Earthworks Are Not Just Piles of Dirt


In Marilyn Johnson’s otherwise wonderful new book Lives in Ruins: archaeologists and the seductive lure of human rubble, I came across a brief mention of Ohio’s ancient earthworks that expressed an unfortunate opinion I have heard all too often.

In the final chapter of the book, Johnson describes a bus ride to Machu Picchu, which she shared with a “bucket of archaeologists.” They were all there as part of a gathering of the UNESCO International Committee on Archaeological Heritage Management.

One of the people on the bus with Johnson was Elizabeth Bartley. Bartley is a colleague of mine who is part of the team working to have Ohio’s Hopewell Ceremonial Earthworks inscribed on the World Heritage List.

Johnson writes that “all the way up the mountain” Bartley “chats about the mounds of Ohio, the archaeology near her home in Cincinnati that remains largely unstudied. For years, the University of Cincinnati didn’t even have a specialist in Ohio archaeology. Why don’t more people care about mounds? she wonders. I feel guilty hearing this. Because they’re dirt! is the phrase I swallow all the way up the mountain… It’s not just my bias, though: stone always trumps dirt in archaeological destinations. We are, after all, a busload of people, a parade of buses, ascending to a site carved out of stone.”

To Johnson’s credit, she recognizes that this view reflects a bias and she feels at least a little guilty for it, but her lame appeal to the “it’s not just me” justification for holding a view she suspects to be somehow objectionable suggests she is mostly unrepentant.

After all, how could a pile of dirt possibly compare with Machu Picchu’s stone-walled grandeur?

I appreciate Johnson’s passionate tribute to archaeologists who sacrifice so much to try “to will life back into stuff that had been forgotten and buried for thousands or millions of years.” And I do not wish to appear ungrateful, but dismissing monumental sites, such as the Newark Earthworks, as merely piles of dirt is like calling the Parthenon a pile of rocks.


The mounds of Ohio are not actually “largely unstudied,” though thanks to attitudes such as Johnson’s they certainly are understudied. The research that has been done demonstrates that many of the earthworks are engineering and artistic masterpieces. The indigenous peoples of eastern North America included “da Vincis of dirt” who incorporated a sophisticated knowledge of geometry and astronomy into walls of earth and stone that were built to last for centuries.

Why do so many people view the earthworks as mere piles of dirt – when they see them at all? University of Cincinnati architectural historian John Hancock has written of their “double invisibility” to modern eyes:

“Not only are most of the sites destroyed or badly degraded, but the surviving ones are almost equally incomprehensible as works of architecture, or as landscape experiences. As conceived by their builders, they were vast in scale, subtle in design, and both soft and complex in form. As visible today, they are most often covered with obscuring vegetation.” For large earthworks such as Newark and Fort Ancient, “the whole of the design could not be grasped through direct experience as an architectural idea, as a monumental spatial experience, or as a meaningful compositional whole.” They reflect “a spatial conception that is fundamentally beyond the grasp of the modern Western imagination.”

On that bus ride, Johnson made a silent vow “to make a pilgrimage to some really big, really obvious mounds soon.” I hope she follows through on that vow and can get past her bias to see these amazing earthworks as not only more than dirt, but equal to Machu Picchu in grandeur.

For further reading

Hancock, John E.
2004 On seeing Fort Ancient. In The Fort Ancient Earthworks: prehistoric lifeways of the Hopewell culture in southwestern Ohio, edited by Robert P. Connolly and Bradley T. Lepper, pp. 259-263. Ohio History Connection, Columbus.


Posted February 13, 2015
Topics: Archaeology

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