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Indian Knoll

Site No.: 15Oh2
County: Ohio
Research focus: Late Archaic (3000-1000 B.C.)

 
An Good Example of a Shell Midden. Photograph courtesy
of the William S. Webb Museum of Anthropology, University of Kentucky.

Summary

The Indian Knoll site (15Oh2) is located along the Green River in Ohio County, Kentucky. During the late 1930s, the University of Kentucky excavated much of Indian Knoll. As part of the Works Progress Administration (WPA) economic recovery efforts, hundreds of local men were hired to assist the archaeologists working at Indian Knoll. This work resulted in the excavation of over 65,000 square feet (1.5 acres; 60 percent of the site) and the recovery of more than 50,000 artifacts (e.g., spear points, bone pins, marine shell beads, and bannerstones). They also excavated numerous hearths, roasting pits, burned clay floors, and human burials. Among the more interesting finds were 23 dog burials. William S. Webb of the University of Kentucky published the excavation results in 1941. Webb’s report inspired many Southeastern archaeologists to take notice of the fascinating finds at Indian Knoll and the site became integral to understanding Archaic life throughout all of Eastern North America. In the early 1990s, Indian Knoll and 19 other Green River shell middens became National Historic Landmarks.

Men working at Indian Knoll under the Works Progress Administration. Photograph courtesy of the William S. Webb Museum of Anthropology, University of Kentucky.  Photograph  courtesy of the William S. Webb Museum of Anthropology

The Site

The Indian Knoll site is shaped like an ellipse and stretches approximately 450 feet long and 220 feet wide (approximately 2.5 acres). Indian Knoll is classified by archaeologists as a shell midden, meaning that the site is full of shell refuse. This shell, which was collected from the Green River, was discarded by Late Archaic (3,000-1,000 B.C.) hunter-gatherers who repeatedly revisited the site. In some places, the shell deposits reach over eight feet (2.4 meters) in depth. There is no evidence to suggest that Late Archaic people moved large amounts of earth and shell to create the Indian Knoll midden. Rather it represents the repeated discarding of shell, animal bone, plant foods, wood, and artifacts.

Findings

Archaic Hunters and Gatherers

The Archaic families that lived at Indian Knoll hunted a variety of animals, including deer, gathered plants, such as hickory nuts, fished, and collected mussels. The people who periodically visited Indian Knoll were mobile hunters and gatherers, who did not live in a single spot all year but they moved with the seasons. Their life was not one of aimless wandering, though. Families planned their moves carefully. They drew on their deep knowledge of the life cycles of the local plants and animals, and on where they could find certain resources. The nearby mussel bed may have drawn Archaic groups to Indian Knoll. But other abundant food resources, such as turtles, deer, and nut bearing trees would have kept them at this locality for extended periods of time.

The burned clay floors, artifact caches, and numerous human and canine burials found at Indian Knoll tell archaeologists that the Archaic residents of Indian Knoll did more than just hunt, gather, and eat food. The burned clay floors indicate that families created solid surfaces to pitch camp, perhaps because they wished to frequently revisit the site or to stay in the area for a long stretch of time. While at the site, they would have exchanged information with other families, refurbished their tools, made clothing, held weddings, and conducted rituals important to their everyday life. They also buried their dead near where they lived.


Rattles Made from the
Carapace of Terrapin
(Webb 1946).

     


Cache of chipped stone knives from Indian Knoll. Photograph courtesty of William S. Webb Museum of Anthropology.

Archaeological analysis on the Indian Knoll skeletons indicate that, on the whole, the Archaic hunter-gatherers of the Green River Valley were relatively healthy.  Most adult teeth contained little or no enamel as a result of eating food that contains significant quantities of grit. This suggests that the residents of Indian Knoll ate plant remains, such as hickory nuts, that were processed using the many mortars and pestles found at the site. Use of these tools created substantial amounts of grit in the food they ate, which over many years led to the removal of the enamel.

Shellfishing

Mussels were an important part of the Late Archaic diet at Indian Knoll. Five thousand years ago, many different kinds of freshwater mussels lived in the shallow shoals and riffle areas of the Green River. Mussels were a good, predictable, protein-rich source of food. They were abundant, easily gathered, and simple to prepare. Unlike many other foods, they could have harvested mussels in any season. Mussels also were a storable and portable food, once separated from their shells, and then smoked or dried. Ethnographic studies of modern shellfishers in other areas of the world suggest that men, women, and children all participated in shellfishing activities. Women and children would collect the shellfish in shallow waters at the river’s edge, while men would often dive for shellfish in deeper waters. One piece of evidence about this gendered division of labor is found on the skeletons from Indian Knoll. Male skeletons frequently have a bony growth on their ear bones that only develops from repeated exposure to cold water, suggesting that the men dove into deep areas to retrieve shellfish at the bottom of the river. The gathered shellfish were prepared in several different ways including steaming, roasting, and smoking to preserve the mussels for eating at a later time. Shellfish were probably also eaten raw right after collection. The leftover shells were sometimes used for creating pendants, cups, and beads, but more often the shells were piled into large trash piles (middens) that later became important archaeological sites, such as Indian Knoll.


Artist Reconstruction of Archaic women and
their children collect freshwater mussels
in one of the river's many shoals.

Stone Tools

Stone tools were the most common artifacts recovered from Indian Knoll. Nearly 4,000 spear points or knives (also known as projectile points to archaeologists) were recovered from the site. Other chipped stone tools found at the site include drills, scrapers, abraders, and choppers. The spear points at Indian Knoll are found in many different varieties including stemmed, short stemmed, corner notched, and side notched. Thousands of ground stone tools were also recovered from the site, usually as axes, pestles, hammerstones, and bannerstones (see more about bannerstones below).


Chipped stone Archaic spear points from the Green River Valley area. Both side notched and stemmed varieties are shown here.

Bannerstones

Bannerstones were made of either stone or shell and were an important component of the atlatl (a spear thrower). The atlatl was the Archaic hunter’s weapon of choice. It required skill to make and to use. A two-part tool, it consisted of a wooden spear fitted with a chipped stone spearpoint and the atlatl itself: a handle and hook made of wood, bone, or antler, and often a drilled counterweight or bannerstone. Atlatls extend the range and accuracy of the human arm, which made the weapon more powerful than a spear by itself. Indian Knoll was a very important site for an archaeological understanding of atlatl technology. Many of the bannerstones at Indian Knoll were found lying across the skeletons and in line with projectile points within the grave. This allowed archaeologists to determine that bannerstones were an important part of spear weaponry. The bannerstones at Indian Knoll were made into various shapes using different raw materials, such as shell and colorful local and nonlocal cherts.  Although a simple rock will work to balance the atlatl, Archaic people often spent a great deal of time and effort making some very decorative bannerstones. These bannerstones would have worked just as well as the simpler ones, but they may have held some symbolic meaning (or were an indication of one's prestige?). Perhaps having a decorative bannerstone recognized a hunter’s skills or his leadership within his kin group.


The atlatl extended the range and accuracy of the human arm.


Chert (top and right) and shell (left) bannerstones which were used as atlatl weights.

Shell Beads

A large number of shell beads were recovered from Indian Knoll. Most are disc-shaped, but some are tubular or barrel shaped. Most beads were made from mussel shells collected from the Green River, but some were made from marine shells. The recovery of marginella shell beads, barrel shaped marine shell beads, and conch shell pendants, reflects interaction with groups to the south. These groups would have collected them from the Gulf of Mexico or the southern Atlantic Coast.

Bone Pins

The people at Indian Knoll made bone pins from the long bones of white-tailed deer. They split the bone lengthwise into thin pieces and ground down each one until it was smooth. Bone pins may have held a person’s hair in place. Pins with drilled holes may have been strung on a cord and worn as pendants around the neck. They also could have used these pins to fasten clothing together, like a button or safety pin. Some bone pins were engraved with geometric designs and sometimes pieces of shell were attached to the top of the pin with asphaltum, a natural, asphalt-like substance found at oil seeps. A bone pin’s shape, style, and decoration may have been linked to family membership or ancestry. Bone pins may have had important symbolic or ritual meaning. Since not everyone was buried with a decorated bone pin, perhaps only the most important people in their society could own them.


Shell bead necklace from the Green River Valley.


Archaic bone pins from the Green River Valley.

What's Cool?

One of the most interesting archaeological finds at Indian Knoll was 23 dog burials. Archaic dogs were medium-sized and stood about 14-18 inches tall at the shoulder. Archeologists think they may have been long-haired and may have looked a little like their cousin, the wolf. Some of the dogs were buried in their own isolated graves, while other dogs were buried in graves with humans. Some dogs were buried with adults, while others were buried with children. Analysis on the dog bones indicates that the dogs ate a similar diet to humans, but we do not know if the humans fed the dogs or if the dogs scavenged scraps. We will probably never know everything about this prehistoric relationship between humans and dogs, but the archaeological evidence shows that dogs had a special place in the lives of Archaic people. They did not treat any other animal the way they treated dogs. They may have thought of dogs as just trainable beasts of burden that made hunting and movement from camp to camp easier. Or, they could have been pets, companions, and protectors. Apparently, even 5,000 years ago, dogs were “a man’s best friend


Canine Burial at Indian Knoll. Photograph courtesy of the
William S. Webb Museum of Anthropology,
University of Kentucky.

 

 

Related Content
 

Educational

For more information check out Hunters and Gathers of the Green River Valley, a booklet available through the Kentucky Archaeology Survey.

Additional information about the Archaic period can be found in R. Barry Lewis's Kentucky Archaeology.

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.

Atlatl Artifacts at Indian Knoll By John C. Whittaker.  The Newsletter of the World Atlatl Association


National Historic Landmark

 

Professional Publications
 

For An Overview of previous Archaic Period research in Kentucky, check out Chapter 4 of The Archaeology of Kentucky: An Updated.

Indian Knoll, Site Oh 2, Ohio County, Kentucky By William S. Webb.

The Fluvial and Geomorphic Context of Indian Knoll, an Archaic Shell Midden in West-Central Kentucky by Darcy F. Morey, George M. Crothers, Julie K. Stein, James P. Fenton, and Nicholas P. Herrmann.

 

Last Updated 2/17/2013