The Serpent Mound Summer Solstice events photographed Saturday, June 19, 2021. (© James D. DeCamp | | 614-367-6366)

Ohio may be known as the mother of presidents because we claim eight of them (William Henry Harrison was actually born in Virginia.) And now it’s home to eight UNESCO-designated World Heritage sites where ancient indigenous cultures created colossal works of architecture out of dirt. These earthworks (sometimes referred to as mounds) were used for various ceremonial purposes, enclosures for defenses and living quarters and perhaps even observatories to predict or align with celestial events.
Of these eight World Heritage sites, three are managed by the Ohio History Connection (f.k.a. Ohio Historical Society): Great Circle and Octagon Earthworks in Newark and the Fort Ancient Earthworks in Oregonia. The other five are located in the Hopewell Culture National Historical Park near Chillicothe that’s managed by the National Park Service including: the Mound City Group, Hopewell Mound Group, Seip Earthworks, High Bank Works and Hopeton Earthworks.
These sites were deemed by UNESCO to have “outstanding universal value,” notes Jennifer Aultman, chief historic sites officer at Ohio History Connection (OHC.) That’s the standard that must be met for such an important imprimatur. Aultman notes that after the destruction caused by the World Wars, countries began to think about what monuments and cultural sites needed protection. World Heritage designation is a way to say, “If we lose this place, we lose a lot.”
The ancient people who built these incredible earthworks (some experts claim in terms of labor and manpower, these are as significant as the pyramids) were dubbed the Hopewell when part of an earthwork was excavated in 1891 on a farm owned by Captain Mordecai Hopewell. “So we don’t have a good name for them,” Aultman notes, but archaeologists and historians know a lot about their culture. The Hopewell existed from about 100 B.C. to A.D. 400, lived in stable, organized societies that thrived in the Ohio River Valley and engaged in a trade network across North America. The Hopewell constructed large earthworks and imported exotic raw materials such as mica from the Carolinas and obsidian from areas around Yellowstone Park.
Why these eight sites among Ohio’s 600 ancient earthworks? “Frankly, these are some of the best-preserved and mostly undisturbed by development,” says Aultman. Although the Octagon Earthworks are located on the grounds of Mound Builders Country Club in Newark, OHC owns the land and Ohio’s Supreme Court has granted OHC the right to terminate its lease early. Both Great Circle and Octagon Earthworks are part of the Newark Earthworks, which is considered one of the largest remaining geometric earthen enclosures in the world. The Great Circle Mound is 1,200 feet in diameter and was built some 2,000 years ago. It was used mostly for ceremonies and continued to be the place where European-descended people gathered well into the 19th century, including hosting the 1854 Ohio State Fair and the 1878 Civil War Veterans reunion where President Hayes, General (and future president) James Garfield and William Tecumseh Sherman spoke to more than 20,000 veterans and visitors. Fort Ancient is a spectacular hilltop enclosure and has a small but fascinating museum plus hiking trails and a picnic area.
The interpretive quality at Hopewell Culture National Historical Park is typically informative. The introductory video, “Legacy of the Mound Builders” is a great introduction to the Hopewell and Adena cultures. (The Adena lived from about 800 B.C. to about A.D. 100 and were named for the estate of Thomas Worthington, Ohio’s sixth Governor, where mounds from this period were first studied.)
But for Ohio earthworks cognoscenti, it’s impossible to ignore the magnificent effigy mound, the Great Serpent Mound. It’s so intact, it’s hard to believe this snake isn’t slithering. Why hasn’t it been designated a World Heritage Site? Aultman says the Great Serpent application is separate and in process. “We had to make a tight case for multiple sites that are an expression of the same cultural heritage. Serpent Mound is later and effigy [mound] expression is very different than geometric earthworks and hilltop enclosures.”
The visitor experience along what’s known as the Ancient Ohio Trail (that includes way more than the UNESCO World Heritage Sites) isn’t just for history buffs. There are plenty of places to entertain families and enjoy modern-day amenities while contemplating Ohio’s prehistoric past. The quaint town of Granville is just seven miles west of Newark and offers charming bed & breakfast accommodations at the Buxton and Granville Inns; it’s also home to Denison University’s appealing campus. If you’re traveling in summer and the kids have reached their saturation point with ancient information, it’s time to get completely wet. Check out the City of Heath’s Water Park. It boasts an Olympic-size swimming pool, diving platforms and immersive attractions including steep-pitched speed slides, a lazy river, and a spray ground with geysers.
After visiting the Hopewell Culture National Historical Park, check out charming downtown Chillicothe. It was Ohio’s first capital and barbecue buffs will enjoy the Old Canal Smoke House where slow-cooked, hickory-flavored meats fall off the bone. On the way to Fort Ancient near Oregonia, get the adrenaline flowing by gliding over the Little Miami River at Ozone Zip Line Adventures. If it’s getting toward dusk, the day’s highlight might be watching the sunset at Great Serpent Mound near Peebles. Nearly a quarter-mile long, it’s considered the finest serpent effigy mound in the country. The head of this uncoiling snake is aligned to the summer solstice sunset. Visitors there on a sunny June 20th witness a rare treat. Just 20 minutes south of Great Serpent Mound, weary travelers can spend a night or two luxuriating in the pastoral accommodations at the Murphin Ridge Inn near West Union. It has an outdoor pool, tennis courts and a dining room that serves seasonal delicacies sourced from nearby Amish farms.
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