Part 3: Something Unexpected: Investigating the 8,500-year old Canton Site

*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”.*


A new discovery. An unexpected find. That is what the Early Archaic occupation at the Canton Site was for archaeologists.

In the summer of 2011, archaeologists surveyed in the proposed right-of-way area south of U.S. Highway 68/Ken­tucky Highway 80 where a pull-off and educational sign were planned as part of a bridge replacement over Lake Barkley. The area was level, but this was deceptive. In the southeastern corner of the survey area, the “level” ground covered a large sinkhole, filled-in with sediment during the early 1960s when the bridge was raised.

Investigators expected – and found – artifacts linked to the ancient Mississippian Indian town during their survey. However, in archaeology, you can always count on the unexpected, too. And at Canton, this took the form of artifacts linked to a much earlier human occupation – millennia earlier!

21st Century Excavation at Canton

Three years after their initial survey, and 190 years after Rafinesque’s visit, archae­ologists began research in an area between the bluff edge and the sinkhole. Using mechanical equipment, they removed twentieth-century fill dirt that covered much of their study area. Beneath it, they discovered extensive archaeological deposits – the remains of an 8,500-year-old Indian encampment – perched on the edge of the sinkhole. The fill dirt had protected the camp from the impacts of plowing and other land-disturbing activities.

Based on their 2014-2015 investigations, archaeologists discovered a 4 to 16 inch-thick midden (trash) deposit along the sinkhole’s western rim. These deposits also draped over the rim and extended down into the sink­hole. The midden contained dense quantities of many different kinds of artifacts. Inves­tigators also found six refuse pits and places where two possible posts had once stood (perhaps parts of separate drying racks), along with fire-reddened soil from long-ago campfires. Large amounts of fire-cracked rock also were recovered. Fire-cracked rock is typically associated with hearths and activi­ties that took place around them like roast­ing meat, lining the bottoms of earth ovens to bake food, and heating or boiling water.

Archaeological research showed that for 300 years, hunting and gathering peoples had camped repeatedly on a low rise next to the edge of the sinkhole. This occurred toward the end of a period archaeologists call the Early Archaic, which lasted from 10,000 to 8,000 years ago.

More Unexpected Finds

Investigators recovered nearly 4,300 well-crafted chert tools at the Canton Site. The most common spear points were Kirk Corner-Notched, Kirk Stemmed, and variants of Kirk Stemmed. Early Archaic flintknappers bound spear points to wooden shafts using animal sinew (a tendon, often a deer’s, prepared for use as a cord or thread). They probably launched their spears or darts using an efficient weapon system called the atlatl (spear thrower). An atlatl propels a dart much faster and more accurately over longer distances than does a spear thrown with the unaided human arm.

Kirk spear points also were convenient multi-purpose tools. Native people likely carried them, like people carry pocket knives today, to be on-hand for any situation. The Native people used them for a variety of tasks, such as sawing and scraping, and cutting and slicing.


Parts of a Kirk Stemmed Spear Point

The discovery of new variants of Kirk spear points, however, was unex­pected. The discovery that Early Archaic people living at nearby sites had made these point variants, too, was unexpected.

What did this mean?

As analysis of the Canton spear points pro­gressed, it became clear that many were subtly, but consistently, different from the norm. The ancient Canton flintknap­pers had fashioned shorter and narrower stems on their Kirk Stemmed points, and the notches they made were broader. In addition, the Canton varieties also had longer blades. It appeared that, when it came time to resharpen their points, the Canton flintknappers had attempted to maintain blade length. This may have increased the points’ efficiency and use-life. Resharpening, while at the same time maintaining spear point blade length, is an uncommon tool-making approach in the Eastern Woodlands region of North America, where Kirk points occur. Most spear points, as with wooden pencils, become shorter as knappers resharpen them.

The Canton varieties of points proved unique. Read more about this variation of points, and even rotate images of 3D projectile points here!

Reflecting on the Canton Site

As you drive over Lake Barkley on the sparkling new bridges, stop at the pull-off and take a look at the sign that started it all. Read about the farmers who once lived on this blufftop. But as you do, remember also the people who lived here first: late Early Archaic hunter-gatherers. Thousands and thousands of years ago, they passed this way, too. Camping between the steep river bluff and the edge of a deep sinkhole, they made vari­ants of Kirk spear points and left behind for us to consider, the symbols of who they were.


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

Compiled by: Karen Stevens