More than half of the 1,154 “properties” currently inscribed on UNESCO’s World Heritage List are “cultural sites”, a category that includes historic urban centres, unique buildings, man-made landscapes and archaeological ruins, among other types of built features.
The UNESCO location map of these sites (https://whc.unesco.org/en/list/?&type=cultural) shows Europe so densely covered with World Heritage treasures that the user must click on the expansion tool on the website to see individual registrations. In contrast, the United States has only 11 World Heritage cultural sites and of these, only four are Aboriginal (having been produced by American companies before the arrival of Europeans): Mesa Verde, Cahokia, Chaco Canyon and Poverty Point. This lack of representation will soon be corrected by the addition of the Newark Earthworks and its related sites, which were the product of the brilliant Hopewell culture whose epicenter was the present state of Ohio. So not only will the Earthworks join the other globally recognized testimonies of the great complexity and originality of the Native American peoples here, but they will also enshrine the ancient landscape of Hopewell as one of the most significant in the society’s long history. human.
The earthworks of Newark are exceptional in themselves, as the archaeologists and collaborating researchers have shown: produced by indigenous peoples with no hierarchy of rulers, no agricultural economy and no cities. The Hopewellian tribes were able to organize themselves to move and shape countless tons of earth into geometrically precise shapes that served as mass gathering places at particular times of the year and which, moreover, were aligned to a calendar. lunar. They also created and maintained extensive networks of exchange of exotic materials, often resulting in masterpieces of craftsmanship and art. It’s this “have and don’t have” feature system that makes the Newark Earthworks and Hopewell so interesting.
The marking of a landscape for ceremonial purposes is well known around the world, but Newark stands out in the comparisons that can be made. The most obvious case of massive weathering of the ground for ceremonial purposes is the so-called “Nazca Lines” – the great linear and figurative tracings on the desert plains and flat peaks of Peru’s southern coast. Rather than heaping dirt like in Newark, the ancient Peruvians broke up the hard, cobble-covered surface to carve long lines, trapezoids, spirals, and animal figures into the ground. But unlike the long distances traveled as pilgrimage routes by Hopewellians, archaeologists believe that local Nazca groups created their own geoglyphs (literally, marks of land) and that the very act of creating and performing the geoglyphs was the end goal. It is unclear how often the Nazca groups might have returned to their geoglyphs, unlike the common space created by the earthen embankments of Newark, which saw repeated visits for ceremonies.
At the other end of the spectrum of human organization are Australian Aboriginal songlines, which mark the continent’s landscape but are invisible. Traditionally (before European disruption), Aborigines lived in small, mobile family groups in search of plant and animal food. They produced no notable material remains. However, the Aborigines have created a monumental landscape of the mind: routes that groups have physically traveled across Australia, enacting their complex myths of creation and cosmology (Dreamtime), dating back tens of thousands of ‘years. Rather than having built physical marks on the landscape, it is the natural landscape that is interpreted by Aboriginal people as sacred and whose particularities give rise to ceremonies and their stories. But the environment was so harsh that it inhibited the gathering of large groups of people, unlike Hopewellian and all other human societies labeled “civilization.”
It is fascinating to consider the rituals and religion of Hopewell in a comparative perspective, in order to appreciate why and how this ancient society created its most striking feature: the Newark Earthworks. Hopewellian society has left archaeologists with great physical monuments in the landscape and evidence of an extraordinary sphere of economic and symbolic interaction. Inclusion on the UNESCO World Heritage List will protect and preserve this indigenous heritage into the future while stimulating further research and generating contemporary benefits through an expanded tourism market.
Helaine Silverman is a professor of anthropology at the University of Illinois.