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WHAT ARE THE NEWARK EARTHWORKS?

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Hopewellian Ceremonial Center
The Wray Figurine     The Great Circle       The Octagon
The Great Hopewell Road   Salisbury Square   
Flint Ridge

 

Who built the Newark Earthworks? 
Why did they build it at all – and why here, in Licking County? 

Unfortunately, Native American oral traditions
have little to say on these matters.         
     


            The American Indians
living in Ohio during the late
seventeenth and early eighteenth
centuries appear to have had no
certain traditions relating to the
mounds.  When asked, most said
they knew nothing about the
earthworks.  For example, in 1772,
 David McClure visited several
"very ancient artificial works" in
the vicinity of the Delaware
(Please see                                            
Image credit CERHAS Please click on the image for a closer view.
http://college.hmco.com/history/readerscomp/naind/html/na_010000_delaware.htm
http://college.hmco.com/history/readerscomp/naind/html/na_010000_delaware.htm ) Indian village near modern Newcomerstown, Ohio.  He noted that "the present inhabitants can give no account of the builders, or the design of them."  It is possible that the particular Delaware individuals he interviewed did not know anything about the mounds, but that other members of the tribe did have that knowledge.  It also is possible the people he interviewed had traditions they chose not to share with this stranger.

 

            Some native peoples interviewed by Europeans claimed the earthen walls were ancient forts built by their ancestors.  In 1789, Abraham Steiner described a series of circular and semi-circular enclosures along the Huron River east of Sandusky, Ohio.  He wrote that the Chippewas (Ojibwa) (Please see http://college.hmco.com/history/readerscomp/naind/html/na_026100_ojibwa.htm
and http://college.hmco.com/history/readerscomp/naind/html/na_026100_ojibwa.htm ),

and the Delawares (Please see http://college.hmco.com/history/readerscomp/naind/html/na_010000_delaware.htm
and http://college.hmco.com/history/readerscomp/naind/html/na_010000_delaware.htm),
and Wyandots
(Please see http://college.hmco.com/history/readerscomp/naind/html/na_016200_huronwyandot.htm
 and http://college.hmco.com/history/readerscomp/naind/html/na_016200_huronwyandot.htm)
 who lived in the vicinity claimed that "…the Works, and many others, were formerly made by Indians, before any White People came to the country;  at a Time when the Nations always were at War with each other." 

            Based in part on these traditions and partly on the fact that the modern Indians did not build earthworks such as those found at Newark, some writers believed the ruins were the work of a "lost race" of people from the Old World – Egyptians, Romans, Hebrews, or Hindus.  Scholars called these unknown people the Mound Builders, for obvious reasons.  Arm-chair historians and antiquarians   accounted for the evident disappearance of the Mound Builders by imagining that the Indians, whom they regarded as blood-thirsty savages, had wiped them out – much as European barbarians had brought down the Roman empire.  Newark's Great Circle was even called the "Old Fort" in spite of the fact that its ditch or moat was located inside the walls rather than outside as would be expected if it really was built to serve a defensive purpose. 

            Nevertheless, this martial theme dominated scholarly and popular interpretations for many years.  Some authors recognized that, at least Newark's Great Circle, with its interior moat, cast some doubt on the idea that it was an ancient fort.   One 19th century antiquarian stubbornly insisted it must have been "constructed on principles of military science now lost or inexplicable."  Another noted

"The engineer who marked out their lines was no rude savage.  His brain had pondered to some purpose over the abstractions of angles and curves.  And yet with all the evidence of his skill, we wonder not a little at his design in placing his ditch INSIDE the walls."

And yet, not all early investigators were so obtusely committed to this military interpretation.  The early historian Samuel Park wrote, in 1870:

"I suppose that 'Col. Cognac, or Capt. Bourbon,' had more to do in arriving at this conclusion, than either Napoleon, Scott, or Hardee…  to call such works military fortifications, is not only absurd, but supremely ridiculous, I care not what principle of warfare, you may assign to these mound builders…

            Professional soldiers with experience fighting Indians recognized that the ancient earthworks were not forts.  General William Henry Harrison, the hero of Tippecanoe and a future president, understood that the great geometric earthworks, "particularly those of Circleville and Newark… were never intended for military defenses."

            David Wyrick, an early Licking County surveyor who made one of the best maps of the Newark Earthworks, believed the so-called "Lost Tribes of Israel" had built Ohio's great mounds and enclosures.  He dug into the mounds in search of evidence to prove this idea.  In 1860, while digging inside one of Newark's small circular earthworks, Wyrick found a carved and polished "Keystone" engraved with Hebrew letters.  A local minister who could read Hebrew translated the inscriptions.  They were phrases from the Bible such as the "Holy of Holies."  Wyrick at first believed this "Holy Stone" was the proof for which he had been searching.  Later, however, he came to fear that someone had hoaxed him.

            The "Keystone" and other stones with Hebrew writing found in nearby mounds only turned up during a period of international debate on the origins of the different human races and the morality of slavery.  The Bible said that all people were descended from Adam and Eve and so all races should be treated equally.  Ancient mounds in America built by civilizations not mentioned in the Bible suggested to some that the Bible might be wrong.  If there were people in America before Adam and Eve, then they could not be fully human.  Some argued that those races that were not children of Eve were inferior and could be enslaved.  A 19th century forger may have crafted the "Holy Stones" to show how Ohio's mounds could fit into Biblical history, thereby supporting the idea of universal brotherhood.  Ever since the Civil War brought an end to slavery in America, no archaeologist has ever found another artifact engraved with Hebrew writing in Ohio's mounds.  As the early Ohio archaeologist Matthew C. Read concluded, such frauds "will always in some way represent the ideas of the time of the forgery."

            In fact, we now know the ancestors of American Indians did, indeed, build the earthworks of the Ohio valley.  Asking what happened to the mysterious mound-builders is like asking what happened to the curious "Model-T Ford people" of the last century.  Archaeologists define cultures by their "stuff" -- the things people made:  their art, architecture, and technology.  Cultures change through time.  Many aspects of American culture have changed greatly in the last century.  Therefore, we would expect to see significant differences between the things made by ancestors and descendants separated by nearly two millennia of tumultuous history.

 

 THE NEWARK EARTHWORKS: A HOPEWELL CULTURE  CEREMONIAL CENTER
Click here for more information about the Hopewell Culture

            If the Newark Earthworks weren't some bizarre, labyrinthine fortification, what did its ancient builders have in mind?  A full understanding of the nature and purpose of the Newark Earthworks is hampered by its current state of demolition.  Much of what we know about the Newark Earthworks is due to the efforts of scholars and surveyors who recorded the details of the site before the growth of the city of Newark destroyed much of it. 

            Few archaeological excavations have been undertaken at Newark, but there have been a few.  The information derived from these investigations, combined with the several early maps and the observations made by antiquarians incidental to the destruction of the mounds and enclosures, can yield important insights into the how the Hopewell people used this monumental set of earthworks.

Burial mounds

            Many people assume that all Indian mounds are ancient cemeteries, but burials at the Newark Earthworks seem largely to have been concentrated in one area, a group of conical mounds surrounding a large, irregularly shaped mound at the center of an oval enclosure.  This part of the site has been called the Cherry Valley Mound group.  Canal excavators destroyed one of the peripheral mounds while building a lock.  The Newark Advocate reported what the diggers turned up:

"In excavating the earth for a lock pit, west of the Raccoon Creek, a large number of human bones were disturbed by the plough, deposited in a manner, I believe, altogether peculiar to this cemetry [sic].  The bones were deposited, or at least found not more than two feet below the surface of the earth, in a place where there was a slight elevation of the ground, of about thirty inches, but not sufficient to entitle it to the name of a Mound.  They were all carbonized, or burnt, were of different sizes, and amounted to the number of ten or fifteen.  What was peculiar in their mode of burial, was, they were all covered with a greater or less quantity of very beautiful transparent mica.  One of the skeletons was completely covered with the mica, and was, it seems by way of distinction, buried a short distance from the remainder.  This was a large frame, and like the rest, was carbonized.  The quantity of mica would amount, according to the statement of a gentleman who present at the time of the discovery, to eight or ten bushels.  The pieces were of various sizes and shapes, tho' generally triangular;  the bases of some were four or five inches in length.  Several specimens of this beautiful mineral substance may be seen in this town.  To what race did this people belong.  When did they exist?  And why were the tenants of this cemetry [sic] buried with such marked distinction?"

 

The large, central mound of this group of burial mounds was curiously shaped and resembled a group of conjoined mounds.  In resembled in some respects and was about the same size as the large mounds at the Tremper and Harness sites.  It was about one hundred and forty feet long, forty feet wide and about twenty feet high at its highest point.  It was surrounded by a "cobblestone way."  This mound was largely destroyed between 1852 and 1855, when the Central Ohio Railroad was built through it, although part of the largest portion was not flattened until a rolling mill was built on the site. 

A general idea of what this mound contained can be drawn from a newspaper article by local antiquarian J. N. Wilson (1868) along with supplementary information collected by James and Charles Salisbury (1862).  According to the Salisbury brothers, at the base of the tallest section of the mound, there was a "tier of skeletons" – their heads placed together with their feet radiating outward.  Wilson observed several postmolds suggesting the former presence of some sort of substantial structure, or structures possibly similar to the "Great Houses" uncovered at the bases of Tremper and Harness mounds.  It is now impossible to determine how these various discoveries were associated, but it is possible that the burials were interred inside the wooden structure.

The mound itself was composed of alternating layers of black loam, blue clay, sand, and cobblestones punctuated by periodic episodes of burning and burial.  Artifacts found in association with numerous fragmentary burials included mica sheets, a copper "hatchet" and "quivers," large shells, beads and "other trinkets."  Charles Whittlesey viewed Wilson's collection of artifacts in 1868 and described additional artifacts from the "mound at rolling mill."  Whittlesey sketched a "copper axe," one of "3 copper fluted ornaments," and a drilled bear canine.

 

The Wray figurine: the Shaman of Newark

When the rolling mill was torn down and workers began to dig the foundation for a new building in this area, they encountered another burial.  This burial included a remarkable "stone image" initially identified as a carving of a pig by the excavators.  This statuette has become known as the Wray figurine for Charles F. Wray, a former owner and co-author of the report announcing its rediscovery in 1962, is likely a portrait of a Hopewell leader of special importance.

The figurine is a unique naturalistic rendering of a Hopewell culture shaman, wearing a costume made from a bear's head and hide. The figure is holding in his lap an object which is most likely a decapitated human head, but it could also be a mask or even a supernatural being such as the Flying Head of Iroquois legend. Both the shaman and the decapitated or disembodied head are wearing earspools, typically made from copper.

Some Hopewell culture burials include isolated human skulls. Archaeologists have called these "trophy skulls" assuming they are the heads of enemies killed in battle. That may not be the correct interpretation of these heads, since there is little evidence for widespread warfare during Hopewell times.

The Wray figurine shaman has his right arm across his chest and his left arm is along the side of his head. He seems to be in the act of raising or lowering the bear mask. It is as if we are witnessing the act of transformation from human to bear or bear to human. A shaman sometimes ritually transformed into a spirit animal in order to gain access to the spiritual power and knowledge of that animal. In tribal societies, the shaman served as priest, rabbi, healer, and counselor.

Nicholas Cresswell visited the Delaware Indians of Coshocton in 1775. He witnessed a shamanic transformation ceremony similar to what we might imagine for the Hopewell culture. He wrote:   "Saw an Indian Conjuror dressed in a Coat of Bearskin with a Visor mask made of wood, frightful enough to scare the Devil."

Since the Wray figurine, or the Shaman of Newark, was buried beneath the bottom of this large and centrally located mound, it must be from one of the oldest burials at the site. It may be an image of one of the founders of Hopewell culture in Newark.  Sadly, since the Hopewell culture left no written records of their achievements we will never know for certain who this person was or why he was so special to the people of ancient Newark. But the Shaman of Newark gives us a rare snap shot of a moment in the life of this enigmatic people.

Great Circle Earthworks

            In 1928, Emerson Greenman excavated the Eagle Mound as well as the nearby Wells Mound group.  Greenman's unpublished field notes indicate that the mound fill was removed with shovels and mattocks.  He and his crew used trowels once they reached too within six inches of the base of the mound.  The final work of clearing the floor was accomplished

"…with whisk brooms and the sand, which occupies the space between the clay and the surface of the floor was dugout whatever depressions were found in the surface of the floor, with the hope of uncovering significant markings…”

In this manner, Greenman identified a pattern of 59 postmolds along with nine pit features.  Greenman also noted "unmistakable evidence" for previous excavations that had penetrated the mound floor.  Isaac Smucker had written that, many years prior to 1881, excavations conducted "…into the center of [Eagle Mound], where the elevation is greatest, developed an altar built of stone, upon which were found ashes, charcoal, and calcinced bones ."

            The postmold pattern Greenman uncovered is the remains of a large rectangular structure almost 100 feet long by about 23 feet wide with walls like wings extending outward on each side at a forty-degree angle from the main axis.  In the center of this structure there was a large, rectangular, prepared clay basin, similar to crematory basins excavated at Mound City and other Hopewell culture sites.  The Eagle Mound basin, however, contained no cremated human remains. Greenman documented more than fifty artifacts from these excavations, but only a handful were collected and curated.  The most intriguing discoveries were two copper artifacts: a copper crescent and a stylized copper beaver effigy.  If this was a "charnel house" with a crematory pit, the Hopewell culture shamans had removed the human remains and buried them elsewhere.  More probably, the activities undertaken at the Eagle Mound structure were not related to mortuary ceremonialism and instead focused on other religious rituals or social gatherings.

            The three mounds comprising the Wells Mound group just west of the Great Circle had been disturbed extensively prior to Greenman's explorations.  They all had been plowed over and dug into on several occasions.  Some early historic residents of Newark had even buried a horse in Wells Mound No. 3.  Nevertheless, Greenman recovered some material of interest.  In addition to some poorly preserved human skeletal remains, he found a gorget, a large projectile point made from Flint Ridge flint, and a large mica slab.  This was one of the few sites of burial at the Newark Earthworks not associated with the Cherry Mound Group.

Octagon Earthworks

Some early antiquarians thought that the Observatory Mound once had formed an archway opening into the circle that had collapsed over the ages. 
In fact, one of the earliest documented archaeological excavations conducted at the Newark Earthworks was undertaken to test this hypothesis.  On the 4th of July in 1836 the Calliopean Society of the Granville Literary and Theological Institution (now Denison University) celebrated Independence Day by digging into the southwest side of the Observatory. They discovered no evidence of a collapsed arch, but the Calliopean Society excavators found that the outer surface of the Observatory originally was faced with limestone slabs. at right;the Observatory Mound


 

            The Octagon Earthworks are a remarkable testament to the architectural and engineering genius of the Hopewell culture, but astronomers recently have come to realize that the Hopewell culture builders aligned these earthworks to the cyclical dance of the earth and moon.   If you stand atop the Observatory Mound and look across the circle through the parallel-walled passage leading into the octagon and out through the octagon's northeastern gateway, the point on the horizon at which you are sighting is where the moon rises at its most northerly extreme.  The intricate 18.6 year-long cycle of the moon can be encompassed by four points on the eastern horizon marking a maximum northern moonrise, a minimum northern moonrise, a maximum and minimum southern moonrise and four points on the western horizon marking the corresponding moonsets.  The Hopewell culture builders encoded all of these astronomical landmarks into the architecture of the Octagon.  Whether or not they ever intended to use this site as an astronomical observatory, the Hopewell architects certainly succeeded in bringing some of the moon's magic down to earth.

 

A Great Hopewell Road?

The Ohio Hopewell culture people built one other circle and octagon earthwork.  High Bank Works in Chillicothe is a circular enclosure, with the same diameter as Newark's, connected to a much smaller octagonal earthwork.  The High Bank Works' circle and octagon also incorporates alignments to the eight lunar rise and set points.  Moreover, the main axis of High Bank Works – that is, a line projected through the center of the circle and the octagon – bears a direct relationship to the axis of Newark's circle and octagon.  Although built more than 60 miles apart, the axis of High Bank Works is oriented at precisely ninety degrees to that of Octagon Earthworks. 

These connections of architecture, geometry, and astronomy suggest the Hopewell culture people of Newark and Chillicothe had a close relationship.  In this regard, it is interesting to note that the parallel walls that extended from Newark's Octagon to the southwest -- and off the margins of every map of the Newark Earthworks -- are on a course that would lead straight to Chillicothe.  There is evidence to suggest this was a ceremonial highway linking these two great centers of Hopewell culture.

Caleb Atwater speculated in 1820 that this road went at least thirty miles citing reports of "walls having been discovered at different places, probably belonging to these works", between Newark and Lancaster.  In 1862 James and Charles Salisbury traced the walls from Newark for six miles "over fertile fields, through tangled swamps and across streams, still keeping their undeviating course";  and they wrote that the road continued onward an undetermined distance.   Unfortunately, within eight years of the Salisbury's survey, this fertile region had been so extensively cleared and plowed that Samuel Park was unable to track the road any further.

Perhaps this Great Hopewell Road was a holy pilgrim's path like similarly long and straight roads built by the Mayan culture in Mesoamerica.  Hopewell culture people may have followed such roads to the great earthwork centers bringing offerings of copper or mica as gifts to the supernatural powers invoked by the monumental geometry of these sacred places.

 

Salisbury Square

            Sometime prior to 1862, the square enclosure located on the high glacial terrace east of the South Fork of the Licking River was destroyed.  A brickyard had been established on the site to make use of the fine clay that the Hopewell culture used to build the walls.  During these excavations, the workers discovered "a stack of flint spears, numbering 194, about two feet below the surface" beneath one of the walls of the square.  James and Charles Salisbury reported that the leaf-shaped bifaces had been "placed points upwards in a conical pile like stacked arms, resting upon a large flat stone."  The careful arrangement of these artifacts and their placement beneath the corner of an earthen enclosure, suggest that they represent a ceremonial deposit.

 

Role of Flint Ridge flint quarries

            Ceremonial deposits of artifacts crafted from Flint Ridge flint found at the Newark Earthworks highlight the importance of this quarry to the Hopewell culture people in general, but also to its relationship to the Newark Earthworks.  The Newark Earthworks are not only the largest set of geometric earthworks the Hopewell culture ever built, they are also the farthest north of any of the great ceremonial centers.  The earthworks appear to have been located on a site as close to the Flint Ridge quarries as possible with a landform large and flat enough to allow the construction of such a huge complex.  In other words, the Newark Earthworks complex is where it is, because the Flint Ridge quarries are where they are.  The sites are intimately associated in ways that have not been fully ascertained.  It is likely that Hopewell culture artisans quarried Flint Ridge flint and shaped it into a few basic forms for Hopewell culture people around Ohio (and beyond) to use in rituals at ceremonial sites – as well as in daily tasks at habitations.

 


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