Ohio Historical Society Nears Victory in Reclaiming Ancient Hopewell Earthworks

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In the heartlands of the Buckeye state, history and modernity find an uncommon meeting ground. On the brink of acquiring the ancient ceremonial and burial earthworks nestled amid the green swathes of a thriving country club, Ohio’s venerable historical society finds itself just a step away from an epochal win.

These venerated grounds, dappled across Newark in central Ohio, are home to the Hopewell Earthworks, a system of eight ancient sites etched deep into the earthly fabric of the landscape. This impressive network was bestowed World Heritage Site status just last year, a testament to its historical and cultural legacy.

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Lost in a time between 2000 and 1600 years ago, the mysterious Hopewell Culture carved these sprawling earthworks into the land, creating a hallowed gathering place for ceremonies that beckoned individuals from the far corners of the hinterland and beyond. Archaeological investigations unearthed traces of raw materials that originated as far west as the Rocky Mountains, evidence of the site’s magnificent reach.

Steering the path towards reclaiming these grounds from the Moundbuilders Country Club, the Ohio History Connection emerged triumphant from a state Supreme Court verdict about a year and a half ago. The ruling enabled it to reintroduce the area, home to the 2000-year-old Octagon Earthworks, as a public park.

The historical society pegs the value of these lands at approximately $2 million, while the country club holds out for a higher payoff. Beneath these negotiations, the deeper story of these lands unfurls. Crafted by ancient Native Americans, the earthworks comprising eight elongated walls mirror lunar cycles, lining up with the rising and setting points of the moon over an 18.6-year lunar cycle. The Ohio History Connection ascribes multiple roles to them, seeing them as “part cathedral, part cemetery and part astronomical observatory.”

Several tribal groups, including many tied to Ohio’s history, fervently advocate for their preservation as living testaments to the accomplishments of their Indigenous ancestors. To safeguard the remnants of the earthworks, voters in the neighboring Licking County enacted a tax hike in 1892. Nearly two decades later, in 1911, the area was repurposed into a golf course. The Ohio state leased out the 134-acre property to the Moundbuilders Country Club in the 1930s.

Following a 2019 county court verdict, the historical society won the right to reclaim the lease via eminent domain. Predictably, this decision sparked contention from the country club, which alleged that the Ohio History Connection failed to uphold its statutory obligation to offer a ‘good faith’ purchase of the property. Operating on the conviction that they had not only maintained the mounds adequately, but also made them accessible to the public, the club contested the acquisition of the property.

A subsequent legal setback constituted the disallowing of evidence by the trial court that the club had aimed to present regarding the land’s value, reigniting a debate on the matter. Undeterred by this decision, the club sought an appeal from the state Supreme Court. The apex court, however, has declined jurisdiction.