First Published in The New York Times
Ohio Indian Mounds: Hallowed Ground and a Nice Par 3
NEWARK, Ohio - The Hopewell Indians used sharp sticks and clamshells here 2,000 years ago to sculpture seven million cubic feet of dirt into a sprawling lunar observatory and the spiritual center of their far-flung empire.
Today it is an easy Par 3 flanked by sand traps shaped like kidney beans.
For generations, few thought it strange that golfers at the Moundbuilders Country Club whacked little white balls across ground once hallowed to an ancient community.
But now there is an eagerness among many people to see moonrises from the mounds the way the Indians did, a desire that has caused a conflict with the golf club.
The Newark Earthworks, which make up the world's largest ancient mound site, lingered in obscurity 30 miles east of Columbus until five years ago, when the country club announced plans for a new clubhouse. The design included a foundation that would have dug into the mounds.
Not only did the club not win permission for a new building, but its request led to an organized protest campaign, organized by local professors and American Indians. Some residents, newly aware of the landmark in their backyards, began to question whether the country club should exist at all.
"Playing golf on a Native American spiritual site is a fundamental desecration," said Richard Shiels, a history professor at Ohio State University's Newark campus who is leading the fight to expand public access.
The earthworks range in height from 3 to 14 feet and once sprawled over four square miles. They include an octagon large enough to hold four Roman Colosseums; two parallel mounds connect it to a circle that encloses 20 acres. Their construction required decades of labor.
"When you go there and stand by it, all you see is a mound of earth curving off into the distance," said Brad Lepper, an Ohio Historical Society archaeologist. "Only when you see aerial photos of it do you realize how complicated it is."
The mounds' purpose remained a mystery until 1982, when professors from Earlham College in Richmond, Ind., discovered that they aligned perfectly with part of the lunar cycle. Once every 18.6 years, the moon rises at the northernmost point in its orbit. Pregnant and huge, its light framed by rounded earth, the moon hovers within one-half of a degree of the octagon's exact center. This makes the Newark Earthworks twice as precise as the lunar observatory at Stonehenge. (Stonehenge could fit inside the mounds' aligning circle, one of the smaller geometric shapes at the Newark site.)
The discovery prompted Chris Scarre, a Cambridge University archaeologist, to name the Newark mounds among the 70 wonders of the ancient world, one of only three such sites in the United States.
"This isn't just something you do for laughs on a Saturday afternoon," said Ray Hively, an Earlham history professor who found the alignments with a philosophy professor, Robert Horn. "They probably believed the moon was a powerful and divine object, and they wanted to get its attention by building something so huge and so precise that the moon would see them."
The historical society owns the site and has leased it to the golf club since 1933, on the condition that club leaders allow the public onto the mounds. But people's hopes of watching the moon rise over the sculptured ground have met with difficulties.
On Nov. 18 at moonrise -- precisely 7:03 p.m. -- about 100 people stood on a hilltop a mile from the earthworks and watched the tip of the moon rise above a distant ridge. But it was not the event that organizers had planned.
After the club proposed its new clubhouse, a group of citizens created the Moonrise Committee to educate the public about the earthworks. They also planned a moonrise celebration on the mounds. Club leaders balked. They demanded the committee raise $23,252 to pay for insurance, off-duty police officers and a temporary platform to keep the public off the grass.
"We have a lease, and we have rights," said Ralph Burpee, the club's general manager.
Organizers say they believe the conditions amounted to extortion. "Mr. Burpee and his club put one hurdle after another in front of us," Dr. Shiels said.
It rained the morning of Oct. 22, the original day of the event. The club, saying its greens would be destroyed, barred the public. Nevertheless, a few dozen golf club members attending a charity event walked onto the mounds and watched the moonrise.
Committee leaders tried to re-schedule the event for Nov. 18. On neither date was the moon truly at its northernmost point, but it was close. Mr. Burpee said that rescheduling for that day was never part of the deal. Dr. Shiels said it was. The club prevailed, sending the public to a hill in a nearby public park.
"The most prominent people in town belong to this club, and they are using their power to keep the public off this important site," Dr. Shiels said.
Mr. Burpee said: "Everyone would love to portray us as rich fat cats. Well, this is Newark, Ohio, which pretty much precludes rich fat cats."
The true northernmost moonrise will occur at 1 a.m. on a Friday next fall. The Moonrise Committee is already trying to plan the monumental task of moving thousands of people onto the mounds without disturbing the grass. "It will be difficult," Dr. Shiels said. "These things can't be done at the drop of a hat."