Once upon a time, before the big Halloween block party in Athens, before Palmer Fest, before theme weekends, before Court Street, before Ohio University, even before Athens, this area was still thriving with life and culture.
In fact, it had been for thousands of years. But these days it takes a keen observer to identify those traces of our southeast Ohio predecessors. The evidence of these ancient cultures lies literally under our noses, or, more accurately, under our feet and tires.
Many of the trails, roads, highways and byways of this area were stomped out long ago by ancient Indians traversing the region.
An article from Southeast Ohio magazine from the summer of 1988 tells of how the James Rhoades Appalachian Highway follows, with slight deviations, an ancient American Indian route known as the Buffalo Trace.
"It is no accident that the most direct route from Athens to Jackson is an Indian trail," the article states. "Jackson was probably the spot most visited by Indians and early settlers in all the Ohio valley. They came for the [natural salt springs], which was very important to the early development of the United States."
All trails leading to Jackson end at the salt springs, and early settlers learned the way from Indians who had used the trails for generations, the article said.
"To this day, one can view the rock carvings made by the Indians on the cliffs behind the Jackson salt mines," said the article. "In the swampy area behind the salt mines, Indian artifacts have been found as deep as 10 feet. They include artifacts such as pottery, stone tools and bones of various animals used as food."
The Buffalo Trace has been so heavily traveled for centuries that a ravine has been formed by erosion, the article continued. The trace was mapped out by Emmett Conway, a retired forester, who said in the article that he advised on the construction of the Appalachian Highway using the trace as a guide.
"If you were in Chillicothe and had to walk to Athens or Marietta, you couldn't find, north or south, a quicker or easier way to go than this," Conway said in the article.
In the city of Athens, the trace follows along State Street, heading northeast through the woods to Dow Lake before cutting through the Wayne National Forest and following Rt. 50 to Marietta.
In an Athens NEWS article from 1987, Conway stated that these trails are 10,000 to 20,000 years old. Conway said in the article that what is now East State Street was once a footpath used by the Indians, and Stimson Avenue was a path down to the water of the Hocking River.
BUT WHICH INDIANS, EXACTLY, were using and forming these paths, as well as living in this area? In Athens County, according to an op-ed in The Athens Messenger by Dave Brennan in February 1996, there is what some call the third largest concentration of Adena Indian burial and ring mounds in the eastern United States. They're located in The Plains.
"The largest unexcavated mound, the Hartman Mound, is there, as are several ring mounds," Brennan wrote. While burial mounds obviously contain remains, theories about the purpose of ring mounds range from sports arenas to clan initiation sites, he said, or perhaps they also hold religious significance.
Ohio History Central (www.ohiohistorycentral.org), a Web site offered by the Ohio Historical Society, notes that Adena is not the name of an American Indian tribe, but a term used to describe a culture with similar archeological attributes. The Adenas were the first people in this region to settle down into small villages, cultivate crops, use pottery vessels, make ornaments and jewelry and bury their honored dead in conical burial mounds, according to a Central entry.
The Adena lived near their gardens, but likely moved frequently as they continued to follow a hunting and gathering way of life, which they supplemented with the harvest from their gardens, the Central states. The Adena culture is traceable from 800 B.C. to A.D. 1, according to the Central.
Former Ohio University professor Elliot Abrams noted in an op-ed in The Athens Messenger in 1997 that Indian populations existed in this area for a much more extended period of time than that, however.
"From 8,000 B.C. to 500 B.C., Native American populations hunted large and small animals, fished and gathered wild plants in this region," he wrote. Around this time, Adena populations were scattered along the Hocking River and were constructing the mounds.
"These Adena populations carefully exploited their natural environment," he wrote. "Rather than depicting themselves as passive occupants of the temperate forests, our current view is that these Native Americans carefully managed the forests in a variety of creative ways, from tree removal... to the domestication of grass species for gardens adjacent to their hamlets."
The Adena, he wrote, expended much effort to ensure that corn agriculture would succeed in this temperate climate.
Abrams led several excavations of area mounds during his time at Ohio University.
One excavation conducted by OU amateur archeologists Marcia Rose and Gary Phillips found artifacts from the Fort Ancient Indian culture along West Union Street in Athens, in between Shafer Street and the fairgrounds.
Fort Ancient Indians lived in southern Ohio from A.D. 1000 to about 1650, according to Ohio History Central. Villages were made up of a number of circular or rectangular houses surrounding an open plaza. The Fort Ancient people did build small burial mounds, but gradually shifted to burials in a cemetery area with no mounds.
AS WE LOOK BACK ON Athens history, it is important to remember that ours is not the only culture that has existed in this area. Abrams pointed this out in his op-ed from 1997.
"It is important to remember that literally thousands of generations of Native Americans lived in the Hocking Valley," Abrams wrote. "They married. They raised and educated their children. They felt a sense of community. They established an emotional attachment to their natural environment. They pondered their place in the universe. And in the end, they buried and mourned their dead."