Fort Ancient features mounds and embankment walls winding across a 126-acre plateau above the Little Miami River in Warren County. [Tana Weingartner / WVXU]
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The east entrance of the Newark Earthwork’s Great Circle.
Encompassing over 4 square miles and constructed by the indigenous peoples of the ancient Hopewell culture between 100 B.C. and 500 A.D, the Newark Earthworks are the largest set of earthen enclosures in the world. Approximately 2,000 years after they were built, John Low feels their significance and generational legacy in his veins.
Low, an associate professor of comparative studies at Ohio State Newark, was recently named director of the Newark Earthworks Center (NEC), an interdisciplinary academic center at Ohio State. Created in 2005, the NEC examines American Indians’ cultural and scientific achievements with a focus on developing programs and researching the cultures that constructed earthworks around the Midwest.
Low is the coordinator of the Newark campus’s American studies minor and often takes students to the earthworks, where he’s able to incorporate them into his teaching and research. A citizen of the Pokagon Band of Potawatomi Indian nation, Low feels a distinct connection to the earthworks, a connection passed down by his ancestors.
“We may have direct descendance to these mound builders, and even if we don’t, these were our indigenous neighbors that built these places,” Low said. “The earthworks are a celebration of who our ancestors were and who we are as Native peoples. That’s what it means to me.”
Much of the earthworks have been demolished over the years as Newark has developed and expanded, but three sections have remained more or less intact:
- The Great Circle Earthworks: Approximately 1,200 feet in diameter — wide enough to cram in four football fields end to end — the Great Circle’s walls are 8 feet high with a 5-foot trench along the inside circumference of the circle. The Great Circle’s gateway points due east, and Eagle Mound — a group of mounds in the shape of a bird midflight — is nestled at its center.
- The Wright Earthworks: A few blocks northeast of the Great Circle is the Wright Earthworks. Though much of Wright has been destroyed with the city of Newark’s expansion and development, the mounds used to form a near-perfect square with eight small mounds situated within.
- The Octagon Earthworks: A little over a mile to the northwest of the Great Circle lies the Octagon Earthworks, which comprises of the Octagon, Observatory Circle and Observatory Mound. The Octagon has eight walls, each approximately 550 feet long, 5 to 6 feet tall and separated by gaps in the corners. Connected to the Octagon’s west side is Observatory Circle, with Observatory Mound laid perpendicularly across its western entrance.
“The people who built these were very pre-Frank Lloyd Wright in that they were really concerned with the horizonal,” Low said. “He was interested in his architecture blending in and being horizontal and in balance with the environment.”
Though no one can know for certain the Hopewell peoples’ reasons for constructing the complex — some speculate the earthworks were places of worship, trade, burials and other ceremonies — they remain an extraordinary feat of ingenuity that exemplify their creators’ advanced knowledge of geometry, astronomy and earthen engineering.
For example, in 1982, researchers from Earlham College discovered that the Octagon Earthworks was a complicated lunar observatory. The gaps between each wall of the Octagon, they found, are aligned to points on the horizon indicating notable moonrises and moonsets of a complex 18.6-year lunar cycle, with the extreme northernmost moonrise lining up exactly with the Octagon’s central axis. Furthermore, the square footage of both the Great Circle and the Observatory Circle (1,054 feet) corresponds to other Hopewellian structures, including the Octagon.
“That measurement is replicated in other places in Ohio, so they were doing the exact same thing,” Low said. “Regarding the moon cycle, we can only speculate why that was important, but it was important to them. It may have represented stability and balance that these things were going to continue as they were expected to go. It shows a lot of human ingenuity.”
Moundbuilders Country Club’s golf course is constructed within the Octagon and Observatory Circle.
The Newark Earthworks is operated as a state park by the Ohio History Connection, is designated as a National Historic Landmark and is considered by the state of Ohio as “the official prehistoric monument of the state.”
The site is also being considered for inclusion on the UNESCO World Heritage List, which recognizes designated landmarks around the world that have cultural, historical or scientific significance and are legally protected by international treaties. The Newark Earthworks’ status on the list hinges partly on an ongoing legal battle with Moundbuilders Country Club, on which the Octagon Earthworks lay.
Low says, however, the designation wouldn’t be decided on for another three to four years.
“There would be a significant influx of tourism from around the world, which would be really exciting to be able share this,” he said.
As director of the NEC, Low is striving to promote scholarly engagement surrounding the Newark Earthworks and grow the NEC as an elite research center. He feels a duty to develop the NEC and bring academics to the earthworks not just because he’s a professor and researcher, but because of the generations that came before him.
“The blood of mound builders is in our veins,” he said. “We may not have built them, but we carry that ancestry and that legacy and that inheritance with us.”
It is a story similar to hundreds told before — the destruction of historical land to make way for the growth of a booming city. Once encompassing more than four square miles, the Newark Earthworks were built by the people of the ancient Hopewell Culture between 100 B.C. and 500 A.D. All that remains today of the Earthworks are two major segments: the Great Circle Earthworks and the Octagon Earthworks. John Low, Associate Professor of Comparative Studies and the new Director of the Newark Earthworks Center, will discuss these incredible indigenous monuments in their former days and what remains today at an upcoming Faculty Talks Outside the Box lecture.
“It is important to be familiar with these ancestral sites not only because they will likely soon be a United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) World Heritage site, but also because they represent a legacy of human achievement in architecture, astronomy, geometry and evidence of humankind’s ability to work together in collaborative undertakings,” said Dr. Low.
Dr. Low will discuss how the Newark Earthworks are an architectural wonder of ancient America, and how they are part cathedral, part cemetery and part astronomical observatory. He will note the work of the Newark Earthworks Center and the importance of the Earthworks as a potential UNESCO World Heritage site.
During Faculty Talks Outside the Box, Ohio State Newark professors discuss recent research in their fields as it relates to our community and answer questions. All talks are free and open to the public. The Warner Center is located at 1219 University Drive, Newark, Ohio.
John N. Low, PhD, associate professor at The Ohio State University at Newark, has been appointed as director of the Newark Earthworks Center (NEC). His term will begin on September 1, 2019, and run through August 31, 2022.
“Since arriving at Ohio State, John has put together not only a strong scholarly record, but an equally impressive record of outreach and engagement” said William L. MacDonald, PhD, dean/director at Ohio State Newark. “I am very happy to announce his new role with the Newark Earthworks Center.”
The NEC is an interdisciplinary academic center of The Ohio State University that is focused on advancing the understanding of the cultural and scientific achievements of American Indians through projects and research about the cultures that produced monumental Midwestern earthen architecture. The center started as the Newark Earthworks Initiative in 2005 and became the Newark Earthworks Center in 2006 after receiving official approval from The Ohio State University Board of Trustees.
According to Low, who is a member of the Pokagon Band of Potawatomi Indians and also coordinator of the American Studies minor program at the Newark campus, “I am very excited to join a small but passionate team at the Newark Earthworks Center, as we build upon the foundations laid by former director Dick Shiels and interim director Marti Chaatsmith (Comanche Nation Citizen/Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma descendant). The Center will continue to grow and evolve. As a center for The Ohio State University we have a unique opportunity to promote scholarly engagement and research as well as contribute to the efforts of World Heritage Ohio to have the Hopewell Ceremonial Earthworks designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site. In the future we will also expand our focus to include earthworks and mounds throughout Ohio, and reach out to scholars, constituents and stakeholders around the world as we make the Ohio State Newark NEC a world class research center.”
Low received the American Society for Ethnohistory’s Robert F. Heizer Award for best article for “Vessels of Recollection – the Canoe Building Renaissance in the Great Lakes,” published in 2015 in Material Culture. His book,Imprints: the Pokagon Band of Potawatomi Indians and the City of Chicago (Michigan State University Press), was published in 2016.
He served on the Ohio State Cemetery Law Task Force and has testified before the Ohio legislature regarding establishing an “Indigenous Peoples Day.” Low is the chair of the Ohio State Newark/Central Ohio Technical College Advisory Council for Diversity and Inclusion and a member of the Program in American Indian Studies Faculty Oversight Committee. He has curated two shows reflecting traditional indigenous knowledge at Ohio State Newark’s LeFevre Gallery. In 2015-2016, Low received the COTC/Ohio State Newark President’s and Dean/Director’s Diversity Award. Further, he has served on the oversight committee for the NEC since his arrival at Ohio State.
Low, who teaches in the department of comparative studies, earned a PhD in American culture and a juris doctorate and graduate certificate in museum studies at the University of Michigan. He also earned an MA in the social sciences from the University of Chicago. Before coming to Ohio State, he was a visiting professor in history, law and American studies at Northwestern University, a visiting professor in American Indian Studies at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and executive director of the Mitchell Museum of the American Indian in Evanston, Illinois.
When Low enters the role of director, Marti Chaatsmith, NEC interim director, will resume the position of associate director. University budget cuts in 2015 put the fate of the NEC in question just as the earthworks were on the brink of international fame. Announced in July 2018, the NEC will continue at Ohio State Newark, becoming the regional campus’s only university center. The decision was reached unanimously by Ohio State’s Council of Academic Affairs. The leadership of Chaatsmith was a key factor in this outcome.
The Ohio State University at Newark offers an academic environment that’s inclusive of diversity, challenging but supportive with world-renowned professors and access to Ohio State’s more than 200 majors. It’s where learning comes to life. Research, study abroad and service learning opportunities prepare students for their careers in ways they never expected.
On August 1st, I had the honor of giving a tour of the Great Circle to a group of about 30 Chinese undergraduate students who were visiting the area.
Professor Pat McAloon hosted the group and sent the below kind comments shared here with his permission:
John, Thank you very much for sharing the Earthworks with our guests yesterday. Your ability to share with us the perspectives of the First Peoples really changed the way we look at the Newark Earthworks, especially how we should keep in mind that dirt is a sacred medium and we should not evaluate the earthworks using our “civilized” preference for stone.
Gifting tobacco to the earthworks was also a great way to make the experience an experience.
Thank you to all of my students who joined me at the Open House today!