Worked Deer Shoulder (Scapulae) Blades from Fox Farm

Fox Farm is a large archaeological site located in Mason County, Kentucky.  The site was occupied from ca. A.D 1300 to 1650 by sedentary farmers of the Fort Ancient culture and is one of the largest and most intensely occupied Fort Ancient village sites in the middle Ohio Valley.  As part of ongoing research on the faunal remains recovered from this site from 2009-2016, four worked deer shoulder (scapula) blades were discovered (Figure x1).

The recovery of worked shoulder blades is not very common on archaeological sites, so the identification of four such blades caught our attention.  Upon examination of the shoulder blades, we noticed that each showed evidence in the form of scored lines from a chert knife of a flat triangle section having been removed from just below the shoulder blade spine (Figure x1).  The lined scoring gave nearly straight edges on two sides of the triangular section cut out from the element.  One shoulder blade exhibited a unique two-step method to remove the flat section.  The first step was to use a chert drill to create partial holes or “dimples” outlining the area of the section to be removed from the shoulder blade (Figure x1, see enlarged view).  The second step involved using the chert knife to score a line through the bone somewhat following the alignment of the partially drilled holes to complete the removal of the flat section from the shoulder blade (Figure x.1).  In the shoulder blade that shows this method, however, the flat section was in the process of being cut out and the triangular gap is from breakage while the element was in the ground (Figure x1, see enlarged view).  A recent visit to the Geier Collections and Research Center at Cincinnati, Ohio led to the identification of similar worked deer scapula in the southeastern Indiana Guard site faunal collection.

Given that the removed sections are flat and triangular, we wondered what type of tool or ornament had been made from them.  The thinness and fragility of the removed bone led us to immediately rule out them having been used as a tool.  We then turned to personal bone ornaments.  Within the Fox Farm collection, the only personal objects manufactured from deer shoulder blades were multi-drilled flat bone objects (Figure x2).  Our subsequent review of the literature revealed that similar objects had been recovered from Fort Ancient sites in Kentucky and Ohio (Hooton and Willoughby 1920:68-70; Mills 1906; 116; 1917:338; Mills 2013; Prufer 1970:138; Sharp and Pollack 1992).

But what had these objects been used for?  As far back as 1920, Earnest A. Hooton and Charles C. Willoughby had suggested they were used as hair spreaders (Figure x3).  They based this inference on the use of similar objects by Indian tribes of the Interior Basin, and they described the use and function of hair spreaders as:

The base, supporting an upright bone cylinder and feather, and worn nearly in a horizontal position, with the broad end projecting backward, is placed within an ornament of upright deer hair dyed red and fringed with the black “beard hair” of the turkey or long stiff hair of the porcupine.  Taken altogether, it forms a very handsome and striking head ornament, and was worn by warriors of various tribes over a considerable area (Hooton and Willouby1920:68-70).

Their suggestion is supported by period paintings that date from the 1700s and 1800s (Figure x4).  Hair spreaders also are shown in paintings by several modern artists like Robert Griffing who are very knowledge about the decorations worn by Eastern Woodland Native Americans of the eighteenth century (Figure x5).


Based on this research we have concluded that the cut out flat triangular sections were used in the basal portion of Fort Ancient “hair spreader.”  Manufacturing hair spreaders appears to be as follows:

1)      A flat triangular section was removed from the shoulder blade.

2)      The edges of the flat piece were rounded, perhaps with a sandstone abrader, to the desired shape.

3)      The flat surface was perforated multiple times to create the desired pattern.  The number of drilled holes likely depended on several factors, such as the type of hair used, if the base was made from more than one section, what other items were attached, and where the ornament was worn by the individual.

4)      Sometimes a chert drill was used to serrated edge of the flat object along its widest end.

5)      The polish on these artifacts most likely occurred partly during manufacture along the wear from being worn.

Overall, these flat objects with their drilled holes were used to spread out an attachment of hair plus feathers and bone, identifying the clan, charm, or spirit associated with the individual wearing the ornament.



Figure x1. Worked Deer Shoulder blades Recovered from Fox Farm. Note “dimples” and score lines in enlarge view plus straight, complete cut edges on the left and lower two right shoulder blades.



Figure x2. Broken Hair Spreaders (Mills 2013; Figure 5).



Figure x.3. Nearly Complete Hair Spreader (Sharp and Pollack 1992; Figure 9).



Figure x.4. Sharitarish (Wicked Chief), Pawnee, by Charles Bird King c.1822.




Figure x.5. Oil Painting Preparing to Meet the Enemy by Robert Griffing.


In closing, as we continue to analyze the Fox Farm faunal collection we will be on the look out for additional worked deer shoulder blades and hair spreaders.  With the recovery of similarly worked shoulder blades at the Guard site we expect them to be recovered from additional Fort Ancient sites as more researcher make the effort to look for them.


References Cited

Hooton, Earnest A. and Charles C. Willoughby

1920      Indian Village Site and Cemetery Near Madisonville Ohio. Papers of the Peabody Museum of American Archaeology and Ethnology, Harvard University, Vol. 8, No. 1. Peabody Museum, Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Mills, Joshua E.

2013      Fort Ancient Personal Objects from the Fox Farm Site in Mason County, Kentucky. Senior Honor’s Thesis. Department of Anthropology, University of Kentucky and Kentucky Archaeological Survey.

Mills, William C.

1906      Explorations of the Baum Prehistoric Village Site. Ohio Archaeological and Historical Publications, Volume XV. Columbus, Ohio.

1917      Exploration of the Feurt Mounds and Village Site. Ohio Archaeological and Historical Quarterly 26(3):305-449.

Pollack, David, and A. Gwynn Henderson

2000      Insights into Fort Ancient culture change: a view from south of the Ohio River. In: Genheimer, R.A. (Ed.), Cultures before Contact: The Late Prehistory of Ohio and Surrounding Regions. Ohio Archaeological Council, Columbus, pp. 194–227.

Prufer, O. H., & Shane, O. C.

1970      Blain Village and the Fort Ancient Tradition in Ohio (Vol. 1). Kent State University Press, Kent, Ohio.

Sharp, William E. and David Pollack

1992      The Florence Site Complex: Two Fourteenth-Century Fort Ancient Communities in Harrison County, Kentucky.  Current Archaeological Research in Kentucky: Volume Two, edited by David Pollack and A. Gwynn Henderson, pp. 183-218. Kentucky Heritage Council, Frankfort.


Bruce L. Manzano, Thomas Royster, and Jonathan Davis

University of Kentucky, Department of Anthropology and Kentucky Archaeological Survey