Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Fort Ancient: Eight Bucks for a Walk in the Woods

Travel north on I-71 from Cincinnati and you will eventually see a brown sign for Fort Ancient State Memorial Park, a historical site that boasts the largest enclosed Native American earthworks in the state of Ohio. It was here sometime between 100 BC and 500 AD (or 100 BCE and 500 CE for the secular among us) that those of the Hopewell persuasion built a series of earthworks and mounds along the natural contours of a hilltop overlooking the Little Miami River. Apparently, these earthworks and mounds fulfilled some ceremonial purposes--not to mention their role as ancient timekeepers. However, when Europeans discovered them centuries later--sometime in the 1700s, in fact--they assumed (O! Warmongering West!) the earthworks were ancient fortifications. Hence, "Fort Ancient."

So, Fort Ancient has been around for a really, really, really long time.

I first visited the park some twenty years ago--well after the Hopewell, Fort Ancient, and Shawnee people had vacated the premises. I remember nearly nothing about my first visit to the park, aside from some grassy Indian mounds and the adjacent signs forbidden children (and immature adults) from climbing on top of them. Admittedly, when I returned to Fort Ancient this past week, the temptation to climb on the solitary Indian mounds remained strong. Unfortunately, though, the mounds were not as tall as I remembered them. And the warning signs remained. Such is life.

In fact, much of the park was nothing like I remembered it. When my wife and kids and I arrived at the park's main gate, I was excited. Aside from the stone covered Indian mounds, which had been restored to look as they would have back in the day, we saw an official-looking building that the gate worker informed us was a museum. Inside this surprisingly spacious museum, we read about the history (or prehistory) of the Hopewell and the later Native American tribes that inhabited the region, as well as the beginnings of white settlement in the Little Miami River valley. We snapped pictures and read displays. It was a great museum. Yea, perhaps even one of the best museums I have ever seen in a state park--and I've seen quite a few. They even had an area for the kids that succeeded (despite amateurishly drawn displays and hokey historically-based activities) in entertaining--and perhaps educating--my kids for a half hour. But the museum turned out to be like a fantastic trailer for an ultimately lackluster movie. When I left the museum, I was expecting to find a perimeter of grassy earthworks enclosing a large open field. What I found instead, however, was a small meadow, a couple of hiking trails, and a lot of forest.

And what about the earthworks--those wonders of the Ancient American World? Where were they?

Well, it turns out that the wondrous Fort Ancient earthworks are now largely hidden within the dense tangle of Ohio forest that literally covers the park. In fact, the earthworks are so disguised by growth that during our one-mile hike along the "Earthworks Trail," my family and I at times had a hard time distinguishing what was an actual Hopewell earthwork and what was not. In many ways, it seemed as if Mother Nature had dominated History in a wrestling match that would rival the worst of Friday Night Smackdown.

Don't get me wrong: I had a good time hiking with my family. And I was even fascinated with the long earthwork formations--when I could distinguish them from the average hill. But I wish the park had shown more care in the preservation of the formations. Why have they not restored Fort Ancient to its original appearance? Why keep the amazing accomplishment of the Hopewell hidden behind a bunch of trees?

Some answers to these questions involve environmental concerns, of course. The trees and foliage that cover the earthworks are now a part of the natural habitat of several adorable woodland creatures--and their removal would certainly arouse controversy from certain environmental groups (picket sign: "STOP WOODLAND GENOCIDE"). Money to carry out the restoration would also be a problem since the preservation of history is always a low priority when it comes to government spending. So, Fort Ancient will likely remain the way it is.

As we left the park, my wife made the comment that the eight dollar entrance fee to the park was "a little steep." I agreed. For all we saw of ancient Indian earthworks, I could have had the same experience with a free walk in the woods and a little imagination...emphasis on a little.


  1. That's too bad that they haven't preserved the mounds but alas - I think you are right. Not enough money to fund the project. I'm sure it is way down on a list of priorties. However, it is a beautiful place and it sounds like the museum is good. I think I will have to get Dad to go up there one day.

  2. Hmm... you're commentary on Fort Ancient makes me think that it's one of those attractions that can stay at the bottom of my "must see" list. I'm into nice hikes in the woods, but I can find plenty of places to do that without paying $8!