The Mystery Of The Fort Ancient Transformation

Why did the Fort Ancient people make dramatic changes to their lifestyle at the beginning of the 15th century?

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Archaeologists, students, and volunteers document hearths and posts associated with structures that once stood on the southern edge of the Fox Farm village. Credit Art Dickinson.
Archaeologists, students, and volunteers document hearths and posts associated with structures that once stood on the southern edge of the Fox Farm village. Credit Art Dickinson.

Summer 2016: By Linda Vaccariello.

 On a bright and breezy spring day, when the majority of his University of Kentucky colleagues were focused on the finale of the college basketball season, archaeologist David Pollack was enjoying his own version of March Madness: puzzling out the mysteries of Fox Farm and the Fort Ancient people who thrived here in northern Kentucky for more than 300 years. Pollack and his co-director, A. Gwynn Henderson, also of the University of Kentucky, are in the final days of an excavation funded by the National Science Foundation.

Fox Farm, which is located about 50 miles north of Lexington and covers 40 acres, is one of the largest Fort Ancient sites and one of the most intensely occupied. Most Fort Ancient sites were short-lived; evidence suggests that about 10 to 30 years in one location. But Fox Farm was continuously occupied from the early A.D. 1300s until the early 1600s, which makes it especially intriguing.

The Fort Ancient culture emerged around A.D.1000 and lasted for roughly 700 years. During the Middle Fort Ancient period (A.D. 1200 to 1400), their villages consisted of small, square, single-family houses with a central hearth that were framed with bent poles and covered with bark or skins. The houses were positioned in a circle around an open public plaza that was the focus of community life.

Despite broad similarities in architecture, village organization, and other characteristics across the Fort Ancient region, there were variations in their material culture during the Middle Fort Ancient period. For example, all Fort Ancient potters made thick-walled jars with conical bases tempered with grit, limestone, and crushed mussel shell. But stylistic differences in such things as rim shape, decorative motifs, and lug forms distinguish pots made in the various sub-regions, including the Fox Farm area.

By the start of the Late Fort Ancient period (A.D. 1400 to 1700), this regional ceramic variation had for the most part disappeared. Rather than emphasizing their differences through their respective sub-regional identities, Fort Ancient groups embraced a single, regional identity. Late Fort Ancient people made thinner-walled, more globular jars tempered exclusively with shell and fired at higher temperatures. They also made large serving pans and single-serving bowls. Archaeologists believe that the manufacture of these new vessel forms signals changes in how Fort Ancient households prepared and served food.

Pollack and Henderson see the evolution of Fort Ancient ceramics—from several sub-regional styles to a single one—as a manifestation of what they refer to as the Fort Ancient transformation. During this transformation, which began around A.D. 1400, several other aspects of their culture also changed. The archaeologists are trying to understand what’s behind this dramatic break with tradition at Fox Farm and how it fits with the transformation of Fort Ancient culture in general. Could it be, Henderson wonders, that “this is where it started?”

Summary. Read More in our Summer 2016 Issue of American Archaeology, Vol. 20 No. 1.

American Archaeology is available on Newsstands and at Bookstores,  Annual Subscriptions are available by becoming a Member of the Archaeological Conservancy for a Donation of $25 dollars or more.

Browse Articles Summaries from our last issue, Spring 2016

Click To Explore Our Bonus Online Images For The Story:

Volunteer Karen Stevens excavates interior postholes associated with a Late Fort Ancient house. Large holes in back of her are the remains of three adjacent pole-pits. These pits held non-structural sacred poles that were repeatedly set and removed. Credit: Art Dickinson
Volunteer Karen Stevens excavates interior postholes associated with a Late Fort Ancient house. Large holes in back of her are the remains of three adjacent pole-pits. These pits held non-structural sacred poles that were repeatedly set and removed.
Credit: Art Dickinson
Researchers Katherine Mueller (left) and Thomas Royster (center) excavate the postholes associated with a Late Fort Ancient structure’s exterior wall, while Emily Phillips (right) checks her notes. Credit: Art Dickinson
Researchers Katherine Mueller (left) and Thomas Royster (center) excavate the postholes associated with a Late Fort Ancient structure’s exterior wall, while Emily Phillips (right) checks her notes.
Credit: Art Dickinson
After screening soil from an excavation unit, project director Gwynn Henderson (left), Vince Whitlatch (center) and Ric Matchette examine the screen for any diagnostic artifacts. Credit: Art Dickinson
After screening soil from an excavation unit, project director Gwynn Henderson (left), Vince Whitlatch (center) and Ric Matchette examine the screen for any diagnostic artifacts. Credit: Art Dickinson
Project director David Pollack excavates a pile of animal bones near the southeast wall of a structure. The bones, which include the remains of at three bears, may represent an offering. Credit: Art Dickinson
Project director David Pollack excavates a pile of animal bones near the southeast wall of a structure. The bones, which include the remains of at three bears, may represent an offering. Credit: Art Dickinson

 

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