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About three miles east of Berea, Ky, lies Indian Fort mountain. The land is owned by Berea College as a part of its forest reserves. This mountain, just over 1500 feet above sea level at its highest point, consists of steep limestone cliffs, with sandstone conglomerate just below the fairly flat summit. This plateau is connected with other pinnacles to the east, west, and north by narrow ridges. At almost every point where there is a break in the steep cliffs surrounding the plateau there was constructed in prehistoric times a series of walls to block access to the top. These structures vary in type of construction, and in length from two to three feet wide to hundreds of yards in length. Many are almost destroyed now, though a few are well preserved. In 1910 Col. Bennett Young described some of the features of this mountain and appears to be the first modern person to recognize the extent of the structure1. An extensive paper by W. G. Burroughs2 in 1923 lists 17 walls and includes a map of the mountain. It represents the most important publication to date on the site. However, during my studies another small was was located by one of my party about a year [ED: 1986]ago. It is about two feet wide and blocks a small defile southwest of wall nine (see map).
The builders of these mysterious walls, and their function has been the subject of some debate. They obviously indicate the presence of a well organized society with enough resources available aside from basic food gathering to allow workers to work many days to haul the thousands of tons of stone from below the area of the walls up to the walls for construction. The walls consist of stones of the type found near the summit, but also of limestone found only well below the level of the walls, indicating they had to be transported uphill. The walls are attributed to the Hopwell Amerindian culture, and the site is officially described as a "sacred mountain ceremonial site".
There has been found evidence of habitation in the form of a few typical Indian rock shelter burial sites, with flint pieces and red ochre described in early excavations. Additionally, there have been many surface finds of Adena period and Archaic flint pieces.
Water supply for a large scale habitation would have been limited. There is one small and intermittent spring on top, but no other source of water. On a small pinnacle to the north of Indian Fort is a small carved basin, with a capacity of only a few gallons at most carved into a boulder. This feature gives the name, 'Basin Mountain' to this peak, and it is guarded by on wall several yards in length similar to those on Indian Fort Mountain. It has been surmised this basin might have been for water storage. If so, it could not have sustained much of a settlement.
A longtime Berea resident described to me a possible stone circle somewhere on the eastern side of the mountain. He told me that he and a friend were hiking there one day near dusk and became lost. They scuffed up leaves with their feet in an attempt to locate the path and uncovered remains of some type of circular structure about 15 feet in diameter. They had the impression it might be the outer rim of a concave depression lined with stone, but did not dig further as they were more interested in getting "unlost" and back home as it was getting dark. They never found the structure again. This is apparently the only reference to such a structure as it is not mentioned in any of the writings about the mountain, including Burrough's detailed survey which is the most complete work on the subject.
Burrough described piles of stone behind the walls in various locations which he surmised were "ammunition" to be used to rain down on the heads of anyone attempting to breach the walls.
If this mountain did indeed serve as a defensive fortification it also could have functioned as a point from which to watch for movement of other groups travelling into the mountains just to the east or to the Blue Grass region to the west and north. It overlooks Narrow Gap, through which passes a road connecting the mountains to the east with the rolling hills of the Blue Grass to the west and north. Daniel Boone entered the Blue Grass region along the course of an ancient Indian path.
This mountain is at the extreme western edge of the Appalachian chain of mountains. It really is a part of the Knobs region, or sharply rising foothills. Just to the east and north have been found several petroglyphs consisting of linear carvings which we recognize as possibly being ancient Gaelic ogam writing. No carvings are known on the mountain itself. The nearest confirmed inscriptions are those at Sand Gap, perhaps 15 miles to the east. [ED: Many of the Sand Gap inscriptions were documented in subsequent MES Journals]. However, there are rumors of other sites nearer than this. An obvious question is whether these prehistoric features are related, and if so, in what way.
However, an Archaeological survey in 1982 by Moore 3 would seem to cast doubt on any possibility of a direct association between Indian Fort Mountain and recently recognized inscriptions. His survey was a brief one and included excavation of only one site, a trench of wall 7, the most prominent structure on the mountain. The wall is 380 feet long and breached by a modern logging road which now serves as the main trail to the structure.
Near the north end of this wall Moore dug a trench and found this wall is constructed of about 60% packed earth and 40% stone. The surface appearance is of a solid stone structure which presents a formable appearance when approaching from below. He obtained charcoal from two sides in the trench. One sample produced a radiocarbon date of 580 B.C. with a rather large error of plus or minus 130 years due to the small sample size. A second, larger sample obtained from an irregular hole below the excavated trench gave a date of about 40 A.D. These dates would appear to indicate that construction was underway at this time. He felt the earlier and smaller sample might have indicated that hearth material from an earlier occupation might have been dumped into the fill of the wall and was not current with its construction.
During this brief survey a few test holes were also dug around a small spring on the summit. No artifacts were found other than small flint shards.
It was concluded that Indian Fort probably represneted a ceremonial site of early to middle Woodland culture similar to Old Stone Fort in Tennessee and other sites in the southern Appalachians. Moore believed the walls represent a smybolic boundary defining the mountain top rather than a defensive one.
From the information at hand it would seem that the walls were constructed earlier that the period presumed for this writing of apparent ogam inscriptions in the area. The interpretation of these inscriptions indicates Christian era messages for the most part. From other information they are presumed to date from perhaps 600 to 1000 A.D.
Likewise, the carbon dating would seem to refute the possibility that this or other mountain top "forts" were the work of the legendary Prince Madoc and his band of Welchmen. They travelled these parts in the 12th century if the records are accurate. Some have suggested a similarity in appearance between stone fortifications in Wales and those in the southern Appalachian mountains. This does nothing to refute the story of Prince Madoc and the linguistic correlation between Welch and certain Amerindian languages. It just indicated that Indian Fort Mountain structures were already in place at the time of presumed precolumbian Welch visits to North America.
At present the trails on Indian Fort Mountain are closed to the public as a result of a devasting forest fire set by arsonists in November, 1987. Trails are considered unsafe due to dmaged trees which could fall at any time on hikers. The walkways are clogged with debris and fallen logs. The forest manager told me recently that he did no know when the area could again be opened. I had hoped to be able to search for the reported stone circle which might be made visible with the burning of overlying leaves. However, this project will have to be delayed indefinitely. A five thousand dollar reward for information leading to the arrest of the arsonist goes uncollected. The resources of the college forestry service are overwhelmed, and a most interesting prehistoric site remains unavailable for further study and enjoyment.