The archaeological story of the Canton Site, located in Trigg County, Kentucky, starts in the early 1800s with an “eccentric naturalist” and ends in the present day with an unexpected discovery.
This story comes to us as a three-part blog series for Kentucky Archaeology Month. In the first blog post, we look at how an early 19th century botanist influenced archaeology in the 21st century. Our second blog will take a look at a house from the Mississippian component of this mounded site, while the third blog will move us back in time, to the unexpected find of an Early Archaic occupation at the site.
*Material for these blogs comes from the Kentucky Transportation Cabinet’s Heritage Spotlight No. 6, “Something Unexpected: Investigating the 8,500-year old Canton Site in Trigg County, Kentucky”. Check it out to read more about the Canton Site!*
Bridges and Archaeology in the 21st Century
By the summer of 2011, it was time for the Henry R. Lawrence Memorial Bridge. Crumbling, substandard, too narrow, unsafe. It had to be replaced. The nearly 80-year old bridge spanning the Cumberland River (now Lake Barkley) had been on the Kentucky Transportation Cabinet’s (KYTC) replacement radar for years.
The two Parker Truss spans of the Henry R. Lawrence Memorial Bridge in 2009. Constructed in 1932 to replace the ferry that carried passengers across the Cumberland River, the bridge was rehabilitated in 1944 and then elevated in 1963 to accommodate the waters of Lake Barkley. KYTC demolished it in 2018 to make way for a newer, wider, and safer bridge.
As part of the bridge replacement project, the section of U.S. Highway 68/Kentucky Highway 80 leading to the bridge from the east had to be widened and shifted south. Federal laws require archaeologists and historians to inventory and assess cultural resources prior to road construction when federal funds are used. If an important archaeological site is in a proposed road right-of-way, KYTC has two choices. They can relocate the proposed road and protect the site, or excavate a sample of the site if the proposed road cannot be moved.
For this highway project, there was no question what choice KYTC would make. Transylvania University botany professor Constantine Rafinesque had seen to that in 1823 when he recorded Indian mounds at Canton.
Constantine Samuel Rafinesque
Constantine Samuel Rafinesque was born in 1783 near Constantinople in the Ottoman Empire and self-educated in France. He was a professor of botany at Transylvania University in Lexington, Kentucky from 1819-1825. Considered an “eccentric naturalist,” by John James Audubon, Rafinesque also was interested in archaeology and in Kentucky’s ancient peoples. He traveled across the state, inventorying, documenting, and mapping their mounds and earthworks.
Portrait of 27-year-old Constantine Rafinesque, attributed to the English miniature portrait painter William Birch.
Mapping the Canton Site
On June 23, 1823, the year the tiny blufftop hamlet of Boyd’s Landing was renamed “Canton,” Rafinesque traveled from Lexington to map and describe the remains of the ancient American Indian town located there. Around A.D. 1150, centuries before Europeans founded Boyd’s Landing, Native peoples had founded their own town on this very spot, and had lived there for 150 years.
Rafinesque’s map shows a site covering about 35 acres. It includes at least nine circular and rectangular flat-topped platform mounds enclosed by a 3 to 5-foot high and 15 to 20-foot wide earthen wall. Today, only Mound 1 and Mound 5 are clearly visible. Mound 1 is a large rectangular platform mound located about 260 feet east of the edge of the Cumberland River (Lake Barkley) bluffs. At one time, it stood about 30 feet high. Mound 5, located west and slightly north of Mound 1, overlooks the lake from a bluff spur. Mapped as two circular/elliptical platforms in 1823, today it is a small conical mound.
Rafinesque’s 1833 map of the Indian town at Canton overlooking the Cumberland River.
Significance of Rafinesque’s Work
Rafinesque left Kentucky and moved to Philadelphia in the spring of 1826 after quarreling with Transylvania University’s president. In 1833, he published an article describing the Canton site in detail. Subsequent research has shown that his map is quite accurate, proving Rafinesque’s work to be significant, considering the time in which he lived.
In his article, Rafineque predicted that, over time, plowing and the removal of trees would render the site less visible. Time has proven Rafinesque correct. House and church construction, bulldozing and plowing, and looting have completely destroyed or heavily impacted most of the mounds. However, by recording the site, Rafinesque brought it to our attention.
Stay tuned for Parts 2 & 3 to learn more about what archaeologists discovered at the Canton Site.
Authors: Eric J. Schlarb, A. Gwynn Henderson, and David Pollack
Compiled by: Karen Stevens