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THE NEWARK EARTHWORKS: A WONDER OF THE ANCIENT WORLD

The Oxford archaeologist Chris Scarre, in his book Seventy Wonders of the Ancient World (1999), lists the Newark Earthworks as one of only three sites in North America that qualify as a "wonder of the world."  Due to its impressive scale and the complexity of its plan, the site often has been featured as an illustration of the epitome of Hopewell culture earthwork construction.  According to the historian Samuel Haven, Daniel Webster was so impressed with the Newark Earthworks that he "desired to have [them] preserved in perpetuity at the national charge."  If his desire had been achieved, the Newark Earthworks would have become the first of America's National Parks and they would have been preserved nearly in their original grandeur.  Unfortunately, this did not occur and today, only three components of the earthwork complex are preserved on public property:                                       Image credit CERHAS Please click on the image for a closer view.
Great Circle Earthworks, Octagon Earthworks, and Wright Earthworks.
                                  

 

Great Circle Earthworks 

         Also see  O.H.S. / Newark Earthworks / Great Circle

            The Great Circle is a gigantic circular enclosure 1200 feet (or four football fields) across from the crest of the wall to the opposite crest.  The walls enclose an area of about 30 acres.  The circular wall varies in height from five to 14 feet with a ditch or moat at the base of the wall inside the enclosure.  The ditch varies in depth from eight to 13 feet and is deepest at the entrance to the circle.  The walls are at their highest here as well making this a dramatic gateway to the Great Circle.  According to Caleb Atwater, who visited the Newark Earthworks early in the 19th century, the ditch held water, but later scholars have been skeptical of this claim.  The fact that the ditch is inside the wall rather than outside indicates it was not a defensive moat.   If the ditch was intended to hold water, then perhaps it had ritual or symbolic significance. 

The earth removed from the ditch formed part of the wall, but the walls are more than just the ring of soil thrown up from the excavation of the ditch.  In 1992 the archaeologists Dee Anne Wymer from Bloomsburg University and Bradley Lepper from the Ohio Historical Society directed the excavation of a trench through the embankment revealing a series of construction episodes. 

Initially, a circular arrangement of low mounds may have been built to provide the framework for the Great Circle.  The Hopewell culture builders then dug the ditch inside the ring of mounds and placed the dark brown earth from their excavations over the small mounds forming a circular embankment separated from the ditch by about 14 feet.  Finally, the Hopewell dug deep pits to uncover the yellowish brown gravelly subsoil.  They used this distinctive earth to fill the gap between the ditch and the top of the dark brown earthwork.  The finished earthwork would have been dark brown on the outside but yellow brown on the inside surface reflecting the different soils used in the construction of the embankment.  We cannot be certain that these colors played a role in how the earthwork was supposed to have been seen by Hopewell visitors.  Grass and other vegetation would have grown rapidly over the earthen embankment obscuring the colors of the underlying soils.  So, unless Hopewell culture caretakers periodically cleared off the vegetation, it may be that it was only important that the different colored soils were in place, beneath the covering of vegetation, for the ceremonial machinery to operate.

An unanticipated result of the 1992 excavations was the discovery of the original A.D. 160 ground surface.  Lepper and Wymer recovered samples of this soil and these yielded pollen and phytoliths indicative of the presence of prairie plants.  This means that, when the earthworks were being laid out and built, the surrounding landscape was a prairie, not a forest.  Hunting and gathering peoples all over the world are known to burn off sections of forest to improve the quality of the habitat for game animals.  It is likely that this area had been maintained as an artificial prairie for hundreds or even thousands of years.  When the Hopewell culture people were selecting sites for earthwork construction, they naturally would have been attracted to openings in the forest canopy so they wouldn't have had to chop down huge oak and hickory trees with their stone axes.

 

            At the center of the Great Circle is a large mound – or set of conjoined mounds.  Although it is called Eagle Mound and many people seem to think it represents a bird in flight, it does not actually bear much resemblance to a bird or any other animal for that matter.  Its three lobes have been compared to a bird's foot, a bear paw print, or an arrow pointing towards the gateway.  Whatever the Hopewell culture may have intended it to represent, the mound covers the site of a similarly-shaped wooden frame structure.  Emerson Greenman, an archaeologist with the Ohio Historical Society, investigated Eagle Mound in 1928.  He uncovered a rectangular pattern of postmolds, or stains in the soil marking the former location of wooden posts.  These stains were all that remained of a log structure that would have been about 100 feet long by about 25 feet wide.   At the center of this lodge there was a large rectangular basin lined with fire-hardened clay.  It is similar to so-called crematory basins found in other Hopewell mounds, but Greenman found no traces of human bones in the sand that filled the shallow pit.  This wooden structure must have been a special place.  It was the focus of ritual activities performed at the Great Circle until the Hopewell culture occupants decided that it had served its function.  They then dismantled it and erected a mound over its remains.

 

 

Octagon Earthworks             
                Also see O.H.S. / Newark Earthworks / Octagon

            Octagon Earthworks are one of the most fascinating components of the Newark Earthworks.  It consists of a circular enclosure connected to an octagon by a short section of parallel walls.  The circular enclosure forms a nearly perfect circle 1,054 feet in diameter.  It only deviates from a perfect circle of that diameter by less than four feet.  It encloses an area of about 20 acres.  The most interesting feature of the circle is the so-called "Observatory Mound" located along the southwestern rim opposite the opening to the octagonal earthwork.  The Observatory is an elongated platform mound 170 feet long and about 12 feet in height.  It appears to have been built across another opening into the circle consisting of a short segment of parallel walls.

            The walls of the octagonal enclosure were each about 550 feet long and from five to six feet in height.  There were gateways or openings at each corner of the octagon varying from about 50 to 90 feet in width.  Each opening of the octagon is partially blocked by a rectangular or oblong platform mound about 100 feet long by 80 feet wide at the base and between five and six feet high.  The octagon itself encloses nearly 50 acres.

 

Wright Earthworks 
          
Also see O.H.S. Newark Earthworks / Wright

            Wright Earthworks preserve a fragment of a geometrically near-perfect square enclosure and part of one wall that originally formed a set of parallel embankments.  The sides of the Newark Square ranged in length from about 940 to 950 feet and they enclosed about 20 acres.  The remaining segment of wall at Wright Earthworks is less than two hundred feet long. The parallel embankments framed a passage leading from the square to a huge oval enclosure that surrounded a dozen or so burial mounds.  Another set of parallel walls led from the Newark Square to the Great Circle.  It is interesting to note that the perimeter of the square earthwork is precisely equal to the circumference of the circle.  This is yet another indication of the remarkable sophistication of the geometry and engineering of the Newark Earthworks.

 

 

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WHAT ARE THE NEWARK EARTHWORKS?

 

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