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Historians Scramble To Save Butler County Earthwork

Ann Thompson
The rare earthwork, known as "Fortified Hill," is one of four such hilltop enclosures in Southwest Ohio. The other three are in parks, including Ft. Ancient.

An effort is underway to save an endangered earthwork in Butler County before it's potentially sold to developers Sept. 28.

The Ross Township property, 213 acres in all, is up for auction because the former owner didn't will it to anyone. Dr. Lou Barich, who died earlier this year, talked about how special the Hopewell culture hilltop enclosure was to his friend Dr. Jeff Leipzig. Now Leipzig and others are tasked with raising enough money to buy it.

Even though the auction is less than two weeks away, Leipzig is hopeful. "I don't think it's too late. I think we can save this."

He's in touch with two conservancies who acquire historical properties and preserve them: The Archeological Conservancy and Heartland Earthworks Conservancy.

Credit Heartland Earthworks Conservancy
Former Hamilton Mayor James McBride created and published this map in 1848 of Fortified Hill. It shows the labyrinth-like entrance.

Bob Genheimer, the George Rieveschl Curator of Archaeology at the Cincinnati Museum Center, is also trying to save Fortified Hill.

He says it's one of four hilltop enclosures in Southwest Ohio, and the only one not in a park. The others are Ft. Ancient, Miami Fort and Ft. Hill.

When it comes to Fortified Hill in Ross Township, "We don't know what sort of rituals they did in here, but when you come down here you will see there are actually baffled entrances. You can't just walk in. You have to go around other earthen walls. And they controlled for water. There is water inside of this that they created," says Genheimer.

He estimates the Hopewell culture built Fortified Hill nearly 2,000 years ago.

All the gateways are intact. "That's the important part. It's like doors to a church. If all the walls are gone but the doors are there and the alter's there, that's all you need," he says.

Credit Ann Thompson / WVXU
Cincinnati Museum Center's Bob Genheimer holds a map to show just exactly where we are standing.

The topography is different now than it was when Native Americans built Fortified Hill. The forest has encroached onto the earthwork.

"You just have to close your eyes and imagine it," Leipzig says. 'These were incredible places for these people."

The bank has appraised the farm at $1.8 million. If the conservancy groups were to acquire part of the property, they would need $540,000 for a couple of parcels containing the earthwork.

You can find more information here.

Credit Ann Thompson / WVXU
From left: Bob Genheimer, Dr. Jeff Leipzig and Terrance Huff, a documentary filmmaker, stand on perhaps the most sacred site at Fortified Hill.

Ann Thompson has decades of journalism experience in the Greater Cincinnati market and brings a wealth of knowledge and expertise to her reporting.