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Tag : UNESCO World Heritage

New Clarity about our Next Steps

April 26, 2016:  During the week of November 16 to 20, 2015, the World Heritage Ohio Steering Committee hosted an “ICOMOS Advisory Mission” – a visit by Margaret Gowen, an archaeologist from Ireland and expert on the UNESCO World Heritage inscription process.  She toured all the earthworks that are part of our prospective nomination, joined by Stephen Morris and Phyllis Ellin of the US National Park Service’s Office of International Affairs.  The Mission was arranged at the request of ICOMOS officials, in order to provide us with clear direction on how best to position our efforts on site integrity, visitor experience, modern uses and preservation, and related issues.

The report from this visit affirmed strongly the world-heritage-worthiness of the earthwork sites, and advised specifically on what would likely be acceptable solutions to some of the management, protection, and visitor-experience problems we are dealing with. Following this report, we are now in discussions with the NPS-OIA about creating a specific, step-by-step process plan for solving these issues, and for completing the nomination dossier at the highest possible standard of quality. This plan (in the form of an MOU) is scheduled for completion by the end of 2016.

Executive committee aims for 2017 nomination

On Friday, March 6, members of the World Heritage Ohio Executive Committee met to discuss developments in the nomination process for the Hopewell Ceremonial Earthworks and Serpent Mound.

The meeting included representatives from the Ohio History Connection, the University of Cincinnati’s CERHAS, the US National Park Service, and the Newark Earthworks Center at the Ohio State University.

John Hancock of CERHAS explained that he has begun working on a timeline for the remainder of the work for the Hopewell Ceremonial Earthworks nomination to the UNESCO World Heritage List, using 2017 as the target for completion.

Additional stages in the nomination process include implementing recommendations made by the US National Park Service’s Office of International Affairs in terms of the preservation of the sites. For example, Dean Alexander, Superintendent of the Hopewell Culture National Historical Park, and George Kane, Director of Facilities for the Ohio History Connection, are working with the State Historic Preservation Office to remove a power line over the Hopewell Mound Group that interferes with the authenticity and preservation of the site.

Representatives from the Ohio History Connection are meeting with tribes in Oklahoma this month to discuss a plan for Serpent Mound’s nomination, which will be further developed in the near future.

The Friends of the Ancient Ohio Earthworks group is organizing a fundraiser for the Cleveland area to be held on April 14 as a way to reach out to the northern parts of the state.

Not all North American earthworks are alike

You may have seen our recent blog post encouraging the world traveler known as “Mr. UNESCO” to come to Ohio. In that post, we compared Ohio’s Serpent Mound and the Hopewell Ceremonial Earthworks to the Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site near St. Louis, noting how these sites are more than “some dirt hills” but are rather the ceremonial centers of vast and developed pre-contact American Indian civilizations.

That’s certainly true from a broad perspective, but actually, the sites and the cultures that constructed these various earthworks are distinctly different from one another.

In addition to Ohio’s own Hopewell Ceremonial Earthworks and Serpent Mound, the US boasts two UNESCO World Heritage Sites relating to the genius of pre-contact American Indians: Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site near St. Louis and the recently inscribed Monumental Earthworks of Poverty Point in Louisiana.

To the untrained eye, all four of these sets of sites look like the “dirt hills” described by Mr. UNESCO. Through archaeological survey methods, however, archaeologists have been able to piece together the significance of each site and the specific groups of people who once lived, worked, prayed, and thrived there.

Poverty Point was at its peak 3,000 years ago, constructed by the Poverty Point culture (4,000-2,500 years ago in the Lower Mississippi Valley. Notably, it was built by nomadic hunter-fisher-gatherers and is of a scale unsurpassed for the next 2,000 years. The site comprises an integrated complex of earthworks, including large mounds, semi-elliptical ridges, and a central flat plaza.

Cahokia was the center of a city-state that reached across the Midwest roughly 1,000 years ago during the Mississippian period. The archaeological remnants of that city today show that the city itself was nearly 4,000 acres in size and comprised homes and public works, including ceremonial “woodhenges.”

In 1848, Squier and Davis were the first to map Serpent Mound, which is the largest effigy mound in the world.

The Hopewell Ceremonial Earthworks here in Ohio were the focal points of Woodland culture communities 1,500 years ago. Large numbers of people may have traveled from as far away as the Rocky Mountains with exotic gifts to offer in ritual at these sites during distinct times for gathering. The archaeological evidence shows that these sites acted as ceremonial sites, including for mortuary use, but there is no evidence that people lived near the sites for extended periods of time. Additionally, the sites exhibit precise alignments to astronomical events, like the far reaches of the moon’s position over an 18.6 year cycle, which would have taken years of study in preparation.

Serpent Mound, another one of our World Heritage Ohio sites, is a more than 1,200-foot-long earthen effigy of a serpent winding across the top of a hillside. This earthwork also mirrors astronomical alignments and therefore embodies the fundamental cosmological principles of the people who built it. The best dating estimates place its construction roughly 1,000 years ago by the Fort Ancient culture of the Ohio River Valley, although more recent work suggests it may be more than 2,000 years old. iI is the largest effigy mound in the world.

Even though all four of these sites do have in common that they were constructed out of earth by pre-contact American Indians, in reality their particular social and ceremonial functions may have varied widely.

We can liken it to comparing Stonehenge and Westminster Abbey in the United Kingdom, for example. Although the sites are close together and both are made of stone, the time differences between them make it so we say they had different social functions and therefore different “outstanding universal value” from one another.

We can branch out even more: the Ohio River Valley (where Serpent Mound and the Hopewell Ceremonial Earthworks are) is farther from Louisiana, for example, than Stonehenge is from London. Not only are we dealing with time and culture but also with space. Stonehenge and Westminster Abbey also differ from the Great Pyramids of Giza, despite their common material base.

Similarly, Poverty Point, Cahokia, the Hopewell Ceremonial Earthworks, and Serpent Mound all originated in the minds of people in particular cultures at particular historical moments in North America. Rather than building upward with stone, they built outward with earth.

The cultures of indigenous North America vary as much in time and space as do the cultures of any other continent. Even though we can’t know everything about the people of prehistoric times, archaeology provides persuasive evidence that these cultures were very different from one another. The four sites discussed here – two current and two hopeful UNESCO World Heritage sites – represent four distinct cultures and distinct ways of thinking within pre-contact North America.