The Ancient Ohio Trail includes some of America’s most remarkable prehistoric landmarks, including the Great Serpent Mound, the largest effigy mound in the world.
If you’ve never heard of the Ancient Ohio Trail, you’re not alone. But this relatively unknown route links sites that are among the most impressive prehistoric landmarks of antiquity. They include Newark, the largest set of geometric earthworks in the world; Mound City, the site of an ancient necropolis; Fort Ancient, the largest hilltop enclosure in North America; and most intriguing of all, Serpent Mound, a massive earthen snake that faces the setting sun at the summer solstice.
“These sites are as remarkable as the Egyptian pyramids or Stonehenge,” said Brad Lepper, curator of archaeology for the Ohio History Connection. “The technology used to build them was simple—just pointed sticks, clamshell hoes, and woven baskets—but the knowledge encoded in these monuments is extraordinarily sophisticated.”
Most of the landmarks on the Ancient Ohio Trail were built by the Hopewell Culture, which flourished between 1 and 400 CE. Because the original name of these people is unknown, archeologists have designated them as the Hopewell, after Mordecai Hopewell, who owned the farm where one of the earthworks was excavated in 1891.
Archeological evidence indicates that the ancient American Indians who built the monuments were primarily hunter-gatherers who lived in small homesteads in the surrounding region, not at the earthworks themselves. Unlike other prehistoric cultures that constructed large monuments, they didn’t seem to have had a complex social hierarchy involving nobles supported by peasants or slaves, which suggests that building the mounds was a voluntary communal project.
The best place to begin a tour is Newark, located thirty miles east of Columbus. Beneath the modern city are the remains of a four-square-mile complex of earthworks that included massive circles, a huge square, and a precisely engineered octagon, all connected by walled roadways.
Fortunately, several of the major Hopewell creations have been preserved, including the Great Circle. Twelve hundred feet in diameter and bounded by earthen walls up to fourteen feet in height, its interior of neatly trimmed grass and scattered trees is so large that four football fields could fit within it. A ditch lines its interior walls, an eight-foot-deep depression that had originally been lined with clay and limestone so that it could hold water.
Next, head across town to the Moundbuilders Country Club—perhaps the only golf course in the world constructed in the middle of prehistoric landmarks. Negotiations are underway to return the land to the Ohio History Connection, but in the meantime visitors can view the Hopewell earthworks from an observation platform near the clubhouse.
The two landmarks here eclipse the Great Circle in size and probably in original importance. The first, known as the Observatory Circle, has a diameter of 1,050 feet, while the other is the Octagon, an eight-sided figure more than 1,500 feet across. Linked by a narrow avenue, the two stretch for half a mile, with perfectly level walls at eye level.
The sites are significant not only for their precise geometric forms but also for the astronomical knowledge embedded within them. The Octagon’s walls and gateways have eight viewpoints that match lunar alignments, including the northernmost rise of the moon, which happens once every 18.6 years. On that night, if you’re standing in the center of the Observatory Circle and look through the avenue that connects to the Octagon, you will see the moon rise in alignment with the earthworks, just as the Hopewell did many centuries ago.
The next major site on the trail is the Hopewell Culture National Historical Park, located on the outskirts of the city of Chillicothe. It preserves six non-contiguous sites, five of which echo the Newark fascination with circles, squares, and octagons. The last site, which is known as Mound City, preserves an ancient burial ground and is the only one of the six that’s been restored to its original appearance. It includes twenty-three mounds in a thirteen-acre rectangle bounded by a low earthen wall. Most of the mounds are dome-shaped, making the site look like a bunch of anthills left by giant insects. About a hundred people were buried here over several centuries.
Fort Ancient in southern Ohio, the next stop on the Ancient Ohio Trail, also showcases the Hopewell enthusiasm for moving huge amounts of dirt. On a high plateau above the Little Miami River are nearly three-and-a-half miles of earthen embankments enclosing about a hundred acres. The hilltop enclosure doesn’t appear to have been built for defensive purposes because it has nearly seventy openings in its walls. As with all of these landmarks, many mysteries remain.
The site’s museum gives background on the builders of these monuments and the beautifully crafted artifacts they left behind. Some were made from mica from the Carolinas, copper from the upper Great Lakes, shells from the Gulf of Mexico, and obsidian from Yellowstone National Park. Among the most striking are stylized shapes cut from shimmering mica and carved pipes in the shapes of animals.
The final stop on the Ancient Ohio Trail is the most intriguing of all: the Great Serpent Mound, which winds its way across a hill in rural Ohio near the small town of Peebles. This landmark—a full quarter mile in length—is the largest effigy mound in the world. Archeological evidence suggests it was built either before or after the Hopewell Culture, though the dating is uncertain. Surrounded by forest, the snake’s three-foot-high, undulating curves have a beauty and gracefulness that make the mound seem as much a work of art as a prehistoric site.
Another unusual aspect of the serpent mound is that it sits atop a meteor crater created more than 300 million years ago. The four-mile gash in the earth would have long been covered by vegetation by the time the mound was constructed, but the rock beneath the surface is much different from that of the surrounding region, its layers of stone compressed and twisted by the force of the impact.
Today several Indian tribal nations have reclaimed a connection to these earthworks, most prominently the Shawnee who lived in Ohio before being relocated by the federal government to Oklahoma and other states in the nineteenth century. They work with the Ohio History Connection to present educational programming on the Native American heritage of the mounds. And while the various tribes acknowledge that no one can say exactly why these places were built or how they were used, they affirm that they are holy sites deserving of great respect.
It’s hoped that these remarkable monuments will receive wider recognition in the future, according to Susan MacLaughlin Rasche, park ranger at the Hopewell Culture National Historical Park. “The earthworks along the Ancient Ohio Trail are on the short list for approval as UNESCO World Heritage Sites,” she said. “Their significance is easy to overlook because they’re made of earth rather than stone, and they’ve been damaged by weather and development through the centuries. But they are truly among the most significant prehistoric landmarks in the world.”
If You Go: The Ancient Ohio Trail website gives a wealth of information on these four sites as well as other prehistoric sites in Ohio. For additional information, see the Ohio History Connection and the Ohio Tourism Office.
Lori Erickson is one of America’s top travel writers specializing in spiritual journeys. She’s the author of the Near the Exit: Travels With the Not-So-Grim Reaper and Holy Rover: Journeys in Search of Mystery, Miracles, and God. Her website Spiritual Travels features holy sites around the world.