Ohio Earthworks (part I)

Exceptional Sites of Cultural Preservation and Architecture

Image of Mound City courtesy of John Hancock via the Ohio History Connection

Hopewell Ceremonial Earthworks

Not far outside Cincinnati sits monumental masterpieces of landscape architecture built between 2,000 and 1,600 years ago along the central tributaries of the Ohio River. Collectively known at the Hopewell Ceremonial Earthworks, they are eight earthwork complexes spread across three cities in Ohio: Newark, Chillicothe, and Oregonia.


The Hopewell Ceremonial Earthworks were built—one basket of dirt at a time—by the indigenous tradition now referred to as the Hopewell culture. A relic of past archaeological labeling conventions, the name “Hopewell” references a landowner in Chillicothe named Mordecai Hopewell. Hopewell was the recognized owner of the property in the late 1800s when many mounds and sacred sites were excavated by early American archaeologists. We do not know what the Hopewell culture would have called themselves, but we do know that they were not comprised of a single group of people, but rather a spiritual movement that linked many distinct communities spread across eastern North America.

Image courtesy of the Ohio History Connection

The earthworks they constructed are extraordinary, even among other ancient earthworks from around the globe due to their enormous scale, wide geographic scope and geometric precision. 

Despite being located many miles apart, several of the Hopewell Ceremonial Earthworks share similar geometric patterns that enabled precise observation of lunar and solar astronomical events over many years. The precision of these ancient observatories and gathering places would have taken generations to organize and construct. It’s clear that the creators of these ancient marvels were expert astronomers, architects and ma­­­­thematicians.

Image of Mound City courtesy of John Blank and National Park Service via the Ohio History Connection

Image of Newark Earthworks courtesy of alterNative Media via the Ohio History Connection

Where Earth Meets Sky The huge squares, circles, and octagons, which are geometrically precise and align perfectly with the cycles of the sun and moon, were built by dispersed communities of American Indians who periodically gathered at these special places to worship and stay connected to one another. The earthworks are incredibly big to accommodate those large numbers of people. Artifacts found at these sites are made from unusual raw materials such as mica from Appalachia, seashells from the Gulf of Mexico, and obsidian from the Rocky Mountains. This shows that people traveled here from the ends of the Hopewell world bringing with them rare and precious gifts. The immense effort this would have required further solidifies these earthworks as centers of human ingenuity.


The UNESCO Designation
The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) uses education, science, culture, communication and information to foster mutual understanding and respect for our planet. They work to strengthen the intellectual and moral solidarity of humankind and bring out the best in our shared humanity.


Hopewell Ceremonial Earthworks were inscribed onto UNESCO’s World Heritage list on September 19, 2023 at the convention in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. This is only the 25th World Heritage site in the U.S. and the first and only listing in Ohio. View further details and documents about the Hopewell Ceremonial Earthworks listing here. 


There are currently 1,199 World Heritage sites of exceptional cultural and natural value on the full World Heritage list which includes sites such as Stonehenge, The Great Pyramid of Giza, and the Great Wall of China. The concept of World Heritage was formally adopted in 1972, with the international treaty called the Convention Concerning the Protection of the World Cultural and Natural Heritage. The treaty seeks to encourage the identification, protection and preservation of cultural and natural heritage around the world considered to be of outstanding value to humanity.

Image from the convention courtesy of Ohio History Connection

In addition to this international acknowledgement of the Indigenous people who lived here first and who continue to live here, Ohio has the privilege to help share their remarkable story. This recognition will draw visitors to the region from all over the world, and together we can celebrate the wisdom of those who came before us. 

Decades of Effort
The delegation who worked on the UNESCO listing was composed of leaders from Ohio History Connection, Hopewell Culture National Historical Park and other National Park Service leaders, and representatives from many federally recognized American Indian tribes, including the Eastern Shawnee Tribe of Oklahoma, the Seneca Nation, the Miami Tribe of Oklahoma, the Wyandotte Nation, and the Pokagan Band of Potawatomi. The idea for the designation formed several decades ago and took years to complete.


Emotional words from Chief Glenna Wallace of the Eastern Shawnee Tribe of Oklahoma at the convention noted how after 2,000 years, the whole world finally honors the extraordinary brilliance of her ancestors. She stated,


“My immediate reaction is to shout with joy, but at the same time my eyes are moist with tears and my lips, chin and voice tremble… They were not just geniuses, they were uncommon geniuses.”


“We are so pleased the Hopewell Ceremonial Earthworks have been inscribed as Ohio’s first World Heritage Site. This inscription is a testament to both the outstanding universal value of these masterpieces and the years of work to prepare the UNESCO nomination by our various partners, including the National Park Service and federally recognized American Indian Tribes who trace their ancestry back to Ohio. We are beyond excited to share these monumental works of human genius with more and more Ohioans, Americans and world travelers.”


Kevin Pape, World Heritage Ambassador and nationally recognized expert in cultural heritage management states, “Archeologists and historians are not the only voices to be heard in interpreting special places like the Hopewell Ceremonial Earthworks. When we started the designation process, it was key to have tribal inclusion, and gradually tribes began to engage. Ohio has done a great job to build on relationships and welcome indigenous people back to their home.” 


At the 2023 UNESCO convention, American Ambassador to Saudi Arabia, Michael A. Ratney recognized how the history of relations between the US government and indigenous people has been fraught. Continued healing and reconciliation needs to happen, and this listing is an important step to take in honor of the indigenous people who first thrived on the continent. 


There is still a lot of work needed to restore the deep wounds inflicted on American Indians dating back several centuries to ongoing tragedies such as the 1782 Gnadenhutten Massacre  and the Removal Act of 1830 to name just two. In the 1830s tribes that remained in Ohio were forced to walk hundreds of miles ending up in places like Oklahoma. Uprooted from their ancestors, ancestral land, and their livelihoods, this broke the continuum of life that is part of their culture. In addition to losing many lives and experiencing a population decrease, their entire culture was ripped apart and the start of losing their very language began. 


Pape who is also a Heritage Ohio Trustee and former president of the American Cultural Resources Association adds, “The nomination is a traditional land acknowledgement of people who are indigenous to this region and has delivered an opportunity and responsibility to engage American Indian Tribal Nations and people today across Ohio.”


Thankfully now internationally recognized, the irreplaceable Hopewell Ceremonial Earthworks continue to impact and inspire all of us for centuries to come.

Scroll to Top