Wetlands and Archaeological Sites

Wetlands are one of the most archaeologically sensitive areas in Ohio. Wetlands were exploited for their natural resources throughout Ohio’s prehistory (14,000-450 years ago). Additionally, land adjacent to wetlands, particularly in Ohio’s glaciated region, was often used by prehistoric American Indians for hunting game, collecting plants, and establishing settlements.

Wetlands also preserve the remains of Late Pleistocene and Early Holocene animals and plants exploited by Ohio’s earliest inhabitants, the Paleoindians (14,000-9500 years ago). Mastodon (an extinct relative of the elephant) and human associations are the subject of great international interest, and lately sites in Ohio have been in the forefront of such research. Primary among these were the 1989 discovery of the Burning Tree mastodon in Licking County, and the 1993 recovery of remains from the Martins Creek mastodon in Holmes County.

The extremely well-preserved and nearly complete skeletal remains of the Burning Tree mastodon were discovered while dredging a small wetland on a gently undulating late-Wisconsin end moraine during development of a golf course. This significant find included the recovery of a portion of the mastodon’s intestinal contents, including for the first time gut bacteria surviving in a dormant state for 11,000 years. Although no stone tools were recovered, some of the mastodon’s skeletal remains showed evidence of cut marks indicating that prehistoric American Indians butchered the animal.

Archaeological excavations and laboratory analysis for animal protein residue on prehistoric stone tools recovered in association with the Martins Creek mastodon confirmed that prehistoric American Indians butchered this mastodon. The Martins Creek site is located two miles north of a late-Wisconsin terminal end moraine near the tip of a narrow peninsula of land that once extended into a glacial lake. Continued archaeological investigations at such sites are crucial to better understanding human interactions with these environments, past, present and future.

The Ohio Archaeological Inventory, Ohio’s official record of archaeological sites, contains information on thousands of sites occupied because of their proximity to wetlands. Caches of prehistoric stone tools have been found in wetlands, perhaps deposited there by accident while canoeing or intentionally placed there as part of a ritual. Prehistoric dugout canoes have even been found in wetlands, where wood artifacts are likely to survive for thousands of years.

The destruction of wetlands is likely to destroy the archaeological sites that are inextricably associated with them. It is important to remember that where there are, or were, wetlands, there are archaeological sites that document over 10,000 years of American Indian prehistory in Ohio. Wetlands were also exploited by Ohio’s early settlers. Many water-related historic archaeological sites exist in wetland areas. As wetlands disappear, so does the prehistory and history of these people, this state, and the nation.

The State Historic Preservation Office, Ohio’s official historic preservation agency, is charged with identifying, evaluating, and protecting important archaeological sites in Ohio, be they on public or private property. The State Historic Preservation Office seeks the cooperation of federal, state, and local governments and agencies, and private sector conservation organizations, developers, and property owners in the identification, evaluation, and protection of important archaeological sites in and adjacent to wetlands.