Ohio State nav bar

Newark Earthworks Featured in "Now at Ohio State" Podcast

June 27, 2024

Newark Earthworks Featured in "Now at Ohio State" Podcast

Newark Earthworks

Prof. John Low and Emeritus Professors Lucy Murphy and Christine Ballengee Morris were interviewed about the history of the Newark Earthworks by Jacob Carozza for the "NOW at Ohio State" podcast.

Listen to the podcast. (Transcript appears below the following image.)

Prof. John Low and Emeritus Professors Lucy Murphy and Christine Ballengee Morris
Transcript: On the outskirts of Newark, Ohio, right around the bend from the Chipotle and the grocery store, there sits something incredible. No, not the Ford dealership or the car wash, although I'm sure those are nice too. It's something more profound, something eternal. Blink, and you could miss it. Nestled among streets of suburban homes and a well-cut golf course, a sacred and special site has stood the test of time. So special in fact, that the site has earned world heritage status from the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, or UNESCO. I'm talking about the Newark Earthworks, the largest set of geometric earth enclosures in the world. Didn't know that such an incredible feat of human achievement existed right here in Ohio? Then join us as we explore the history, construction and conservation of this hallowed site.
I'm Jacob Carozza, and you're listening to "Now At Ohio State." We talk with researchers, innovators, and bold thinkers who look at our world, see what the real challenges are, and create the solutions that people need now. So what does it mean to be a World Heritage site? By earning such a status, the Newark Earthworks joins the ranks of other sites and structures such as the pyramids in Egypt, the Great Barrier Reef, the Taj Mahal and more. And according to John Low, the Newark Earthworks definitely belongs in that category. Low is a Professor at Ohio State's Newark campus, and he's also a citizen of the Pokagon Band of Potawatomi Indians. He has a vast interest and incredibly personal connection with the mounds. As they tore the grounds and later settle into the Great Circle Museum, our friend, Lazarus talks with Low about this history of the earthworks, what we've learned from them, and what we can continue to learn from this deeply spiritual site. - I was hoping we could start with, if you could describe for people where we are and what's in front of us? - Sure, so we're at the entrance, which faces the east, almost all dangerous to oversimplify, but Indians across North America, many of them recognize the four directions and east being where the day begins. To give your listeners a sense of how big it is, it's a circle and it has earthworks that's surround it, that are about 15, 20 feet high. I suppose what you could call a moat on the inside of the circle, and part of that was a borrow pit. There's also a borrow pit over by the parking lot that depression over there, borrow pits mainly, basically, were borrowing the dirt from there to put on the walls of the earthworks. So this is the great circle, and it was built about 2,000 years ago by, I call it Hopewell era people. Hopewell, of course, is a name that was applied onto them by settler colonists. We don't know what they call themselves. I don't call them a Hopewell culture 'cause we don't know how they were organized, whether they were many tribal nations all involved. I'd liken it to, well, there's cathedrals in Spain, France, Germany, England, Ukraine, Sweden. It doesn't mean they're all the same people. I like the fact that these were built as far as we can tell, these peoples in this era, all of them, seemed to appear to be egalitarian. There were no monarchy, no theocracy, no rulers in the ruled, no serfs. Everybody was basically equal and serve their functions within the community. So this wouldn't have been built by serfs or slaves, or peons, they would've been built by the community. What would this have been used for as a ethnohistorian besides the tribal elder? You know, I was trained in my graduate work in ethnohistory, which does upstreaming, which basically we look at what Indians do today and see what makes sense for what we speculate about what might have been done in the past. Obviously, to me, this looks like a powwow ground, looks like a huge powwow ground. And what else would've been going on here? Ceremonies, dancing, naming ceremonies for infants, perhaps funerals before the deceased was interred north of here at the ellipse. - Let's talk about the UNESCO designation. - Sure. - What does that mean to you? - I think it's really exciting. It confirms what many of us around here, native and non-native already knew, is that these places, Newark Earthworks and the other Hopewell era places in Ohio are right up there with Machu Picchu, with the Acropolis, with the Colosseum, with Stonehenge, with Taj Mahal as far as celebrating human intellect, sophistication. And so it's sort of like it's recognition that it was appropriate and due. And so I'm glad for that and I hope that as it progresses that there will be indigenous voices that will be tapped and listened to and incorporated. - What does that mean for Ohio State and the university community? - It means a lot. It means that the people who had the vision of creating the Newark Earthwork Center in 2007, I think it was, were definitely onto something. They knew how important this is to not just the community, not just to the university, but to the world. And a designation now is sort of the culmination of one long journey that certainly the Newark Earthwork Center and Ohio State participated in along with many other partners. Most notably, of course, the Ohio History Connection. But it's the end of that journey, but it's the beginning of another journey about how to present it, how to manage it, develop it. And so it's an opportunity for Ohio State, certainly with the Newark Earthwork Center. We want to contribute to what's going on here, but frankly, we also want to contribute to the experiences of students, faculty, and staff at the regional campus. That's one of our missions. And thirdly, we want to connect and continue to connect with tribal nations that were displaced, that have an interest in coming back to these lands. Certainly these lands historically were Shawnee and Wyandot in some Miami where the primary tribes, but there are 42 tribes connected to Ohio that still exist to this day. And we wanna reach out to all of them and really make it a place where it's a collaborative effort that celebrates indigenous ingenuity of the past, but also celebrates the potentials for cooperation, collaboration, partnership in the future. - So John, as I understand it, there were mounds like this all over the state of Ohio, and now there are very few of them. Why is that? - Primarily... And you're right, there may have been thousands, and a lot of them were in places that were inconvenient for settler colonists. And so when they built the canal system, for instance, that's when the ellipse here of the Newark Earthworks complex was destroyed. And then they built railroads that destroyed parts of the mountains too. Agriculture, they tended to plow them down, you know, dismantle them and plow 'em down to make flat land, you know? And so it is understandable in a way that people are going to use the environment for the needs that they have. I guess I tend to look more on the bright side of we do have some that remain some really important ones that remain. - Yes. - And so that's a really good thing. And so I focus on the those that survived. - You talked before about how instead of building up the builders wanted to stay close to the earth. - Yes. - Can you talk about that, John? - Absolutely. So the Hopewell era people beat the wonderful architect Frank Lloyd Wright by 2,000 years, the idea of embracing the earth. Frank Lloyd Wright was genius, created all of these structures that embraced the earth. He wasn't concerned with how tall, but how it related to and connected to the environment around it. You think of falling waters, you know, and other places, the Hopewell era people had the same idea. By 2,000 years ago, they were building these sites, all of the Hopewell era sites in Ohio to embrace their mother, to embrace the earth, to embrace the gifts that come from the earth, to celebrate that and to remind them to stay connected to the earth. - John, why is it important for people to come here and experience the earthworks? - Well, from my perspective, it's a bit of a pride thing that I love having people know about this legacy of my ancestors. Most indigenous people's ancestors contributed to the building of this. Our DNA's spread out so far, most native people have a connection to the builders here. To also dispel or disrupt the stereotype that Indians were savages, wandering around, you know, half-naked, you know, some kind of slums in the wilderness kind of thing, is that these were sophisticated people with sophisticated knowledge, living sophisticated and complex lives just like everybody else. And I think perhaps they get connected to the environment, think about, well, these people are connected to their environment, you know? And as they may mold this over, you know, is like, what are my connections to the environment, you know? I sort of just, if we just live lives where we're just one foot in front of the other and our eyes down and we never pay attention, or we're busy looking at our phone, look at what people were doing 2,000 years ago. And that applies to all the UNESCO World Heritage sites, right? - Yes. Whether in Machu Picchu or the Acropolis, or the Coliseum, or you know, all of them. It's just a really special place and reflects well on when we cooperate what we can accomplish. - John, thank you for hosting us today. This has been a wonderful experience. - Thank you, Franny, it's my pleasure.
Let's be clear, earning world heritage site status is no easy feat. The Earthworks have a rocky past too. There have been legal battles, restrictions on visiting, struggles between personal, private, and state officials. Many people put many hours into raising awareness of the earthworks, all in an effort to help it achieve such a status. Two of those individuals are Christine Ballengee-Morris and Lucy Murphy. Ballengee-Morris is a Professor Emeritus at the Ohio State University in the Department of Arts Administration, Education and Policy. She was also the former American Indian Director and the Founding Director of the Multicultural Center. Murphy is also a Professor Emeritus from the Department of History at Ohio State and one of the Founders of the Ohio State University Newark Earthworks Center. These two have been there through all the ups and downs, supporting the earthworks and fighting for its recognition. Again, our Franny Lazarus sits down with the two to discuss the efforts it took to get the designation and what being a World Heritage site means for the future of the earthworks. - Lucy, Christine, thank you for joining me today. Let's go back to last summer. There were eight sites in Ohio selected to be part of a UNESCO World Heritage Site designation that includes the Newark Earthworks. What did that moment feel like? - I cried because I never thought that that would happen. And I just thought of all the disappointments that had occurred during this time, the 27 years of going after this, and also the good times and how much it was all worth it, because this had actually happened. Attending the World Heritage Organization meetings and listening to everybody, I saw it slowly slip away from my cause or our local cause to being a regional cause and now it's a world cause. And I went from crying to texting.
(group laughing) - Lucy. - I got choked up too, and then I was, hallelujah! I was so excited and I knew so many other people that were so excited. We were just ecstatic that this had finally come about, after so many years of activism and so much work. And of course, as Christine says, it became a larger and larger project. So now hopefully, in the coming years, the public will be able to visit. And no doubt the Ohio History Connection will be developing new and improved wonderful interpretive sites and museums and activities, and so forth. A lot of people will be learning about the amazing people that built the Earthworks. - The campaign to raise awareness about the Newark Earthworks is partly a story about collaboration. You've talked about Ohio State, Dennison, local community members. What was that work like? - It was challenging. It was interesting for listeners who don't know, the Ancient Octagon Mound has a golf course on it, and the golf course doesn't own the site. The site is owned by the Ohio History Connection, and that site was leased to the Country Club, the Moundbuilders Country Club in 1910 before the Ohio History Connection even owned the site. It's a complicated history. So the Moundbuilders Country Club had increasingly, over the years, made it more and more difficult for professors, scholars, members of the public to visit the site because they felt a sense of ownership of it. So it's been since about 1999, about the year 2000, when a number of us in the Central Ohio area, especially around Granville and Newark, felt that it was time to take some steps to try to open up access to the public. And that's when we started meeting, creating a group called Friends of the Mounds and putting pressure on the Ohio Historical Society to do something to make this place more accessible. Another thing that we did that was really interesting is that we started to publicize information about how wonderful these earthworks were because a lot of people didn't know. And we invited speakers to come from far and wide to come and talk about American Indian studies and then we would show them the earthworks and we would also give presentations. Christine was very active in bringing in artists and scholars, and she also wrote and published about the earthworks. - Lucy, when you got here, you said that there was an update on what was happening with the Octagon and the Moundbuilders Golf Club. Can you talk a little bit about that? - What has happened is the Ohio History Connection brought a suit to get the Moundbuilders Country Club to give up their lease. And the court ruled in 2022 that in fact, they could use eminent domain to make the Moundbuilders Country Club leave the site. They appealed and they appealed, and they appealed.
- Okay. (chuckles) - And on April 16th of 2024, the Ohio Supreme Court denied the most recent appeal, which hopefully is the last one. And the case will now go back to the lower court in Newark, and it will be adjudicated how much the Moundbuilders Country Club will have to be paid by the Ohio History Connection. And once that is determined, then they will leave and the Octagon Memorial Mounds will be able to be liberated and will be available for people to view at any time with the understanding that the Ohio History Connection will be supervising the site. - What do you want people to know about the earthworks? - What I want people to first understand is these are sacred sites, and you need to walk in a sacred way and understand in a respectful way, and not to walk on them unless they are told they can, because they are sacred. I want people to know and to learn from it. And it's our job to do that. And it's the Ohio Historical Connections job, and it's the native people. It all of us need to really be a part of the educational programming that needs to occur in the next few years, so that they understand what they're seeing and to feel what they should be feeling when they are in those sites. - Lucy, what about you? - I want people to understand that the Newark Earthworks inscribe on the earth an amazing amount of knowledge that ancient indigenous people had and their understanding of their place in the cosmos, in the world. When you go to the octagon, you'll learn that it is a huge lunar observatory, - Yes. - which records on the earth, the motions of the moon over an 18.6 year cycle. It's a place that demonstrates that these ancient people were scholars and scientists who had studied the earth and its relationship to the sky and the heavenly bodies for centuries in this place. And they also had learned an amazing amount about mathematics and geometry. And so when we get to understand the earthworks, we are amazed by the sophisticated geometry inscribed in this site. And also, to understand that people came to the earthworks from hundreds and hundreds of miles away, we have evidence that this was an enormously important place of pilgrimage. You could say that 2,000 years ago, Ohio was one of the most important places in North America, if not, the most important. - The earthworks are placed by waterways. And the people were, that was the highways at the time, was the waterways. And it makes sense if you're going there for ceremonies and so on, that you would be near water because you need water, you need the fish. And those waters, for the most part, are still there. And so you get an idea of the way they travel. - That's fascinating. - Yeah. - And of course, the people who built the earthworks, they didn't have backhoes, they didn't have horses. - Right. - They built the earthworks by people carrying baskets of earth, of dirt and moving it from place to place to create these amazing earthworks. - Well, congratulations to you both, and thank you for coming today to talk to me about it. - Thank you for having us. - Thank you.
A world heritage site right here in Ohio, absolutely incredible. These mounds overlooked by many for so long are staggering. The time it took to build them, the dedication, all of the sacred and meaningful rituals, no wonder there are so many dedicated to their preservation, to their history, because not only do these mounds connect us with our past, our present, and our future, they connect us to the ground below our feet and the stars above our heads. And maybe most importantly, they connect us to each other.
Now At Ohio State is produced by the Ohio State University's Office of Marketing and Communications. For more information, visit us at go.osu.edu/now. I'm your host, Jacob Carozza. Thanks for listening.