Posted in Central Ohio, Native American, Park review

Newark Earthworks: The Great Circle and the Octagon Earthworks


The Newark Earthworks were constructed about 2000 years ago by the prehistoric, Hopewell people. These are the largest, geometric earthworks in the world. To give you a better sense of the size and shape of these structures, it’s best to look at an aerial view. Since I can’t take aerial photos myself, I photographed some of the interpretive signs near the earthworks.

The plaque below shows the layout of the Newark Earthworks which occupy four square miles (10.6 square kilometers).

This plaque shows the layout of the Newark Earthworks.

I made a dotted trapezoid around two structures in the lower right corner of the above plaque. These two structures (an octagon and a circle) make up the Octagon Earthworks portion of the Newark Earthworks. Below is an aerial photo showing just the Octagon Earthworks.

Aerial Photo of the Octagon Earthworks
surrounded by a residential community.

The Newark Earthworks were built by a Native American civilization that came into being around 200 B.C. and ended about 500 A.D. This civilization stretched from the Great Lakes region to the Gulf of Mexico. Many of the artifacts found in Ohio were no doubt acquired by trade with distant societies as demonstrated by such finds as shark teeth, conch shells, and obsidian from what’s now Yellowstone Park. Since these people had no vehicles or horses, the distance that such goods traveled is amazing.

By the time settlers of European descent began arriving in the late 1700s, the Native Americans who resided in Ohio had no knowledge of these earlier people, so we don’t know what they called themselves. Warren K. Moorehead was the first archaeologist to examine their mounds on a farm owned by Captain Mordecai Hopewell. Moorehead named this extinct civilization the “Hopewell Culture” after the family who gave him access to the mounds on their farm in Ross County, Ohio.

The Octagon Earthworks

It has been conjectured that the octagon might have served some astronomical purpose related to the moon as described by the diagram in the following sign that I photographed.

Possible astronomical significance of the earthworks

I actually found myself a bit skeptical of the above theory. A lot of the arrows drawn on the above diagram seem rather arbitrary, especially the one showing the “Minimum northern moonset” whose initial point doesn’t coincide with any feature of the octagon. In addition, the above minimums and maximums were calculated to correspond to events in a complicated, 18.6 year lunar cycle which also added to my skepticism. But then I’m neither an archaeologist nor an astronomer, so my skepticism may be ill-founded.

When visiting the Octagon Earthworks in person, I was very surprised to learn that since 1910 the site has been leased by a private country club, and to this day this archaeological treasure remains a golf course. Newspaper accounts explain that the decision to lease the property for golfing was to get the ground “in shape, cleaned up and opened for the public benefit…” In other words, this private company would fund the restoration and maintenance of the earthen structures.

Since the Octagon Earthworks is a golf club, you can’t just traipse around the place. Instead there is an observation deck that has been built next to the walled passage between the octagon and the circle. You can climb up there to see over the wall of the structure. After that you are allowed to follow a pathway around a portion of the outer periphery of the wall as depicted in the sign below.

The observation deck is where the red circle is.
After taking a look over the mound, you can follow the red path around the periphery.

Here’s what the observation deck looks like from the ground.

The observation deck is to the lower right.
The walled passage is behind the deck.

Here’s a view from the observation deck looking down the passageway toward the opening of the circle.

View down the passageway from the observation deck

After walking along the periphery you get a glimpse of the “Observatory” — so-called because it is a much higher mound than the surrounding, circular earthworks, and it lies exactly opposite the passageway between the octagon and the circle.

The golf cart is in front of the wall that makes up the circle. The taller mound to the left is a view of the “Observatory” in profile.

Going somewhat farther than this, you can see the rear portion of the Observatory.

The long mound to the left is the Observatory as seen from the rear. Just right of the Observatory, you can glimpse a path for golf carts going up and over the wall of the circle.

I photographed the interpretive sign below which shows an aerial view of the Observatory with golf cart paths entering the circle on either side of it.

erial view of the Observatory with golf cart path entering the circle on either side of it.

The country club allows visitors to enter the golf course within the mound walls during the following hours. From April through October you can gain entrance to the space within the walls on Monday mornings as long as no special function is being held. From November through March the interior of the circle can be examined during daylight hours all day on Mondays.

The Great Circle Earthworks

Besides checking out the Octagon Earthworks, my friend (Connie) and I also went to see a different segment of the Newark Earthworks, known as the Great Circle Earthworks. In the first photo of this article, the Great Circle Earthworks is the topmost circle illustrated on the metal plaque. Unlike the Octagon Earthworks, the interior of the circle is just lawn and trees with a few small mounds in the center of the circle. Outside one side of the circle is a community park with picnic tables and grills. Outside the entrance to the Great Circle is a museum with restroom facilities.

The walls themselves looked different in that they had something like a moat near the wall. It’s not believed that any of these earthwork structures were used as a fort or for defensive purposes, so rather than actually being a moat, the dirt once in these deep ditches was probably piled on top of the adjacent mound.

The flat portion to the left is a gap in the circle that allows passage into the interior of the circle. To the right you see one end of the circular wall. There is a moat around the wall.

From the inside of the circle you can see one stairway that crosses the moat and goes up over the mound. This stairway was built during the Great Depression by the CCC, and it joins the exterior, community park with the interior of the Great Circle.

Stairway from the interior of the Great Circle, across the moat, over the wall, and to the exterior park.
This is a view of the top of the wall of the Great Circle as seen from the stairway over the wall. Although it looks like there’s a foot path along the wall’s top, you aren’t supposed to walk on top of it.
My friend, Connie, is standing inside the Great Circle near one of the walls.

Near the center of the Great Circle are several small mounds. These are believed to be the foundation for some sort of structure in the interior.

These little mounds are in the interior of the Great Circle near the circle’s center.

Unlike the Voss Site that I discussed previously, none of the geometric earthworks making up the Newark Earthworks are believed to be burial mounds. Although it looks like they may have been fort-like structures, that’s not the case either. It turns out all post holes for homes occur outside of the earthworks. It is believed that the earthwork structures must have had some social, religious, and/or astronomical purpose, but not much more than that is known. Whenever archaeologists want to study these structures, contemporary Native American groups do all they can to block any study of the area because they feel that such scientific study would dishonor the Native Americans who once lived here. Meanwhile the archaeologists counter that it would bring honor to such people to learn something about their ways since this prehistoric group’s story wasn’t transmitted to those living now.

Statue of Native American outside of the Great Circle Earthworks
Additional information

Octagon State Memorial
Address: N 33rd St., Newark, Ohio 43055
GPS coordinates: 40.052092,-82.448359
View or get directions from Google Maps
Moundbuilders State Memorial (Site of Great Circle Earthworks)
Address: 455 Hebron Rd., Heath, Ohio 43056
GPS coordinates: 40.041185,-82.431001
View or get directions from Google Maps

More on Native American History in Ohio

© Deborah Platt, Robert Platt and 2012 to 2021

5 thoughts on “Newark Earthworks: The Great Circle and the Octagon Earthworks

  1. I think that without being on the spot this is difficult to understand. I love very much that statue of Native American. It is awesome. I love wooden carved statues and I have a big collection of them.

    Thank You very much this interesting post.

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