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Robbins Mound Complex

Site No.:

Research focus:

15Be3 and 15Be14

Late Early to early Middle Woodland/
Adena (400 B.C. – A.D. 200)

WPA Archaeologists working at Robbins Mound Complex. 

The Robbins Mound Complex is located in Boone County about two miles northwest of Big Bone Lick State Park. The site consists of two mounds perched on a ridge crest near several natural springs. Excavation of the two mounds in 1939 provided detailed data on Adena mortuary and ritual practices . The larger of the two mounds (15Be3) provided evidence of an elaborate sequence of mortuary events that took place over several decades. The smaller mound appears to have been used much less intensively. The presence of two mounds at the Robbins locality indicates that it was revisited for many decades by Adena people and was an important place on their ritual landscape. 

Research Focus

Mound 15Be3 still covered with trees.

Mound 15Be3 prepared for excavation.

The Robbins Mound was excavated by William S. Webb in 1939. This fieldwork was part of a state-wide archaeological project jointly administered by the University of Kentucky and the Works Projects Administration (WPA). When Mound 15Be3 was first documented by archaeologists, it was covered with large trees. Webb noted that a great effort was required to clear the mound of “a considerable growth of hickory, wild cherry, ash, locust, and walnut trees…some of which were as large as three feet in diameter”. Though archaeologists rarely excavate mounds today, natural obstacles such as these are a common challenge in archaeological fieldwork. After the trees were cleared, a grid of 5 foot by 5 foot squares (1.54 meters x 1.54 meters) was placed on Mound 15Be3. Archaeologists proceeded to excavate the mound one square at a time. By working in this systematic manner, archaeologists are able to document the precise location of important artifacts and features. After excavation began on Mound 15Be3, the field team realized that it was so tall that it had to be excavated in sections that resulted in a terraced appearance. This was a typical method for WPA excavators at large mound sites.


Terraces on Mound 15Be3 during excavation.

Findings & conclusions
Measuring about 131.2 feet (40 meters) across and 19.7 feet (6 meters) high, 15Be3 was the larger of the two mounds of the Robbins Complex.  In fact, this mound is the largest Adena mound in all of the northern Bluegrass region.  Complete excavation indicated a series of at least three distinct periods of mound construction. Additionally, several structures were identified below the mound.  The structures below the mound indicate that this location was used for many generations before the mound was constructed. 

Stage I
Before the mound was built, a large circular structure was in use at this locality.  Complete exposure indicated that it was just under 30 feet (9 meters) in diameter.  The walls of the structure were slightly out-slanting, suggesting it functioned as some sort of screen that separated the ritual activities inside from general viewing.  This appears also to have been the case at a number of contemporaneous sites (for example, see Mt Horeb profile).  Inside the structure archaeologists found evidence of a living surface and a large area of burned soil, probably from some kind of hearth or fire involved in ritual activities.

WPA archaeologist measuring the angle of wall posts
associated with one of the structures below Mound 15Be3.

Stage II
While the structure from Stage I was still in use, a small burial mound was constructed within its walls.  It appears that refuse associated with the use of the structure was used as fill to create this initial mound.  The remains of several cremated individuals were deposited on the earliest mound.  The structure apparently continued to protect the ritual activities from general viewing.

Stage III
The structure from Stage I was burned and a second layer was added to the original mound, covering the area once occupied by the structure. Fifty two log and bark-lined burial tombs were associated with this layer. That some contained the remains of more than one individual suggests that they some were reused several times. At least 100 individuals were interred in the mound, 89 of which came from the log and bark lined tombs. Both old and young adults, and males and females were represented in roughly equal numbers.

Stage IV
During its final period of use, additional interments were placed in earthen rings around the mound.  Finally, after the mound was no longer being used for burials, a layer of soil was used to cap the entire mound.

Profile of Mound 15Be3 showing the four mound stages.

Grave Goods
Objects placed with the dead within the 15Be3 mound, included copper bracelets, pendants, and a ring; shell objects, groundstone tools, red ochre and graphite fragments, projectile points, textiles, mica, worked bone, and a chert blade cache.  Surprisingly, larger quantities of the same types of artifacts were recovered from general mound fill.  This is probably an indication that earlier interments were frequently disturbed during subsequent activities.  Clearly this mound was repeatedly used for mortuary rituals over many decades.

Mica crescents interred with one of the burials.
These were head ornaments and are very
similar to examples recovered at the Dover Mounds.

Copper ornaments recovered from Robbins
mounds. Some ornaments still had textile
fragments adhering to them.

The smaller Robbins Mound (15Be14), about 984 feet (300 meters) south of the larger mound, was also completely excavated.  At only about 2 feet (0.6 meters) in height, historic plowing had reduced the height of this mound so much that its diameter could not be determined.  Unlike the larger and more elaborate mound, 15Be14 contained only one mortuary feature, probably a log-lined tomb containing one to several individuals.  A single copper bracelet was the only grave good recovered from the mound.  The limited number of features in Mound 15Be14 indicates it was used for a relatively short duration compared to the larger mound.

What's Cool?

The people who built the Robbins Mound Complex were probably related to the groups who built Adena mounds at the nearby Landing (15Be17) and Riley (15Be15)sites. 

The Landing Mound (15Be17) is located less than 0.6 miles (1 kilometer) from the Robbins complex.  Like the smaller mound at Robbins, the Landing Mound contained only a single sub-mound structure and has just one mound stage.  This suggests it was used for a relatively short period of time. Archaeologists have determined that the individuals buried withing the Landing and Robbins Mounds were biologically related groups. 

The Landing Mound (15Be17), like the smaller mound at Robbins, was constructed in a single episode.

The individuals buried at the Riley Mound (15Be15) were probably also related to those at Robbins.  Archaeologists, however, have yet to determine the biological relationship of those interred at these sites.  Since the Riley Mound is located closer to Robbins than Landing, there is a good chance its builders were also related to those at Robbins. 

Riley did not have log tombs like Robbins, but it did have sub-mound structures and other similar features.  These similarities provide other evidence that the groups that used the two sites were probably related.



Related Content


Webb, William S., John B. Elliott, and Charles E. Snow   1941, The Robbins mounds : sites Be 3 and Be 14 Boone County, Kentucky. In University of Kentucky reports in anthropology and archaeology No. 5, pp. 377-499 . University of Kentucky, Lexington.

Milner, George and Richard Jefferies (1987) A Reevaluation of the WPA Excavation of the Robbins Mound in Boone County, Kentucky. In Current Archaeological Research in Kentucky, Volume One, edited by David Pollack, pp.33-42. Kentucky Heritage Council, Frankfort. 

For An Overview of previous Woodland Period research in Kentucky, check out Chapter 5 of The Archaeology of Kentucky: An Updated.


Adena: Woodland Period Moundbuilders of the Bluegrass.  KAS education booklet

Episode 2 - “The Adena People: Moundbuilders of Kentucky” KAS video series


Last Updated 5/7/2013