Engineering on a Grand Scale

It is hard to imagine how the Hopewell people built their earthwork complexes so large, let alone why. Among so many enormous earthworks, the largest single Hopewell complex by far was the Newark Earthworks.

Now largely overrun by the city of Newark, it is almost impossible to comprehend a sense of scale for this enormous complex today. The Newark complex contained well over ten miles of earthen embankment walls spread over more than four square miles. Just the parallel walls running south from the circle and octagon are known to have continued on for at least six miles themselves. Dr. Bradley Lepper, Curator of Archaeology of the Ohio Historical Society, has theorized that these walls were the beginning of what he has called “The Great Hopewell Road,” a straight trail that would have connected the Newark complex with the Chillicothe area, where the greatest concentration of giant geometric complexes were built.

In the Chillicothe area, some of the complexes are also impressively large. Standing at one end of the Hopewell Mound Group and looking across to the far side of the spacious field where this giant complex once stood is an awe-inspiring experience. The walls of this earthwork went on for two miles and enclosed nearly 130 acres. The great enclosure here is the largest single earthen-walled enclosure the Hopewell ever built. Within in it stood the largest mound the Hopewell ever constructed, 500 feet long and 33 feet high.  This earthwork complex is so huge that some conservationists have joked that it is larger than a small European country, which may technically be true!

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Nearly as large is Seip Earthworks, where two miles of wall, as high as ten feet in places, enclosed 123 acres. Its reconstructed central mound is also one of the largest the Hopewell ever built. In terms of the space these complexes enclose, they are huge compared to other famous monuments in the world. (Both Seip Earthworks and Hopewell Mound Group are protected by the National Park Service as part of Hopewell Culture National Historical Park.)

The Hopewell may have designed their earthworks so large to convey a sense of importance or inspire religious awe, much like cathedral is meant to do. This may be especially true if the earthworks were indeed bare of vegetation. For forest people who would only rarely see wide open sunlit spaces, the sight of an enclosed sacred place over 100 acres in size may indeed have been awe-inspiring.

Why the Hopewell architects designed their earthwork complexes so large will likely remain a mystery. However, one other possible explanation may be related to astronomical alignments.

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