High Bank earthworks to be nominated for inscription on the World Heritage List

The High Bank Works are among the most beautiful of all the American Indian sacred landscapes built in the Ohio Valley nearly 2,000 years ago.

These works are masterpieces of landscape architecture: earthen sculptures built on a monumental scale, with elegant geometry, and precisely aligned with the cyclical movements of the Sun and the Moon. The High Bank site is one of five earthwork complexes included in Hopewell Culture National Historic Park near Chillicothe, Ohio (not to be confused with Highbanks Metropolitan Park north of Columbus). These national park sites are being inscribed on the World Heritage List as “Hopewell Ceremonial Earthworks” alongside three other earthworks managed by the Ohio History Connection: The Octagon Earthworks and the great circle in Licking County; and Fort Ancient Earthworks in County Warren.

The High Bank earthworks complex is located approximately three miles south of Chillicothe, where Paint Creek meets the Scioto River. This confluence marks the center of the world’s most spectacular concentration of geometric earthworks. Over two dozen huge earthen enclosures lie within a 30 mile radius of this point. These ancient landscapes were constructed between 1600 and 2000 years ago, during a period that archaeologists call the Hopewell episode. An American Indian religious movement swept across eastern North America during this period. Many different Indigenous nations with distinct languages ​​and customs were united during this time by a shared set of religious beliefs and practices expressed in sacred objects and earthworks. The High Bank earthworks complex was a sacred center of this indigenous religious movement and was probably visited by pilgrims from distant lands at this time.

Bret Ruby, archaeologist from the Hopewell Culture National Historical Park, at the Hopewell Mound Group near Chillicothe, Ohio on Wednesday July 2, 2014.

The High Bank earthworks include over a mile and a quarter of earth embankments forming a huge circle connected to an octagon. Each geometric figure contains just over 20 acres. In the 1880s, Professor Cyrus Thomas of the Smithsonian Institution doubted earlier reports that the circle was a “perfect” circle, the diameter being 1,050 feet. He sent a team of professional surveyors to check for himself. He was amazed to learn that the actual diameter never varied more than five feet from a true circle. It is a testament to the masterful skill of the Native American architects who designed and built the earthworks.

Perhaps more astonishing is the fact that the Octagon earthworks in Newark are located almost 60 miles apart, but share the same circle and octagon design. The circles of the two sites are exactly the same size and the major axis of each pair is rotated 90 degrees with respect to the other. Newark Circle faces northeast and High Bank Circle faces northwest. Indeed, the two earthworks are precisely aligned with the northernmost rising of the Moon. The Moon only rises over this point on the horizon every 18.6 years. Perhaps this ancient knowledge has been used to plan and organize pilgrimages to High Bank and Newark from afar, once in a generation. You can find out more about www.nps.gov/hocu.

Dr. Bret J. Ruby is an archaeologist with the National Park Service and chief of resource management at the Hopewell Culture National Historical Park in Chillicothe, Ohio.

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