The axial alignment of the moonrise with Newark s Octagon Earthworks. Courtesy of The Ancient Ohio Trail
In my line of work, I need to know about important architectural monuments around the world.
I’ve taught architecture and its history at the University of Cincinnati for forty years. I’d already been there half that time, teaching my students about the famous places in Greece, Rome, and medieval Europe, before I discovered the monumental ancient works right here in Ohio that are, in their own way, just as spectacular and fascinating.
Though I had been a lot of places, and seen a lot of wonderful cultural sites, nothing quite prepared me for my first experience of Ancient Newark. Standing beside the walls of the Octagon, my mouth fell open: “I had no idea!” Such utter astonishment, I’ve since learned, is a frequent response.
The brilliance of Ohio’s ancient American Indians has been hidden from most of us for decades. In the s, white folks couldn’t believe Indians had built anything so sophisticated, and so conjured theories of a “lost race” of “moundbuilders.” Since then, as most of the earthworks were being destroyed, we generally came to assume our mid-America landscapes had no deep history at all before the pioneers cleared the forests and built the canals.
So what does this lost brilliance consist of? What do the earthworks tell us? Others have written here about the precise lunar astronomy of Newark’s Octagon. As an architectural educator, I am also intrigued by the sites’ precision of form, their almost-incomprehensible scale, and their uncanny beauty. Like all great architectural monuments, they don’t just tell us stories from the past, they teach us in the present; they offer new ways of understanding our world – the earth, the sky, and our fellow-humans.
When my architect friends from around the world visit, we often tour the earthworks also Fort Ancient, Serpent Mound, and Mound City, and that same astonishment is reflected anew: they had no idea! And there’s a reason I always save Newark’s Great Circle and Octagon for last: their scope, beauty, and precision are the most dazzling of all.
After twenty years of immersion in this topic producing exhibits and the website Ancient Ohio Trail, I am honored to be helping prepare these places Newark’s Octagon and Great Circle, plus six others for inscription as UNESCO World Heritage sites. This will confer the global recognition they and their builders deserve: as works of creative genius, products of a brilliant culture, and places of eternal importance to all of humanity.
John Hancock Newark Earthworks CenterTimothy E. Black
As an architectural historian, I did a lot of traveling to Europe, and many World Heritage sites. Besides all the cultural landmarks, there was much to be savored in the overall tourist experience: historic towns, small family-run inns, local cuisine, and scenic byways – a rich immersion in the “spirit of place.” In the coming years, as Newark and southern Ohio embrace the World Heritage opportunity, we also have much to offer: not only the spectacular earthworks, but other experiences that will engage the many “cultural heritage travelers” who will visit us from around the world.
John E. Hancock is the Professor Emeritus of Architecture, University of Cincinnati and chair of the World Heritage Ohio Steering Committee
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