By Matthew Davidson
European colonization did not bring civilization to North American Indians. Civilization was already here. By the time European explorers reached Kentucky, Native Americans had been farming, trading and living in villages for 1,000 years (think, Viking Age). Just looking at the pieces of pottery and arrowheads that occasionally make the news, it can be hard to imagine what life might have been like. Technical reports written by archaeologists are full of scientific jargon, data tables, and complicated descriptions, and these are just not useful to most people who want to learn about Kentucky’s past. The goal of this blog is to show the reader how archaeologists use different types of evidence to re-imagine what the landscape looked like for the Native American farming communities that were in eastern Kentucky.
We will start with a quick Archaeology 101. I will try to stray away from scientific jargon, but there are a few terms I must use to explain how archaeology works. The most common thing you will hear archaeologists talk about are archaeological sites, or, just “sites”. What are archaeological sites, you ask? They are places where past human activity has left some kind of physical evidence behind. Translation: sites are places people did stuff and left things behind. In the state of Kentucky, thousands of Native American sites have been recorded.
So what do archaeologists do at sites, and why are they so important? Sites are important because they contain the two main things humans leave behind: artifacts and features. Artifacts are things or remains left behind that are moveable, such as arrow heads, pottery fragments, and adornments. Features are non-moveable remains, such as house foundations, cemeteries, and mounds. Sites, along with the artifacts and features they contain, are the basis of most Native American history in Kentucky. If you look closely, you can see all three – site, artifacts, and features – in Figure 1.
Archaeologists also use historical sources to re-imagine the past. These include eye-witness accounts such as journals, artwork, and maps. This type of information helps archaeologists understand sites, artifacts and features. For example, we know from historic accounts that the Shawnee living in Kentucky during the late 1600s and 1700s were trading, politicking, and fighting with other tribes such as the Iroquois. Also, we know from historic maps that the Shawnee were trading and fighting with European colonists on the east coast (Figure 2). Archaeologists can confirm that this is true, because we have found European trade goods at Native American town sites in Kentucky.
But how do archaeologists interpret the past when they don’t have historical sources? How do we use sites, artifacts (Figure 3) and features to re-imagine how landscapes looked, felt and sounded? To do this, archaeologists must complete special coursework in college. One thing archaeologists learn in college is called socio-cultural theory. Socio-cultural theory tells us that human societies don’t just use the natural environment – they also shape and build it into a place that is meaningful, useful, and desirable. Over time, it is no longer just a natural environment, it becomes a cultural landscape. This is how we know the archaeological remains we find are more than just things in the ground – they were once part of a Native American cultural landscape.
So, let’s get started! To begin using archaeology to re-imagine past Native American landscapes we have to deal with a long-standing Kentucky myth. This myth says that early European explorers, such as Daniel Boone, believed that Kentucky was a wilderness in the 1700s. This was not true (see this 2017 KAM blog). Daniel Boone didn’t realize it, but he was entering the cultural landscape of Native American farmers. Kentucky just appeared to be a wilderness because it did not look like a European landscape.
In contrast with what Europeans believed, the land had been changed by thousands of years of village life, farming and forest management. In fact, Europeans regularly used Native trails to explore, and they lived at Native towns during the 1700s (see Figure 5). In addition, archaeologists have documented Native American cemeteries, mounds, and other important places in eastern Kentucky. In part 2 of this blog, we will explore the many types of evidence for this Native American landscape.