“I had no idea,” Professor of Religion John Barbour announced to Viking Theater during his introduction of the lecture entitled “The Earthworks of Newark, Ohio: The Remarkable Past, Troubled Present, and Uncertain Future of a Great American Pilgrimage Center.”
This is a common sentiment when it comes to the Newark Earthworks, a prehistoric site of sacred earthen mounds located in central Ohio. On Oct. 7, the Flaten Art Museum and the St. Olaf Religion Department hosted a lecture by Ohio State University professor Lindsay Jones, who came to campus to share his expertise on the surprising truths of one of the United States’s most obscure and valuable cultural sites.
Jones is an international expert on sacred architecture, as well as a scholar of cross-cultural study of religion. He has traveled all around the world studying sacred places, but he was surprised to discover an important site so close to home.
“I’m not going to be at all surprised if none of you have heard of this site,” Jones said, noting that the Earthworks are just as distinguished for obscurity as their value.
The Newark Earthworks consist of two geometric hill-like structures built of mounded earth. The mounds take the form of an octagon and a circle, and were created by the Hopewell people around the same time as the birth of Christ. The site was traditionally a sacred pilgrimage site and was constructed to correspond with the rising and setting of the moon based on a complex 18.6 year cycle.
The Earthworks have been designated as one of 70 Wonders of the Ancient World and are in consideration to be a UNESCO World Heritage site. Yet, in what some might say is true American fashion, the 2000-year-old mounds are currently home to the Moundbuilders Country Club golf course. Access is closed to the public on all but four days a year, despite the various groups that hope to make a pilgrimage there, including increasing numbers of Native peoples. The golf course currently has a lease on the land until 2078. Of all the groups who have a claim and opinion on the Earthworks, Jones said they can “unify in disdain for the golf course.”
Jones co-edited a book entitled the “Newark Earthworks: Enduring Monuments, Contested Meanings” exploring some of these differing perspectives and claims on the Earthworks. It includes perspectives from historians, archaeologists, architects, sociologists and lawyers.
“This was not the rainbow coalition,” Jones said. “The more time they spent together the less they liked each other.”
Despite presenting these multiple warring perspectives, Jones didn’t feel the need to have the book come to a tidy consensus.
“I have no interest whatsoever in finding and fixing the ‘true meaning’ of Newark Earthworks,” he said. “In every single era, including this present era, the Earthworks have different meanings for different audiences.”
For Ohio locals, the surprising news that their local golf course includes a world-renowned ancient site on par with Stonehenge and Machu Picchu “can give you a great sense of pride in Ohio,” Jones said. He credited the mounds for their personal as well as professional impact, creating a “humbling awareness” about the small scope of our claim on the land:
“I’m conducting my life on top of this landscape where this spectacular mound culture existed. It really changes my sense of who I am and where I am and how I am connected to that place.”