Old Fort Earthworks, Kentucky
National Historic Site—Located on private land in South Portsmouth, Kentucky near the nw intersection of Hwys. 852 and 8. The site is massive and several back roads and a railroad track run through it.
By Dr. Greg Little
Portions of this article and the illustration above are from The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Native American Mounds & Earthworks.
As the Mound Encyclopedia states, the ancient American earthworks and mounds are vastly unappreciated and most Americans are completely unaware of how incredible and massive many sites were—and still are. Some of the world’s most incredible wonders were made by the ancestors of Native Americans and the Portsmouth earthworks serve as one of the most impressive examples of this. At the confluence of the Scioto and Ohio Rivers, sprawling across both sides of both rivers in a wide area of Ohio and Kentucky, rests the remains of what was once an incredible set of mounds, complex geometric earthworks, and leveled walkways extending for tens of miles. This complex rivals all other earthworks built in the ancient world and it is known that the formations were constructed around 500 B.C.—2,500 years ago. The flat walkways were 160-feet wide and had massive earthen walls enclosing them. The walls on the edges of the walkways were an astonishing 20-feet thick and were 4-feet high when they were surveyed in 1848. Three walkways radiated from the Portsmouth, Ohio side from a bizarre earthwork complex located high on the side of a mountain. One of these walkways ran to the southwest for 7-miles terminating on the banks of the Ohio River. Immediately on the other side of the river, in Kentucky, the walkway continued until it terminated at what is now known as the Old Fort Earthworks. This complex geometric earthwork is one of three equally impressive components of the entire Portsmouth site and the next installments of ArchaeoTrek will detail the other components.
A mural painting on the concrete seawall (levee) in downtown Portsmouth, Ohio depicts the entire site and information on the various components is printed on a sign posted by the painting. The Old Fort Earthworks are described as essentially destroyed and as inaccessible on private property, but that is not precisely correct. Large areas of the Old Fort site remain intact and visible and portions are next to public highways and roads as well as adjacent to a set of railroad tracks. In 2002 my wife Lora and I visited the site with Brent and Joan Raynes. It was actually Brent’s dogged persistence that led us to discovering that large portions of the formation remain intact. It is grazing land and the walls of the square are fenced. However, walking on the property is illegal without permission. One side of the square is adjacent to a railroad track and is accessible. Three small conical burial mounds remain there, immediately on the other side of the tracks. We did not determine if the mounds are intact (undisturbed).
The Old Fort Earthworks are not a fort, but rather are an integral part of what was a huge ceremonial and ritual center utilized by the mound building culture commonly referred to as Hopewell. The illustration above helps visualize and understand the description that follows. The main component of the site is a 15-acre square formed from earthen walls that stand 12-feet high and have a width of 35 to 40-feet. In brief, the walls are massive and straight. Each of the four sides of the 15-acre square ran for 800-feet. The square has 6 openings.
The most bizarre features of the square are now almost totally obliterated but were completely surveyed in 1848. On the north and south sides of the square there were two long “wings” formed by parallel earthen walls. These two wings, or extensions from the square, each ran 2100-feet to the northeast and southwest. The upper extension ran up and down over two deep ravines and the lower extension ran down and up a deep ravine ending in an unusual configuration. Toward the end of the lower extension the parallel earthen walls move close together ending at a point so small that only a single person could walk through. This is something like the end of an “eyedropper,” a term that Dr. Lora Little used to describe it. At this point a circular earthwork was located along with several burial mounds. Portions of the circular earthwork remained in 2002, but a house now sits at the precise point where the eyedropper was located. We spoke to the residents of the house who had no idea whatsoever of the significance of the location. The wings and the square served in a ceremonial ritual where people were led from one key spot to another. We believe that that the ritual was concluded at the eyedropper.
Just to the west of the Old Fort site was a huge and famous Indian village known as Lower Shawneetown. This huge village was still active in historic times and was the location of several major events. Some small burial mounds remain there, but the site is completely overgrown and is essentially inaccessible. Next installment of ArchaeoTrek will detail an equally incredible portion of the Portsmouth site, which is also officially listed as obliterated, however, an arranged visit to the site by the owner of the land and a public official showed otherwise.