of Natural History researchers uncovering prehistoric American Indian
settlement in Huron County,
HURON COUNTY -- The
first clue that something unusual lay hidden beneath the old bean field
didn't come from digging in the hard-packed dirt. Archaeology is still
fundamentally about digging, but that would come later.
No, the earliest
suggestion of something worth uncovering on this plateau above the Huron
River were some dark electronic smudges on a piece of graph paper. To an
untrained eye they looked like random squiggles -- a few dots, two stripes
running roughly parallel to each other, and an oval outline shaped like a
The smudges piqued
Brian Redmond's professional curiosity, though. They were a kind of map of
the bean field's subsurface, traced by an instrument called a fluxgate
gradiometer. American archaeologists have only recently begun to rely on the
devices. Sweeping one a few inches above the ground produces a sort of
magnetic fingerprint of subsurface soil that's been disturbed in some way,
whether by digging or burning.
The patterns that
the Cleveland Museum of Natural History's archaeology curator saw on the
graph paper looked like the
signatures of a large-scale ancient dwelling. The dots could be
cooking or trash pits, the parallel lines a couple of filled-in ditches, and
the oval possibly the remnants of a stockade.
Five weeks of
digging this summer by professional and amateur archaeologists from the
Cleveland museum and the Firelands Archaeological Research Center, guided by
the magnetic readings, have
confirmed the presence of a major occupation, and have begun to
reveal some tantalizing details about the encampment and its inhabitants.
It's one of the earliest, largest
and most sophisticated Native American settlements in northern Ohio,
Artifacts such as
sherds of pottery and razor-sharp flint tools called bladelets indicate that
three distinct prehistoric groups
occupied the settlement off and on,
beginning as early as 2,500 years
ago, at the same time the Roman Republic was rising. They remained
until shortly before European explorers arrived in the area in the 1600s.
(Mulekites, Nephites, Lamanites, Mulekites would
be the earliest at 500 BC)
the site may have, over time, served multiple purposes:
a ceremonial spot, a
wintering shelter, a defensible
village and a trading hub. Its plentiful artifacts are in
the same style as those made by the
mound-building Hopewell people in southern and central Ohio, but it's
not clear whether those items were imported, or crafted by locals imitating
the Hopewell traditions.
There is even a hint
that the Huron bluff's occupants practiced a kind of ancient archaeology
"There are all sorts
of stories to tell about this site," Redmond said, on the next-to-last
digging day of the season. "I'm
amazed at what's here. I really think it was an important place."
The excavation is on
a working Huron County farm whose owners gave the researchers complete
access as long as they promised not to publicly disclose its exact location.
Several generations of the farm family, as well as amateur collectors, have
found prehistoric American Indian artifacts over the years while walking or
plowing the fields.
The site is an ideal
location for a settlement. It's a high, flat plateau. To the south, the land
drops away to the Huron River. Deep ravines to the east and west helped form
a three-sided promontory. The Native American inhabitants
protected the fourth side by digging two parallel ditches, each about eight
feet wide and 3 feet deep.
Sparked by accounts
of the abundant artifacts locals had found there, Kent State University
archaeologist Orrin Shane launched a series of digs beginning in 1968 that
identified the remnants of those filled-in ditches.
Shane concluded they
were dug by Native Americans who
lived during the Early Woodland period, from 2,500 to 2,100 years ago.
His excavations also turned up numerous stone tools and pottery fragments
characteristic of the Middle Woodland period.
the site had been occupied as
recently as 400 AD. But its purpose, its physical size and layout,
and its ultimate duration remained unknown when Shane's excavations ended in
the early 1970s.
Nearly 40 years
later, Redmond arrived with new equipment and ample curiosity.
The design of the
Middle Woodland implements Shane and his crew had found on the Huron River
bluff was similar to that used by the Hopewell people, who built mysterious,
elaborate mounds in southern Ohio.
There were pieces of
ceramic vessels that had been decorated by pressing thin strands of cord
into the wet clay. And there were distinctive spear tips and knives called
bladelets, which Hopewell craftsmen made by heating and chipping a rosy-hued
flint found only in a place called Flint Ridge, east of present-day
remnants aren't unheard of in northern Ohio, just a handful typically turn
up at any one site. But the Huron River promontory had
hundreds of the hallmark "high
culture" objects. Only one other northern Ohio location - a place
called the Esch Mounds several miles downriver -- has produced a similar
"This place is kind
of a weird outlier of Hopewell artifacts that seem to be out of place in
northern Ohio," Redmond said.
explanation is that southern Ohio Hopewell groups - who operated extensive
Eastern trading networks exchanging raw materials such as shells from the
Gulf Coast and mica from the Appalachians - established a trading base in
northern Ohio and brought along their tools and tool-making skills.
Local people, because of some connection with or exposure to the Hopewell,
began copying their cultural styles.
"Maybe this is the spreading of some
belief system that involves the making of bladelets, or the use of
this very colorful Flint Ridge flint," Redmond said.
"I think religion is probably the
best analog. It's something like Roman Catholicism. It covers the
world. You speak different languages and live in different places . . . but
they all go to Mass on Sundays."
Finding some of the
huge, idiosyncratic, earthworks that Hopewell people are known for
might bolster the case for
immigration over imitation, but researchers so far have discovered
none at the Huron bluff site.
Shane encountered an
apocryphal tale that in the 1920s the land's owner used the dirt from a
large mound to fill in a ravine, and in the process uncovered some artifacts
and a dark patch in the soil that may have marked a crypt. Whatever evidence
was reburied and lost.
The recent magnetic
scan of the site showed a large blip that could be the mound's remains - or
it could also be the signature of a lightning strike. For now, it's
inaccessible beneath a field of growing corn.
The scan and
subsequent digging did reveal more about the settlement's extent, both in
physical space and time.
egg-shaped oval was indeed the
remains of a protected enclosure, tucked in the northeast corner of the
promontory. It was ringed by a trench about three feet deep. The trench was
lined on both sides by wooden posts that, judging by the size and depth of
the stains their decay left in the dirt, could have stretched 8 feet high.
(The Book of Mormon states that the posts were to the
height of a man)
When Redmond, field
supervisor Brian Scanlan and their crew of mostly volunteer workers dug into
the filled-in trench, they found pieces of the thick, flat-bottomed pottery
characteristic of Early Woodland settlements.
As time passed and
later Native American people occupied the site, they spread outside the
original oval fenced enclosure, judging by the fire and trash pits scattered
across the bluff.
One spot that
appeared at first to be a large trash pit proved to be a dwelling.
There was evidence of a hearth, and
supports for benches on which several people might have slept. About 60
posts surrounded the structure - possibly saplings that could be bent down
and covered with woven mats to form a weather barrier.
"Think of this as an
igloo, not out of ice or snow, but very much that same shape," said Scanlan.
On the dwelling's
floor, the archaeologists found three special objects the inhabitants left
behind, possibly as a spirit offering. There was an awl, or puncturing tool,
formed from a deer's shoulder blade; a freshwater shell pendant carved into
the shape of a bear claw; and a flint projectile point.
The flint point was
very old and worn, as if it had been handled often. It was probably 1,500 to
2,000 years older than the dwelling itself, which was occupied during the
Late Prehistoric period. "Maybe it was something these natives picked up and
carried with them, understanding it came from their ancestors," Scanlan
The researchers intend to return next summer, looking for
more houses and possibly mounds. "There's a lot more we can do here,"
Marvin Fong/The Plain DealerArchaeologist and field
supervisor Brian Scanlan, seated, takes notes and creates a map of the
subsurface "feature" that Larry Gordon is measuring. Features are dark
patches of soil that may represent old ditches or trash pits where artifacts
may be buried. The maps record the type of soil and other contextual
Video Part I: Cleveland Museum of Natural History staff and
volunteers perform an excavation at an Indian settlement that could date
back as far as 2,000 to 3,000 years ago.
Video Part II: Watch as Cleveland Museum of Natural History
staff and volunteers search for artifacts.