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Ohio's UNESCO World Heritage bid is one step closer

 Steam fog lifts up from the mounds at Mound City Group on a cool summer morning.
Tom Engberg
NPS Photo
Steam fog lifts up from the mounds at Mound City Group on a cool summer morning.

Just 24 UNESCO World Heritage sites are located in the United States — think the Grand Canyon, the Statue of Liberty and Mammoth Cave — but none are in Ohio. That may change next summer.

TheUSA's bid to have Ohio's Hopewell Ceremonial Earthworks inscribed as UNESCO World Heritage sites is progressing. The bid is in the formal review process. A reviewer from the International Council on Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS), visited Ohio recently to tour the eight earthwork sites that comprise the nomination.

"When the evaluator comes, they are bringing questions from the people who have evaluated the nomination just on paper," explains Jennifer Aultman, director of historic sites and museums at Ohio History Connection. "A lot of what you're doing is literally walking around the site, answering questions about the integrity and about the management and about how do you deal with things like trees and earthworks because trees growing on earthworks or falling on earthworks can do damage."

She says the bid committee is now following up by answering questions in writing as they come in from the team of international reviewers. That's expected to continue for a few months.

"A lot of the questions are related to things ... like the integrity of the sites," she says, noting some of the sites have been disturbed over the decades. Other questions have been about why certain boundary lines have been drawn a particular way — a lot of specifics and minutiae to vet the bid.

"They're the kinds of questions that may not seem really enthralling, but they're just so important for them to understand how the sites are protected and managed. That's really what they're getting at."

Every answer, she says, augments the bid book that was formally submitted in March. Those behind the bid are optimistic that it is thorough.

"I don't have any reason to anticipate any major changes requested to our nomination, but we haven't specifically received that feedback yet because, at this point, they're still information-gathering. They're not making decisions yet. They're still learning."

The evaluation period is expected to run through early 2023. Once completed, the ICOMOS team will make its recommendation to the World Heritage Committee. In early to mid spring, the hope is ICOMOS will recommend Ohio's Hopewell Ceremonial Earthworks be inscribed on the World Heritage List. The other options are the bid is referred or deferred for more review, or it is not recommended for inscription all together.

World Heritage status is a very detailed and long process with a potentially huge payoff. World Heritage sites draw international attention — and international tourism dollars. It's a decision that isn't made lightly. The criteria for UNESCO World Heritage cultural sites "include the clear manifestations of 'outstanding universal value' and 'human creative genius.' "

"Some of us have been involved in this for 20 years, but ... being in this review period now, I actually really appreciate World Heritage sites even more — knowing that everyone has gone under this scrutiny and that global experts have really thought about whether the places have integrity, and whether they're well-managed and they're going to be preserved for future generations," says Aultman.

About the Hopewell Ceremonial Earthworks

Eight ancient earthworks sites dating to the Hopewell era comprise the Hopewell Ceremonial Earthworks — the USA's first Ohio-centric bid for UNESCO World Heritage Site status.

The locations are:

Present day Ohio was once home to various Indigenous nations. The bulk of their descendants were forcibly removed and now there are no federally recognized tribes located in Ohio.

The term Hopewell is applied to Indigenous cultures that existed across the Midwest between 200 BCE to 500 CE, with Ohio at its epicenter. The state is home to "the largest concentration of prehistoric monumental landscape architecture," according to World Heritage Ohio.

"These sites help us think about a way to be human that's very different from modern life for most of us," Aultman muses. "Where communities came together, people who lived in small family communities, and they came together to build these vast, huge earthworks and then they went back to their lives. What are the things we do that are like that, where we come together and we do something important and then we go back to our every day?"

World Heritage sites, she says, are of importance to all people.

"That is what World Heritage says to me: it's these places that we all should care about because they tell us something about a specific culture, but they also tell us about what does it mean to be human and all the different ways that people do that today and in the past."

What about Serpent Mound?

Though the Hopewell Ceremonial Earthworks are nearly at the end of the World Heritage process, they are not the only sites Ohio is working with the the United States to put forward. There are two other proposals on the U.S. Tentative List: Serpent Mound and Dayton Aviation Sites.

Serpent Mound is arguably Ohio's most recognizable and widely known earthen mound, so why isn't it part of this World Heritage nomination? After all, it is the "largest documented surviving example of an ancient effigy mound in the world," points out World Heritage Ohio.

The answer is actually pretty simple: the impressive serpentine structure is believed to have been built several hundred years after the Hopewell era. Therefore it would be historically inappropriate to include it in this grouping. It is being considered for its own nomination.

Copyright 2022 91.7 WVXU. To see more, visit 91.7 WVXU.

Tana Weingartner earned a bachelor's degree in communication from the University of Cincinnati and a master's degree in mass communication from Miami University. Most recently, she served as news and public affairs producer with WMUB-FM. Ms. Weingartner has earned numerous awards for her reporting, including several Best Reporter awards from the Associated Press and the Ohio Society of Professional Journalists, and a regional Murrow Award. She served on the Ohio Associated Press Broadcasters Board of Directors from 2007 - 2009.