Greater Cincinnati's version of Stonehenge poised to rise from obscurity

Posted at 6:00 AM, Oct 13, 2017

OREGONIA, Ohio -- I have a confession to make.

Despite living in Cincinnati for most of my life, I never visited the prehistoric earthen mounds that grace Fort Ancient Earthworks and Nature Preserve until this month.

Archaeologists around the world compare the 2,000-year-old earthworks, which took 400 years to build and perfectly align with annual summer and winter solstices, to marvels like Stonehenge and Easter Island.

“They’re as amazing as anyplace in the world,” Jen Aultman, an archaeologist and World Heritage coordinator for Ohio, said.

Yet the pastoral site located just 40 miles from Cincinnati only draws 23,000 to 25,000 visitors a year. It’s a four-mile detour off Interstate 71 that almost all of us forego.

That may be about to change. A decade-long effort to place the earthworks in the pantheon of world wonders has Fort Ancient and six other earthworks sites in Ohio poised to become a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

The designation could mean visits to the site mushroom 10-fold to 230,000-250,000 visitors a year, based on past World Heritage Site winners, and put Ohio on the world map as a destination for people seeking ancient marvels.

In good company

Some notable World Heritage Sites among 1,073 around the world:

  • Great Barrier Reef, Australia
  • The Great Wall, China
  • Galapagos Islands, Ecuador
  • Cathedral of Notre-Dame, France
  • Acropolis, Greece
  • Vatican City
  • Taj Mahal, India
  • Masada, Israel
  • Birthplace of Jesus, Palestine
  • Kremlin and Red Square, Russia
  • Stonehenge, England
  • Tower of London, England
  • Grand Canyon National Park, USA
  • Statue of Liberty, USA

“On the economic side, what does that say for Ohio?” Jack Blosser, site manager asked.

Jack Blosser

“According to an economic study, $21 million in increased wages for the state and over $80 million in revenue for the state.”


What makes them special?

Blosser has worked at the Fort Ancient park for 29 years, devoting his professional life to spreading the word about its importance to Native Americans who trekked there from throughout the eastern half of what is now the United States and into Canada. And, in turn, its importance to world history.

Traveling by foot, ancient Americans brought treasures from across the country to the site to bury with their dead, including:

  • Obsidian from Yellowstone Park
  • Silver from Ontario
  • Copper from Michigan’s Upper Peninsula
  • Alligator teeth from Louisiana
  • Shark teeth from the Atlantic coast
  • Mica from North Carolina
  • Calcined flint from North Dakota

The mounds at Fort Ancient were built over at least 19 generations by the Hopewell culture, starting around 100 B.C. through A.D. 290.

Mounds within Fort Ancient Earthworks. Photo by Lot Tan|WCPO

“Some people ask how come it took 400 years to build Fort Ancient. And my answer is why did it take 600 years to build the Roman cathedral?” Blosser said. “It’s religious fervor. It’s the idea that you’re providing something for a community of people.”

That fervor drew people from different tribes to come together on a 32-acre natural peninsula that towers 235 feet above the Little Miami River and a steep gully. The site has natural grandeur that lent itself to special reverence.

“People would come from all over the region, stay outside of the earthen walls and come to this location to have ceremonies, to celebrate and to have a feast,” he said.

Fort Ancient contains 3½ miles of earthen embankments that were meticulously constructed. A single gap, for example, marks exactly where the sun rises during the summer solstice.

“These were accomplished engineers and mathematicians. They had the ability to make perfect squares and perfect circles. Octagons that are absolutely perfect, parallel walls that stretch for miles in the distance without varying so much as 1 degree,” Blosser said.

Near Newark, Ohio, the same Hopewell culture built an octagon that accurately tracked an 18.6-year lunar cycle, using nothing but their own observations and oral history to make the calculations.

A computer overlay of the Newark octagon as seen from the northern-most point where the moon rises over the structure. Source: Center for the Electronic Reconstruction of Historical and Archaeological Sites at the University of Cincinnati

The vast octagon includes eight 550-foot walls that are five to six feet tall. The walls “are aligned to the four moonrises and four moonsets that mark the limits of a complicated 18.6-year-long cycles,” according to the Newark Earthworks website.

How new sites are chosen

The arduous application process to become a World Heritage Site began in 2008 for the earthworks when they were added to a the U.S. "tentative list." The National Park Service's Office of International Affairs will invite representatives of one project to submit a full nomination proposal to UNESCO.

From there, according to World Heritage Ohio, the International Council on Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS) evaluates the application for the site’s “Outstanding Universal Value” in relation to at least one of the 10 World Heritage criteria, plus its integrity and authenticity, and the documentation of protection and management measures. The council submits its recommendation to an annual meeting of the World Heritage Committee, which makes the final decision.

The earthworks have risen to the top of the list of U.S. landmarks vying for World Heritage status, and Blosser and Aultman are very optimistic that the Earthworks will be the U.S. nominee. Aultman said the earthworks are on schedule to be considered for the World Heritage destination when the international board that awards the designations meets in Paris in 2020.

“The National Park Service tells us they see such a huge upside potential because they are so little known to the public,” she said. “I’m trained as an archaeologist and every archaeologist knows the Hopewell sites.”

The process is expensive, costing an estimated $400,000, of which more than $200,000 has been raised privately. The boosters are still seeking donations. 

Archaeologists' fascination extends beyond the engineering feat into what artifacts indicate was a cross-cultural meeting place.

“It’s an expression of a connected world view that was centered in Ohio. They see a lot of upside for us. When that story gets out, we think people are really going to want to come see them,” she said.

Thursday, the Trump Administration announced that it was withdrawing the United States from UNESCO membership. Emmy Beach, a spokeswoman for Ohio History Connection, said the withdrawal should not affect the application. 

She said the U.S. temporarily left UNESCO during President Reagan's term and that several sites were added to the World Heritage registry during that period. 

"We are optimistic that the Hopewell Ceremonial Earthworks will be the next U.S. World Heritage nomination," she said. 

Upgrades to come

If and when the earthworks win the World Heritage designation, Blosser said the park and its state and regional partners will look at ways to expand facilities while preserving the property.

The site has a modest welcoming center and exhibit housed within a 1970s-era building with vending machines and a few souvenirs and hand-made jewelry for sale.

“We’re working on an idea of having maybe a cultural resource center located outside of the earth walls and busing people to the site,” he said. “That way we limit the amount of travel to and from the site and hopefully allow residents to preserve the tranquility they’re used to here.”

The gap between earthworks through which the ancient builders determined the sun would rise during each summer solstice. Photo by Lot Tan|WCPO

Nearby Lebanon has additional restaurants and hotels in its long-range plans in anticipation of the influx of new tourists.

Native American connections

Glenna Wallace, chief of the Eastern Shawnee Tribe of Oklahoma, is working closely with Ohio on the World Heritage Site designation.

Aultman said the state has been intentional in trying to involve Native Americans in the effort.

“So many people across the eastern part of North America were involved in whatever Hopewell was that there seems to be a really good sense of wanting to come together and recognize that broad connection,” she said.

Blosser wants to expand connections with Native Americans with the notoriety that the World Heritage designation would bring.

“Once we’re a World Heritage site, we need to focus more about the site and contemporary Native American issues as well,” Blosser said. “This site was used prehistorically No. 1 as a church and No. 2 as a social gathering area. And I’m sure this site is used by Native Americans for personal prayer time today.”

Aultman is excited by the prospects.

“What I’m really excited about is having a new chance to tell people in this region about the stories of the Hopewell culture,” she said.

Bob Driehaus covers economic development. Contact him and follow stories on Facebook, Google, and Twitter.