Bring Hopewell Ceremonial Earthworks World Heritage Sites to Your Students

This writer was traveling in Iceland last week and stopped by Thingvellir National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage site. When I chatted with their staff and told them I worked as a historian in Ohio, they immediately responded “Oh, you just got a new World Heritage site last month! Congratulations!” News travels fast if, even in Iceland, other historians are celebrating!

If you didn’t know yet, Ohio just received its first World Heritage site in September 2023 – the Hopewell Ceremonial Earthworks, a collection of eight sites related to the Hopewell and Adena peoples. These sites sit alongside other World Heritage sites like the Pyramid of Giza, the Great Wall of China, and over a thousand other culturally significant sites across the world as the most important cultural sites in human history.

So why is the Hopewell Ceremonial Earthworks so culturally significant? For one, these are massive sites in which the Pyramids of Giza could easily fit inside! They were built deliberately over a thousand years by hand with earth taken from dozens of miles away. There are thousands of mounds across Ohio, yet these eight are important for their size and shape. Intricately built from the surrounding Ohio landscape, archaeologists believe they were an ancient American Indian ceremonial site. Indigenous people from as far as Wyoming, Florida, Upper Canada, and the East Coast traveled to these sites on a religious pilgrimage for hundreds of years, making it one of the most important sites for American Indian heritage in the United States.

But the sites' geometric shapes are more than just for show. They also align to the sun, moon, and stars, charting the night sky over its 18.6-year lunar cycle. Ceremonies occurred during major astrological events such as the summer solstice.

To explore these sites in your classroom, we recommend checking out The Ancient Ohio Trail website with your students. This website includes virtual tours of four of the eight sites in the Hopewell Ceremonial Earthworks. Pick a site with your students and follow along, reading and watching the videos, and answer the following questions as a class during your exploration:

  1. Who were the people that built these mound sites? What is some of the evidence of how they lived, based on archaeological studies done at the sites?
  2. What are some of the features of the site? How do archaeologists think indigenous people built these sites?
  3. What are some of the hypotheses on why the sites were created or had certain features, like limestone, buildings, water moats, etc.?
  4. How do American Indian people today continue to utilize the ceremonial earthworks? In what ways do they continue their cultural practices?

And, of course, you can always schedule a field trip to one of these sites. Some offer educational programming at the site, while others are self-guided. You and your students will make memories that you all can boast to your friends afterwards: "I was at a World Heritage site today!"

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