by Richard W. Jefferies, Ph.D.
Department of Anthropology
University of Kentucky
The oldest known structure in the Bluegrass is not an Antebellum house or a pioneer cabin, but a prehistoric earthen construction located off Mt. Horeb Pike in northern Fayette County. The circular structure, known as the Mount Horeb Earthwork, was built approximately two thousand years ago by a group of prehistoric Native Americans that archaeologists call Adena. The Adena name has no Native American significance, but comes from the name of the farm in Ohio (Adena) where the first Adena archaeological site was excavated more than 100 years ago.
The Adena people lived in the Ohio River Valley from about 500 B.C. to 300 A.D. They obtained most of their food by hunting and collecting the wild animals (deer, turkey, rabbit, fish, water fowl) and plants (hickory nuts, walnuts, acorns, wild fruit, seeds) found around them. They practiced a fairly mobile life style, not living in one location for very long. Because of this, archaeologists have found few traces of their camp sites and know little about their daily lives. In contrast to their short term settlements, Adena people devoted considerable energy toward the construction of their many burial mounds, "sacred" circles, and other earthworks, using baskets of earth to create these lasting monuments. Most were likely used for social and ceremonial purposes. The Mount Horeb area of Fayette County contains a number of Adena mounds and earthworks, of which the Mount Horeb Earthwork is the best preserved.
The Mount Horeb Earthwork was excavated by University of Kentucky archaeologist William D. Webb in 1939. Archaeological investigations revealed that the earthwork consisted of an interior circular area measuring about 105 feet in diameter, surrounded by a ditch measuring 45 feet wide and 8 feet deep. The soil from the ditch was piled to the outside, forming a wall 5 feet high that encircled the ditch and the circular interior area. An entrance to the earthen enclosure is located on the southwest side of the earthwork where the ditch and wall were not constructed. The entire earthwork is approximately 300 feet in diameter.
Webb's excavation team found few artifacts, but they did expose a circular pattern of dark stains that mark the locations of where wooden posts once stood. The circle of posts was approximately 100 feet in diameter and contained 62 obvious pairs of postholes, along with eight single posts. Individual posts, which were about one foot in diameter, probably formed a continuous wall or screen around the edge of the interior circular area. The purpose of the wall is unknown, but it may have been used to restrict viewing of activities that took place in the interior circle. Most archaeologists agree that the activities conducted at the Mount Horeb Earthwork were social or community oriented in nature, but their specific purpose is unknown.
The landscape surrounding the Mount Horeb Earthworks contains abundant evidence of other Adena constructions. A similar, but smaller, version of the Mount Horeb Earthworks lies just to the south. An earthen Adena burial mound, known as the Fisher Mound, once stood to the west. The mound was excavated in the 1870s. To the southwest, the much larger Peter Village earthwork encloses about 25 acres. Peter Village was also once surrounded by a wooden stockade containing more than four thousand posts. Other Adena mounds are located across Elkhorn Creek.
Clearly, the cultural landscape of the Bluegrass was being created well before the first pioneers entered the region. More than two thousand years ago, ancient Native Americans were building a variety of complex monuments from earth and wood that were designed to help them successfully negotiate the physical and social worlds in which they lived.
Approximately fifty years ago, the site was purchased through private contributions and eventually given to the University of Kentucky. The University continues to maintain the site so that it will be preserved for future generations to visit and study.