ASHLAND As the new playground at Central Park is under way, archaeologists were out Thursday to sift through the dirt in hopes of discovering more about Ashland’s past.

Archaeologists Jason Flay, Dwight Cropper and Matthew Davidson said they came out Thursday to investigate the dirt as construction crews dug out holes for pilings for the new playground. The work is part of an effort to understand more about the mounds of Central Park, as well as the city’s history.

As previously reported by The Daily Independent, the new playground is in close proximity to the mounds, which means the city is doing its due diligence to ensure no major Native American site is disturbed. Over the summer, the archaeologists, along with volunteers, conducted a grid search near the mounds — not on the mounds, like some folks have misunderstood — to search for artifacts.

Davidson said not much turned up over the summer excavation in terms of prehistoric debris, except in a 100-foot perimeter around the mounds itself. The lack of indigenous artifacts tells a story, Davidson said.

“We didn’t find much by way of prehistoric artifacts, which is unusual,” he said. “Typically these mound structures were built near settlements and, in my experience, we typically find a lot of evidence of villages nearby.”

However, the archaeological dig did turn up some evidence in the area where the new playground is being built. Davidson postulated that it may have been a small living quarters for workers who were building the mounds and not used as a settlement per se.

“It may have been strictly a graveyard here — you look at a lot of settlements across history and cultures and many keep their cemeteries on the outskirts of town,” he said.

Archaeologists at the Ashland site have been able to turn up a little bit of evidence of Native peoples, including fire-cracked rock — which denote the remnants of a cooking hearth — to shavings from making stone tools. While the Central Park findings haven’t been earth-shattering, Davidson said the larger context shows the five mounds in the park are only a handful of roughly 20-30 found throughout the city in the 1930s.

Those mounds are long since gone and sadly so is the history, Flay said.

“I think more people are becoming educated on the importance of these sites,” Flay said. “You wouldn’t bulldoze Stonehenge. Well, these earthworks are literally America’s Stonehenge.”

The Ashland mounds are part of a larger network of mounds throughout the tri-state area — the largest set of mounds built by the Hopewell peoples is actually in South Shore, according to Flay. Archaeological surveys in the wider region have shown these settlements were part of a sophisticated network of travel and communication between tribes across the entire continent, Flay noted.

“We’ve been able to locate copper that came from the Great Lakes, obsidian from the Rocky Mountains and conch shells from the Gulf of Mexico,” Flay said. “That shows that the people who lived here were aware of other areas beyond this river valley and were probably in some respects more well traveled than Europeans in that time period.”

Continued Flay: “If you look at the size of villages in certain time periods, they surpassed the size of European villages in that same time period. There’s villages dating back that were bigger than what became London in that same period.”

And the Tri-State in pre-colonial times sat as a travel hub for Native Peoples traveling from the Great Lakes on down to coastal Georgia and beyond, said Cropper.

Cropper should know — his family farm in Greenup County is actually where the spur of the Warrior Trail started for points down south.

Interest in the ancient roots of the area has taken hold, partly because folks around here either have (or claim to have) Native American ancestry somewhere in their family tree, Cropper said.

“I think the recognition of that is really driving a lot of people to become more interested in their roots and how their ancestors may have lived,” he said.

But the history of Native Americans in the area isn’t the only point of interest in the excavations — looking into how the land that became Central Park was used prior to 1880 is another mystery the archaeologists are trying to solve.

Flay, who specializes in surveys of historical sites, said there’s no telling what the land was used for prior to appearing on city maps in the late 19th Century. One piece of evidence — a piece of a clay pipe dated to mid-1800s — could help solve that, he said.

“Right now, we don’t know what this was used for prior to Central Park,” he said. “If this was just an open field, it may have been an encampment during the Civil War for soldiers. We haven’t found anything to indicate that yet, but that was prevalent at that time. It’s hard to say until we find more evidence.”

Archaeologists will be checking out the site into early next week — over the winter time, they will analyze all artifacts found in order to compile a report for the city.

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