Bedrock Mortar Hole Sites
on the Upper Cumberland Plateau of Tennessee
“It sometimes happens, too, that
strangers are not welcomed, since the ravines beneath the cliffs may shelter
other industries than those of prehistoric tribes who used the hominy-holes, and
it is not always good policy to insist on extended explorations. However, the
authors have usually been able, by assurance that they were deaf, dumb, and
blind to everything but hominy-holes while in the gorges, and that they promptly
lost their memory afterward (an assurance which, needless to say, has always
been religiously observed) to locate the sites and make measurements and
photographs” (Webb and Funkhouser 1929:703).
In the late 1920s, Webb and Funkhouser (1929) were the first to intensively document bedrock mortars in the Southeast (but see Myer n. d; Hassler 1946). In fact, they coined the common term “hominy holes” to refer to these features. All of the sites they initially recorded were in the uplands of the Green River drainage in Kentucky, and they initially suggested that perhaps such sites did not occur outside of this area (1929:702). Webb and Funkhouser (1929:709) went so far as to suggest that this limited distribution of bedrock mortars might indicate a particular ethnic group. Not so long afterward, however, they began to find them in the rock shelters of Cumberland Plateau of Eastern Kentucky (Webb and Funkhouser 1936). Bedrock mortar hole sites have also been recorded in the southern plateau in Alabama. I have been documenting their occurrence on the Upper Cumberland Plateau of Tennessee (interestingly enough, they are not found on the plateau south of I-40 in Tennessee). To date, I have recorded more than 30 such sites, including rock shelters and open air sandstone exposures (Franklin 2002).
What are bedrock mortar holes?
Bedrock mortars are holes ground directly into in situ sandstone, usually, and
limestone much less frequently. They are permanent site furniture in that they are ground (or perhaps cut) into geologic features such as sandstone outcrops and/or large breakdown slabs resulting from mechanical weathering of bedrock. These are differentiated from nutting (lap) stones which are small pits worked into the flat surfaces of sandstone rock fragments. These two types of ground stone facilities differ in the typical size of the ground depressions (small and very shallow on nutting stones, much more variable, but deeper, in bedrock mortar features) and in their portability.
What were bedrock mortar holes used
Given that Webb and Funkhouser came up with the term “hominy holes”, the obvious answer would seem to be that they were used for grinding corn. However, a more plausible use is grinding nut mast, particularly acorns (a very common activity documented ethnohistorically in California). Hinkle’s (1989) research has indicated that mixed oak species dominated the uplands of the Cumberland Plateau. Furthermore, both chestnut and hickory appear to have been relatively minor constituents in the uplands. In the ravines, hickory is more important but, again, chestnut is not (Hinkle 1989:127, 128, 129). To date, the vast majority of bedrock mortar hole sites cluster at higher elevations, and they were almost certainly used to process acorns.
That having been stated, there is great variability in the size and depth of these features. Further, some appear to have been “cut” rather than ground. At several sites with “classic” bedrock mortar holes, there also are very large holes ground and/or cut into the bedrock. These larger holes range in diameter from 53cm to 1m and in depth from 15-61cm. It is almost certain that these large holes served a different function than the associated mortar holes. The energy and time required to produce them must have been immense. At this point, only speculations can be offered as to their function. It seems likely that they were some sort of service and/or processing features. They could not have been storage features because they perpetually hold water. Furthermore, all of these sites occur near permanent water sources, so they were not used to cache rainwater. It is more likely that they were used to process or leach nut mast that had been ground in the mortar holes. Another possibility for some of these features is that they are evidence of stone bowl manufacture - sandstone bowl fragments have been recovered at several sites on the Upper Cumberland Plateau of Tennessee.
Variability in Occurrence and Configuration
I am very interested in the distribution of bedrock mortar hole sites. If you know of these sites and would like to share the information, please contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-439-6653.
Dr. Franklin's homepage
Franklin, Jay D.
2002 The Prehistory of Fentress County, Tennessee: An Archaeological Survey. Doctoral Dissertation, Department of Anthropology, The University of Tennessee, Knoxville.
Hassler, E. F.
1946 Sandstone “Hominy Holes”. Tennessee Archaeologist 2(3):61-62.
Hinkle, C. Ross
1989 Forest Communities of the Cumberland Plateau of Tennessee. Journal of the Tennessee Academy of Science 64(3):123-129.
Myer, William E.
n. d. Catalogue of Archaeological Remains in Tennessee. Manuscript on file at the Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D. C. And the Tennessee Division of Archaeology, Nashville.
Webb, W. S. and W. D. Funkhouser
1929 The So-Called “Hominy Holes” of Kentucky. American Anthropologist 31(4):701-709.
1936 Rock Shelters in Menifee County, Kentucky. Reports in Archaeology and Anthropology 3(4):105-167. The University of Kentucky, Lexington.