Fort Ancient Earthworks and Nature Reserve
Published on: Sep 24, 2021
Stepping onto the grounds of Fort Ancient Earthworks and Nature Preserve in Oregonia is like walking in someone else’s very ancient footsteps.
Built approximately 2,000 years ago by the ancestors of many modern Native American tribes, Fort Ancient is a nature lover’s paradise that offers miles of trails, earth embankments, and hidden cosmic connections.
Blow into the past
Fort Ancient is the largest hilltop enclosure in North America, a fact you won’t miss when you explore the 126-acre plateau of Ohio’s first state park, established in 1891.
Sitting above the Little Miami River, much of the space is surrounded by earth embankments that the Ancestors built from one basket of earth at a time. Many of the embankments, which are as incredibly remarkable as any modern structure, reach heights of 23 feet.
But rather than feeling like a place of war, as the “fort’s” name may suggest, the space feels welcoming thanks to more than 67 walkways (or notches) breaking through the embankments. In fact, it was not a defensive fort at all, and American Indians and archaeologists today believe that Fort Ancient was more likely used as a community gathering place for ceremonies and more. The space more than likely hosted ancient American Indians from across the continent, as evidenced by intricately crafted ceremonial objects made of materials from afar, such as silver from Canada or obsidian from Wyoming. At first, archaeologists thought it was just an example of inter-tribal trade.
“But what they realized was that someone would bring gifts to the ceremonies to say, ‘Thank you for hosting the ceremony. It’s a gift from my part of the country,” says Fort Ancient program manager Pam Hall.
The interior of the earthwork, which interconnected northern, middle and southern enclosures, also has several mounds, some of which are covered with limestone. And Hall points out that, interestingly, there is evidence that many mounds and embankments were built on top of smaller mounds, which means the builders may have planned it all out.
“They present it as a blueprint first, then they wrap it up,” says Hall.
When seen in person, such ancient engineering expertise wows the mind with fascination. One of the most special areas is Morehead Circle, a place near the Fort Ancient museum. The ceremonial space was probably a woodhenge, which was a circular arrangement of wooden posts. There is evidence of posts in the ground, spaced several meters apart and in three concentric circles. The ground in the center was found to be tight and reddish, leading archaeologists and historians to believe it was an area of intense and sacred activity.
“Here’s this fascinating central circle where all kinds of things that we don’t even know have happened there — ceremonies to honor the seasons, the changing cycles of life. It’s amazing to me,” Hall said. .
Point in time
Further evidence of the engineering skill of the earthwork builders can be seen in some of Fort Ancient’s astronomical alignments, including two (of the 67) embankment notches that help form a kind of calendar on the ground. At sunrise at the winter solstice, a capped mound of stone and one of these notches line up to indicate the exact spot where the sun will peak above the horizon.
There is even evidence at Fort Ancient that these Native American ancestors understood the 18.6 year lunar cycle. Seen in person, it’s an amazing lesson in what humans are capable of when working with nature.
“Ancient peoples around the world lived with the cycles of nature,” says Hall. “Today, we recognize that Indigenous cultures often hold ancient knowledge about plants, animals, and the cosmos that science is only just beginning to understand.”
To take a walk
This connection to nature is also apparent on Fort Ancient’s 2.5 miles of trails – after all, the space is also a nature preserve that is home to woodland birds, animals and plants, flowers, grasses and Moreover. A 1.5-mile trail leads to the North Lookout, which offers sweeping views of the Little Miami River Valley, acres and acres of trees, and a distant peek at the Jeremiah Morrow Bridge that carries the I -71 above a gorge.
“It’s very beautiful,” Hall says of the gazebo. A connecting trail takes you over 200 feet down the valley and onto a bike path – but be prepared for the steep return.
The Wooded Mound Trail takes you over small isolated mounds. Yet another half-mile trail near the museum takes you through a meadow to spot wildflowers and more. A trail leading to the South Lookout takes you close to where archaeologists suspect ancient visitors to Fort Ancient came after disembarking from their boats on the Little Miami.
“You have these big limestone pathways where they come up from the river,” says Hall. “You see this from afar. You park your canoe and then you can walk up.”
If you’ve had your fill of the outdoors or just want to know more, head to the 9,000 square foot Fort Ancient. brick and stone museum.
The museum’s exhibits, with a mix of real and replica artifacts, are divided into three major themes tracing the history of American Indians in the country now called Ohio. The first section details the journey of individuals through the Bering Strait and into what is now Alaska around 13,000 to 10,000 years ago. Exhibits show how hunter-gatherers worked together to hunt down behemoths in order to survive.
“There’s all kinds of information about what the ancient landscape really looked like during the Ice Ages,” Hall said.
The second section, titled Tillers of Soil, shows how people’s relationships with plants have changed over time. You learn that people began to manage wild plants and these plants changed over generations to become the first domesticated crops over three thousand years ago. These plants, including goosefoot, swamp elderberry, squash, and sunflower, are still present today. You will also discover how they learned to take clay from the river beds and to make clay pots. This section also includes a fascinating topographic map of the Fort Ancient site.
In the third section, you’ll learn how the tribes settled even further, cultivating what the Iroquois called the “Three Sisters”: corn, beans, and squash. One of the coolest artifacts in this section is an actual Chippewa canoe.
Finish with a souvenir from the Fort Ancient gift shop, including pottery reproductions, books, jewelry, walking sticks, and t-shirts. But keep an eye out as Fort Ancient is refreshing its offerings with gifts that pay even more homage to Native American cultures. Hall says the museum hopes to connect with more Native American artists and businesses to sell their wares.
For more historical attractions, check out #OhioFindItHere at Ohio.org.