The Portsmouth Earthworks and the Jim King Mound in Kentucky

By Emily Uldrich
Museum Educator
Southern Ohio Museum

The Portsmouth Earthworks was a dramatic construction by prehistoric Native Americans, containing nearly 20 miles of mounds centered in what is now Portsmouth, Ohio, and stretching east and west across the Ohio River into South Portsmouth and South Shore, Kentucky.  Most of the earthwork complex has been destroyed by development, but the Horseshoe Mound at Portsmouth’s Mound Park still stands, and part of Old Fort Earthwork in South Portsmouth, Kentucky, remains as Kentucky’s largest prehistoric earthwork.

The most famous map of the Portsmouth Earthworks (Fig. 1) was drafted by Ephraim George Squire and Edwin Hamilton Davis in 1847 and published the following year in the Smithsonian’s “Ancient Monuments of the Mississippi Valley.”  Though the survey was an ambitious undertaking, invaluable for future research, many local mounds were omitted from the map.  One of the mounds, located in Kentucky and not included in the survey was the Jim King Mound 15Gp7, excavated by Charles Bohannan and the WPA in 1937-38 (Fig. 2).  Though no longer extant, the Jim King Mound was a conical mound, once located in South Shore, Kentucky.   

Figure 1. Portsmouth Works Survey from Ancient Monuments of the Mississippi Valley
Figure 2. WPA Excavation of the Jim King Mound- The William S. Webb Museum WPA TVA Photograph Archive wsw05926

The Southern Ohio Museum & Cultural Center in Portsmouth, Ohio, holds in public trust a collection of local prehistoric Native American artifacts that are on permanent display in the “Art of the Ancients” exhibit.  This collection is also known as the Wertz Collection, as all ten thousand some objects were collected by father and son, Charles (1872-1938) and William (1913-2002) Wertz.  Charles Wertz, though not an archaeologist by trade, assisted in local mound excavations conducted by the Ohio Archaeological & Historical Society and was involved with numerous salvage operations from local construction projects on both sides of the Ohio River.

Charles Wertz left behind a manuscript and collection catalog describing many local prehistoric sites and features.  In his manuscript, “Ancient Man and His Works in and around Scioto County,” Charles reports limited excavations he conducted with the landowner of the Jim King Mound in 1896 and circa 1920s.  Wertz Collection items from the Jim King Mound include what are thought to be artifacts from the Hopewell Culture of the Middle Woodland Period (200BC – 400AD).

Though copper was not native to the area, people of the Woodland Period would source copper from land surrounding Lake Superior and from the southern Appalachian Mountains.  The Wertz Collection includes 4 copper items listed in Charles’ catalog found in the Jim King Mound.  Two are rolled sheet copper bracelets (#2001.005.725 & #2001.005.726 Fig. 3).  One is a rolled sheet copper ring (#2001.005.728 Fig. 3).  The last is a geometric sheet copper ornament (#2001.005.763 Fig. 4).

Figure 3. Copper Bracelets & Ring from the Jim King Mound- Photo by Lacy Uldrich. Southern Ohio Museum Wertz Collection.
Figure 4. Copper Ornament from the Jim King Mound- Photo by Lacy Uldrich. Southern Ohio Museum Wertz Collection.

There are also four gorgets listed in Charles’ catalog as being found in the Jim King Mound.  Gorgets are flat objects usually made of slate with two or more holes drilled, presumably for attachment to something.  Gorgets are named for the piece of medieval armor that protects the throat & neck.  Suggested uses for prehistoric gorgets include attachment to necklaces, clothing, or as a clasp for a cape or cloak, but no one really knows for sure.  The gorgets from this site are thought to belong to the Woodland Period, as are the copper items. 

The Wertz Collection gorgets from the Jim King Mound include two elongated rectangular gorgets with three holes, one crafted from dark grey slate (#2001.005.310 Fig. 5), and the other made of black slate or, possibly, cannel coal (#2001.005.309 Fig. 6).  The other two gorgets are pentagonal shaped.  One is made of grey slate and is broken (#2001.005.312 Fig. 7), so it is hard to tell if it is a gorget or a pendant.  A pendant is similar to a gorget, except that a pendant has a single hole drilled in it.  The other pentagonal gorget is made from grey banded slate (#2001.005.311 Fig. 8).

Figure 5. Gray Slate Gorget from the Jim King Mound- Photo by Lacy Uldrich. Southern Ohio Museum Wertz Collection.
Figure 6. Black Slate Gorget from the Jim King Mound- Photo by Lacy Uldrich. Southern Ohio Museum Wertz Collection.
Figure 7. Broken Pentagonal Pendant from the Jim King Mound- Photo by Lacy Uldrich. Southern Ohio Museum Wertz Collection.
Figure 8. Pentagonal Banded Slate Gorget from the Jim King Mound- Photo by Lacy Uldrich. Southern Ohio Museum Wertz Collection.

These artifacts are believed to date to the Woodland Period, as similar artifacts have been found at other Hopewell Culture sites.  The Woodland Period was the time when the construction of these large earthwork complexes is thought to have occurred.  It follows, then, that the Jim King Mound, though not included in the Portsmouth Earthworks maps, was part of the complex on the Kentucky side.

These artifacts, along with the rest of the Wertz Collection, are on permanent display in the “Art of the Ancients” exhibit at the Southern Ohio Museum & Cultural Center, located at 825 Gallia St. in Portsmouth, Ohio.  The Museum galleries are admission free, and are open Tuesday-Friday from 10:00am-5:00pm and Saturdays from 1:00pm-5:00pm.

Visit the museum’s website at www.somacc.com or join the conversation on facebook at www.facebook.com/somacc1979.

One comment

  1. […] Like mounds, earthworks are also large scale constructions made of earth and stone; however they are less common than mounds and usually weren’t used for burying people.  Archaeologists debate over their function.  One thing we can say for certain is that like mounds, most earthworks were also built during the Woodland Period and continued to be used for hundreds of years.  The largest and most significant grouping of mounds and earthworks in the state is known as the Portsmouth Works, which extends along the Ohio River banks for many miles in both Ohio and Kentucky.  Read about it in the September 5th post. […]

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