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History

Wickliffe Mounds is the site of a Native American village of the Mississippian mound building culture, located in Ballard County, Kentucky.  This archaeological site was first occupied by the Mississippian Native Americans from A.D. 1100 to 1350.  Around 900 years ago, Mississippian people moved to this bluff which overlooks the Mississippi River and built a village with earthen mounds, houses and buildings all surrounding a central plaza. The Native People at the Wickliffe site were typical of a vast culture that archaeologists call the Mississippians.  Peaceful farmers, they grew corn and squash, hunted in the neighboring forests and fished the river; they made pottery from shell-tempered clay with elaborate designs and decorations; they participated in a vast trade network up and down the rivers; they had stone, shell and bone tools; they had a complex chiefdom level society; they lived in permanent style houses made of wattle and daub; and they built flat topped platform style mounds.  For reasons yet unknown, the village was abandoned after the 1350s.  Wickliffe Mounds was one of many Mississippian towns built along the river and was a residential and ceremonial center.

Early settlers to the region probably knew about the mounds at this site, but made little mention of it.  The first formal notice occurred in 1888 when surveyor Robert Loughridge mapped the mounds for the Commonwealth of Kentucky.  From 1895 to 1932, the site was owned by the Wisconsin Chair Company and was used for harvesting timber.  In 1930, road crews building Hwy 51 cut through the southern edge of the prehistoric site and turned up pottery and other artifacts.

 
Colonel Fain W. King, a Paducah lumber magnate and relic collector, purchased the site in 1932 and began excavating the mounds and developed a tourist attraction.  Fain King, later joined by his wife, Blanche Busey King, opened the site to public visitation from the beginning of his work, calling the site at first the “King Mounds” and eventually naming it the “Ancient Buried City.”  King directed excavations from 1932 until 1939. Some of their excavations followed proper archaeological techniques of that era, but their field notes and other records have disappeared. What we do know of King’s excavations through archival research is that Colonel King labeled the mounds "A - B - C - D - E - F - G" in the order he excavated them.  Mound A was the first mound excavated in 1932, and it's the largest mound on the site as well.  Based on a survey map and on more recent excavations, in all, there were at least 8 mounds at this village, Mounds A through H.  On display today are Mounds A, B, C, and D. The remaining mounds were completely destroyed by King's excavations in the 1930's and at least one mound excavation area on exhibit that we know of burned down in the 1950’s. Mrs. King published a book called Under Your Feet in 1939 which contained some information and photos about their involvement at the site.

In 1946, the Kings retired and turned the site over to Western Baptist Hospital in Paducah.   The Western Baptist Hospital owned the Ancient Buried City from 1946 to 1983.  During the 1950s and 1960s, the site was a well-known tourist attraction in western Kentucky.

In recognition of the scientific importance and the educational potential of the mounds, Western Baptist Hospital donated the site to Murray State University in 1983. Murray State University reorganized the site, calling it the Wickliffe Mounds Research Center and set out to accurately understand, interpret and preserve the site with archaeologists and museum personnel in charge. Exhibits were updated to provide accurate information about the Mississippian people who once lived here. 

Beginning in 1984, Murray State University conducted small scale excavations and archaeological laboratory research at Wickliffe Mounds to promote a better understanding of the site.  The excavations helped verify the accuracy of the 1930s excavations and develop an overview of activities on the whole site.  One of the problems that archaeologists face at Wickliffe Mounds is that field notes from the 1930’s are missing.  So, the results of modern research help archaeologists to understand the areas excavated by the Kings, and also other areas of the site occupied by the Mississippians.  

 Murray State University’s archaeological research has produced significant information about the Wickliffe Mounds site.  Radiocarbon dates as well as other techniques have established a chronology for the Wickliffe Mounds archaeological site (15BA4): the Early Wickliffe period lasted from about A.D. 1100-1175, the Middle Wickliffe period from about A.D. 1175-1250, and the Late Wickliffe period from about A.D. 1250-1350.
The Wickliffe village was settled by Native Americans of the Mississippian culture and began as a small town surrounding a central plaza (where the parking lot is now), about A.D. 1100. By about A.D. 1175, they built the first stage of what became Mound B (the Architecture building), where the chief and his or her family probably lived.

Between A.D. 1175 and 1250, the villagers built Mounds A (the Ceremonial Mound) and C (Burial Mound), added to Mound B, and may have begun some other mounds such as Mound D (the Lifeways building). The area covered by the village expanded, partly as families moved back to give room for the mounds, and perhaps partly due to a larger population. There are indications that trade increased during this period, especially between Wickliffe and the region around St. Louis, where Cahokia grew to be the largest Mississippian site.

Between A.D. 1250 and 1350, some interesting changes happened. The people devoted less effort to building mounds, although they completed Mounds A, B, and D, and built Mound F (west of the Ceremonial Mound) during this period. The village continued to expand, however, until it covered the entire bluff.  The villagers apparently left this location about A.D. 1350. The reasons for their departure are not clear, and archaeologists are still studying the question.

Wickliffe Mounds archaeologists continue to study the artifacts that were excavated during the 1930s, 1980s, 1990s and after.  Because excavation destroys the part of the site being studied, modern archaeology justifies excavating only what will produce new information. Archaeology is a non-renewable resource.  Until the most recent excavations are thoroughly studied, and new questions or techniques can be brought to the study of this site, or if mitigation projects become necessary, Wickliffe Mounds State Historic Site will continue to preserve the site and interpret the latest findings while keeping further disturbance of the site at a minimum.

In 2004, Murray State University transferred the Wickliffe Mounds archaeological site and its collections to the Commonwealth of Kentucky. Designated as the Wickliffe Mounds State Historic Site, the mounds are operated by the Kentucky Department of Parks. The site remains open to the public as a state historic site, a tourist attraction, an archaeological museum, and an educational resource.

Wickliffe Mounds is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, is designated as a Kentucky Archaeological Landmark and is an Interpretive Center on the Great River Road National Scenic Byway.

For more detailed information about the archaeology of the site, Dr. Kit Wesler, archaeology professor at Murray State University, has written an important book called,  Excavations at Wickliffe Mounds,  (2001) University of Alabama Press, and it is the most relevant and informative published material about Wickliffe Mounds to date. 

For more about the early days of the site in the 1930’s, click here to download a poster on the history of Wickliffe Mounds. (Adobe PDF)
Poster Copyright 2011 Frank M. Bodkin

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