THOUGHTS ON NEWARK EARTHWORKS DAY 2008

Newark Earthworks Day was a remarkable event this year – not that it’s been unremarkable in past years, but each time we do this I see the site in new ways. This year, the theme was “Newark among the wonders of the ancient world” and, for me, the most remarkable aspect of the program was the juxtaposition of Newark with both Stonehenge and Teotihuacán. It was no surprise that the Newark Earthworks belonged in the company of these World Heritage sites, but, as many of us agreed after listening to all the presentations, it almost seemed as if, despite the unique historical circumstances of each place, they were all the same site. By that I mean that each site seems to embody the most profound aspirations of the human spirit. Each represents a people’s attempt to express their beliefs about themselves and their place in the cosmos with almost unbelievably monumental architecture.

I am reminded of what Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote in his essay on “History.” He also juxtaposed these sites — and he came to a similar conclusion.

“All inquiry into antiquity, — all curiosity respecting the Pyramids, the excavated cities, Stonehenge, the Ohio Circles, Mexico, Memphis, — is the desire to do away this wild, savage, and preposterous There or Then, and introduce in its place the Here and the Now. Belzoni digs and measures in the mummy-pits and pyramids of Thebes, until he can see the end of the difference between the monstrous work and himself. When he has satisfied himself, in general and in detail, that it was made by such a person as he, so armed and so motived, and to ends to which he himself should also have worked, the problem is solved; his thought lives along the whole line of temples and sphinxes and catacombs, passes through them all with satisfaction, and they live again to the mind, or are now.”

“The identity of history is equally intrinsic, the diversity equally obvious. There is at the surface infinite variety of things; at the centre there is simplicity of cause.”

A somewhat controversial aspect of Newark Earthworks Day this year was the invitation the event organizers extended to a group of Aztec Dancers to come and dance within the Great Circle. This offended some local American Indians who thought the Mexican ceremonies were somehow inappropriate in this North American setting. Some archaeologists also worried about the confusing educational message such a ceremony might convey to the general public. Might people come away thinking that Aztecs built the Newark Earthworks?

I cannot speak to the spiritual concerns of the few American Indians who objected to the idea, but for me and for everyone I spoke to who actually attended the ceremony, it was a wonderful and moving tribute from one group of indigenous Americans to another. The Aztec ceremony was not an attempt to recreate a Hopewell dance or to make any sort of claim about a direct relationship between the Aztecs and the peoples of ancient Ohio. It was, instead, an opportunity to fill the Great Circle with the sounds of indigenous American ceremony – the ringing call of the conch shell trumpet, the rhythmic drumming, and the dancers’ rattles. For a brief time, the magnificent earthen enclosure became, once again, a vibrant, living sacred space instead of a silent, yet still awesome, testimonial to an ancient grandeur.

I speak only for myself, but it seemed clear to me that the Aztec dancers were neither presented as nor taken for surrogate Hopewell celebrants. Their ceremony at this place and time affirmed Emerson’s claim that “The identity of history is equally intrinsic, the diversity equally obvious.”

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