Fort Ancient: History & Culture
By April Hester, Director of Education
The Fort Ancient Earthworks is one of the most extensive earthworks in the United States. It is comprised of a network of earthen hilltop enclosures, embankments, and gateways created by Native American Peoples over two millennia ago. The earthworks are an impressive complex of 18,000 feet of structures that cover 100 acres in Southwest Ohio along the Little Miami River.
The Fort Ancient Earthworks is a sacred site built by the Hopewell culture; an advanced Native American People who flourished in the years 100 B.C. to 500 A.D. in the areas now known as the Midwest United States. The Hopewell culture is not a single Native nation or tribe, but are the Native Peoples who are recognized for similarities in their subsistence and settlement patterns, architecture, as well as their extensive trade system. Their settlements were smaller in size and often temporary due to their subsistence strategies which included hunting, fishing, gathering and farming. The Hopewell culture is recognized for their domestication of seeds, including sunflower, squash, goosefoot, and maygrass.
The Hopewell were influential throughout the eastern part of the United States for centuries. They strategically settled near waterways which aided in long distance trade connecting Native Peoples of numerous associating regions. The Hopewell culture were notably supplied with materials and goods from a various locations. This is evident in the materials used in their ceramics and other pieces of brilliant Hopewell art.
The name Fort Ancient may be misleading. There is no evidence of defensive fortification at the site. In fact, there were over 60 gateways integrated into the earthworks that allowed for easy entry. It was a meeting place and held space for ceremony, not warfare. The name of the earthworks itself came from the confusion between the era of Hopewell culture and the sub sequential culture known to archaeologists as the Fort Ancient culture. The Fort Ancient culture occupied an area of the site much later than the Hopewell, around 1000 A.D.-1200 A.D. Archaeological evidence shows the two cultures flourishing at different times. However, both cultures are integral components of Ohio Native American history.
The Fort Ancient Earthworks site is divided into two major sections, the South Fort and North Fort. It contains walls filled with stone pavement, evidence of dwellings and building structures, and mounds. The mounds present at the site have little evidence of burials. Many of these mounds mark the way to a gate entry and are made up of limestone slabs. In the North Fort of the site, there are four mounds placed to create an exact square, each side 512 feet in length. These stone mounds were sacred places that held enormous fires, kept cleared without building structures, likely used for spiritual purposes. There are three gateways that form alignments from the southwestern mound to the wall to feature significant astronomical events including the summer solstice.
The Fort Ancient Earthworks is recognized as a national historic landmark. They have been nominated for the UNESCO World Heritage List along with the Newark Earthworks and the five geometric earthworks in the Chillicothe Hopewell National Historic Park. The Fort Ancient Earthworks and Nature Preserve has a museum and visitors center and the site is overseen by the Ohio History Connection. Each year the Fort Ancient Earthworks have approximately 20,000-25,000 visitors and is expected to increase 10 fold if they become a World Heritage site.