A network of ancient Native American ceremonial and burial mounds in Ohio described as “part cathedral, part cemetery, and part astronomical observatory” was added to UNESCO’s list of World Heritage sites on Tuesday.
Conservationists, led by the Ohio History Connection, and native tribes, many of whom have ancestral ties to the state, have pushed for recognition of the Hopewell ceremonial earthworks for their good condition, distinct style and their cultural significance – describing them as “masterpieces of human genius”.
The UNESCO World Heritage Committee approved the nomination at a meeting in Saudi Arabia. The massive earthworks join a list of famous sites including the Greek Acropolis, Machu Picchu in Peru and the Great Wall of China.
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“Excitement and sheer elation” were the immediate reactions of Chief Glenna Wallace of the Eastern Shawnee Tribe of Oklahoma.
“Tears came to my eyes and elation turned to reflection, knowing that the world will now see and recognize the commitment, spirituality, imaginative art and knowledge of complex architecture to produce magnificent earthworks,” she said in a statement. “Our ancestors were true geniuses.”
Built by American Indians between 1,600 and 2,000 years ago along the central tributaries of the Ohio River, the earthworks hosted ceremonies that drew people from across the continent, based on archaeological findings of raw materials brought from as far west as the Rocky Mountains.
Elaborate ceremonial linked to “the order and rhythms of the cosmos” is evident in the “beautiful ritual objects, spectacular offerings of religious icons and regalia” found at the sites, the application states.
The eight sites comprising the earthworks are spread across 90 miles of what is now southern Ohio. They are notable for their enormous scale, geometric precision, astronomical magnitude and accuracy – such as coding the eight lunar stops on an 18.6 year cycle.
UNESCO Director-General Audrey Azoulay said listing the earthworks as a heritage site “will make this important part of American history known around the world.”
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“Just three months after joining UNESCO, the United States inscribed its twenty-fifth site on the World Heritage List, illustrating the richness and diversity of the country’s cultural and natural heritage,” he said. she declared. “This inscription on the World Heritage List highlights the important work of American archaeologists, who discovered remains here dating back 2,000 years, constituting one of the largest earthworks in the world.”
The National Congress of American Indians, the Inter-Tribal Council Representing Tribes Living in Northeastern Oklahoma, and the Seneca Nation of New York State were among the tribes that supported the designation of the UNESCO.
The process of applying for heritage designation has been slowed by a lengthy court battle to restore public access to part of the land that had been leased to Moundbuilders Country Club for a golf course. In December, an Ohio Supreme Court ruling allowed the Ohio History Connection, the state’s historical society, to continue its effort to take control of the Octagon Earthworks in Newark, one of eight recognized sites.
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Megan Wood, CEO and executive director of History Connection, said Tuesday’s listing of the site was the culmination of more than a decade of work by her organization and its partners, including tribes and the National Park Service.
“We are excited to share these sites with more and more Ohioans, Americans and travelers from around the world,” she said.
Other sites included in the new designation are: Fort Ancient Earthworks in Oregonia and Great Circle Earthworks in Heath; and five sites in Hopewell Culture National Historical Park in Chillicothe – Mound City Group, Hopewell Mound Group, Seip Earthworks, High Bank Earthworks and Hopeton Earthworks.
Republican Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine said he anticipated Ohio’s first world heritage site would attract “even more visitors to see these incredible places” and “experience the impressive earthworks that make up such a special part of Ohio history.”