Earthworks: Last Remains of the Hopewell People

If you didn't know any better, you might mistake the Newark Earthworks in southern Ohio for the product of some giant celestial spirit who went crazy with an Etch A Sketch. The Earthworks (or what's left of them) are actually a series of huge geometric mounds that anthropologists believe were created two millennia ago by ancestors of Native Americans called the Hopewell people. The most significant feature still standing is known as the Octagon, which has 550-foot-long earthen walls and a footprint big enough to hold four Roman Colosseums. The structure is connected, via two parallel embankments, to a perfect, 20-acre circle. Together the two shapes form a sophisticated astronomical observatory—scientists have discovered that the structure is precisely aligned with the 18.6-year lunar cycle's northernmost moonrise. The residents of Newark will tell you that it is also precisely aligned with the ninth fairway at the private Moundbuilders Country Club.

In fact, the Earthworks have become something of a dwarf star within the golf course's universe. Carts zip over sacred embankments. A cherished mound doubles as the ninth tee. The Earthworks are a National Historic Landmark, and they are under consideration for the UNESCO World Heritage list of cultural and natural wonders. But if you want to see them—well, you're too late. During the golf season, everyone but club members is kept out, except on four visiting days—the last one of the year was Oct. 18—or on Monday mornings, when maintenance crews in biohazard suits spray pesticides and fertilizer. "If we had a Great Pyramid," says Newark Mayor Bob Diebold, "would we have turned it into a water slide?"

Let's not condemn the duffers so fast. The club, which since 1910 has occupied the Octagon and covered all maintenance costs, is widely credited with preventing the place from being plowed under. The issue is how to accommodate nonmembers who want more access, especially for Native American ceremonial purposes. "When I'm in the Octagon, I lose my sense of direction," says Christine Ballengee Morris, a Cherokee professor of art education at Ohio State University. "It smells different, sounds different. It's not a golf course anymore. For a moment, I have a connection with my ancestors and hopefully my future."

Most visitors end up seeing only a tiny part of the Octagon from a small observation deck. Or they can follow the asphalt cart path that winds past the swimming pool, an old tennis court, and a parking lot to reach a chain-link fence through which, off in the distance, they can glimpse the loaf-shaped mound known as the Observatory. Several years ago the financially strapped Ohio Historical Society, which owns the Earthworks, extended the club's lease until 2078. If the World Heritage site nomination goes through, tourism would undoubtedly jump. That would certainly put more pressure on the club and historical society. One frequently suggested scenario is for the federal government to buy out the club and turn the Newark Earthworks into a national park.

Some people simply refuse to be intimidated by men wearing spiky shoes and pastel shirts. Cherokee elder Barbara Crandell has climbed the Observatory to pray for more than two decades—but not once, the octogenarian is proud to point out, when the golf course has dictated. She goes when her heart calls. A few years ago, after Crandell, with the aid of a cane, made her way to the top, club officials showed up and asked her to leave. When she refused, she was arrested and later convicted of trespassing. Friends passed the hat and paid off her $883 fine and court costs in Sacagawea dollar coins.

Earthworks: Last Remains of the Hopewell People | Culture