An Ancient Circle In Central Ohio

It doesn’t look like much at first but it is astonishing nonetheless. A rampart of earth, grass-covered with trees here and there rises up before you, a gap in the rampart beckoning you in. And you go in, and it’s all flat, mown grass inside, with trees. The earthen rampart continues inside you can now see, you are standing at the edge of a large circle that curves left and right away from you. It’s twelve hundred feet to the far side.

This is one of the Indian mounds of the Hopewell Culture, the phrase seeming to be the anthropologist’s equivalent of “we really have no idea who these people were but they were connected with other, similar groups from here to Florida.”

Most Indian mounds are just that, mounds. You can’t even be sure it is an Indian mound because it just looks like an odd knoll.

But here in Heath, Ohio, they don’t fool around. Their mound looks to be a fortress of some sort, a wall eight to ten feet high with a five-foot deep moat on the inside. It is most impressive.

Theories abound about its purpose but the reigning one suggests that it was a religious site, the wall there to keep onlookers out. The moat seems key to that theory–a defensive moat should be on the outside, not running all the way along the inside, the moat instead serving a religious function in keeping the spirits of the dead, who fear the water, outside the wall (or perhaps, within).

Sounds good except it doesn’t seem that anyone knows much about the peoples who lived here, let alone details of their religious beliefs. So how can they be convinced about the sprits’ fear of water?

I don’t see why it couldn’t serve a defensive function. The enemy, as they approached the wall, would be blind to your movements inside. You could suddenly appear at the top of the wall. If they had the top of the wall they have a slight advantage with ranged weapons but if they wanted to close for hand to hand combat there would be that moat. And if they wanted to enter the circle, do some damage, and then retreat, they would have that moat to deal with. Might be more challenging to run off with livestock if you had to cross a deep water barrier. Certainly couldn’t do it quietly.

Maybe I should have been an anthropologist.

This great circle–the Newark Earthworks–isn’t the only impressive mound in the area. The other is located a mile or two away at the Moundbuilders Country Club. Their golf course is on it. There are fairways and sand traps on it.

The golf course mounds are made up of a circle on the same scale as the Newark one and it also has a large octagon-shaped mound attached to it. All of this, the golf course mound and octagon and the Newark circle, were once part of some large cluster of mounds now ninety-percent lost. A drawing made in the 1800s, before most of the development here, gives you a sense of it. The old drawing is in red overlaid upon a Google map from today.

Most of it was bulldozed for the Ohio canal–itself no longer visible here–and for houses and shops and for the roads and highways.

This post is from a series of articles chronicling a 2020 cross-country trip with my wife and two daughters and a boyfriend, from California to Ohio (to visit family) and Pennsylvania (to drop off my oldest daughter at grad school), and then back. We spent over five weeks on the road during the pandemic.

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