Highland Creek

Site No: 15Un127
County: Union
Research Focus: Middle to Late Archaic (ca. 3355-2670 BC)

The Highland Creek site is an important Middle to Late Archaic (3400 to 2800 B.C) campsite located in Union County, Kentucky. Around 5000 years ago, Archaic groups living along the Ohio River hunted, fished, and gathered wild plants for their food and medicine. They moved from camp to camp based on the availability of resources, staying longer at some camps than others to take advantage of seasonally productive resources. At Highland Creek they harvested nuts, collected aquatic and plant resources found in the surrounding wetlands, hunted wild game, fished, and buried their dead.

Archaeologists from the U. S. Army Corps of Engineers, Kentucky Heritage Council, University of Kentucky, and Indiana University recorded the Highland Creek site in 1991. The original investigation was undertaken to document substantial looting (the illegal taking of archaeological resources from a site without permission) that had occurred at the site. The 1991 investigation documented and mapped more than 40 looter holes. The documentation of the looter holes, along with the collection and preliminary analysis of artifacts from disturbed contexts, indicated that the thick, intact midden (trash from everyday living) deposits at the site had been severely impacted and that several graves had been disturbed.

Building on this earlier work, the goals of the 1999 investigations at the Highland Creek site were to define the boundaries of the site, determine the nature, age, and extent of cultural deposits, and more fully determine the extent of looter disturbance and damage to the site. To accomplish these four 1 x 2 m units and 20 auger probes were excavated at the site.

Site size, depth of deposits, features – like hearths and pits, and the artifacts found in these features provide clues to prehistoric life. Artifacts commonly found within or associated with hearths and pits at Highland Creek included fire-cracked rock, burned clay, plant and animal remains.

Based on the analysis of flakes (small pieces of chert [an almost glass like rock]) left over from stone tool creation, investigators think that the entire process of making stone tools took place at Highland Creek. This would have involved finding suitable chert cobbles in nearby streams to make projectile spear points, drills, scrapers, and other tools. Archaic flint knappers were very skilled at making chipped stone tools, and would have carefully reduced the cobble by striking it with a stone, piece of antler, or bone.

Based on the shape of their base, investigators were able to classify the projectile points. Among the types found were Etley Corner-Notched, Pickwick, and Saratoga Parallel Stemmed. All date to near the end of the Late Archaic (3355 to 2905 B.C.). These tools would have been hafted to shafts, and flung at animals with an atlatl; a spear thrower that extended the range a human could throw the shaft with just his hands. In addition to their use as a weapon and for hunting, these tools were often used as knives.

The scrapers and drills would have been used in plant and animal processing, woodworking, and perhaps digging.

Plant remains found at the site include all the hallmarks of the Late Archaic: little wood charcoal, high nutshell density, low frequencies of various wild plant seeds, and trace amounts of possibly cultivated gourd and squash rind.

The botanical remains include six species of nutshell, nine species of wild seeds, and two possible cultigens. Hickory and black walnut comprised most of the sample, with acorn, pecan, butternut, and hazelnut also being represented. Wild seed plants include dry land and/or lowland species of grape, persimmon, marsh elder, erect knotweed, bedstraw, and spurge. Their presence at the site reflects a relatively wide spectrum of plant exploitation. Use of aquatic and wetland plant resources is indicated by the presence of pondweed, chokeberry, and hawthorn. Squash and gourd represent two possible domesticated plants.

Deer and turkey probably were the most important animal remains hunted by Late Archaic people living at the Highland Creek site. In addition to providing residents of the camp with meat, their bones were used to make tools. The residents of this camp also ate weasel, gray squirrel, woodchuck, swamp rabbit, opossum, turtles, migratory mallard, possibly teal, goose, and turtle. They also ate fish, such as the freshwater drum and catfish, and mussels.

Six intact human burials were documented during the Highland Creek study, and the disturbed remains of seven individuals were found. When these numbers are combined with the 1991 collection, a minimum of 38 individuals have been identified at the Highland Creek site. The presence of this number of individuals at this relatively small (75 m in diameter) site points to a relatively high density of human burials at this site. Dental and skeletal conditions associated with the Highland Creek burials were consistent with other known prehistoric Archaic huntergatherer populations. The Highland Creek burials contained few grave goods.

The presence of thick midden deposits (over three feet thick) at the Highland Creek site is suggestive of intensive use of this site. Inhabitants of the site probably used the hearths to process plant and animal remains, while the pits may have been used to store some of the food they collected near the site. Stone-boiling techniques for nut processing, likely account for the presence of hearths, fire-cracked rocks, and burnt clay.

Although deer, turkey and many other small mammals may be taken at any time of the year, they thrive in the late fall and winter months and were probably taken at that time. Migratory birds, such as mallard and goose would have been hunted from the late fall through early spring, the reptiles and fishes found at the site were probably obtained in the spring or summer months, and the remains of mussel and aquatic snails were probably collected during the late summer and fall. Thus, seasonal visits to the site may have occurred throughout the year. But the presence of large amounts of nuts, in the site’s midden suggests that it was primarily occupied in the late fall or early winter. The paucity of grave goods and lack of patterning in the placement of bodies within the midden, suggest that status within this group was reflected in other ways. Perhaps, with flowers or decorated fabrics that have not survived in the archaeological record.

The Highland Creek site served as an attractive area to establish a long-term camp in order to collect resources from the diverse ecology that made up this area. Providing food and raw materials from which to make tools for Late Archaic people, this site lended itself to longer stays than other camping sites (see Twin Knobs and Flat Top sites. Resource rich areas enticed people to be less mobile for longer periods of time and changed the way people interacted with one another and with the landscape.

For additional Information
The Highland Creek Site: Middle to Late Archaic Wetland Utilization in Western Kentucky