‘Fortified Hill,’ Native American mounds, to partly open in March

A cultural treasure from about 2,000 years ago. Researchers wish they knew more about it

The committee overseeing the Fortified Hill sacred Native American earthworks in Ross Twp. hopes to make the site available to the public for the first time Friday, March 11. That’s the same date Pyramid Hill Sculpture Park and Museum, which oversees the earthworks, celebrates Founder’s Day.

The site is considered a Native American cultural treasure, although experts don’t know its exact purpose.

Bob Genheimer, curator of archaeology at Cincinnati Museum Center, says the earthworks perhaps celebrated their beautiful countryside location and views of the Great Miami River below. It certainly was important to the Hopewell-age people, about 2,000 years ago, who would have built mounds several feet high and a mile long, using basketfuls of soil. They also hauled large rocks significant distances, he said.

Nanci Lanni, a daughter of the late Harry Wilks, who founded the sculpture park, bid $1.5 million in 2019 on behalf of the Harry T Wilks Family Foundation, to ensure it would be preserved, rather than sold to someone who might build something on it.

Over the past year, the Fortified Hill committee has worked hard “to clear a lot of the Fortified Hill ceremonial site of honeysuckle and other invasive underbrush, so that the ceremonial site and the mound could be viewed by the public,” Lanni said.

“We’re working toward getting the site open to the public, which we hope will happen on March 11,” she told the Journal-News. Admission to tours of the site will be free to members of the sculpture park.

A preservation victory

Efforts to save the site began in August, 2019, when local allergist Dr. Jeff Leipzig told Hamilton City Council that the property owned by his friend, Dr. Louis Luke Barich who died in 2019, would be auctioned. Barich often had told others, including Leipzig and Harry Wilks, of his plans to preserve the earthworks. But he didn’t get around to putting it in his will.

Genheimer calls it a sacred site, and like any archaeologist would, he wonders what it looked like when it was built about 2,000 years ago, and exactly how it was used. At four openings in the mounds, there were ponds people had to walk through to enter.

“It’s kind of like a cathedral or a church,” Genheimer said. “When you walk in through the door, you’re in a sacred space. When you walk out the door, you’re no longer in it. There’s something about them commemorating the edge of that ridgetop there, with that spectacular view.”

“We think these are sacred places that are meant to commemorate the landscape,” Genheimer said. “The water, I think, is a very important thing. Water is very sacred to Native Americans, and I think they were creating water at these places. And it’s still there today, and that’s the coolest thing, to see that: When it rains, these things will fill up.”

Working to do it right

Lanni said those overseeing Fortified Hill includes a museum professional, archaeologist, community volunteers, a Native American and university professors.

“We’ve moved very slowly on purpose, on this project,” she said. “We wanted to make sure every move we made was correct, and we didn’t want to impede future research into this, if someone did want to come and do research into the Hopewell culture.”

“People love mystery, and this is a mystery,” Lanni said. “And this is a mystery to all of us. Even the archaeologists aren’t quite sure what went on here.”

Coincidentally, Ohio history professionals are working to add Fort Ancient in Warren County and other Ohio Hopewell-age sites to the highly respected list of UNESCO World Heritage sites. Other World Heritage sites include the Grand Canyon, Pyramids of ancient Egypt and Mammoth Cave in Kentucky.

In future years, the committee plans to make it increasingly more available to visitors, but, “at this time, the site will be accessible by tours led from Pyramid Hill, and it will be primarily walking,” Lanni said. She noted those tours “will be quite a walk,” with interpretive signs along the way, estimating they may take an hour.

“We are so excited to be able to finally say that the public will be able to see this historic, sacred site,” Lanni said.

It wasn’t a village where people lived full-time, and was not a burial ground, she said. Instead, “It was a place where different bands of people would meet and come together at certain times of the year and have special ceremonies.”

Many area earthworks have been lost

Southwest Ohio used to have many earthworks, most of them plowed under as farm fields or for other uses.

Fortified Hill became nationally famous in the mid-1800s, after James McBride surveyed it in 1836. It was included in the first publication by the Smithsonian Institution, “Ancient Monuments of the Mississippi Valley,” written in 1847 by Ephraim Squire and Edwin Davis.

It was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1974.

Across southwest Ohio, “There’s a whole series of these, what we call hilltop enclosures,” Genheimer said. “There is another one in Butler County, the Rentschler (Forest) Preserve there. There’s the Miami Fort, at the mouth at the Great Miami River in a Hamilton County park, which overlooks the mouth of the Great Miami and the Ohio River.

“Fort Ancient, of course, is the largest one, in Warren County,” he said.

The earthworks are from an era that “archaeologists call Hopewell,” Genheimer said. “Native Americans don’t use those terms. It’s a time period that’s from maybe 1 A.D. up to 350 or 400 A.D.”

Many mysteries remain

At Fortified Hill, “The view of the Great Miami River is spectacular,” Genheimer said. “When you’re at the south gate, you can look down and see the Great Miami in several places, snaking past you, with the leaves down now.”

No archaeology has been performed within the earthworks. A committee for Fortified Hill has written a draft management plan dictating what can and cannot be done “to treat the earthwork with respect,” Genheimer said.

“We’re trying to be good stewards of it, now that it’s being preserved,” he said.

In some places, the walls are 3-4 feet high, or taller. In other places, they’re smaller than that. “Originally, they were much higher,” but erosion through the centuries and then farming above them reduced them.

“At the east gate, those ponds are still very visible, and those gateways are in the form of a question mark,” Genheimer said. “They’re in the form of a question mark, and they’re reversed. The one at the south gate is reversed from the east gate.”

Once the honeysuckle was removed, it became fairly easy to see, Genheimer said.

The north entrance no longer exists because a vehicle path went through.

Respectfully slow movement

Progress at Fortified Hill has been intentionally slow, Lanni said.

“We wanted to move slowly so we didn’t destroy anything by accident,” she said. “We wanted to be respectful of this sacred site and not disrespect anyone by doing the wrong thing.”

April Hester, a citizen of the Muscogee Creek Nation who is an Aanchtaakia Fellow at Miami University’s Myaamia Center, is a member of the oversight committee, representing the local Native community rather than the university, she said.

Hester told this media outlet the committee has been working with the Miami Tribe of Oklahoma, the Shawnee Tribe, the Delaware Tribe of Indians and the Wyandotte Nation “to respect the ancestral relationship between the sovereign nations and the lands Pyramid Hill and Fortified Hill Earthwork reside on.”

“I am passionate about honoring the wishes of the Tribal Nations in preservation and interpretation efforts at this 2,000 year old sacred site and to highlight the history, culture and sovereignty of the contemporary Tribal Nations,” she said.

Signs and video clips at Fortified Hill will use language terminology from the Myaamia (Miami), Shawnee and Lenape (Delaware) language.

The video clips, which can be accessed through using QR codes, will “show the beauty of Indigenous languages and to deliberately re-indigenize space,” she said via email. “They offer a glimpse into the worldview of a contemporary and dynamic people and provide another component for public education on the sovereign Nations who hold deep connections to these lands.

Leipzig said use of the Native American languages also will help young people better understand the mounds were built before of European ancestry arrived.

Credit: Nick Graham

Credit: Nick Graham

What it will be like

At first, the property will have a modest walking path with signs along the way. People can take guided tours.

“You will be able to see the vastness of the ceremonial site,” Lanni said. “I think it’s probably bigger than people imagine, and there will be a path going down to the entranceways, especially the two that have the water, the ponds, in them.”

“We hope to do a Phase 2, which will improve the pathways, and also be able to put a viewing tower, so you can look down and see the design of the entranceways. They’re very unusual. They go in a question mark, and people had to walk through the water to get into the ceremonial site, so that was obviously part of their ritual, which makes it all the more interesting.”

A display at Pyramid Hill’s ancient sculpture museum will tell about the Hopewell people and display some artifacts, including Hopewell arrowheads that were found elsewhere, and a compass that was used by James McBride, perhaps when he surveyed the site in 1836.

An early multitasker

McBride, who literally put Fortified Hill on the map, was an amazing person, Leipzig added: “He was the very first mayor of Hamilton, he was also a board of trustees member and I think president of the Board of Trustees at Miami University (he was),” he said.

McBride also was a Butler County sheriff, a trained surveyor, a state representative involved an archaeologist, an author and sketches of many earthworks in southwest Ohio. He’s buried in Greenwood Cemetery, which he helped found, Leipzig said.

Leipzig is glad the site is preserved for future generations to contemplate.

“It’s the right thing to do for Dr. Barich,” Leipzig said. “It’s the right thing to do for the Native American people who built it. It’s the right thing to do for our community, because it’s just such a treasure.”

“I think he’d be very proud of all of us,” Leipzig said of Barich.

“Like I said in the city council meeting that day (in 2019), this is our pyramid. This is our Parthanon. This is our history, so we need to revel in it and celebrate it,” Leipzig said. “So I’m really excited. I’m ecstatic, actually.”

“It’s just been such a pleasure to be part of this group, especially with Pyramid Hill and the Harry T. Wilks Family Foundation, but also with archaeologists and conservationists that are working with us to try to turn this into something really special for the area,” Leipzig said.

Want to help?

Here are two ways people can help the Fortified Hill Native American ceremonial mounds, which will open on a limited basis, beginning March 11:

  • Volunteers will help clear honeysuckle and brush from the mounds area in coming months, including on Saturday, when people are invited to gather at 9:45 a.m. at offices of the Pyramid Hill Sculpture Park and Museum, 1763 Hamilton Cleves Road, before going to the site. Participants should wear heavy shoes, work gloves and other appropriate protection. It will involve cutting paths so visitors can walk to see the earthworks. “We’re usually there for a couple hours, and it’s hard work,” said Dr. Jeff Leipzig. “This isn’t for the lighthearted.” Pyramid Hill’s Facebook also will post future opportunities, or changes of plans in case of bad weather.
  • People also can donate to Fortified Hill by donating to an account held on its behalf by the Hamilton Community Foundation, which can be contacted at 513-863-1717. Donations also can be made through the foundation’s website, at hamiltonfoundation.org and would help conservation efforts there, as well as helping make the site more accessible to visitors.

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