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This New UNESCO World Heritage Site Isn’t Where You Might Expect

Joining the likes of India's Taj Mahal and Peru's Machu Picchu as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is this unexpected location.

They are the breathtaking, goosebump-raising destinations sought by adventurous travelers, the stuff of dreams come true, and bucket lists: UNESCO World Heritage sites.

The coveted designation, bestowed by the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization, recognizes nearly 1,200 places worldwide for their cultural or natural significance and outstanding universal value.

The United States recently received its latest UNESCO World Heritage designation. Where is the location of the treasure joining the likes of the Taj Mahal, the Great Wall of China, and the Galapagos? South-central Ohio.

The story of how Hopewell Ceremonial Earthworks was granted its new, lofty status is one of collaboration, perseverance, and the long-overdue appreciation of the Indigenous artists, architects, and engineers who created a ceremonial masterpiece of epic scale some two thousand years ago.

An Earth and Sky Connection

The Hopewell Earthworks are in eight different sites located near three small Ohio towns, about 90 miles from Columbus. They feature massive earth mounds incorporating circles, squares, and other shapes, some stretching for miles. Scientists believe they served as religious and ceremonial hubs where the people of Hopewell buried and honored their dead. People traveled far and wide to visit, as evidenced by what they left behind.

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“Archeological digs have uncovered materials that came from as far west as the Rocky Mountains and Yellowstone Valley,” explained Chris Alford, Superintendent of Hopewell Culture National Historical Park, where five of Hopewell’s main sites are located. “Grizzly bear teeth, claws, obsidian. Copper from the upper peninsula in Michigan, seashells from the Gulf Coast, and even shark teeth from the eastern shores of the United States.”

While impressive in size and scope, there’s much more to the Hopewell sites than meets a first glance. Scientists have also determined the mounds were precisely designed using geometry to track the movements of the sun and moon, establishing a deep connection between the people, the Earth, and the sky.

“I’m still in awe that two thousand years ago, a culture of people could incorporate alignments to solar and lunar events into these earthworks,” said Alford. “They did that at a time when they didn’t have the technology that we have today. It’s amazing to think about. This would have been their Mecca.”

A Lost Legacy

Not much is known about the people who built Hopewell. They’re thought to be the forebears of tribes, including the Osage, Shawnee, Delaware, and Miami, who lived in and around Ohio for generations. In the mid-1800s, the U.S. government forced those Native Americans from their land. Many of their ancestral earthworks were destroyed as white settlements built up around them, their history and importance lost to time.

Chief Glenna Wallace of the Eastern Shawnee Tribe in Oklahoma first saw a Hopewell site when she visited Newark, Ohio, in 2007. A college educator and seasoned traveler, she was equal parts moved, astounded, and dismayed by what she discovered. One of the most impressive structures was, and still is, located within a country club’s golf course.

“I was excited to see the mounds, amazed at their size, their preservation, heartbroken that they were being disrespected, and knew they were worthy of World Heritage inscription,” she recalled.

Several organizations and volunteer groups, including the Ohio History Connection and the Hopewell Culture National Historical Park, were actively trying to protect and promote the sites, but Wallace knew more should be done. They deserved global attention.

When she returned home, she called the Ohio History Connection and offered her assistance, expertise, and activism.

“I would be one voice who would speak up and say this situation disrespected our ancestors, and something must be done about it,” said Wallace.

EWY Media/Shutterstock

Eight Sites, One Partnership

The following year, Hopewell was placed on the United States’ Tentative List for World Heritage consideration. It was the result of a strong partnership formed between Ohio History Connection, the National Park Service and its International Affairs team, plus representatives from the Eastern Shawnee, Wyandotte, and Miami tribes, as well as Michigan’s Pokagon Band of Potawatomi, and the Seneca Nation of New York.

A book-length dossier and additional reports were prepared to prove Hopewell met World Heritage criteria, including representation of “human creative genius.” The group also had to demonstrate the site’s authenticity and that plans were in place for proper management and protection. The entire process took 15 years, and as it moved along, the team learned together about the brilliance of the people of Hopewell. Wallace was there every step of the way.

“These mounds prove our Native American ancestors were not savages,” said Wallace. “These mounds prove their intellect, their mastery of astronomy, mathematics, spirituality, earthen architecture.”

Once it was all compiled and complete, the International Council on Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS) had to fully evaluate the information provided by the Hopewell collaborative, point by point. Alford says the participation of the Native American partners, including Wallace, was crucial to the effort’s success.

“It was key,” he said. “We worked closely with our tribal representatives, the tribes that called central and southern Ohio home. One of the big things ICOMOS looked at during the nomination review was how much participation and focus the Indigenous communities had around this project.”

Last September, Alford and Wallace were part of a small group that traveled to Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, for the final UNESCO evaluation. Twenty-one countries helped decide whether Hopewell would make the cut. Some nominations were sent back for revisions, and others were outright rejected.

“We’d been there for four days, and some of the reviews took nearly an hour,” recalls Alford. “Ours took three minutes.”

Hopewell’s nomination was unanimously approved. After a decade and a half of effort, it became the United States’ 25th UNESCO World Heritage Site–and Ohio’s first.

Immediately after that announcement, country after country, person after person came to us, shook our hands, some even hugging us, all expressing accolades and congratulations,” recalls Wallace.

Zack Frank/Shutterstock

‘Get Here and See It’

The impact of Hopewell’s new designation was seen and felt almost immediately. Just as many Americans try to visit every national park, global travel enthusiasts love to tick World Heritage sites off their lists. Attendance rates at Hopewell are up more than 60 percent since the UNESCO announcement, and they are expected to double from there moving forward.

“Now we’re not just connecting with a U.S. audience, we’re connecting with a world audience,” explains Alford. “Places like Machu Picchu, the Pyramids of Giza, the Great Wall, Stonehenge, they’re spectacular, and now you put this site in southern Ohio on the same stage as those spots. Get here and see it.”

While the long UNESCO application and inscription process is done, the learning likely never will be. Archeologists from the park and Ohio History Connection continue to study and analyze the sites, looking for additional clues and information about the people who built them. But beyond the science, there’s also a new understanding for first-time visitors flocking to the earthworks. Perhaps drawn in by a global distinction, they’ll leave with a deeper knowledge of the incredible people who built Hopewell two millennia ago.

“My wish for the future,” Wallace said, “is that we can pass on to the thousands of individuals who are going to visit these sites the enthusiasm, the pride, the reverence, the intense admiration and recognition of their values and ethics that we have experienced in researching these ancestors.”