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Archeologists Work to Preserve Native American Artifacts in Kentucky's Forests

The Daniel Boone National Forest covers a wide swath of Eastern and Southern Kentucky. It stretches through twenty-one counties from Morehead to the Big South Fork bordering Tennessee.

In all the federal forest is 700,00 acres of dense woods, mountains, streams, and rock shelters. It’s those rock shelters that archeologists say are a gold mine of artifacts from Native Americans that date back at least nine-thousand years.

The rock shelters are not caves, but outcroppings of rock that protected people from harsh weather.

Jon Endonino is an Associate Professor in Anthropology at Eastern Kentucky University who says thousands of years ago the state was full of “hunter-gathers, people who made their living off of the land.”

He says the rock shelters are often cool, dry areas that are ideal for preserving artifacts.

“They’re outstanding for organic preservation. So, you’ll have animal bones well preserved. Plant remains for food, textiles, and clothing. In some cases, you’ll even have slippers, sleeping mats, and basketry.”

The U-S Forest Service says they’ve located at least 6,700 archeological sites in rock shelters in the Daniel Boone National Forest.

Megan Krietsch, an archeologist with the U-S Forest Service, says in the Daniel Boone National Forest the “vast majority” of the rock shelters have been disturbed, even destroyed by people digging for artifacts.

“It's heartbreaking. Removing it so that other people can’t see it and can’t enjoy it is upsetting. We need to look at these as natural resources.”

Melissa Ramsey agrees. She’s also an archeologist with the U-S Forest Service. “To know that people at some point in the past came in and destroyed and took information that could be very useful to us as archaeologists and to Kentuckians as a whole about how people, indigenous peoples, lived in this area and used it. When they want to destroy a site like this, they’re ruining it for generations to come because you can’t get it back.”

In the two rock shelters that the U-S Forest Service took us to there were numerous mounds of dirt about a foot high. That plus many footprints are evidence the forest service says that artifact collectors have looted the rock shelter.

Professor Endonino says when people dig for artifacts like arrowheads and tools, they destroy lots of other items or materials that archeologists study.

“We bring back literally bags of dirt to the lab and then go to specialists who remove and study the animal bones, the plant remains. And many of them don’t really contain a whole lot of interesting artifacts, but they’re loaded with information that is not like a spear point or pottery or anything like that.”

Endonino says the artifacts they recover, and study are eventually sent to a “curation facility” like the William S. Webb Museum at the University of Kentucky.

Not only is valuable information lost from people digging through the rock shelters, but it’s also against the law to collect and remove artifacts from federal and state-owned property. It's a felony, and if convicted a person could be sent to prison and face thousands of dollars in fines.

But U-S Forest Service says in the Daniel Boone National Forest few people are caught in the act, and placing security cameras at all the archaeological sites is not feasible. Krietsch says the U-S Forest Service tries to monitor the rock shelters.

“So that we can see if there are any changes. Then we could discuss with our law enforcement officers about putting up a trail cam so that we can capture on film the folks who engaging in the looting.”

Why do people disturb and destroy archaeological sites?

Endonino says there’s money to be made from selling artifacts. Krietsch also says collecting artifacts can be a family activity that’s been passed down through generations.

Endonino adds that even if the artifacts are kept in a person’s home as a collection there’s no guarantee it will be intact in the future.

“What happens in fifty years? What happens in 100 years? Does the collection get sold off piecemeal? And then all of a sudden, we don’t really know where this came from.”

At a museum, he says, “that history is still available.”

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Sam is a veteran broadcast journalist who is best known for his 34-year career as a News Anchor at WKYT-TV in Lexington. Sam retired from the CBS affiliate in 2021.
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