Friday, June 3, 2016

Ancient Mounds

Shannon, Kentucky's Indian mound, just to the right of the church.
Long before Kentucky was settled, nomadic tribes of people wandered the forests and fields, hunting and gathering resources to survive.  We know that when the first white men entered Kentucky, bands of Shawnee, Iroquois and Wyandot natives, with smaller factions of Cherokee, were present within the region; but long before those people, another cultures existed and left lasting remnants with their artifacts and ceremonial sites we still find today.
Around 13,000 B.C., early humans began migrating into North America during the Pleistocene Era, probably with the glacier movements that linked Asia and the American Continent.  Some of the earliest ancestors of indigenous North Americans, called the Clovis People, arrived around this time and first settled in what is now New Mexico.  The Clovis People began migrating to other parts of North And South America; archaeological sites attributed to this early culture are found from Oregon to Pennsylvania and as far south as South Carolina.  Other sites are found as far away as Brazil and Chile.   A time at the end of the last great Ice Age called the Paleoindian Era, circa 9,900 B.C., descendants of the Clovis People had begun to appear in Kentucky, but the only evidence so far are a very few arrow and spear tips that have been found.  Mastodon and other large mammals roamed Kentucky and gathered at the rich mineral springs and salt deposits.  The early inhabitants hunted these giant beasts for food, clothing and shelter; in fact, remains of a mastodon were recovered in Sharpsburg, at a place called Fleming's Pond near the Sharpsburg Cemetery.  In the nearby cemetery, there is a conspicuous earthen mound that greets visitors as they enter.  This mound is indeed man-made, but not due to digging graves and discarding the unused soil. 
Earthen mounds are found dotting the landscape through Ohio and parts of Kentucky, made by the Adena People from around 1000 to 200 B.C.  These mounds range from just a few feet high and in diameter like the one in Sharpsburg Cemetery, while others are much larger.  The name Adena is derived not through historical accounts passed down from the original people, but from the large mound found on the estate of Thomas Worthington called Adena in Chillicothe, Ohio.  These mounds are burial sites used multiple times, usually filled with human remains and artifacts, such as arrow points, spears, pottery and other items.  In early settler times, and even up until the early modern age,  the mounds were often leveled by farmers as they plowed fields, not knowing the significance these earthworks held.  One large mound that suffered a similar fate was located off Ramey Road in Sharpsburg.  From an aerial map, one can still make out the trace of the mound's large base diameter.  There were two more smaller mounds that flanked the larger one, but they are completely gone now.   The mounds in the region are believed to be from the Middle Woodland Era of the prehistoric timeline, a time that is not well understood as far as their social habits; however their culture was obviously well structured. 
Some of the best preserved mounds still existing in the Bluegrass Region are in Sharpsburg, Mount Sterling, Mays Lick and Shannon.   The Gaitskill Mound in Mount Sterling stands about twenty feet high and his largely untouched.  A larger mound, which gave Mount Sterling its name, was located at South Queen Street and East Locust near the Keas Church and described as being a large diameter earthwork with a large elm tree growing at the top.  Unfortunately, during Mount Sterling's early settlement, the mound was cut down and leveled to accommodate dwellings.  Many artifacts were recovered from the mound, giving a glimpse into the skill and artisan work the Adena People had in the production of tools and weapons.
Mt. Sterling's Gaitskill Mound
The Gaitskill Tablet

The Gaitskill Mound stands just off Kentucky 686 adjacent to the Gateway Plaza Shopping Center.  Only slight archaeological excavations have been conducted yielding one curious object; a tablet made of baked clay that appears to be a spider with a human face on it.  The purpose of this tablet is still a mystery.

A small Adena mound in Sharpsburg, Kentucky
Shannon Cemetery mound
The Sharpsburg Cemetery mound is largely intact, and no in depth excavations have been conducted there.  More mounds were located between Sharpsburg and Bethel, toward Upper Blue Licks and along Flat Creek, but have all mainly been leveled off by farmers.  More mounds in Montgomery County are still slightly visible near Camargo on private land.  At a small country settlement known as Shannon, about twenty minutes west of Maysville, there is a mound in a cemetery.  Atop the mound are graves of early residents who were buried there before anyone realized the historical value the mound held.  No excavations can be performed there due to the burials, so it will always remain safe and unharmed.  Another mound is visible along Route 11 near Maysville almost to the intersection of the Double A Highway, in a field next to an large, white house.  In Mayslick, a large village site was discovered on what's called the Fox Farm Site and dates to the Fort Ancient People during the First Century A.D.  Burial mounds are present on the site, which is on private land, but listed on the Historic Registry. On Prickly Ash Creek just outside Owingsville, many artifacts have turned up in a field, but it's not known if the site once had a mound or if it was a hunting settlement.  The best known mound site in Kentucky is the Wickliffe Mounds in Ballard County.  At this location, a village of the Mississippian People thrived between 1100 and 1350 A.D.  Two large mounds and several smaller ones dot the grounds around the site, including an excavated mass burial grave site.  Wickliffe Mounds is a Kentucky State Historical Site and has a living history event to show visitors how the later era people lived from day to day.

Today, known and documented mound sites are protected by Federal Laws to preserve cultural and early American heritage.  While we may never know the true customs of the earliest people to inhabit Kentucky, we can piece together their ceremonial practices through these sites.  There are probably many more sites yet to be discovered, or realized, hidden along the ways or maybe even in plain sight.  Arrowheads, spears and other early native artifacts are highly sought after by collectors, but are the physical remnants of the first people to arrive in North America, and should be treated as precious relics.  The mounds were considered a sacred place for those early people, and should still be considered just as hallowed as they were thousands of years ago.

For information about the protection of Native American sites and artifacts, go to

For more information about Kentucky's Historic State Parks, go to


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  2. Hey Rob - great blog and excellent post! Would love to chat more about the prehistoric cultures of eastern Kentucky. Im an archaeologist specializing in the Late Prehistoric farm towns ("Fort Ancient" people) of the region. Their ancestors built the mounds you discuss here. You can reach me at mjdavidson at uky dot edu or

    Cya! Matt