UW News

October 10, 2023

“Ways of Knowing” Episode 7: Material Culture

Picture a series of uniform mounds of earth, each about 6-feet high.

Enclosing 50 acres, the mounds form an octagon that is connected to a circle. This is The Octagon Earthworks, located in central Ohio, and it’s one of thousands of Indigenous mounds across the eastern half of North America.

Click to see the full transcript of the episode

Ways of Knowing 

The World According to Sound 

Episode Seven 

Material Culture 


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Sam Harnett: On the outskirts of the city of Newark, Ohio, there’s a series of long, completely uniform mounds of earth. They’re about six-feet high, covered in grass, and they form perfect geometric shapes. They’re very, very large—the size of dozens of football fields. 


Chad Allen: You see the octagon, which is actually an octagon connected to a circle. And the octagon encases 50 acres and then it is connected to the circle by a walled corridor. 


SH: Chad Allen, professor of English and American Indian studies at the University of Washington. 


CA: What I think is interesting about the octagon is the points of entry. How is it permeable, and why it has these segments where you can come in at all these places. 


SH: Chad has spent over twenty years studying these mounds, which we now know are more than just an impressive complex of geometric shapes. 


CA: If you know how to read it, it encodes astronomical knowledge.  


SH: Only in recent decades have scholars begun to understand how these mounds work. 


CA: The big discovery in the 1980s, and it took until the 1980s to rediscover what the Octagon Earthworks really is, is that it’s a huge clock. It’s a huge system of measuring and marking the northernmost and southernmost rise and set points of the moon. 


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SH: Lunar set points are a fairly obscure detail about the movement of the moon. The moon rises and sets at a slightly different place on the horizon each day—sometimes a bit further north, sometimes a bit further south. The changes follow a cycle that is exactly 18.6 years long. The geometric shapes of the Ohio Earthworks are arranged to precisely mark the range of lunar set points over the entire cycle. This requires detailed astronomical observations made over long periods of time. Then of course you have to build these huge mounds. Altogether it is a feat of astronomy, engineering and coordinated labor. 


CA: They’re astronomically aligned, they’re mathematically perfect, they’re well engineered, they’ve endured for 2,000 years. 

SH: Over 2,000 years ago Indigenous people in the Americas built these Octagon Earthworks. And these weren’t the only ones of their kind. Indigenous people built thousands of mounds across the eastern half of North America. 


CA: When you look at maps that show where sites were or where sites are, it’s really all the major waterways. 


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SH: The oldest known sites are from 3,500 BCE. And they’re thought to have had a variety of purposes: for public gatherings, religious ceremonies and to mark burials. Some, like the Great Serpent Mound in southern Ohio, were constructed in the shape of culturally significant animals. Others were built into American Indian cities, like Cahokia, which was built on the Mississippi River near modern day St. Louis. At its peak in the 12th Century, Cahokia had between 6,000 and 40,000 residents. More than London at the same time. Cahokia alone had around 120 different earthworks throughout the city. 


CA: The whole eastern half of North America is really a built environment. Up into Ontario, all the way down to Louisiana, Florida, New York, all the way out to Wisconsin, Iowa. 


SH: These earthworks confused European settlers. The general belief was that these impressive mound structures could not have been built by Indigenous people. 


CA: So now we’ve had a couple centuries of these bizarre theories of white giants or Chinese people came over or Phoenicians came over or people from Atlantis or the lost tribes of Israel — all of these theories.  


SH: As European settlers colonized the Americas, they destroyed the mounds, flattening the structures, building on top of them, using them for their own purposes. Across the river from Cahokia, in what’s now St. Louis, settlers disassembled the mounds and used the dirt to build an embankment for a railroad which you can still see today. Of the 120 mounds that existed there, only one remains.  


CA: In the 19th century particularly in the early 20th century, all these amateur archeologists and looters really were hoping, either they were doing it for adventure, or they were doing it because they were going to get rich, they thought there was treasure. There still is a black market for artifacts that come out of earthworks. 


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SH: In the mid-20th century American Indians were finally able to establish some protections against the destruction of earthworks. By then most had already been destroyed. Today only several hundred of the several thousand survive. Some are on state and national park land, but a great majority are on the property of private landowners. 


CA: They’re captive to a culture that didn’t build them and doesn’t fully understand them, and is using them often for very different reasons.  


SH: The Octagon Earthworks is a prime example of this captivity.  


CA: Settlers used the area for various activities, including mustering militia. And then in 1910 it gets leased by what’s called the Mountain Builders Country Club. In 1911, they start playing golf on the site. They make of what they think of as improvements: rough, sand traps, eventually irrigation, paths for golf carts. They build a clubhouse.  


SH: For almost 100 years, people have been playing golf on one of the most significant American Indian sites in the country. Finally, in 2022, after a long legal battle, the Ohio State Supreme Court ordered the golf course to relinquish the land. The plan is to make the Octagon Earthworks accessible to the public and to tell the story of the people who built and maintained them.  


CA: The earthworks on such a massive scale give the lie to the stereotype of Indian savagery. The idea of savage, unsophisticated, uncivilized people who had no technology. The stereotypes that somehow Europeans brought civilization to the Americas is enduring. These sites really fly in the face of that.  


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SH: Material cultural studies is the analysis of the relationships between people and their things, including everything from the making and history of a society’s objects, to their preservation and interpretation. Chad’s research into the Octagon and other North American Earthworks is focused on the creative ways a culture responds to cultural erasure—the attempt to obscure, displace, or outright destroy a culture’s objects and their history. Part of the work is identifying how a culture and its history has been attacked. It’s also about rebuilding knowledge of that culture’s objects and their relationships to the society that produced them. Material Culture is deeply entwined with archeology and anthropology but became its own discipline in the early 1990s. 


Here are five texts that will help you learn more about Material Culture as a way of knowing. 


 “A Philosophy of Material Culture” by Beth Preston 


Preston’s work is an examination of the theory behind material culture studies, and goes into current debates and questions about how to do this kind of analysis. 


 “American Indian Material Culture by Pieter Hovens 


In the 1880s, the Dutch anthropologist Hermann ten Kate assembled a sizable collection of American Indian artifacts. They are the subject of this 2010 analysis by Pieter Hovens. It is a great example of material cultural analysis in action. 


 “An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States” by Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz 


This is the book to go to for a more broad overview of American Indian history, the massive cultural erasure done by European settler and the attempt to recover that history.  


 “The Dawn of Everything: A New History of Humanity“ by David Graeber and David Wengrow 


Graeber and Wengrow offer a new understanding of human history. In this book they challenge our most fundamental assumptions of social evolution––from the development of agriculture and cities to the origins of the state, democracy, and inequality. 


“Earthworks Rising, Mound Building in Native Literature and Arts” by Chad Allen 


Chad’s written a book about his research on the Octagon and other earthworks sites, specifically how people today interact with them and the importance of these sites to American Indians. 


Chris Hoff: Ways of Knowing is a production of The World According to Sound. This season is about the different interpretative and analytical methods in the humanities. It was made in collaboration with the University of Washington and its College of Arts & Sciences. All the interviews with UW faculty were conducted on campus in Seattle. Music provided by Ketsa, and our friends, Matmos. 


SH: The World According to Sound is made by Chris Hoff and Sam Harnett. 






Chadwick Allen, professor of English

Chadwick Allen, professor of English

Chadwick Allen is a professor of English and American Indian studies at the University of Washington, and he studies Native American earthworks and cultural erasure. The Octagon Earthworks, he explains, is actually a gigantic clock designed using substantial astronomical knowledge. In this episode, Allen traces the past, present and future of mound earthworks, which he describes as feats of astronomy, engineering and coordinated labor.

Octogon shaped earthworks with a full moon

Octogon shaped earthworksNewark Advocate

This is the seventh of eight episodes of “Ways of Knowing,” a podcast highlighting how studies of the humanities can reflect everyday life. Through a partnership between The World According to Sound and the University of Washington, each episode features a faculty member from the UW College of Arts & Sciences, the work that inspires them, and suggested resources for learning more about the topic.

Next | Episode 8: Translation