NEWTOWN, Ohio — The tall white brick building that was constructed in 1841 as a Baptist church and later became Newtown's firehouse deserves its historic status.
But what's beneath this building is even more historic.
It sits on an American Indian mound dating to about the year 700. The builders of that Baptist church discovered skeletons of prehistoric Indians as well as artifacts when they dug a hole for the basement. The only indication today of a mound is a slight rise in the ground around the building.
Visible signs of the prehistoric Indian societies that flourished in Newtown and its surrounding area for thousands of years exist beneath many of the village's buildings and streets and above ground in fields, woods, parks and cemeteries.
"Just about anywhere you dig in Newtown, you're going to come upon a prehistoric Indian archaeological site," said Ken Tankersley, an assistant professor of anthropology at the University of Cincinnati. "The entire town is basically one very large cluster of archaeological sites that span 13,000 years of pre-history."
The old firehouse, which has been vacant since firefighters moved to a new Little Miami Joint Fire and Rescue District facility in December, soon will showcase the rich prehistoric past of this village of 2,672 residents. With a $300,000 state grant, the village plans to convert part of the old firehouse into a museum devoted to the display of prehistoric Indian artifacts found in Newtown and the surrounding area.
It will be the first exclusively American Indian museum in Greater Cincinnati. The closest museum to Cincinnati displaying American Indian artifacts exclusively is the one at the Fort Ancient State Memorial in Warren County's Oregonia. Part of the Cincinnati Museum Center features an American Indian artifact collection.
"We have a rich Indian heritage in Newtown," Mayor Curt Cosby said. "We just think it's appropriate that we have something to recognize that."
Newtown officials expect the American Indian museum to open in a year to 18 months. The village is consulting with architects on a preliminary design for the museum. A design must be approved by the Ohio Facilities Cultural Commission.
Once the firehouse is renovated, the village will move its administrative offices into part of the building and set up the museum in another section. The police department, which now occupies part of Village Hall, will spread out to fill that building.
Village Hall is across the street from the old firehouse. Built in 1878, it's also on top of an Indian mound that, like the one under the old firehouse, is discernible only to anthropology and archaeology experts with knowledge of Newtown's prehistory.
The $300,000 state grant Newtown received four years ago for the Indian museum will cover all renovation costs. For the administrative offices, the village will use money it has been saving for the project. Cosby said no cost has been estimated yet for the relocation.
Newtown plans to augment its own Indian artifact collection with donated or loaned artifacts from local residents and possibly from the Cincinnati Museum Center and Harvard University's Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology. The Peabody Museum has a large number of artifacts that were excavated from this area in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
In many undeveloped parts of Newtown and bordering areas of Anderson Township, pieces of Indian pottery, arrowheads and other prehistoric artifacts are just lying on the ground. Some residents have found them in their back yards.
"There are a lot of people in and around the Newtown area who have artifacts," Cosby said. "We're hoping that, once we open the museum, people will come forward with artifacts and either lend them to us or donate them."
Phillip Turpin, an early settler of Anderson Township, discovered what a rich archaeological site it was when he started building his house around 1800 on what is now Batavia Pike (state Route 32). He uncovered 50 Indian skeletons while digging the basement.
In the 1880s, Dr. Charles L. Metz, a Madisonville physician, embarked on the first archaeological excavation of the Newtown area. Harvard University archaeology experts soon joined him.
Indians lived in the Newtown area from 13,000 B.C. into the 18th century. They lived in other parts of the Little Miami River valley, too — especially in what is now Mariemont.
What made Newtown such an attractive place to prehistoric peoples was its location on high ground at the confluence of the east and west forks of the Little Miami River. "Water was vital to their life," Tankersley said.
The changes in the course of the Little Miami over thousands of years caused the Indians to move to different parts of the Newtown area, he said.
When the Little Miami ran south of its current course, Indians lived near Batavia Pike, first in an area where the Turner homestead was later built and then farther east on what are now soccer fields in Clear Creek Park. When the river took its present course, the Indians lived in areas around Broadwell, Round Bottom and Mount Carmel roads.
At one point, dozens of Indian mounds and earthworks existed in what is now Newtown, and many more stood just outside its borders. These mounds were considered sacred places where a tribe's important elders were buried with their artifacts.
In the 1830s, residents removed a burial mound that stood at Main and Church streets in Newtown so they wouldn't have to go around it.
Willis F. Walker owned farm land that included a 45-foot-high burial mound at state Route 32 and Little Dry Run Road. Wanting to find and preserve any artifacts in the mound, he dug a tunnel through it in 1927 and uncovered skeletons and artifacts.
He fortified the walls inside the tunnel, installed electric lights and operated it as a museum, charging an entry fee. Vandals looted it, though, and it closed after a few months. The mound no longer exists.
Three documented Indian mounds survive today in Newtown. The most visible is in Flagg Spring Cemetery on Round Bottom Road. There's a smaller one in the cemetery close to the road. The third is in Moundview Park; it's a big grassy hill with many trees growing on it.
"Newtown is lucky to have them," said Tankersley, who has studied the archaeology sites in the Newtown area for years. "These things are disappearing quickly."
Sand and gravel operations in the area have destroyed a lot of Indian earthworks over the years. Some have been destroyed by looters.
Technological advancements in archaeological exploration now permit experts to find out what's in mounds or other Indian earthworks without full-scale excavation. Using ground-penetrating radar, remote sensors, and other high-tech tools, Tankersley said, would reveal the contents of the earthworks and discover new archaeology sites.
A museum like Newtown is planning will help educate people about prehistoric life and help save remnants of those civilizations still around, he said.
"This is part of our country's heritage," Tankersley said, "and it's worthy of our protection."
Information from: The Cincinnati Enquirer, http://www.enquirer.com