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Fort Ancient (Late 1500s to Early 1600s)

Extensive excavation done at Hardin in 1939
by WPA archaeologists under the direction of
Charles T.R. Bohannan. Photograph courtesy
of William S. Webb Museum of Antropology.


The Hardin site (15Gp22) is a Fort Ancient village  occupied from the late 1500s to mid-1600s. The site is located on the Ohio River floodplain in northeastern Greenup County and covers more than 10 acres. Excavation of this site by the University of Kentucky in 1939 under the direction of Charles T.R. Bohannan documented the remains of eight houses along with numerous storage pits, trash pits, and fire hearths. Storage pits and fire hearths were located within the houses, while trash pits were located outside the houses. Family and kin-related cemeteries were located near each house. Research at the Hardin site has contributed to our understanding of Fort Ancient participation in long distance exchange networks, village organization, house size, and mortuary practices.

Site map of Hardin. Note the numerous burials as indicated by the triangles.

Trade and Exchange

The recovery of objects manufactured from marine shell, brass, or copper, indicates that the residents of the Hardin site participated in exchange networks that reached from the middle Ohio Valley all the way to the Atlantic and Gulf Coastal areas and the Great Lakes. Both the shell and metal objects would have made their way to this village through down-the-line exchange networks, with several groups handling them before they made their way to Hardin. For example, it is likely the marine shell was initially collected by Native American groups living along the gulf coast, who traded them to their neighbors. Likewise many of the metal objects would have been brought to the Great Lakes by French traders, who used them to obtain hides from Native American tribes.  As a result of down-the-line exhange, it is quite likely that though the inhabitants of Hardin knew about the European presence in North America, few, if any, would have ever met a European.

Small marine shells were used to manufacture beads and pendants that were worn as necklaces and bracelets. Large marine shells were shaped into masks and gorgets. Some of the marine shell gorgets were engraved with symbols that archaeologists believe were important to Fort Ancient religious and ceremonial life. Some of these symbols have been documented at sites in other parts of eastern North American indicating that Fort Ancient groups through interaction with their neighbors came to share some religious beliefs.

Weeping Eye Motif engraved on marine shell.

Copper implements (beads on top and clasps on bottom) recovered from contemporary Petersburg site in Boone County (similar types of artifacts have been found at Hardin).

Most of the copper and brass objects found at Hardin Village were manufactured from European kettles. Many of the metal beads resemble bone beads in size and shape, and were often worn as necklaces. Metal tubes and clasps may have been sown into clothing. Other metal objects were fashioned into pendants, ear rings, and bracelets.

While archaeologists have identified some of the objects that Fort Ancient groups obtained from their neighbors, they have yet to identify what they had to offer other groups. Perhaps the large number of triangle endscrapers recovered from late Fort Ancient sites reflects an increase in the processing of animal skins, which led to a surplus that could be traded to acquire marine shell and brass objects. Endscapers would be used to remove sinew and fat to clean animal hides in preparation for trade or local use.

Triangular endscrapers, like these from the nearby Bentley site,
would have been used at Hardin to scrape hides and process plant remains.

Settlement Organization

Houses documented at Hardin were quite large ranging in size from 51 to 70 feet (15.5 m to 21.3 m) in length by 24 to 29 feet (7.3 m to 8.8 m) in width.  There is no evidence that the individually set posts used to construct the walls of each house were plastered with fired clay (daub), so it is likely that they were covered with bark or woven sticks.  Cane and textile mats may have lined the inner walls of these houses.  The size of the structures suggests that they housed two or more extended/related families. Centrally located fire hearths suggest that these families shared cooking and other domestic activities.

Map of a house at Hardin. The black circles are postholes
marking the outline of wooden poles that
would have formed the structure.

The residents of each structure buried their dead in nearby cemeteries. Hearths located in the vicinity of these cemeteries suggests that ritual feasts similar to that documented at other Kentucky Fort Ancient villages may have been a part of funerary ceremonies. Most people were laid on their back in an extended position.

Archaeologists think that most of the items placed with the dead were objects used in  everyday life. Objects commonly placed with men include triangular projectile points, drills, scrapers, and pipes. Those placed with women include complete ceramic pots with shell spoons inside them, and bone and shell bead necklaces.

Nonlocal marine shell beads, pendants and gorgets, and copper or brass beads, bracelets and tubes placed with the dead often reflected that individual's acheived status within the community.  Surprisingly, many of these rare nonlocal items, such as engraved marine shell masks, were often placed in the graves of children. If the objects interred with adults reflect their achieved status, what do the objects placed with children represent? Perhaps they reflect a parent’s grief, or sympathy shown by friends and relatives.

Health, Nutrition, and Disease

Vessels like this cordmarked jar would be used to cook a variety of foods such as corns, beans, and squash.

Analysis of the human remains recovered from Hardin has contributed to a greater understanding of the lives of those who lived at this large Fort Ancient village.   As in many pre-twentieth century agricultural societies, infant mortality at Hardin was high, with many children dying within two years of birth. If one lived past their second birthday, however, they had a good change of living into adulthood and contributing to domestic and ritual life within this village.  Chemical analyses of bone indicate that corn was an important part of the diet.  Corn and other crops grown in nearby gardens, such as beans and squash, would have provided the residents of Hardin with a dependable and storable food source.  A reliance on corn with its high sugar content, accounts for the high incidences of caries or cavities observed in the Hardin population. 



Related Content


For an overview of previous Fort Ancient research in Kentucky, check out Chapter 7 of The Archaeology of Kentucky: An Update.  

For more general info about Fort Ancient sites in Northeastern Kentucky click here.

Hanson, Lee H., Jr. (1966) The Hardin Village Site. Studies in Anthropology, no. 4. University of Kentucky Press, Lexington.


For a general overview of Fort Ancient in Kentucky, check out the Kentucky Archaeology

Prehistoric Farmers of Boone County and Kentuckians Before Boone KAS Education Booklet

For high school teachers wanting to apply biology to real-life archaeological populations, NOVA has developed an assignment for comparing skeletal remains from Indian Knoll and Hardin Village.


Last Updated 5/7/2013