Cultural Resources - Grassy Lake Site in Ballard County, Kentucky
The Grassy Lake
Site (15Ba144) is located in Ballard County, in far western Kentucky. The site
covers 3 hectares (ha) or 7.4 acres of land located on floodplain known as the Barlow Bottoms.
investigation of the southeast corner of this site generated a good sample of
materials from sealed deposits. This paper will describe the sites location,
field investigations, materials recovered and conclude
with a discussion
contextualizing Grassy Lake relative to nearby terminal Late Woodland and Early
Grassy Lake is
one of the many lakes in old river channels on the Barlow Bottoms, a dynamic
landscape that has been constantly forming since people first entered the
US. The Barlow Bottoms is more than 8 km wide, stretching from the
dissected upland loess hills to the Ohio River and more than 20 km north and
The lake is 3 km north of the
confluence of the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers. The entire bottom has been
timbered and farmed over the past 200 years. Prior to the 1937 flood there were
numerous small farmsteads and crossroad communities scattered throughout the
bottoms but after the depression, the flood, and WW II the bottoms were largely
abandoned and the land used for wildlife refuges, timber production, and
intensive large scale farming operations. In the fall of 2010 the Kentucky
Archaeological Survey and Kentucky Natural Resources Conservation Service as
part of a Southern Appalachian Cooperative Ecosystem project undertook limited
excavations at the Grassy Lake site.
selected for excavation was based on surface artifacts and manual soil probing.
A total of 12 sq m were excavated. Ten square meters in an area southeast of
the ridge and two square meters on the south end of the ridge. During
excavation materials were collected in 1 X 1 m units from 10-cm arbitrary levels
and screened through 6.35 mm mesh. Flotation and radiocarbon samples were
collected from units and levels.
Five of the
units were excavated as a small block on the southeast edge of the ridge. The
remaining unit was placed on the end of the ridge at a slightly higher
elevation. Within the block, the upper strata consists of very compact light
brown silt that overlays a dark gray brown sandy loam midden.
midden is culturally sterile buff or yellow colored fine sand. Soils profiles
within this block are interpreted as sheet midden deposited on an abandoned
river levee and then covered with silt following flood events. The midden
contained a dense amount of charcoal, ceramic and lithic material.
unit was placed on the end of the ridge at a slightly higher elevation. Its
profile consisted of a plow zone that overlaid a brown sandy loam midden. Both
contained a low density of sherds and lithic artifacts. At the base of the
midden a dark grayish brown oval shallow basin feature was identified that
contained few artifacts except for calcined bone fragments suggesting a hearth.
Based on the low artifact density and the presence of the surface hearth, this
area is interpreted as an activity locale situated near a structure as opposed
to the block which is interpreted as a refuse disposal area.
Grassy Lake radiocarbon dates obtained on nut charcoal from the excavation block
are suggestive of a site occupation that dates from A.D. 1025-1150.
collection exhibits a classic varied Mississippian plant use system within which
12 row closed cupule corn and native cultigens like chenopod, maygrass, and
erect knotweed were significant contributors to the diet. Nuts like hickory and
acorn are well-represented. Gourd rind is present in two samples, and wild
plant seeds, including grape, sumac, smartweed, wild bean, and grass seed also
is unusual in terms of the small amount of wood charcoal that was recovered. The
dominant species of wood charcoal recovered are American chestnut, sycamore,
elm, hickory, ash, oak from the white oak group, and cane. The small amount of
wood charcoal and the high fragmentation of nutshell, suggest secondary discard
of food and cooking remains removed from primary habitation context.
Overall faunal preservation was poor due to
acidic soil conditions in the midden and burning in the feature.
Chipped Stone Assemblage
stone assemblage consisted of formal tools, informal tools, and debitage. Of
the 1384 lithic artifacts recovered, 95 percent were debitage; the remainder is
either formal or informal tools. The four complete and two fragmentary
projectile points are all triangular Madison points made of Mounds Gravel,
except for one made of Dover chert. Hoe fragments recovered from the site
consist of two bit ends of the hoes. Twenty polished hoe flakes were also
recovered. All of the hoe fragments and re-sharperning flakes are Mill Creek
chert. Two drill fragments were made from Mounds Gravel Chert. Informal tools
consisted of edge modified or retouched flakes, utilized flakes, biface
fragments, and core or core fragments.
accounts for almost two thirds of the raw materials used in chipped stone tool
production. Other raw materials utilized were glacial cobble, Purchase Gravel,
Dover, and Mill Creek chert, and Quartz. For the most part lithic raw
materials were collected from nearby sources and were probably procured as
unmodified gravels and cobbles from local streams. Mill Creek and Dover chert
would have been procured through exchange relationships, or by individuals
traveling to quarries in Southern Illinois or Tennessee.
The Grassy Lake ceramic
assemblage is characterized by a high percentage of cordmarked vessels, with
most of the remaining sherds having plain surfaces of varying degree of
smoothing; with only a few 1 having fabric impressed exterior surfaces. Of the
plain sherds, 25 have a red, orange, brown, or black slip on their exterior or
interior surface. Five cordmarked sherds have a slip on their interior
surface. Though shell is present in 41.2 percent of the sherds, it is the
dominant temper in only 13.3 percent of the assemblage.
Jars are the
most common vessel form, followed by bowls, pans, and funnels. Slightly more
than 50 percent of rims exhibit no modification. Of the remaining specimens,
rimstrips, exterior protrusions, and rolled lips are associated with about one
third. In general, plain jars are smaller than cordmarked jars. This suggests
that plain jars may have been used for different purposes than cordmarked
vessels. Perhaps they were used in food preparation and serving, with
cordmarked jars being used for cooking and storage.
consist of castellations, lugs, handles, and rimriders. Notching of the lip is
the primary decorative treatment, being associated with about one quarter of the
rims. Several sherds have incised or punctuated decorative motifs on jar necks.
ceramic type recovered from Grassy Lake is stumpware. As with later Wickliffe
thick funnels these vessels may have been used as pot or pan supports.
Discussion and Conclusions
dates from Grassy Lake, suggests that the site was occupied ca. A.D. 1050-1100
or towards the end of the early Mississippian James Bayou and Jonathan Creek
phases. On the other hand if one relied solely on the material culture and in
particular the ceramics, one would be tempted to argue that the site was
occupied about ca. A.D. 950-1000 or about 100 years earlier.
comparisons of the materials recovered from nearby sites, we have come to
believe that perhaps the time has come to rethink some of the temporal trends in
material culture that have been proposed for the Ohio-Mississippi confluence
In general, the
ceramic assemblages from the excavation at Grassy Lake compare favorably with
assemblages recovered from the earlier terminal Late Woodland Pettit Site in
Illinois and the early Mississippian Dedmon site in Kentucky. The Pettit Site
(11Ax253) is located along the Mississippi River a little more than 33 km
northwest of the Grassy Lake Site, while the Dedmon site is located a little
more than 65 km east of Grassy Lake along the Tennessee River.
surprisingly, relative to the earlier Petitt site, the Grassy Lake Site exhibits
an increase in the use of shell to temper ceramic vessels. There is also an
increase in vessels with plain exterior surfaces relative to cordmarked
At both sites
rimstrips are associated with about one-third of the bowls and pans, but they
are much more common on jars at Petitt than at Grassy Lake. At the former they
are associated with more than fifty-five percent of the jars, compared to about
fifteen percent of these types of vessels at Grassy Lake.
Though the Grassy Lake ceramic
assemblage has more in common with Dedmon than Pettit, there are aspects of both
assemblages that are suggestive of interregional differences. At both Dedmon
and Grassy Lake, about seven percent of the assemblage is tempered with just
shell. Surprisingly there is little mention of mixed shell and grog tempered
ceramics at Dedmon. When mixed tempered sherds are considered, Grassy Lake
shows a greater use of shell as a tempering agent. In addition, at sites,
sherds with cordmarked exterior surfaces account for about 75 percent of each
siteâ€™s ceramic assemblage and plain sherds about one quarter, but fabric
impressed and slipped sherds are slightly more common at Grassy Lake than at
Dedmon. The high percentage of cordmarked sherds at both sites, suggests that
plain surface sherds do not dominate local Mississippian collections until after
rimfolds, lugs, castellations and handles are not as prevalent as at Grassy
Lake. On the other hand, lip notching and punctuation as a decorative lip
treatment is more common at Dedmon than Grassy Lake.
similarity of the Dedmon and Grassy lake assemblages, however, suggests that use
of Mulberry Creek and Baytown Plain continued well into the Mississippi period.
Sussenbach and Lewis made a similar observation at the Marshall site in nearby
however, is distinguished from Dedmon and Grassy Lake by a much higher
percentage of plain vessels, and greater use of shell temper. Though Sussenbach
and Lewis suggest that the initial use of Marshall dates from A.D. 900-1100,
based on our work at Grassy Lake we cannot help but wonder if the Mississippian
occupation of Marshall post-dates A.D. 1100.
The data from
Grassy Lake, Dedmon, and Marshall, suggest that with respect to ceramics the
Late Woodland to Mississippian transition was not very abrupt. Grog and grog
mixed with shell continued to be a major tempering agent well into the 1300s in
the confluence region, and ceramics similar to Baytown Plain and Mulberry Creek
Cordmarked continued to be manufactured well into the 1100s. That ceramics were
more resistant to change than other aspects of subsistence, material culture,
and socio-political organization should not come as much of a surprise. Ceramic
manufacture is a learned behavior that is passed from generation to generation,
and during periods of transition we should not be surprised to find a great deal
of variation. Though limited, the data from Grassy Lake raises questions
concerning the transition from Late Woodland to Mississippian periods in the
confluence region, and forces us to reassess some of our temporal assumptions.
As more work is undertaken in this region, we should be able to arrive at a
better understanding of the Late Woodland/Mississippian transition in western
Assistant State Conservationist
William "Bill" Sharp
771 Corporate Drive Suite 210
Lexington KY 40503