The earth under Kentucky is rich in archaeological finds—potential for new discoveries is huge
A popular myth claims that before the first settlers arrived, the Bluegrass State was merely a hunting ground, used by native peoples who were just passing through the area.
University of Kentucky assistant professor Dr. George Crothers is eager to dispel that myth. “We have a long chain of 10,000 years of evidence of the daily life of people living here,” Crothers says, “hunting and fishing, yes, but also creating mounds, building structures and villages, gathering and growing foods, burying their dead. Kentucky’s archaeological record is full of evidence of all aspects of the daily activities of the various peoples who’ve made this area their home.”
More than 22,000 archaeological sites have already been recorded within the state, ranging from small backyard finds to larger accumulations that attract university researchers. Crothers believes that number may represent only about 20 percent of the actual sites, so the potential for new discoveries is huge.
Finding artifacts and trying to understand the lives and cultures of these early peoples continues to fascinate both professional and amateur archaeologists. Work involving this rich heritage proceeds at several different levels.
An active role for amateurs
The Falls of the Ohio Archaeological Society is a good example of this interconnection. Members include working and retired archaeologists, some teachers, and lots of folks from assorted other occupations who share one interest—they enjoy learning about the past and getting involved in dig-in-the-dirt field work. Meeting in the Louisville area, the group’s circle of involvement extends 100 miles from the Ohio River in both Kentucky and southern Indiana.
President Anne Bader, an active professional archaeologist for more than 30 years, says, “Our mission involves three key elements. We serve as a support group to professional archaeologists who, due to funding concerns, may need unpaid volunteer help at a site. We also strive to educate the public about archaeology through outreach programs that include speakers, demonstrations, a journal, and our newsletter. And we are an added voice on behalf of preserving our rich archaeological heritage.”
The Falls of the Ohio group recently assisted an Eagle Scout candidate prepare an artifact display spanning all eras of Kentucky’s prehistory for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Visitors Center at Taylorsville Lake in Spencer County.
Near Leitchfield, Falls of the Ohio Archaeological Society members have been visiting landowners throughout Grayson County to help them photograph and document their artifact collections, compiling and recording a list of the sites where these prehistoric objects have been found. This information will eventually be made public in a special edition of the group’s journal.
Staying on the right side of the law
Some of the most highly publicized archaeological work that goes on in Kentucky involves discoveries made during modern construction projects, with newspaper and TV reporters rushing to the scene to showcase the finds. Crothers explains, “Some of this archaeology work is mandated by different local, state, and federal environmental and preservation laws.
When artifacts are discovered on federal or state lands, or on the sites of highway projects or Corps of Engineers projects, there are laws stating that they must be investigated. If they are determined to be significant to our cultural heritage, they must be preserved or excavation undertaken to preserve the information that they contain.” Laws also prohibit disturbing archaeological finds in caves; other laws make it a felony to knowingly disturb human remains.
A privately owned Lexington company, Cultural Resource Analysts Inc., specializes in coping with all these rules. President and CEO Chuck Niquette says, “The key to avoiding problems is to get involved early. When a contractor or developer hires us, we do three things. First, we look at a project area to see if there’s any archaeology there. If we do find some evidence, we move to the second stage that is an evaluation of the material. If we find artifacts on an eroded hilltop that’s been farmed for 200 years, they may be in such a jumble the site really isn’t significant and doesn’t need further work.
“However,” Niquette continues, “in another case we might find a floodplain with artifacts from repeated occupations interspersed with layers of river sediment. If we have a layer-cake effect of sealed deposits where the integrity of each layer is preserved, that kind of archaeological find is significant. That’s when we go to the third step, which could be either an excavation or just the preservation of the site by project re-design and avoidance.”
In addition to their full-time staff of 75, Niquette also hires 35 to 45 temporary employees each year to work on excavations throughout the southeastern United States.
When the Huntington District U.S. Army Corps of Engineers planned to build the Yatesville Reservoir in Lawrence County, Niquette’s company did a complete inventory of archaeological sites within the area that would be submerged under the water, as well as along the buffer zone. Three sites, containing primarily Archaic and Woodland period artifacts, were eventually excavated. All material recovered, as well as the field notes, photographs, maps, and other paper records, were turned over to the William S. Webb Museum of Archaeology at UK, thus preserving important information for the public and scholars.
Digging for understanding
Niquette says, “My fascination with the past and with archaeology is not about a single artifact, but with what I can learn from many artifacts and the relationship among them. I want to know what they tell me about the people—when they occupied the site, the time of year they were there, the way they made a living, anything about the behavior of the prehistoric people represented by these artifacts.”
Understanding the daily lives and patterns of occupation of Kentucky’s prehistoric peoples brings scholars from within Kentucky and around the world to digs and museum collections in the Bluegrass State every field season. Western Kentucky University professor Dr. Darlene Applegate works at various sites in the Bowling Green area. Dr. Crothers often works in Ohio and Butler counties, while his UK colleague Dr. Richard Jefferies investigates sites in McLean County. Dr. Patty Jo Watson, of Washington University in St. Louis, has spent decades exploring many archaeological sites in the Green River area.
Just this past summer, Dr. George Milner of Penn State University conducted a field school for college-level archaeology students at a privately owned, well-preserved mound site in rural Butler County, also along the Green River. Known in scholarly literature as the Annis Village site, it was first excavated in 1939-40 as part of a statewide WPA project coordinated by William S. Webb, with local supervision by another well-known early Kentucky archaeologist, Ralph Brown.
Milner and his graduate students Thomas Nielsen and Scott Hammerstedt supervised undergraduate students as they learned how to map, dig, preserve features, and excavate individual artifacts and other evidence (some as tiny as grains of pollen) at this Mississippian-culture site.
“We excavate artifacts and animal bones, carbonized plants, and remnants of houses,” Milner says, “but we’re not really interested in those things simply as objects. What we’re really interested in today is what those things can tell us about how humans actually lived in the past. Taking the next step, we’re asking the question ‘How did their societies change over time?’”
Answering that question and continuing to locate, preserve, and document the evidence of Kentucky’s prehistoric peoples will keep amateur and professional archaeologists busy for many seasons to come.
WICKLIFFE'S MOUND BUILDERS
by George Tipton Wilson
On a bluff overlooking the mingling of the Ohio and Mississippi rivers, outside today’s Wickliffe, an Indian tribe known as the Mississippians perfected farming methods alongside the fertile river bottoms below. Because of their penchant for building earthen mounds to mark special sites in the village, they became known as Mound Builders.
Researchers at Murray State University, led by Dr. Kit W. Wesler, have an acute interest in how these early Americans lived. They have determined that they lived here for 250 years, from AD 1100-1350. By A.D. 1500 the great mound centers of the Central Mississippi Valley were deserted, a mystery that haunts dedicated archaeologists.
This site, with an overlook into Illinois, first came to public attention through the promotional genius of Colonel Fain King. King bought the site in the early 1930s. He and his wife, Blanche, continued their exploration of the grounds until 1945, unearthing hundreds of well-preserved artifacts, skeletons, and other evidence of Indian life, which some trace to the more modern Choctaw, Chickasaw, and Tunica.
Visitors to rural western Kentucky back in those days could hardly miss what the Kings called Ancient Buried City. During its 50-year reign, it became a tradition for parents, with kids in tow, to view the skeletons and “Indian rocks,” and listen to tour guides tell tales about these mysterious people.
By 1946 King apparently became bored with the “museum” business (which attracted hundreds of visitors at 25 cents each). He turned it over to Baptist Hospital in Paducah, which was interested in the income it generated. When the tourist trade slacked off by 1982, the hospital attempted to sell Ancient Buried City to Murray State. When the university showed little eagerness to perpetuate a tourist attraction, one tarnished to some degree by inaccurate stories (a visiting archaeologist was offered a purported Mississippian bowl that turned out to be made of concrete), the hospital elected to give them the museum.
When Murray State gained control over the Mound Builders village, the administrators moved at warp speed to overcome any carnival elements of its past (a 12-foot lighted cross once marked the hilltop). Ancient Buried City became anathema. The new name: Wickliffe Mounds Research Center.
The museum, with no real skeletons on view, remains an important facet of the Mounds. “Our greatest achievement,” Wickliffe’s Director Dr. Wesler states, “is that we have taught more than 150,000 visitors a little more about Mississippian archaeology, including 20,000 regional school children.” Assistant Director Carla Hildebrand points out that “everything from Kids Archaeology Day camp to flint-knapping demonstrations and pine-needle basketry workshops have drawn both children and adults to the Mounds.”
“We are conducting research on the Mississippian culture in western Kentucky,” Dr. Wesler, also professor of anthropology at Murray State University, says. “For three years we have excavated in a Mississippian mound near Paducah, and this summer we will move to yet another site in the region.”
The goal of the research is to unlock the mystery of whether Mississippian mounds in the area were founded and abandoned at the same times or whether villagers of each settlement began and completed their mounds on their own timetables. “If the first case is true,” Dr. Wesler opines, “it is possible that all the towns were involved in a common political system.”
Another key question Dr. Wesler would like to answer concerns the tribal leadership. “We believe there was a chief in residence during the middle period of the village, but not during the beginning or the end. What does this mean about how Mississippian societies were organized socially and politically?”
Hildebrand relates that organic lab analyses give researchers a better understanding of the village, as it existed hundreds of years ago. “The excavated animal bones and stone tools are artifacts that help us better understand the life of these people.”
Murray State is the only Kentucky educational institution with an archaeological site open to the public and serving as a research-training center in archaeology. It has been named a Kentucky Archaeological Landmark and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
Students are involved at Wickliffe Mounds as excavators under Wesler’s direction each summer. They help wash, catalog, and analyze during the fall and spring semesters. No excavation is being conducted at Wickliffe. “To continue exploration there now,” Wesler explains, “would only damage parts of the site for redundant information.”
Wesler has taken several students to a project in Jamaica, one designed to “consider the same problems as a comparison to the west Kentucky research. We have also excavated in eight historic sites in western Kentucky and southeast Missouri. We have also hosted students here from numerous other universities.”
The Murray State program has trained some 200 students and volunteers in archaeological and museum methods. “Four master’s theses and a Ph.D. dissertation have resulted from our research,” Wesler states. “We have published a book, Excavations at Wickliffe Mounds, University of Alabama Press, and have published and presented numerous papers on the site. We have been very much a part of the educational and public service mission here at the university.”
Wickliffe Funding Cut
Due to budget cuts at Murray State University, Wickliffe Mounds had been set to close at the end of June. However, under a plan that was heading for approval in the closing days of the legislature, Kentucky State Parks would take over funding while Murray State continued technical operation of the site. Details will be known when the budget is finalized.
POSTCARD FROM A DIG
by Nancy S. Grant
Dappled shade beneath tall trees, a yellow-billed cuckoo yelping overhead, a path bordered with tangled poison ivy vines—dodging biting insects, I arrive at the dig. In a freshly cleared area the size of a suburban back yard, taut strings stretch between pegs along the upper edges of the various rectangular pits dug into the rich brown soil; shorter lengths of twine, small numbered flags, tape measures, and stakes occupy the space below ground level at the next section of the subsoil, along with buckets of dirt—I have to be so careful where I put my feet!
Sturdy work boots, jeans, T-shirts, ball caps—Penn State professor Dr. Milner and the students working at this Mississippian culture site called Annis Village dress casually, but their work on the excavation itself is a perfect example of careful attention to detail. Dr. Milner’s college-level archaeology students have come to rural Butler County to hone their archaeology skills and learn more about this well-preserved mound site.
One student compares a small trowelful of dirt to a Munsell soil chart (subtle color variations may indicate the remains of an old palisade), another plots the current line of digging on a grid map, while yet another student carefully sifts a bucketful of dirt through a mesh screen, searching for plant seeds or corn cobs or anything else that could reveal details of the daily lives of the people who once called this area home.
Our brief conversation about distinguishing between the stains left by a tree root and the very different texture and color of the remains of an ancient campfire (a practiced eye is needed here) is interrupted by a clap of thunder. Suddenly everyone begins shaking out blue plastic tarps to cover the dig for the day.
As raindrops splat down, we trudge out toward the modern farm buildings hundreds of yards away, carrying today’s finds in numbered paper bags. Rain may stop one part of the work, but there’s still plenty to do here in a tin-roofed shed, sorting and washing artifacts, labeling things to be sent to labs for carbon dating later, transferring sketches of the remains of structures discovered this year to earlier maps.
As I leave, I wonder how the ancient people spent such rainy summer afternoons: Did they sit in their shelters mending clothes, repairing bows and arrows, perhaps telling each other stories about the birds and other creatures of the woodlands? Did they get an early start on preparing the evening meal, then pause to sing to their children?
TIMELINE OF KENTUCKY'S PREHISTORIC CULTURES
1,000 AD to 1750 AD
True agriculturalists farming corn, beans, squash; two distinct cultures, the Fort Ancient and Mississippian, contemporary in time; archaeologists don’t yet know if they had contact with each other.
1,000 BC to 1,000 AD
Constructed mounds; in Kentucky the Adena culture is similar to the Hopewell culture found north of the Ohio River; cultivated native plants, well before the domestication of corn and beans in Mexico and South America; used bows and arrows; crafted pottery.
8,000 BC to 1,000 BC
Still primarily hunters and gatherers, with some longer-term settlements, like camps; “bannerstone” spearpoints and dart points shaped by grinding; used atlatls (spearthrowers).
from about 12,000 BC to 8,000 BC
Earliest and smallest population group; mostly hunters and gatherers who moved around frequently; distinctive stone tools shaped by chipping; spearpoints often known as Clovis style.
Source: Dr. George Crothers, University of Kentucky
MORE ARCHAEOLOGY INFO
For a list of museum exhibits, books, and Web sites on archaeology in Kentucky, click here: archaeology