A Prehistoric Tragedy Unearthed


My most memorable archaeological excavation occurred about 45 years ago at the site of a prehistoric shell mound, known variously as the Huff or Hornung mound. Native American mounds come in a variety of sizes and shapes as well as purposes. This shell mound, was pretty much an irregular oval on the west side of Pond Creek near Salt River. It is what archaeologists call an Archaic shell heap. Occasionally, and more especially when located in open habitation sites, they contain human burials. It was prior to 1972, when Martin Lester and I were leading a preliminary archaeological survey in Southwest Jefferson County, on the Floodwall project, when word filtered into the lab, that a mound was being bulldozed and used to build a new road. Martin, known as Pete, and I were assigned to investigate. What was reported was true, and we asked them to stop.

We couldn’t stop the project, but the construction company and land owner allowed us to excavate their trenches after they quit for the day. This meant we had to dig at night under lantern light. Fortunately, it was warm weather. We worked the site for several weeks. It dated to about 3,500 years B.C.

By our third afternoon, I had removed the 16-inch plow zone and had laid out a number of 5- foot by 5-foot squares, excavating them by trowel in 6-inch levels, sifting each level through a ¼-inch sieve, and marking the location and artifacts before bagging them. Suddenly my trowel uncovered a long bone, probably a deer I thought. I expected it was maybe a canon bone, but I got out my burial kit just in case. I carefully followed the bone until I found what I thought was the patella or knee cap. From there I uncovered enough to tell the burial was human and in a flexed position on its side. I uncovered the skull. With the body geography identified, I began excavating the hip and uncovering the spinal column vertebrae. I then began to work down from the chin to the chest cavity uncovering and outlining the ribs. Just below the sternum, I encountered very tiny bones and skull fragments of an animal about the size, I guessed of a rabbit. I had read of animal offerings buried with certain peoples. Sometimes these were in mounds. Since we still had some daylight, I concentrated on the small animal offering, hoping to bag it in its entirety before dark.

I asked Pete to come over and see what he made of it, and he agreed it was a grave good food offering or a sacrificed pet killed to accompany the Indian to the afterlife. Pete was excavating a boy, highly decorated we estimated maybe 9 to 12 years old. He wore a 6-inch bell shaped cannel coal pendent around his neck. We finished and boxed up the long bones, skulls and mandibles first, then the feet hands, finally the vertebrae and hip. We did this for both burials. The bones of my skeleton’s hip area seemed larger than others excavated, but not giving it much thought, we loaded the old International Travel All and headed to the U of L Archaeology lab. On the way there, we were quiet, mindful that we saved two bodies from being crushed by bulldozers and used as highway road fill, but it’s a powerful thing to remove and relocate someone from the place they were intended to rest for eternity.

About half way to the lab, a switch in my head flipped on; I looked at Pete and asked, “Do you realize what I was excavating?” he answered, “It was a pregnant woman who died in childbirth.” I nodded, and we rode the rest of the way in silence, each locked in a secret compartment of our mind. For some reason, I felt guilty, but something else, I felt ashamed.

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