UNESCO World Heritage Sites

What do Independence Hall, Yosemite National Park, the Statue of Liberty, the San Antonio Missions, and the Ohio Hopewell Earthworks have in common? All are among the twenty-five UNESCO World Heritage Sites in the United States. The Hopewell Earthworks are the latest addition to the list, being officially designated as a World Heritage Site on September 19, 2023, after 17 years on the tentative site list.

Shawnee Chief Glenna Wallace delivered the keynote address at the ceremony in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. The designation puts the 2,000-year-old ceremonial mounds scattered around Ohio on par with other sites such as the Taj Mahal, Stonehenge, Machu Picchu, the Coliseum in Rome, and the Pyramids in Egypt.

World Heritage Sites History

In 1978 the United National Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) designated Galápagos Islands as the first World Heritage Site. That same year, UNESCO designated Mesa Verde and Yellowstone National Parks as the first World Heritage Sites in the United States. As of April of this year, 1,199 sites in 168 countries have been designated World Heritage Sites. Natural wonders account for 127 of them, with an additional 933 being designated for their cultural significance and 39 as a mix of both cultural and natural significance deemed important to preserve for future generations.

Sarah Hinkelman, the Historic Site Manager at the Newark Earthworks, said one of the most exciting outcomes of this project was that the planning team included representatives from five of the Indigenous nations that once roamed freely in the areas where the mounds are located. Chief Wallace was among them.

Appling for UNESCO Status

Earning a World Heritage designation requires that a site meet at least one of ten UNESCO criteria. The Ohio team had to verify that the mounds they listed in their application were already recognized for their historical significance and are being protected.

Additionally, the team demonstrated that the mounds have universal value. Though Ohio has more mounds than those included in the WHS designation, only eight met the UNESCO criteria. Two of the mound clusters are in Licking County, a short drive from the over 1.3 million people who live in nearby Columbus. Serpent Mound in Southern Ohio, is well worth the drive, but is in a more rural portion of the state. This mound represents the pinnacle of prehistoric effigy mounds found anywhere in the world. The mound, easily recognized as a serpent, aligns with astronomic passages of the season.

Adding Ohio Mounds to the List

Effort to get Ohio mounds listed as World Heritage Sites started with Dr. Richard Shiels, now retired, but formerly an Ohio State University professor at the Newark campus. Brad Leaper, a senior world Heritage Site archeologist and recognized authority on precontact (with Europeans) archaeology, was also instrumental in seeing the project through to completion. Others on the team included  Talon Silverhorn, a citizen of the Eastern Shawnee Tribe and director of Great Council State Park near Xenia, Ohio, and Logan York, the Tribal Historic Preservation Officer for the Miami Tribe of Oklahoma.

The term “Hopewell Mounds” is deceiving as that is not the name of the Indigenous people who built the mounds. Archeologist Warren K. Moorehead made the name Hopewell popular. In the early 1890s he excavated ancient mounds located on property owned by Mordecai Hopewell.

Logan York is a citizen of the Miami Tribe of Oklahoma. He is the Tribal Historic Preservation Officer (THPO) for the Miami Tribe. He is also super knowledgeable about the history of his tribe AND was there during the inception of the Hopewell Ceremonial Earthworks on the World Heritage list.

Previous Uses of the Mounds

The mounds have not always enjoyed the respect afforded them today. The Great Circle Mound in Newark is a perfect circle, encompassing 30 acres of undeveloped land. It was the perfect site for the annual Licking County Fair from 1854 until 1933. Then it became the property of the Ohio Historical Society  (recently renamed Ohio History Connections). That usage likely saved the mounds from the plow and bulldozer, as today the mounds are surrounded by commercial businesses. In the late 1800s, James Lingafelter, a local businessman, announced plans to make the Great Circle a selling point for Idlewilde Park. He claimed the park would be a premier amusement park with rides, entertainment, a race track, four ponds for swimming and boating, and even a hotel. When the Ohio Historical Society obtained the property in 1933 the Civilian Conservation Corps dismantled the park.

Other ancient mounds gave way to urbanization, modern highways and other plans of private individuals who acquired them. Once upon a time, the Licking County Mound area covered nearly four square miles. Today, all that remains open to the public are the Great Circle Park and another set of mounds a few miles away. That site includes a circle and an octagon — and the Moundbuilders Country Club and golf course.

Reclaiming the Past

In 1910 Licking County leased the property to the golf club, The lease stipulated that people could visit the mounds when golfers were not using the course. In 2018, as part of preparations to achieve the World Heritage designation, the Ohio Historical Society took legal action to rescind the Moundbuilders Country Club’s lease. It was set to expire in 2078. The country club filed a motion to stop OHS from taking over the property through eminent domain. In December 2022 the Ohio Supreme Court declined to hear the case.

Embracing the Future

A World Heritage designation contributes to the local economy. Park manager Hinkelman reports 478 people visited the site in May 2023, before the park was approved as a WHS site. In May 2024,  1,336 people visited, partly because of the mounds new status.

On the day I toured, our group included a family from Utah and another from Tennessee. Hinkelman reports they’ve already hosted international visitors. These are people who will likely stay to dine, and maybe sleep in the area. Equally important, sites sacred to the people whose ancestors built these feats of geometry, astronomy, and engineering, are now protected in perpetuity

Thank you for reading along. I learned most of the content of this article while doing research for the upcoming historical novel about the Ohio Valley before and after settlers started moving into the region. My ancestors were part of that migration. You can follow along on Substack.

I write about a variety of topics, but focus on how history influences our present and informs our future.

Mary Brewster’s Love Life and Mayflower Chronicles: The Tale of Two Cultures: available wherever books are sold. Bookshop.org/Mayflower; Mary BrewsterAmazon.com/Mary Brewster’s Love Life
Autographed copies are available on my website.

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