Thursday, March 20, 2003

Mound rebuilders

Researchers use computers to turn Ohio's ancient earthworks treasures into an interactive eye-opener

By John Johnston
The Cincinnati Enquirer

People living in the Ohio River valley 2,000 years ago built earthworks as impressive as the pyramids of Egypt, experts say. And yet, today the earthen monuments are forgotten by many.

It's hard to appreciate what you cannot see.

John E. Hancock
Perhaps as many as 10,000 mounds and earthworks up to 15 feet high once existed in Ohio alone. They included sophisticated geometric shapes stretching thousands of feet. Most have been destroyed in the past 200 years by agriculture, canal and road construction and other activities. Only a few, such as Fort Ancient in Warren County and Serpent Mound in Adams County, are visible today.

But over the past five years, a team of researchers based at the University of Cincinnati has been working to make it possible for people to see the ancient monuments in ways never before possible. UC's project, called EarthWorks, is headed by architecture professor John E. Hancock of the Center for the Electronic Reconstruction of Historical and Archaeological Sites.

His team, made up of of UC students, scholars from around the country, archaeologists, graphic designers and others, "rebuilt" the earthworks using architectural software, high-resolution computer modeling and animation. The result: an interactive program for museum visitors that allows people to explore the sites.

A portion of the EarthWorks program focused on the Scioto River valley, opened as a permanent exhibit March 6 at Hopewell Culture National Historical Park in Chillicothe. On June 21, the portion dealing with Miami Valley sites will open as a permanent exhibit at Cincinnati Museum Center.

A portion of EarthWorks, focused on the Scioto River valley, opened as a permanent exhibit March 6 at Hopewell Culture National Historical Park in Chillicothe, Ohio.
The visitor center of Hopewell Culture National Historical Park is three miles north of Chillicothe on Ohio 104. It's open 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. with extended hours (8:30 a.m. to 6 p.m.) Memorial Day through Labor Day. Closed Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year's Day.
Information: (740) 774-1126.
Three ancient cultures built earthworks in the Ohio River and Miami River valleys. The Adena (600 B.C.) constructed cones and rings. The Hopewell (200 B.C. to 500 A.D.), built geometric enclosures and mounds. The Fort Ancient people (700-1,200 A.D.) specialized in animal shapes. The earthworks were thought to be ceremonial centers tied to festivals and astronomical events.

Hancock says his interest began about eight years ago when a graduate student proposed writing his thesis on the ancient earthworks.

"The what?" was Hancock's reply. But he was soon intrigued.

"It was amazing to me to learn about the geometrical enclosures these people built, particularly the culture known today as the Hopewell. They built big circles and squares and octagons and parallel lines that stretched for miles."

Hancock studied an old archaeological atlas of Ohio that showed how widespread the earthworks were 1,500 to 2,000 years ago. He thought about the best way to explain such sites to the public, and decided vivid images would be necessary.

"That problem is a complicated one," he says, "because first of all, most of the sites are destroyed." What's more, those that still exist, such as Fort Ancient, are impossible to see as a whole because of tree cover and their immense size.

In order to convey the earthworks' grand scope, Hancock and his team decided to create images from the perspective of a bird in flight. To build their computer models, the team consulted archaeological experts, historical records, old maps, aerial photographs and satellite images.

"There's still some conjecture (in the images)," Hancock says, "but we've tried to be as precise as we can."

Brad Lepper, an archaeologist with the Ohio Historical Society and an expert on the Newark Earthworks in Licking County, east of Columbus, is impressed.

"John's programs really do bring (the earthworks) to life as much as may be possible without having a time machine," he says. "You get a sense, I think, of how the people who built (the earthworks) intended them to be seen, but they themselves could never have seen them in that way."

The interactive nature of the program allows viewers to choose particular sites they wish to see. They can explore various aspects, such as unusual features, artifacts, and stories of how the ancient people lived. Also included are interviews with earthworks experts, as well as interviews with American Indians, the descendants of the earthworks builders.

Hancock says he's looking for a publishing partner so that EarthWorks can be made available on DVD. In the meantime, it will educate people in public places, such as Hopewell Culture National Historical Park.

"Everyone loves it," says Jennifer Pederson, a park archaeologist. "It's extremely helpful in letting people know how the Hopewell lived 2,000 years ago."


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