30 Days of Kentucky Archaeology

Effective Science without Fault at Fort Campbell:  The Occurrence of Fort Payne Chert.

Michael J. Miller, M.A., RPA

Fort Campbell Contractor

The Fort Campbell Cultural Resources Program curates artifacts, reports, and spatial data for over 1,200 precontact archaeological sites within its boundary in Tennessee and Kentucky. The Fort Campbell staff preserve these archaeological resources while ensuring the Army mission succeeds.

Lithic (stone) artifacts have been recovered at all precontact archaeological sites at Fort Campbell. The majority of these lithic artifacts are the debris from either quarrying tool stone (chert) or making/modifying stone implements (e.g., spearpoints, knives, scrapers). The different varieties of chert and rich deposits may be the reason that so many people made trips to procure stone from the area over thousands of years.

Fort Campbell is on the Highland Rim. The geology of the Highland Rim mainly consists of Mississippian age (343 to 323 Million Years Ago) limestone formations (Figure 1).

Figure 1: Geology of the Western Highland Rim as shown in West-Central Sheet Geologic Map of Tennessee (from Hardeman 1966).

Previous researchers working at Fort Campbell identified three limestone formations that outcrop in various parts of the installation (O’Malley et al. 1983). The eroded and sporadic Ste. Genevieve Limestone lies at the highest elevation, sitting atop of the ubiquitous Upper St. Louis Limestone, which overlies the massive Warsaw Limestone (Figure 2). All of these formations contain either nodular or bedded cherts of varying quality, many suitable for the production of stone tools and easily attained from gravel bar deposits.

Figure 2: Composite stratigraphic section of formations of Mississippian age in the northwestern part of the Highland Rim (from Marcher 1962).

When most archaeologists who have worked in Tennessee think about chert, Fort Payne chert is generally the one that comes to mind. Fort Payne chert comes from the limestone of the same name and outcrops in numerous locations spanning through southern Illinois, Kentucky, middle Tennessee, northern Alabama, northeastern Mississippi, and northwestern Georgia (Parish 2014). The Fort Payne Limestone formation lies beneath the Warsaw Limestone and was believed to not outcrop (i.e., not be exposed at the surface) on the installation (Bergman and Comiskey 2006).

During routine archaeological site monitoring, access to a site near Fletchers Fork Creek took me down a deeply incised ravine. As I traversed the steep slope, the rock changed from the Ste. Genevieve Limestone to Upper St. Louis to Warsaw in quick succession, where I noticed a large block of chert that was not supposed to be there, it was Fort Payne chert (Figure 3).

Figure 3: Fort Payne Chert Sample from Fletchers Fork Creek ravine.

A review of the Tennessee state geological map showed no indication that Fort Payne Limestone outcropped in the drainage. Reaching out to Ron Clendening, a Geologist with the Tennessee Geological Survey, a closer look at the geologic Woodlawn quadrangle map also failed to show any previously mapped outcrop of the Fort Payne Limestone. The nearest known and documented outcrop of Fort Payne chert is over 6 miles away to the south, where the Cumberland River has exposed it. Without in-depth investigation, the only speculation that can explain the geological occurrence is that a fault may have been missed during the geologic mapping (see Hill 1986).

Using the collections curated at Fort Campbell, lithic analysis of the debitage found at sites within 10-30 meters of the Fort Payne Limestone outcropping proved that the author was not the first person to discover the lithic resource. Numerous artifacts showed that the stone was quarried nearby; these pieces had remnants of cortex, the naturally weathered outer rind of the chert, which demonstrates that the source was in close proximity. The sites were also able to provide a rough date of when the ravine may have first reached the depth of the Fort Payne Limestone, as diagnostic stone tools were 4,000-8,000 years old. Erosion within this one small ravine has exposed blocks of high-quality Fort Payne chert over the millennia, making these sites unique among those at Fort Campbell where Ste. Genevieve and Upper St. Louis cherts were the sought-after mainstays.


Bergman, Christopher and Charley Comiskey

2006      The Historic Context Statement for Prehistory at Ft. Campbell, Kentucky. BHE Environmental, Inc., Cincinnati, Ohio Submitted to United States Army Corps of Engineers, Louisville District, Contract No. DACA27-01-D-0004. Copies available from Fort Campbell Cultural Resource Office, Kentucky.

Hardeman, William

1966       West-Central Sheet Geologic Map of Tennessee. State of Tennessee, Department of Conservation, Division of Geology, Nashville.

Hill, William

1986     Geological Map and Mineral Resources of the Woodlawn Quadrangle, Tennessee. State of Tennessee, Department of Conservation, Division of Geology, Nashville.

Marcher, Melvin  

1962    Petrography of Mississippian Limestones and Cherts from the Northwestern Highland Rim, Tennessee. Journal of Sedimentary Petrology 32: 819-832.

O’Malley, Nancy, Jared Funk, Cynthia Jobe, Thomas Gatus, and Julie Risenweber

1983     Cultural Resource Reconnaissance of Fort Campbell, Archaeological Report 67. Report submitted to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers by the University of Kentucky, Program for Cultural Resource Assessment.

Parish, Ryan

2014     Tennessee’s Stone Resources and Prehistoric Behavior. Electronic document, https://tennesseearchaeologycouncil.wordpress.com/2014/09/02/tennessee-archaeology-awareness-month-day-2-tennessees-stone-resources-and-prehistoric-behavior/, Accessed August 2022.

Disclaimer: This blog is for informational purposes only and does not constitute endorsement by Fort Campbell or the Department of the Army.


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