| Octagon Mound: Public Treasure or Private Playground for Golfers?
By Nancy & Leonard Becker
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 19 th 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 Great Circle Earthworks
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
The Octagon Earthworks
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
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?
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."
The Current Controversy
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
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.
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. The Newark Earthworks Cultural Resource Management Plan is available at www.ohiohistory.org/places/index.html .
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.house.state.oh.us and www.senate.state.oh.us .
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
Nancy & Leonard Becker co-founded Sacred Sites International Foundation in 1990.