Prehistoric Mysteries in our back yard at The Earthworks of Licking County. Mention the awe-inspiring architecture of the ancient Maya and Inca, and exotic images come to mind. But did you know that right here in Ohio’s backyard, cultures dating back almost 2,000 years were engineering and building structures that are just as fascinating?
Ohio’s official prehistoric monument, the Newark Earthworks, is the largest Hopewell-built group of geometric earthworks, and is recognized as a National Historic Landmark.
Licking County contains some of the finest examples of ancient architectural wonders, known as Mounds and built by people dubbed by early historians as the Mound Builders. Hundreds of sites along the tributaries of the Ohio River incorporated structures used for social gathering places, religious shrines, pilgrimages, and mortuary rituals. Several of these sites have been identified as observatories for viewing celestial events. Some are known as effigy mounds, usually symbolic of animals.
Who Were the Mound Builders?
The Adena culture inhabited southern Ohio during the Early Woodland Period (800 B.C. to A.D. 1), and the large mounds they built to bury their dead typified the significant features of the culture. By 100 B.C., splinter groups emerged and are named the Hopewell culture after Captain Mordecai Hopewell, who owned the land on which an extensive earthwork site was located. The Hopewell constructed huge and elaborate mounds, as well as crafting magnificent objects from materials not native to Ohio, such as mica from the Carolinas, shells from the Gulf of Mexico, and obsidian from the Rocky Mountains. Archaeologists have determined that the people were fishermen, farmers, and hunters. By 400 A.D., they had vanished, leaving behind a legacy of mystery.
Nineteenth century historians mapped the earthworks in Licking County beginning in 1820, detailing a construction area of over four square miles. Sadly, progress destroyed many of these magnificent structures before the population realized their historic value. By 1848, the Ohio Canal had sliced through two sets of parallel walls, breaking through a square enclosure and embankment surrounding burial mounds, and destroying one of the mounds while digging the canal lock. Cremated human remains were unearthed in this excavation. On another map of 1860, the Central Ohio Railroad steamed through a group of burial mounds, and the soil from these mounds was used to build the rail bed. A large portion of the original earthworks are lost forever, except for the foresight of early historians to map and document what can only be described as amazing.
The Great Circle is approximately the width of four football fields, enclosing about 30 acres, with immense trees growing within the enclosure and on the five- to 14-foot embankments. A dry ditch measuring 8 to 13 feet deep runs around the inside perimeter of the circle; what purpose the ditch served is unknown. The center of the Great Circle holds a smaller series of mounds that, when viewed from above, resemble a bird in flight or bird’s foot, or possibly an arrow pointing toward the entrance to the circle. This structure is called the Eagle Mound, and excavation in 1928 revealed remains of a wooden structure about 100 x 25 feet, in which a clay basin was discovered–a finding similar to crematory basins in other Hopewell mounds.
The Great Circle has a colorful history. Originally privately owned in the early nineteenth century, the well-preserved site was purchased by the Licking County Agricultural Society in 1853. In order to help preserve and protect the property, the society decided to build a county fairground, complete with racetrack, grandstand for viewing, and livestock buildings. In 1854, the Ohio State Fair took place inside the Great Circle.
The Civil War loomed and, in 1861, the circle, formerly known as the Old Fort, served as a training camp for the 76th Ohio Volunteer Infantry Regiment. Change came again to the Great Circle in 1898 when Idlewilde Amusement Park opened, featuring a Ferris wheel, roller coaster, casino, bowling alleys, shooting galleries, dancing pavilion, billiard hall, hotel, and restaurant. In 1933, the Ohio Historical Society accepted ownership of the Great Circle, removed all remnants of the fairground, and began to restore the area to its original condition, as described by the earliest historians.
About a mile and a half northwest of the Great Circle and contained within the Moundbuilders Country Club, the Octagon Earthworks is another portion of the large Newark site. While merging with a golf course seems a strange way to preserve an historic site, that decision was the only way to keep the area from falling under the developmental sword. Having been farmed from at least 1848, parts of the octagonal enclosure were permanently damaged. Gifted to Newark in 1892, the land was somewhat protected by the occupation of the Ohio State Militia until 1908, when they moved to a new location and returned the property to the city. Funding became an issue and the grounds were leased to the country club in 1911. The Ohio Historical Society has owned the site since 1933.
The earthworks consist of a nearly perfect circular enclosure of 1,054 feet in diameter encompassing 20 acres. A short set of parallel walls connects the circle to an octagon enclosing nearly 50 acres. One of the most fascinating aspects of the Octagon Earthworks is the supposition by several historians that the structures were used as a lunar observatory. The cyclical rising and setting of the moon could be viewed with precision at the Observatory Mound, located opposite the opening to the octagonal earthwork.
The remaining structures that comprise the Newark Earthworks have fallen to time and development. Little is left to see, but the structures were an integral part of the whole. What remains of the Wright Earthworks is only a 200-foot fragment of the original Newark Square, a near-perfect geometric enclosure covering about 20 acres. Parallel embankments led to the Great Circle and to another oval enclosure containing burial mounds. The Great Hopewell Road also suffered under the agricultural plow. The parallel 3-foot embankments originally extended from an opening at the Octagonal Earthwork to about ten miles to the southwest. Archaeologists believe that the walls might have been a ceremonial road linking the Newark Earthworks to those in Chillicothe.
Licking County is home to other mound sites that are perhaps less well-known. The Alligator Effigy Mound, located in Granville, was first identified in 1848. Historians have noted that the mound was named by early settlers, though it probably does not represent an alligator, a species not found in Ohio. More likely, the shape represents a salamander or opossum. Early excavation determined that it was not a burial site, but possibly a ritual or ceremonial place. The site has suffered greatly over the decades due to overgrazing, cultivation, construction, and mowing. Surrounded by a ring of asphalt and a half-dozen homes, one cannot get a sense for what the mound really looks like; however, it is listed in the U.S. National Register of Historic Places.
Infirmary Mound is another earthwork site that affords little to see or recognize. Despite the name, the mound has no bearing on illness or health, but rather was so-named by the Licking County Parks Department because of its situation on the site of the old Licking County Infirmary.
An obscure Indian mound in the southern part of the county has been attributed to the Adena by some archaeologists, but no proof has been documented. The Fairmount Mound is owned by the Fairmount Presbyterian Church in Licking Township, and has been part of that organization’s property for 175 years. Standing 15 feet high and measuring 80 feet in diameter, the mound is surrounded by headstones, but information about ancient burials within the mound is unavailable.
After visiting each of these sites, one is stunned by the immensity of the Hopewell culture concept—how could these people have accomplished such amazing feats in such a short span of time, then disappeared? Apparently, this is a common question. In the late 1800’s, historian Samuel Parks wrote, “there are a hundred or more mounds on the surrounding hills that overlooked this great mound city in this valley…from the top of one on my old farm (now the Licking County Infirmary farm),… I was astonished at the change that had taken place since I last visited that elevation, some twenty years ago.” (Hill, N.N., Jr. “History of Licking County, O. Its Past and Present” 1881)
Though the Mound Builders left no written record of their existence or culture, their physical legacy is an archaeological treasure in Licking County.