EDITOR'S NOTE: This is the third in a gradually unfolding series of articles about the ancient prehistory of the area. Later articles will look at the Native American residents of Knox County around the time that white settlers moved into the region. Part 1 published on Dec. 29, 2018. Part 2 published on Jan. 26, 2019.
Important news broke last week when the Ohio Fifth District Court of Appeals ruled that the Ohio History Connection has the right to acquire the lease to the Octagon Earthworks in Newark, with the express intent of making the significant prehistoric site more accessible to the public.
Currently the site is occupied by Moundbuilders Country Club, a golf course, which barely makes the site accessible to the public (and where our managing editor Larry Phillips worked as a caddy in his high school days). While the golf club has been there since 1933, this ruling may open the doors to allow people with an interest in this region's astonishing past to explore the earthworks.
While not as epic as the Newark sites, there are other earthworks even closer to Knox County. Just over the border into Licking County, the small town of Homer is host to a fine steep mound and remnants of other structures, which were the origin of some interesting stories.
According to the 1881 History of Licking County, in 1824, an excavation of a prehistoric fort on the river bank adjacent to the Homer Cemetery revealed a very large human skeleton.
“It is stated that the jawbone would go over the face of the largest man present, with two hands placed between,” the book says.
To unpack that information a little bit, the Homer Cemetery is on the west side of the village, across the street from the public library.
The cemetery sits on a bluff which may also have been the location of the “fort” described. Modern researchers would conclude that the earthwork was more likely a sacred temple, considering that such structures are sometimes found containing ritualistic artifacts but rarely any evidence of battle.
The temple likely sat on the bluff itself, as an examination of old maps demonstrates that the Licking River once ran very close to the bottom of the bluff. Current maps and visual examination shows that the river his moved a slight distance to the north.
How can this be?
My guess would be the massive floods that hit Ohio in 1913. Many river banks in this region suffered collapse during that flood. I would suppose that whatever remained of the temple was lost in 1913 when the edge of the bluff collapsed, and the resultant landslide pushed the course of the river a few dozen yards to the north.
The history book adds that around 1831, a group of local men dug f15 feet down into the mound across the street, which is formally known as the Dixon Mound, after an early landowner (and is sometimes alternately known as the Williams Mound for the same reason).
This mound is the steep mound visible directly behind the Homer Branch of the Licking County Public Library. These searchers did not find anything in the mound and abandoned their search.
Over 50 years later, in May of 1885, the Newark Advocate reported on the discovery of two giant skeletons in Homer:
“A few days since, one of the residents of Homer in passing through a field accidentally saw some human bones protruding from the earth in a sidehill, which proved to be of gigantic size.”
Upon further excavation, two large skeletons were revealed, both large enough for the skulls to completely encase a modern adult male's head with room to spare.
A report in the New York Times, datelined Centerburg, says that the initial find was made by Homer schoolboys and that subsequent digging by adults turned up two more skeletons and numerous flint artifacts. The Times article states that three of the skeletons were measured in excess of seven feet in height, while the largest was over eight feet tall.
A report from the McCook Weekly Tribune from a week later ups the total to five skeletons, and adds that the skeletons were all found with their feet pointing toward the east on a stone platform five feet beneath the surface of the mound. Burned bone fragments, charcoal, drinking vessels, and flint weapons were found as well.
“The most striking articles beside the skeletons,” the article continues, “were a finely finished stone pipe, the bowl being large and polished and engraved with considerable care in a simple way — the figures are birds and beasts: a knife shaped like a sickle reversed and having a wooden handle held by leather thongs and a kettle holding perhaps six quarts.”
Where are these artifacts now?
The reports are a little vague about the location of the discoveries, one saying the skeletons were found in “a small mound near Homer,” while the other says “near a prehistoric fort or mound.”
This could mean the temple adjacent to the cemetery, the mound across the street, or another mound entirely.
The 1881 history also notes the presence of three mounds one mile west of Homer on the property of farmer Robert Fulton. The book says that one of those mounds was flattened to provide a site for the farmer's house (!), while the other two remained. One of those mounds was excavated, revealing a dome-shaped stone building about ten feet in diameter, three feet tall.
This seems reminiscent of other mound structures that have been identified as Adena mounds, dating back as far as 2,500 B.C.
Speculation has run rampant over the years about the large skeletons, which have been disregarded by official institutions such as the Smithsonian. Skeptics suggest that the reports were hoaxes spread by newspapers more interested in intriguing readers than checking facts.
But the sheer scope of these reports throughout the 19th century makes it hard to believe it was nothing more than a hoax.
Collectors of these reports have filled books.
But the big problem is that none of the skeletons are known to still exist, because upon exposure to oxygen, it seems that the ancient bones quickly deteriorated. Skeptics find that mighty convenient for the hoax explanation, but it is well enough documented that buried ancient bones do decay rapidly when exposed to humid conditions.
Many of the world's ancient skeletons are from arid regions for this reason. Only bones pickled by bogs survive excavation elsewhere.
Other skeptics have pointed out that ancient bones could well have become disarticulated, allowing space between the joints and giving a false impression of height. This does not, however, explain the large skulls described in these reports.
On the other side of mystery, conspiracy theorists claim that the ancient giants were suppressed because they didn't fit in with 19th-century science's racist disdain of their descendants, the historic Native American tribes.
I'm not sure what to think. But it's not that hard to imagine a royal class of rulers or priests passing a trait for unusual height to their offspring until either it was bred out of them or else they died out from inbreeding, as restricted royal classes so often do.
I'll admit I'm stirred to picture giant figures striding the valleys of the Licking River in what is today Knox and Licking Counties, just out of the reach of our current tools of detection.
One thing is certain, though: If there was once a class of giants, central Ohio was their sacred center.
More mounds, earthworks, and reports of these finds come from here than anywhere else. This was once the spiritual center of an entire culture's world.
And when you pause at these sites and let your imagination picture it, you can feel the resonance that remains.