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Archaeologists excavate earth ovens and trash pits at the Pierce site


Site ID: 15Cu96

Kentucky Archaeological Survey
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​​​​​​​​​Archaeologists excavated the Pierce site prior to the realignment of Kentucky Highway 61 in Cumberland County.  The site was located on ridge toe slopes that extended into the floodplain. 

As a result of this research, investigators concluded that Archaic groups periodically camped at the site around 1200 BC.  While at the site, they planted and tended gardens, and held rituals related to ensuring a successful harvest. ​

A cache of three fine-grained sandstone hoes.


​The distribution of more than 60 cooking pits and hearths at the Pierce site suggested that Native groups had used the locale repeatedly.  Noteworthy was the recovery of over​ 30 chipped stone hoes from pits dug ca. 1200 BC.  

The presence of so many hoes at an Archaic period site is highly unusual.  Although Pierce site residents had thrown out many of the hoes, ​investigators also found offerings of complete, though used, hoes in two pits.  

The rituals associated with these offerings likely focused on reinforcing group solidarity and community and on creating a sense of place that tied the group to the locale.  Rituals of this type may have been particularly important for people who were not yet fully committed to horticulture, but who were, perhaps, experimenting with it.

Fine-grained sandstone hoe cache.

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​​Archaic Period Ritual Life

A ca. 1200 BC bell-shaped pit in the western portion of the Pierce site produced a unique set of artifacts. In the bottom of the pit, investigators found at least five broken tubular smoking pipes, two balls from a rattle, and several fragments of sheet copper from the Great Lakes region. The recovery of copper from Pierce was important, because it showed that these Cumberland River Valley residents were involved in long-distance exchange.

All the pipes had been broken intentionally. This suggested that site residents may have ritually killed the pipes as part of their ceremonies before placing them in the pit. ​​One irregularly shaped copper sheet fragment had folded edges and a hole pierced through it. It may have been attached to one of the pipes.

Sheet copper fragment with folded edges and pierced hole (left) and copper bead (right).

​Since this bell-shaped pit was located away from the habitation area, the rituals that took place there were probably different from the ceremonies associated with the placement of hoes in pits. Its physical separation may have been purposeful. Rather than involving the entire community, the rituals centered on it may have been restricted to a select few who held special knowledge. Alternatively, rituals linked to the bell-shaped pit could have included activities that either required a large open space (dancing) or activities that were too dangerous to be carried out within the camp (a large bonfire).​​  

Intentionally broken (now mended) siltstone smoking pipe (left) and fine-grained sandstone pipe stem (right).

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