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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

The Winter Solstice is the shortest day, and longest night of the year. It could be a time of sickness and starvation. In the depths of winter with snow covering the ground, no planting could be done. The Hopewell people would have had to rely on what they caught hunting or what they saved from the harvest. There could have been fear that the spring would never return. Doing particular rituals in the depths of winter could have tempted the gods to return sunlight and long days to the earth so that the season of planting and plenty would come once again. The skies are often gray in December, perhaps viewing the ray of light traveling up Sacra Via would have meant that a special year was coming, a better harvest. We don’t know the significance, but it was obviously a place of great importance. The large square containing Quadranou Mound, Capitoleum Mound and two other mounds that no longer exist, could have held an estimated 20,000 people. That signifies that whatever was taking place at Winter Solstice here in Marietta, 2,000 years ago was of vital importance to the culture.

Map of earthwork complex

If you are interested in the Winter Solstice in Marietta, join The Castle on December 21 at 4pm at Sacra Via Park. Wes Clarke, a local archaeologist has great knowledge of the Adena and Hopewell culture and will be leading the Solstice Watch. This is a free annual program, something fun to add as a tradition to your holiday celebrations! How many communities get to say that they have a living tie to the past, and get to watch a phenomenon that has been occurring for at least 2000 years? Stand in the park, surrounded by the ghosts of ancient Hopewell people and recognize their work and beliefs have shaped the layout of our town, in ways that are still seen today.

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