Ohio’s earthworks on display

Marietta resident Jeremy Coughenour knew there were ancient earthworks besides those found in Mound Cemetery and off Third Street in his hometown.

But he didn’t know how many were located just in Ohio before visiting the Washington County Public Library on Monday.

“I didn’t realize that there was such an array,” said Coughenour, 34, as he and his girlfriend, Samantha Dunn, looked at photographs and other images of earthworks around the Buckeye State.

The library set up the Ancient Ohio Landscape display last week with poster-sized images on loan from the Ohio Native Heritage Archives Collection at the John L. and Christine Warner Library at The Ohio State University-Newark. In addition to photos from sites like the Serpent Mound in Adams County, the Octagon in Newark and Fort Hill in Highland County, there are light detection and ranging (LiDAR) images that show features and objects and obstructions below the surface of these structures, many of which are more than 1,000 years old.

“Jeremy’s shown me a few mounds around town, and I’ve never seen anything like it,” said Dunn, 25, originally from Wyoming.

The library’s main branch in Marietta sits atop one of the local earthworks, dubbed the Capitoleum mound by the city’s early settlers. It and the Quadranou mound on Third Street are dated to the Hopewell period, about 100 B.C. to 500 A.D., said Wes Clarke, an archaeologist on staff at The Castle in Marietta. The Conus mound in the city’s Mound Cemetery comes from an even earlier period.

There were a number of other mounds and earthworks in the city, with elevated embankments framing off a particular space, but they have disappeared as the area developed, Clarke said. While much remains unknown about the builders of the mounds and how they used the structures, archaeologists have some ideas.

“The way I like to put it is these big areas that were marked out and enclosed were set aside as a sacred place,” Clarke said. “These are centers for ritual activity that we might term as religious activity.”

While there are often human remains interred in such earthworks, they were not exclusively used as burial sites, Clarke said. The bodies placed there belonged to individuals significant to the community, such as spiritual or social leaders.

The Octagon and Great Circle earthworks in Newark share cultural and chronological characteristics with the Hopewell constructs in Marietta, said John Crissinger, special collections and reference librarian at OSU-Newark.

Crissinger said that unlike ancient structures such as the Egyptian pyramids or Stonehenge that are based on the position of the sun, the Octagon marks the position of the moon at points in its 18-and-a-half-year cycle of major rising and setting points. The mounds are not merely piles of dirt, but meticulously calculated geometric structures, he said.

“We’re dealing with a pre-horse time period … and we’re dealing with (a culture) that didn’t have metal yet,” Crissinger said in an effort to drive home the impressiveness of the accomplishment.

The Marietta library is the first to set up the display, which OSU-Newark and the Newark Earthworks Center are offering as a way to educate people about and encourage preservation of the earthworks. Andrea Adkins, information systems manager for the local library, said the opportunity fit nicely with the library’s summer-reading theme, “Groundbreaking Reads.”

The display does not include Marietta’s earthworks, but the library does offer reading suggestions to learn more about the local structures and those featured in the display.

Adkins said she’d like to have other special displays at the library to draw people who might not normally come in or inform residents about different topics.

“(I’m) looking for more opportunities to do things that you might not normally see,” she said.