Now that we know how the Canton Site was initially recorded in the early 1800s by botanist Constantine Rafinesque, let’s jump to the 20th Century archaeological exploration of the Canton Site and learn more about its Mississippian occupation.
*Material for this three-part blog series 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!*
170 Years after Rafinesque
Since European settlement in 1799, Canton’s residents had known about the Indian site in their community. Down through the centuries, construction projects – trenches dug for house foundations and later, for water lines – had offered up evidence of the long-ago village farming people. In fact, any kind of ground-disturbing activity in Canton could turn up artifacts: when townspeople dug holes to plant new bushes in their front yards, or when they prepared their vegetable gardens for planting in the spring, and especially, when looters came to town to dig indiscriminately.
Nearly 170 years after Rafinesque documented the Indian town, professional archaeologists returned to Canton in 1992. They mapped the mounds with modern surveying equipment and collected artifacts in order to figure out the site’s history of human occupation. In 2007, archaeologists visited Canton again. This time, they documented a small section of the site’s 13th Century residential area, including a Mississippian House.
A Mississippian House at Canton
Following the 2006 demolition of the old Canton Baptist Church, the Kentucky Archaeological Survey spent four weeks excavating at the Canton site in 2007. Based on Rafinesque’s 1833 map, investigators thought the church had been built on Mound 7, described by Rafinesque as a “small mound.”
They were wrong.
Rafinesque’s 1833 map of the Indian town at Canton overlooking the Cumberland River.
Archaeologists discovered a small section of the ancient town’s residential area preserved beneath the church, which had been built in the mid-1800s. They uncovered portions of several houses and a large refuse pit. In particular, their research documented a complete 13th Century wattle and daub house. Native farmers had built it in a shallow basin measuring about 12 by 14 feet. Inside the house, investigators found a central hearth, and post patterns suggesting the presence of benches or partitions in two corners.
Map of the Mississippian period house documented at the Canton site in 2007. Note the central hearth, the wall trenches, and the locations where posts once stood – inside the wall trenches and inside the house at the corners.
How did the Native people build this house?
First, Native people dug out the house basin. Then, they dug narrow trenches along the basin’s perimeter and set wooden posts down the center of each trench for the house walls. They filled the trenches with soil, packing it tightly around the posts to hold them securely in place. Next, they wove flexible branches and twigs between the posts (wattle) forming a lattice of branches. Finally, they covered the wattle with thick clay (daub) that baked hard in the sun. Now the builders could paint their house walls and decorate them with symbols. The roof was likely made from thatch – grasses collected from nearby meadows.
A reconstructed Mississippian house in the visitor center at Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site
A View of a Native American Village
The house found during the 2007 excavation is representative of the Late Prehistoric (A.D. 1000 to 1750) period in Kentucky. During this time, Mississippian people lived in permanent villages throughout western Kentucky. Several hundred residents would have called the Canton Site home.
But this village was more than just permanent houses. Mississippians used central plazas as gathering places. They buried their dead in cemeteries. Leaders would have performed ceremonies and rituals on large platform mounds.
They were also farmers and traders. The lives of the Mississippian people revolved around planting, growing, and harvesting corn, squash, and beans in the river bottoms. Goods from distant communities criss-crossed the country via complex trading networks.
It was this part of the Canton Site, the Mississippian village, that first caught Rafinesque’s attention. It is this part of the site that alerted archaeologists to work that needed to be done before KYTC replaced the Henry R. Lawrence Memorial Bridge in Canton, Kentucky. Little did archaeologists know that there was more to come! Come back tomorrow for Part 3: Something Unexpected.
The road sign that started it all. This panel describing the archaeology of the Canton site and the Native farmers who once lived on the bluff will be featured in the road pull-off located where the 2011-2015 investigations took place.
Authors: Eric J. Schlarb, A. Gwynn Henderson, and David Pollack, with excerpts by Karen Stevens
Compiled by: Karen Stevens