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Earthworks a site of ancient ceremonies

This Thanksgiving, friends and family will gather around tables to eat, drink and be merry. Parents and teachers might tell children about the first Thanksgiving.

But scholars, such as professor Richard Shiels, associate professor in history at the Ohio State Newark campus, contend that the story we hear in late November really wasn’t the first Thanksgiving at all.

For centuries, Native Americans traveled hundreds of miles to celebrate and give thanks for the harvest. One of their destinations is believed to be the Newark Earthworks, a set of geometric earthen enclosures about 40 miles east of Columbus.

“There were people who celebrated the harvest long before Christopher Columbus,” said Shiels, who is also the director of the Newark Earthworks Center. “Two thousand years ago, people were having these same types of feasts.”

The Great Circle, which is the centerpiece of the Newark Earthworks, is a four-square-mile, tree-lined plot of land enclosed by a ditch and, beyond that, a 14-foot-high wall. At the center is a mound made of soil, called the eagle mound. Both the eagle mound and the walls surrounding the circle were once covered in yellow clay.

“The yellow clay would light up when the sun hit it, especially if the ditch was filled with water, and it would have looked glorious,” said Susan Fryer, executive director of the Greater Licking County Convention and Visitors Bureau.

The circle was likely used for religious ceremonies, experts said, and could have been used for sporting events similar to the Olympics, along with other large week- or month-long festivals.

“Evidence suggests that people came here for three or four months at a time,” Shiels said. “We don’t have any essays from these people telling us why they built these things. We like to say that the earthworks themselves are native knowledge written on the land.”

The circle, as well as the Octagon Earthwork, located a few miles away, were built to line up with solar and lunar cycles and are the largest of their kind in the world. Openings around the Octagon line up with the path of all eight points in the lunar cycle; when the moon rises over the horizon it send light across the Octagon through the openings.

“Why would you go through the trouble to build something as big as that octagon and line it up with the moon?” Shiels asked when trying to decipher the purpose of the earthworks. “It’s an 18.6-year cycle, and every time that moon aligns in the octagon, it’s in a different season, so it doesn’t help you figure out when to plant your crops. It doesn’t seem to have any practical benefit.”

That led Shiels to believe that the octagon was purely ceremonial. Throughout his years studying the earthworks, Shiels has brought many Native Americans, including tribal chiefs, to the grounds and said they have confirmed his theories.

“As you walk out into the center of the circle, your whole environment changes,” Fryer said. “It becomes a real quiet place, a place that folks would take for reflection or prayer. You really do hear the birds more clearly and notice the trees.”

Shiels and others said the Newark Earthworks was a site of pilgrimage because of the waterways surrounding three sides of the area. Similarly, artifacts have been found on the sites that could have arrived there only through long-range trade.

“There are shells from the Carolinas, copper from Wisconsin, obsidian and mica from the Grand Canyon, which is at least evidence of trade,” Shiels said. “And if you go out to those places, you find spear points and arrowheads made of Flint Ridge flint.”

Flint Ridge is an area close to the Great Circle that has a depository of unique flint.

The Hopewell people, who built the earthworks, lived during the time of Christ, Shiels said. Little is known about them and few of their artifacts have been recovered. However, one of their dwelling sites has been discovered near Chillicothe, Ohio, and it’s believed that a dirt road stretched the 70-mile distance between the two areas.

The Great Circle is open to visitors year-round and the Octagon Earthwork, which is home to a country club golf course, is open to visitors during select hours. 

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