Adena Engraved Tablets

by
A. Gwynn Henderson
Kentucky Archaeological Survey
From Adena: Woodland Period Moundbuilders of the Bluegrass
by A. Gwynn Henderson and Eric J. Schlarb
Kentucky Archaeological Survey, Education Series Number 9, Lexington, KY
2007

Adena people carved many plain, rectangular tablets from shale, limestone, siltstone, or a very fine-grained sandstone. The tablets are palm-sized and measure about one-quarter to three-quarters of an inch thick.

Adena craftspeople engraved designs on one face of these tablets in a style that is distinctively Adena. There are only four Kentucky examples. Archaeologists found these tables either at the base of a mound or in mound fill.

An engraved Adena tablet made from siltstone found at a site in Montgomery County, Kentucky

Image from Adena: Woodland Period Moundbuilders of the Bluegrass. Copyright 2007 Kentucky Heritage Council.

The image on one tablet fragment is perhaps the easiest for us to understand today (see below). It is similar to two complete engraved tablets recovered from Adena mounds in south-central Ohio. It is the highly stylized profile of a raptorial bird (or bird of prey, such as a hawk, osprey, falcon, or eagle) or a wild turkey. Its head and curved beak, folded wings, claw-shaped foot, and scalloped tail are joined to a thin, bar-like body.

Image from Adena: Woodland Period Moundbuilders of the Bluegrass. Copyright 2007 Kentucky Heritage Council.

Archaeologists think Adena peoples used engraved tablets as printing “plates” or blocks. These objects are flat and smooth. Traces of pigment, red in the case of one Kentucky tablet, are still present in some depressed areas. Ground hematite powder, called red ochre, mixed with animal fat, blood, urine, or water, would have made a good paint. Tanned animal skin or leather would have been excellent materials to print on.

The easier printing technique requires only an inked plate. It is then pressed firmly onto the material to be printed. For the other technique, the material to be printed has to be strong and moldable, like leather. The plate is inked, then the surfaces are wiped clean. This leaves ink in the tablet’s recesses. The printing pressure forces the material to be printed into the recessed areas. This kind of printing leaves behind an embossed, inked design.

The single symbol engraved on this sandstone tablet found at a site in Montgomery County, Kentucky makes it unique.
Image from Adena: Woodland Period Moundbuilders of the Bluegrass. Copyright 2007 Kentucky Heritage Council.

Researchers think that Adena people created complex designs by repeatedly stamping the materials they printed on. A deerskin cape would have looked rich and textured if covered with rows or spirals of red falcons.

For more information about the Adena peoples, go to the Living Archaeology Weekend website (www.livingarchaeologyweekend.org), click on Education, then Content and Lessons, then LAW Educational Content and Lessons, and scroll down to Woodland Indians Resources. Download the booklet: Adena: Woodland Period Moundbuilders of the Bluegrass, by A. Gwynn Henderson and Eric J. Schlarb. Kentucky Archaeological Survey, Education Series Number 9, 2007, Lexington, KY. Or go to your public library and checkout the booklet via Kentucky Libraries Unbound.

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