Winter Solstice in Marietta: An Ancient Tradition

It is well known that Marietta, Ohio was once the site of a huge earthwork complex, with multiple flat-topped ritual mounds and a great burial mound. All of these mounds would have been surrounded by great walls of earthen clay, and our imagination runs wild speculating on the lives of the people worshipping in this space. For the earthworks in Marietta were not ruins of a city or a fortress, but rather represented the spiritual side of Adena and Hopewell culture.

Marietta Earthwork Complex

The oldest structure in the Marietta complex is Conus Mound in what is now Mound Cemetery. The Adena people moved into the mid-Ohio valley around 500 B.C. and built many burial mounds: some great, some small.

Mound Cemetery

Capitoleum Mound

As the culture developed, we see a transition to the Hopewell period through the explosion of the arts: musical instruments, intricate weavings, carvings of animal and human form and most importantly, in the creation of earthwork structures. Marietta’s Hopewell structures that still exist would be the mound on which our Public Library sits (known as Capitoleum), as well as Quadranou Mound on Camp Tupper between Third and Fourth Streets. Sacra Via owes its name to the once grand walls that lead up from the Muskingum River to the largest ritual mound (Quadranou).

Quadranou Mound

What is not as well known is that the Marietta earthworks represented a particular time of the year. The shamans leading worship in this area would have been astronomer-priests. They watched the movement of the earth and stars, and to the old cultures living off the land this information was life or death. Watching the heavens told them many things: such as when to plant and when to harvest. We don’t know a lot about the beliefs and traditions of the Adena and Hopewell peoples, but we know that Marietta was an important place during Winter Solstice. On December 21, even today, if the skies are clear, you can go down to Sacra Via and watch something amazing as the sun sets. The last ray of light aligns directly with Harmar Hill and stretches up Sacra Via, leading past Quadranou Mound. What this represented for the Hopewell, we can only imagine.

Sacra Via, illustration by Charles Sullivan

In other ancient cultures that we know more about, the winter solstice was a time of hope. Stonehenge in England is a Winter Solstice site and is aligned to the sunset, just like our site. Newgrange in Ireland is 2000 years older than our earthwork complex but very similar in style. The morning rays on the Winter Solstice shoot into the mound and lights up an inner chamber where a special ritual would take place.

Newgrange, Ireland