Network of ancient American Indian earthworks in Ohio named as UNESCO World Heritage sites

COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) — A network of ancient American Indian ceremonial and burial mounds in Ohio described as “part cathedral, part cemetery and part astronomical observatory” was added Tuesday to the list of UNESCO World Heritage sites.

Preservationists, led by the Ohio History Connection, and indigenous tribes, many with ancestral ties to the state, pushed to recognize the Hopewell Ceremonial Earthworks for their good condition, distinct style and cultural significance — describing them as “masterpieces of human genius.”

UNESCO’s World Heritage Committee approved the application during a meeting in Saudi Arabia.

The massive earthworks comprise eight ancient sites spread across 150 kilometers (90 miles) of what is present-day southern Ohio, including one located on the grounds of a private golf course and country club. The designation puts the spot in the same category as wonders of the world including Greece’s Acropolis, Peru’s Machu Picchu and the Great Wall of China.

“Pure excitement and exhilaration” were the immediate reactions of Chief Glenna Wallace of the Eastern Shawnee Tribe of Oklahoma.

“Tears came to my eyes, and exhilaration turned into reflection, knowing that the world will now see and recognize the commitment, spirituality, imaginative artistry and knowledge of complex architecture to produce magnificent earthworks,” she said in a statement. “Our ancestors were true geniuses.”

Constructed by American Indians between 2,000 and 1,600 years ago along central tributaries of the Ohio River, the earthworks were host to ceremonies that drew people from across the continent, based on archeological discoveries of raw materials from as far west as the Rocky Mountains.

Elaborate ceremonialism linked to “the order and rhythms of the cosmos” is evident in the “beautiful ritual objects, spectacular offerings of religious icons and regalia” found at the sites, the application said.

Interior Secretary Deb Haaland said the designation is a “tremendous” recognition of America's Indigenous people.

“World Heritage designation is an opportunity for the United States to share the whole story of America and the remarkable diversity of our cultural heritage, as well as the beauty of our land,” she said in a statement.

The eight Hopewell sites are noteworthy for their enormous scale, geometric precision and astronomical breadth and accuracy — such as encoding all eight lunar standstills over an 18.6-year cycle.

UNESCO Director-General Audrey Azoulay said the earthworks' inclusion on the heritage list “will make this important part of American history known around the world.”

“Just three months after rejoining UNESCO, the United States has its twenty-fifth site inscribed on the World Heritage List, which illustrates the richness and diversity of the country’s cultural and natural heritage," she said. "This inscription on the World Heritage List highlights the important work of American archaeologists, who discovered here remains dating back 2000 years, constituting one of the largest earthwork constructions in the world.”

The National Congress of American Indians, the Inter-Tribal Council representing tribes living in Northeast Oklahoma and the Seneca Nation of New York State were among tribes that supported the UNESCO designation.

The application process was slowed by a protracted court battle to restore public access to one of the earthworks leased to the Moundbuilders Country Club, whose members-only golf course sits inside it. A ruling of the Ohio Supreme Court in December allowed Ohio History Connection, the state's historical society, to proceed with an ongoing effort to gain control of the Octagon Earthworks in Newark, one of eight sites recognized.

History Connection CEO and Executive Director Megan Wood said that Tuesday's inscription of the site was the culmination of more than a decade of work by her organization and its partners, including tribes and the National Park Service.

"We are beyond excited to share these sites with more and more Ohioans, Americans and world travelers,” she said.

Other sites included under the new designation are: Fort Ancient Earthworks in Oregonia and Great Circle Earthworks in Heath; and five sites within the Hopewell Culture National Historical Park in Chillicothe: Mound City Group, Hopewell Mound Group, Seip Earthworks, High Bank Earthworks and Hopeton Earthworks.

Republican Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine said he anticipates that Ohio's first World Heritage site will draw “even more visitors to see these amazing places” to “experience the awe-inspiring earthworks that are such a special part of Ohio's history.”