Story & Photos by
10 Places in Ohio to See Ancient Earthworks & Artifacts
Visiting the ancient earthworks and historic sites of the Adena, Hopewell and Fort Ancient cultures that once flourished in Ohio is an eye-opening experience that also involves an element of adventure. This is because, while some of the sites are located in the middle of cities and towns, and are easily accessible, others are far from civilization and require hiking and climbing, not to mention navigating a number of dirt and gravel roads without phone reception.
At Fort Hill, for instance, in order to see this sacred earthwork, visitors must hike to the top of a 500-foot hill, straight up, which also means straight down. However, to be able to walk around this amazing natural and man-made terrace, where you know that, 2,000 years earlier ancient people gathered and socialized, is a powerful experience. It makes the hike worth it.
At Miamisburg Mound (pictured above), a steep 116 steps lead to the top of what is believed to be the largest Adena burial mound in Ohio. At the top is an amazing 360 degree panoramic view of the Miami Valley, which is worth a trip to the historic site alone.
There are also a number of surprises to be discovered.
In Newark, for instance, the massive Octagon Earthwork is now a golf course, but visitors interested in the mounds can view them by walking on a designated trail through the course. In Chillicothe, some of the best earthworks to be discovered, including the mysterious High Banks Works, are not yet open to the public, but show great promise as some of the most advanced earthworks in the world. The site of Serpent Mound (probably the most well-known on this list) is located on top of an ancient meteor impact crater, and may be older than anyone has imagined. The list goes on.
Mostly, visiting these historic sites will give you an interesting perspective about just how advanced, widespread and interesting prehistoric cultures were in southern Ohio.
Whether visited individually, or during a two-to-three-day loop trip through southern Ohio, the following 10 sites are sure to deliver a completely unique and interesting experience.
NOTE: There are also a number of great towns and parks to explore when driving between the 10 sites listed here. This includes: Somerset, Hocking Hills State Park, South Bloomingville, Tar Hollow State Park, Bainbridge (lots of antiques and five and dimes), Waynesville and Lebanon. Also, there is scenic driving tour in Licking County called Pathfinder Routes. It visits additional sites of interest.
400 Mound Circle, Enon
Adena Mound is full of surprises. First, and most impressive, it’s the second largest Adena mound in Ohio and it’s more than 2,000 years old. What makes this even more interesting is the fact that the giant mound stands in the middle of a modern traffic circle in a quaint neighborhood in Enon, just off of I-70.
According to the Enon Historical Society, which is located next to the mound and offers parking to see it, Adena Mound is over one-acre in size, 574 feet in circumference and 40 feet high. The historical society has estimated that
“If the average person could carry about 35 pounds, and soil weighs about 100 pounds per cubic foot, then it would have taken about one million loads to carry the soil from the surrounding area.”
Although not much is known about the mound, both historically and archeologically, there is anecdotal evidence that a stone room “tall enough for a man to stand in” is located in the middle of the earthwork.Adena Mound is free to visit and open daily. The Enon Historical Society, which has more information on the mound, is open from 1-3 p.m. on Tuesdays and Wednesdays and 10:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. Saturdays, March-December.
What Newark looked like when it was found by Europeans. Today, the modern
city is superimposed directly over this amazing site, which has astrological significance on many different levels. Click to enlarge.
The Newark Earthworks are the largest set of geometric earthen enclosures in the world, encompassing more than four square miles, and described by Ohio History Central as “part cathedral, part cemetery and part astronomical observatory.” They were built by the Hopewell Culture between 100 BC and 500 AD and align with the rising and setting moon. The earthworks would have been a place of ceremony, social gathering, trade, worship and honoring the dead.
Today, the modern city of Newark is superimposed over much of the massive earthworks, with the exception of three sections that have been preserved and that can be visited by the public.
The most impressive site is the Great Circle, which also includes the Great Circle Museum. The 1,054-foot-wide circle is one of the largest of its kind. Visitors can walk around the entire circle, which also contains a moat on the inside of the wall. It once held water, but nobody knows what its purpose was.
Nearby is Octagon Earthworks, which, today, is the Mound Builders Country Club golf course. Along with a platform to view the octagon structure, the golf course allows the public to walk along on a short section of the golf course to see the structure up-close. The entire golf course is opened to “mound” visitors four times per year.
A third piece of the geometric earthwork is at Wright Earthwork, which is a fragment of what used to be a near-perfect square enclosure that once stood on the spot.
Each of these sites is free to visit, but the museum has limited hours.
Flint Ridge Ancient Quarries & Nature Preserve
7091 Brownsville Road , Glenford
Not far from the Newark Earthworks is Flint Ridge Ancient Quarries & Nature Preserve, where countless man-hours must have been spent mining the land.
A short hiking trail at the preserve leads through a wooded area that contains a number of ancient pits left by Native Americans who came to the area to quarry an eight-mile vein of high-quality flint.According to Ohio History Central, “Flint Ridge seems to have been well known in the ancient world, as small amounts of it have been found at American Indian sites across the present-day eastern United States.”
Interpretive signs on the hiking trail explain the quarrying process, which was used to make tools and weapons. There are also plenty of dislodged and worked pieces of flint, still sitting where they were left so long ago, and a number of the pits in the woods are filled with water, which can be quite deep.
During early May through October, the Flint Ridge Museum, which is located on the grounds, offers more information and exhibits on the topic. While the grounds are free to visit, there is a small fee for the museum.
Leo Petroglyph & Nature Preserve
400 Park Road, Ray
Reaching Leo Petroglyph & Nature Preserve in Jackson County is an adventure unto itself, but one that’s worth the trip.
The prehistoric site is located several back roads off of U.S. Rt. 35 and contains 37 images of humans and other animals, as well as drawings of footprints. Some of the images are cartoonish in nature, including a human face that has horns and bird’s feet, which is thought to depict a shaman. However, to this day, the meaning of the drawings is unknown.
Among the sites visited on this list, the Leo Petroglyph is among the “newest.” The site only dates back 350 to 1,000 years, and was most likely created by members of the Fort Ancient Culture. Unfortunately, it’s also one of the most in-danger sites on this list. Not only are many of the images fading, but the sandstone that contains the carvings has been vandalized. However, for now, they’re still visible, and are worth seeing.
The nature preserve has other highlights as well, including a short hiking trail that leads through sandstone gorges and past several waterfalls. The sandstone is similar to that found in Hocking Hills, and many parts of the nature preserve gorge look like features found at the state park, including Old Man’s Cave.
Leo Petroglyph & Nature Preserve is free to visit and open sunrise to sunset.
Hopewell National Historic Park
The heart of the Hopewell Culture, just like the Adena before them, was in area that is now Chillicothe, along the Scioto River and Paint Creek valleys. There are dozens of earthworks and ancient sites in the area, many of which can be visited by the public, including Hopewell National Historic Park, which contains a free museum and self-guided walking tour of the spacious Mound City Earthwork.
Nearby are Hopewell Mound Group, Hopeton Earthworks National Historic Park and Spruce Hill Earthworks. All are free to visit and each provides an amazing picture at just how advanced the Hopewell were.
Hopewell National Historic Park
U.S. Route 50, Bainbridge
Seip Mound is known to be the third largest burial mound built by the Hopewell Culture. It’s located near the small town of Bainbridge on U.S. Rt. 50 in Ross County and is 240 feet long, 130 feet wide and 30 feet high. It was once at the center of a large ceremonial gathering place that consisted of two miles of embankment wall enclosing more than 120 acres of land. The walls made the shape of two giant circles and a 27-acre square and contained astronomical alignments. It would have been an important place of ceremony and gathering for generations of people.
While this geometric structure is no longer visible (it was plowed over by early settlers), the huge mound, and a few other relics, remains for all to see.
Visitors can park in a rest area on U.S. Rt. 50 and walk several hundred yards through a beautiful grassy area to reach the mound. Along the way, historical markers highlight the Hopewell Culture and items found in the mound, including intricate artwork. Getting up-close to the mound is a humbling experience and, standing at its foot and looking in all directions, it is easy to see why this place was chosen for a sacred earthwork.
The site is free to visit and open sunrise to sunset.
Fort Hill Earthworks & Nature Preserve
13614 Fort Hill Rd., Hillsboro
Fort Hill is one of the most intriguing sites on this list, however, it’s also one of the most secluded, and it requires the greatest amount of physical effort. This is because “Fort Hill,” which was not a fort but a place of ceremony, sits atop a flat summit 500 feet higher than the surrounding terrain, not to mention the parking lot used to hike to the top.
According to the Arc of Appalachia Preserve System, which maintains the site, as well as an accompanying museum, Fort Hill was built about 2,000 years ago by the Hopewell Culture. It is a walled enclosure made of soil and is more than 1 ½ miles in circumference. It encloses more than 35 acres of the summit and must have been a spectacular place to see during times of ceremony. One can image how the campfires of the ceremonies lit up the skies from atop the hill at night, or how the sound of music and drums carried in all directions.
After reaching the top of the hill, the hiking trail meets up with the wall and then follows it to the other side of the summit. Along the way, visitors will notice 33 man-made “openings” or “notches” in the wall, which, itself, is about 6-15 feet high and 30 feet wide in most places. No one knows what purpose the openings, or the wall, served.
The trail then leads back down to the parking lot and to the museum, which, like every other museum on this list, is very informative.
NOTE: There are a total of 11 miles of beautiful hiking trails at this nature preserve, all worth exploring during a longer visit.
Serpent Mound on the Winter Solstice
3850 OH Rt. 73, Peebles
Serpent Mound is the largest serpent effigy in the world, and also one of the most famous and mysterious.
Measuring 1,348 feet long, the effigy is of a coiled snake opening its mouth and swallowing what appears to be an egg or a circular object, no one knows for sure.
While there is still debate as to who built the mound and when, there is little doubt that the earthwork has astronomical significance.
The head of the snake is aligned to the summer solstice sunset and the coils also may point to the winter solstice sunrise and the equinox sunrise, among other potential alignments.
Today, visitors can climb a tower to view the effigy from above and also walk around the perimeter of the effigy on a paved walkway. A museum on site has exhibits that address the questions and facts surrounding Serpent Mound.
There is a small fee to visit Serpent Mound and museum. Also, throughout the year, the site hosts a number of interesting festivals. Learn more at www.serpentmound.org.
Fort Ancient Archaeological Park
6123 OH Rt. 350, Oregonia
Fort Ancient Archaeological Park has an amazing museum and earthworks, and features the only rock-covered mounds seen on this list.
What’s interesting about entering the park on Ohio Route 350 is that the road not only splits this ancient earthwork in half, but also two mounds known as the Twin Mounds. One is located on either side of the road.
Luckily, beyond this damage, there is quite a lot preserved at the archaeological park and earthworks.
Visitors can pay a small fee (well worth it) to visit the museum, then hike around the earthworks and mounds located throughout the park, not to mention other hiking trails in this beautiful part of Ohio.
The museum also hosts a number of special events and activities throughout the summer, including “Walk the Grounds with an Archaeologist,” as well as a variety of activities for amateur archaeologists.
900 Mound Road, Miamisburg
One of the greatest surprises on this list is the one located closest to home for many readers, Miamisburg Mound. It is the tallest Adena mound in Ohio, not to mention the only one that visitors are allowed to climb to the top of, which, in turn, offers amazing panoramic views of the Miami Valley.
As with many sites on this list, it is easy to see why this place was chosen as a sacred site. Visitors can park in a nearby parking lot and climb 116 steps to the top. On a clear day, it is possible to see for many miles in every direction.
The park is free to visit and open daily.
Other Related Points of Interest
- SunWatch Indian Village in Dayton
- Johnston Farm & Indian Agency in Piqua
- Tecumseh – The Outdoor Drama in Chillicothe
- Tremper Mound
- Tarlton Cross Mound