Crawdad on a Bluff

By Karen Stevens
University of Kentucky

What do you call the “miniature lobster that one finds in lakes and streams”?

Photo of a crawfish. (Public Domain)

This is one of the questions asked on the Cambridge Online Survey of World Englishes– a survey that looks at regional differences in the pronunciation of words. For Kentucky, the answer is CRAWDAD.

Map created by Joshua Katz. (Retrieved from , August 19, 2019)

However you pronounce it, these little critters can be found throughout Kentucky’s freshwater habitats, including in rivers and creeks, as well as swamps and wet fields. (Find out more about Kentucky’s crawfish/crayfish/crawdads here.)

So, what do crawdads have to do with archaeology?

Enter the crawdad on the bluff…

Last year, during excavation at a bluff-top archaeological site, we found a burnt earth feature over one meter below the surface. The soil of this feature stood out. The normally yellowish loess (windblown sediment) subsoil had turned a bright orange-red upon heating. The feature was directly on the subsoil with various ash pockets filled with charcoal. Possibly evidence of one of the first occupations at this site?

Burnt earth feature (Photo by Karen Stevens, 2018)

While finding the feature was pretty exciting, it wasn’t until we were back at the lab that something even more interesting happened. To learn more about this site, we had taken flotation samples. Flotation is a technique that uses water to “float” tiny and light weight bone and plant remains onto a mesh screen. This helps archaeologists find small things like fish bones and nut charcoal that may otherwise be missed.

Charcoal and bone on a fine mesh screen. (Photo by Karen Stevens, 2018)

While sorting through the flotation samples, and other screened materials, we happened upon something that appeared uncommon. These animal remains appeared dark gray, possibly burnt, and came from contents found near the burnt earth feature. What were they? Crawdad legs!

Crawdad remains. Sharpie for scale. (Photo by Karen Stevens)

With the help of zooarchaeologist Bruce Manzano, these little remains were identified as belonging to a crawdad. Crawdad remains are not all that common among faunal (animal) remains from Kentucky’s Archaic period sites (c. 8,000 to 1,000 BCE). Assemblages from these sites are largely composed of deer, small mammals (like squirrels), fish, and at some sites, freshwater mussels and snails.

While the landscape near the bluff is a perfect habitat for crawdads, finding these makes a person wonder – how did they end up on the bluff? When was this crawdad caught and brought up the hill? Was it one of the first meals eaten by a Native American at this site? Or was it used for another purpose, like fishing bait? Hopefully additional research and sorting of faunal remains, and radiocarbon dates of surrounding charcoal, will later shed light on this mystery!



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