Hopewell Culture moving toward World Heritage status

Great news for an outstanding but often overlooked unit of the National Park Service– Hopewell Culture National Historical Park (NHP) in Ohio.

The Department of the Interior announced today that it has selected this group of ancient American Indian sites for nomination to the World Heritage List. That’s the list that recognizes cultural and natural sites of universal importance, like the Grand Canyon and the Galápagos.

I wrote this reflection about my time Hopewell a couple of years ago. It’s one of my “heart” places, as I’ve come to call them, those those inexplicably familiar spots where you’ve always been, even on your first visit:

Hopewell Culture National Historical Park is a place few people encounter by accident. A kind of worthy pilgrimage must be made to south-central Ohio where the Scioto River wends its unhurried way through a storied valley still thrumming with mysteries.

Roughly 2,000 years ago this area was a hub of American Indian activity. “Hopewell” is the name for the culture which spanned much of eastern North American but its heartland was here. There were small villages with homes of wattle and thatch where residents grew crops including squash and sunflower, hunted deer and fished, and lived amicably with shared goals. The realization of those lofty goals remains imprinted on the landscape.

What the national park protects are Hopewell’s ceremonial places—complex “monumental earthworks” constructed entirely by hand. These are huge geometric enclosures of embankments and earthen mounds, the remnants of structures used for celebrations and various rites of passage.  This ancient architecture includes some of the oldest human-made structures in North America.

The mind grasps for comprehension of the scale of planning, engineering and physical labor necessary to construct these sacred complexes. Millions of tons of earth were moved and remolded with precision using standard units of measure to build precise circles, squares, rectangles, even octagons, the size of football fields. Some of the sites were aligned for astronomical observations. The ingenuity, awareness and devotion expressed are nothing short of epic.

Hopewell Culture NHP has a pulse. The blood and sweat of past inhabitants seems to course through it to this day. While there I recalled Machu Picchu, Stonehenge, Altun Ha, places with soul. Standing among those mounds and considering the tenacity and collaboration required to build and maintain these centers, one generation after the next, was akin to craning my neck to marvel at the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. This small national park is one of those rare places where the past and present command equal time in the consciousness of the visitor.

Archaeologists who excavated them found the mounds packed with artifacts offering clues about the beliefs, ethics, rituals, talents and habits of those early Ohioans. The materials themselves are extraordinary—shark teeth from the Atlantic coast, marine shells from the Gulf of Mexico, copper from the north, quartz and mica from the Carolinas and, perhaps most astounding, obsidian from the Yellowstone basin. Once the exotic materials were tracked down the hands of the Hopewell took to crafting them into objects, often depicting deer, bear or bird, as captivating as any Rodin or Brancusi.

I spent a year on the road, driving roughly 20,000 miles from one national park to another, collecting stories for my book on the National Park Service. I was a national park kid (I became a junior ranger at age 7 at Cape Cod National Seashore). Hopewell Culture was the 167thnational park unit I’ve explored and, just like my time on Cape Cod decades ago, it offered some of that alchemy of childhood when revelations can come from any angle and journeys are limited only by imagination.