were also used to track the seasons and celestial bodies through solar and stellar alignments. The Ohio earthworks were built in an octagon shape, which aligned with the northernmost rising of the moon. The people who built the mounds must have also been very familiar with the local soils, as they combined different types in order to make the mounds as stable as possible. 

© Ohio History Connection, Photo: Bradley T. Lepper

Great Circle Earthworks: Aerial View

Since 1910, the Moundbuilders Country Club has leased the land and it has been a golf course. But for the past few decades, groups such as the Friends of the Mounds and Ohio History Connection began to work to protect the site. The decision reached by the Ohio Supreme Court in December ends four years of court battles and decades of arguments over the future of the site. Now, the Moundbuilders Country Club in Newark, Ohio must sell their lease (which was active until 2078) to the state’s historical society. “The historical, archaeological and astronomical significance of the Octagon Earthworks is arguably equivalent to Stonehenge or Machu Picchu," wrote Justice Michael P. Donnelly in his decision for the court.

Megan Wood, executive director and chief executive of the Ohio History Connection said in a quote to the New York Times, “Inscription on the World Heritage List will call international attention to these treasures long known to Ohioans.” 

UNESCO designated the Hopewell Ceremonial Earthworks a World Heritage Site because they are the most representative surviving expressions of the Indigenous Hopewell tradition. Not only are they enormous in scale and have a wide geographic distribution, but their geometrical precision and their astronomical breadth and accuracy tell us that these ancient people had extensive knowledge of complex astronomical cycles.

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