Octagon Mound: Public Treasure or Private Playground for Golfers?

By Nancy & Leonard Becker



Over 10,000 mounds and earthworks once graced the Ohio River Valley during the period of 100 BC to 400 AD. This was an expression of the great ceremonial moundbuilding culture that had developed along the Mississippi River and its tributaries. Ancestors of today’s American Indians built thousands of earthen knolls many of which contain burials, funerary and ceremonial objects; other mounds appear to be primarily ritualistic. Archaeologists commonly refer to the prehistoric culture that created the mounds as the Hopewell culture. The culture was named after the landowner where initial excavations were done. We do not, however, know what the people called themselves and contemporary Indians prefer not to use this name.

The 1000 mounds that remain are amazing remnants of sophisticated earthen structures demonstrating a profound understanding of geometry and astronomy. They have fallen victim to urban sprawl, agriculture, highway and road construction and recreational use. Some of the most important examples of the prehistoric culture that created the mounds can be found in Ohio. Many are familiar with the Great Serpent Mound and the Alligator Mound, both magnificent examples of effigy mounds, representing underworld spirit beings.

Another spectacular example of the Ohio earthworks is the Newark Ceremonial Complex. This National Historical Landmark is comprised of the Great Circle, Octagon and Wright Earthworks. Only parts of what was once the world’s largest example of geometric earthworks remain.

The Octagon Mound, in particular, is at the center of controversy over appropriate treatment and public access. The Ohio Historical Society (OHS), has been leasing the Octagon Mound to the Moundbuilders Country Club and Golf Course and the golf course has covered the site with sand traps, fairways, trees and golf cart paths.

In the early 1800s the Octagon Mound was used as farmland and in the late 19th century it was used as a campground for the Ohio National Guard. The militia restored some of the damage that had been done when the land was under agricultural use in preparation for the site to eventually become a public park. By 1910, the Octagon Mound was passed from the State Militia to the people of Newark via the Newark Board of Trade. 1910 also began a lease arrangement with a country club as a way for the Newark Board of Trade to avoid maintaining the site. The lease stipulated that the property was to remain intact as an archaeological site and open to the public at all times. The Board of Trade renewed the country club’s lease numerous times between 1910 and 1933 when the property was deeded to the Ohio Historical Society, again with the purpose of restoring and preserving the site for public visitation. The OHS has repeatedly renewed the lease to the Moundbuilders Country Club without any public consultation or notification. The lease was just renewed to 2078.

The Newark Complex and Its Significance

The Newark Earthworks appear to have been a vast ceremonial center where prehistoric religious leaders probably conducted rituals, including funeral ceremonies. The sites were pilgrimage places, shrines and astronomical observatories. What remains of the Newark Earthworks still illustrates the scale and complexity of the network of ancient earthen ritualistic centers. What follows is a description of the major components of the large geometric complex.

The Great Circle Earthworks

The Great Circle is a huge circular enclosure of about 1200 feet; the walls enclose approximately thirty acres of land and range in height from five to fourteen feet with a ditch at the base of the inside wall. The walls were composed of different colors of dirt, possibly symbolic, that were used during three different construction phases. A distinctive yellowish brown earth filled in the gap between the ditch and the top of the walls where dark brown earth was used.

A large mound in the center of the circle is commonly called the Eagle Mound although it is a three-lobed form that could be a “footprint” of some sort. The mound covers a wooden-framed structure of the same shape. At the center of this structure was a large ceramic basin-like crematory basins found at other mounds and there were bones found in an early excavation. The Historical Society reports that it is unknown if these were human bones.

The Wright Earthworks

These earthworks remain as a fragment of what was once a nearly perfect square enclosure and part of one wall that formed a set of parallel walls. The original square was about nine hundred and fifty feet with an enclosure of about twenty acres. The part of the wall that remains is less than two hundred feet long. The parallel walls were along a passage leading from the square to a giant oval that contained twelve or thirteen burial mounds. There were other parallel walls that led from the square to the Great Circle. The sacred geometry of these two sites is exact – the perimeter of the square is equal to the circumference of the circle.

The Octagon Earthworks

This portion of the Newark Earthworks has two parts – a circular enclosure connected to an octagon by a short set of parallel walls. The huge circle encloses twenty acres of land and is slightly less than perfect by only four feet. It is so vast that Stonehenge would occupy only a tiny corner of the Octagon Mound.

One of the most distinctive features of the site is the hill called the Observatory Mound located outside the octagon at the southwestern rim. The Observatory is an elongated flattened mound about twelve feet high and one hundred seventy feet long, probably associated with astronomical events.

The walls of the Octagon were each about five hundred fifty feet long and about five feet high. There were small openings between each corner of the octagon of about fifty to ninety feet wide. Each opening has an oblong platform mound of about one hundred feet long by eighty feet wide by five feet high. The Octagon encloses fifty acres of land.

New Discoveries about the Octagon Mound

It has been long known that the Maya and Anasazi, as byways for souls to travel, constructed extended, straight pilgrimage or spirit roads. Recent research by OHS archaeologist, Brad Lepper, has uncovered old maps and documentation that show a long sixty-mile straight road from the Octagon Mound to another ceremonial site, Chillicothe. He believes that these may have been spirit ways for souls to travel to the next life and possibly a way for the community of the dead to be linked with the living.

British author Paul Devereux, explored this topic in Spirit Ways and Shamanism in the Sacred Sites Newsletter, Site Saver , Winter 1997 and Spring/Summer 1997. John Palmer has discovered a northern European version of these roads, what he calls death roads that converged on cemeteries in Holland.

Another new discovery is that the Octagon earthworks were used as an astronomical site. Dr. Hively and Dr. Horn of Earlham College discovered eight lunar alignments at the Octagon Mound. The minimum and maximum rising set points of the moon are recorded at the site. In addition, every 18.6 years, a line from the Observatory Mound through the Circle and through the Octagon Mound points directly to a spot where the moon rises at its northern-most point on the eastern horizon. The next time that this phenomenon will be observable is in October of 2005. The Historical Society is hoping to sponsor a public event on this occasion but they admit there is a problem. Trees are in the way of the moonrise alignment and they will need to convince the Country Club that these trees need to be removed for this wonder to be seen.

Are the Earthworks Sacred Sites or Archaeological Remains?

Many people of Native American ancestry consider the earthworks to be sacred places. Some sites are burials places and others remain as places where holy ceremonies were held. The sites belonged to their ancestors illustrating their sophisticated knowledge of geometry and the movement of stars and planets.

Barbara Crandell, a 74-year-old Native American elder, feels that the Octagon Mound is something “made by native people. It is a connection to my culture, my race of people.” She goes to the mounds to pray and visit with the ancient people who came before her.

John Redhawk Wills, affiliated with the Native American Association of Tuscarawas Valley, feels the earthworks are ancestral places that should be honored. He said that a mound was flattened for the building of the Moundbuilders clubhouse. There are golf cart paths through the Octagon Mounds and that is disrespectful. In addition, there is speculation that some mounds are burial places and Redhawk believes the OHS has bones and other artifacts that should be reburied where they were originally found.

There are others who are detractors of the site as sacred. Archaeologists and historical society staff consider the Octagon Mound a prime example of an extinct culture. The mounds are places to be excavated, surveyed, and scientifically studied. The Octagon Mound, according to Jim Strider, Chief of External Relations at the Ohio Historical Society is “an archaeological site at a golf course.”

Public Access

Besides the lack of respect shown by the Ohio Historical Society and the Moundbuilders Country Club, Mr. Wills has another problem with the lack of adequate access to the site. He, Mike Walton and others of Native American descent, would like more public access to the site. They feel the 1933 deed for the Octagon Mound should be followed because it states that OHS should treat the Octagon Earthworks as follows, “to accept, hold and preserve, as an archaeological and historical site, to be open to the public at all times.” The current arrangement is limited access except for four golf-free days chosen without public consultation.

The Current Controversy

An illustration of the current lack of full access to the site is the case Barbara Crandell, known as Grandmother Crandell, who was ejected for trespassing at the site. On June 26, 2002, Grandmother Crandell went to the pray at the Octagon Earthworks as she has done numerous times before. When she became tired, she went to rest in an area known as the Observatory mound, part of the site not normally open to visitors. The mound is near the fairway to hole 10. Golfers tee inside the earthen circle to sometimes hit their balls toward the Observatory mound and then try to drive the balls toward the 10 th hole, which lies on the other side of the circle.

According to Crandell, she was heckled by several golfers and then asked to leave by the club’s president. The president left and returned with several Newark police officers. Grandmother Crandell argued about being able to stay put and eventually threw her cane at the officers at which point she was arrested for criminal trespassing.

Issues that were to be argued at her trial included whether the site was public or private and whether she had a right to be there. The sign at the viewing platform says that the site is “both a public park and a private golf club”.

Then there is the greater issue of whether a Historical Society should be leasing such an important cultural, sacred, and historic site to a golf course and country club. Her lawyer was not allowed to argue points about access and she was convicted of trespassing.

Conflicts at the Octagon Mound
The current controversy surrounding Grandmother Crandell’s arrest at the Octagon Mound is representative of other concerns many people have about public access and whether a golf course should be operating on this historic and culturally significant site. The Historical Society’s mission is to “preserve, collect, and interpret” the sites they manage. Many people wonder if the OHS lease with the country club is interfering with their mission.

Sacred Sites International (SSI) recently spoke with Jim Strider, of the Ohio Historical Society about the problems at Octagon Mound. Mr. Strider said he understands the concerns people have about an important archaeological site at a golf course. He said, however, that the lease with the Moundbuilders Country Club predates the Ohio Historical Society’s affiliation with the Club. He shrugged off any suggestion that there was anything the Ohio Historical Society could do about the lease to the Club and Golf Course, except to continue renewing it as they have since 1933. The OHS receives approximately $28,000.a year from the lease with the Country Club and the Club takes care of expensive groundskeeping at the site.

Sacred Sites International also spoke with the OHS Manager of Communications, Kathy Hoke. She said that most people believe having the golf course on the site is preserving the Octagon Mound. When we asked about the fairways and sand traps incorporated into the mounds Ms. Hoke did say that there were some golf cart paths with pavement over the mounds, but that the mounds had not been altered. Pavement on the mounds is, apparently, not considered an alteration of the natural state of the earthwork.

Ms. Hoke said that the OHS had a businesslike relationship with the Moundbuilders Country Club and OHS meets their contracts. The OHS has declining funding from the state, although 70% of their funding comes from that source. SSI, in speaking with several Native Americans, learned that they felt that the state of Ohio should step in, take over the property and return it to the public as a park. Sacred Sites International asked if Ms. Hoke thought it might be possible for the State of Ohio to take control of the site by eminent domain. This seemed an unlikely scenario to Ms. Hoke because she did not believe the financially strapped state would be able to afford the site nor could the National Park Service. The lease buy-out would run into the millions of dollars.

Public Access

Since the State of Ohio is the primary funder of the Ohio Historical Society it would seem that the State would like the people of Ohio to have full access to the site. This is another point of contention. According to Ms. Hoke, the Octagon Mound is open from dawn to dusk every day of the year. OHS has made sure that the best parking places are reserved for visitors wishing to see the mound. There is interpretive signage and portions of the site are visible from a viewing platform. In 2003, there were three golf-free days and one afternoon when people could enter and visit the entire site. These days were determined by the OHS and the country club and did not include input from the community. Two of the days were during the workweek when most people could not visit. Hoke said that when there are no golfers because inclement weather – if it is raining, freezing, or snowing – the public are also free to tour the site. Ms. Hoke feels that one of the best times to see the Octagon Mound is when there is snow covering the golf course because the site appears almost pristine.

The OHS is striving to increase access. They recently received a $10,000 grant from the National Parks Service and $5,000 from the National Trust for Historic Preservation to develop a new management plan for the Newark Earthworks. They paid a consultancy firm $10,000 to develop the plan.

The new management plan was developed with group chosen by the OHS that included historic preservation experts, several residents of Newark, scholars, a few Native Americans, some archaeologists, OHS Staff and members of the Moundbuilders Country Club.

Grassroots Efforts for Change

Not everyone is happy with the progress being made in the implementation of the plan. Mike Walton, who is Native American, met in December 2003 with State Representative Jim Hughes because he had not seen the management plan that was to have been ready in June 2003. It was finally posted on the OHS website in January 2004. Walton advocates a plan for the State of Ohio to assume the lease from the country club. In support of this idea he suggests people write letters to members of the state legislature. People wishing to write support letters for the site to be returned to a public park-like setting can find contact information at www.ohiohouse.gov.

Jay and Lyn Koda are Native Americans who have founded a preservation group, Native Earthworks, in response to the disrespect they have witnessed at Octagon Mound. Their organization was “born out of the need to preserve the heritage and culture of the indigenous people of North America. They feel that “many of our sacred sites have been ruined, excavated, built upon, to the point where we have very few left.”

Native Americans are planning a large rally at the Octagon Mound for July 4, 2004. They welcome the attendance of all who feel that the site should best be preserved by being returned to the public.

A grassroots movement is building for respectful treatment of the Octagon Mound as sacred ground. People involved are facing formidable forces that are firmly entrenched in the historic perception of the mounds as archaeological relics of prehistoric people. The lease between the OHS and the Moundbuilders Country Club is more than just a piece of paper. The lease represents a worldview and a perspective that looks at land as a commodity, a place to recreate, a place to develop. Native Americans and other sacred sites activists look at land at heritage sites like the Octagon Mound, as a place of spirit that should not be compromised by being turned into income producing properties. American Indians need to have full access to the sacred sites of their ancestors as part of their spiritual practices that are vital to their living culture. This may help heal the wounds of centuries of mistreatment of sacred sites that has reduced the Ohio Mounds from 10,000 to a mere 1000. Returning the Octagon Mound, part of the world’s largest earthworks, to a completely natural state would be an important first step towards this goal.

©2004. Nancy and Leonard Becker. All rights reserved.
photos: John Koda

Nancy & Leonard Becker co-founded Sacred Sites International Foundation in 1990.


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