High Bank Earthworks to be Nominated to the World Heritage List

Bret J. Ruby, PhD
Park Archeologist and Chief of Resource Management at Hopewell Culture National Historical Park

A version of this article was published in the Newark Advocate on June 23, 2021.
black and white map of a geometric earthwork and its surrounding topography.
Bird’s-eye view of the High Bank Works, published in 1848 in "Ancient Monuments of the Mississippi Valley," by Ephraim Squier and Edwin Davis.
The High Bank Works are among the most beautiful of all the American Indian sacred landscapes built in the Ohio Valley nearly 2000 years ago. These works are masterpieces of landscape architecture: earthen sculptures built at a monumental scale, with elegant geometry, and precisely aligned to the cyclical movements of the Sun and Moon. The High Bank site is one of five earthwork complexes included in Hopewell Culture National Historical Park near Chillicothe, Ohio (not to be confused with the Highbanks Metro Park north of Columbus). These National Park sites are being nominated to the World Heritage List as “Hopewell Ceremonial Earthworks” alongside three other earthworks managed by the Ohio History Connection: the Octagon Earthworks and the Great Circle in Licking County; and the Fort Ancient Earthworks in Warren County.

The High Bank earthwork complex is located about three miles south of Chillicothe, where Paint Creek meets the Scioto River. This confluence marks the center of the world’s most spectacular concentration of geometric earthworks. More than two dozen enormous earthen enclosures are found within a 30-mile radius of this point. These ancient landscapes were built between 1600 and 2000 years ago, during a time period archaeologists call the Hopewell episode. An American Indian religious movement swept all across eastern North America during this period. Many different Native Nations with distinct languages and customs were united during this time by a shared set of religious beliefs and practices expressed in sacred objects and earthworks. The High Bank earthwork complex was a sacred center in this Indigenous religious movement and likely visited by pilgrims from distant lands at this time.

The earthworks at High Bank include more than a mile-and-a-quarter of earthen embankments forming a huge circle joined to an octagon. Each geometric figure encloses just over 20 acres. In the 1880s, Professor Cyrus Thomas of the Smithsonian Institution doubted earlier reports that the circle was a “perfect” one, the diameter being 1,050 feet. He sent a team of professional surveyors to check for himself. He was astounded to learn that the actual diameter never varied more than five feet from a true circle. This is a testament to the masterful skill of the American Indian architects who designed and built the earthwork.

Perhaps more astounding is the fact that the Octagon Earthworks at Newark, Ohio are located almost 60 miles away, yet share the same circle-and-octagon design. The circles at both sites are exactly the same size, and the long axis of each pair is turned at 90 degrees to the other. Newark’s circle is oriented to the northeast, and the High Bank circle is oriented to the northwest. This is because both earthworks are precisely aligned to the northernmost rising of the Moon. The Moon rises over this point on the horizon only every 18.6 years. Perhaps this ancient knowledge was used to plan and organize pilgrimages to High Bank and Newark from far and wide, once each generation. You can learn more at
Uniformed NPS archeologist male with hat and sunglasses.
Bret J. Ruby, PhD, Park Archeologist and Chief of Resource Management

Photo credit: Timothy E. Black

Dr. Bret J. Ruby is an archeologist with the National Park Service, and Chief of Resource Management at Hopewell Culture National Historical Park in Chillicothe, Ohio.

Hopewell Culture National Historical Park

Last updated: July 20, 2021