Archaeological Excavations at the King Hill Site (23BN1) Buchanan County, Missouri

by Michael E. Ruppert. Presented at the 30th Annual Plains Conference on 2 November 1972


The King Hill site is located in the southern portion of St. Joseph, Missouri on a high bluff overlooking the Missouri River bottomland. Construction of roads, houses, a school, and other projects involving earth movement were once believed to have destroyed the entire site. In the Spring of 1966, a small undisturbed portion of the site was discovered by Mr. R. B. Aker in a privately owned garden, which, along a small house, was for sale. Fortunately, the garden was rented by the St. Joseph Public Museum in order to allow time for salvage of data and to protect it from vandals.

A cooperative agreement between the St. Joseph Public Museum, St. Joseph Archaeological Society, and the University of Missouri's Summer Session in Archaeology permitted limited exploration of the site during the following summer. The University's portion of the venture was directed by Dale R. Henning, and was carried out over a ten day period in July of 1966. Members of the St. Joseph Archaeological Society participated in the excavation as a training program: the methods employed were followed in their ensuing investigation which continued into the Fall. In sum, 13 ten foot squares and two narrow exploratory trenches were excavated. All materials were passed through a one-quarter inch screen, and soil samples were taken.

The 1966 tests revealed a deep stratified trash deposit which filled an old erosion ditch to a depth of nearly ten feet. The trash deposit has yielded a large collection of pottery, stone and bone tools, small European derived objects of copper, brass, iron, and glass, and quantities of floral and fauna remains. Preliminary analysis of these remains indicate cultural and temporal similarity to the inhabitants of the Fanning Site (Wedel 1959).

If Wedel is correct in his tentative suggestion at the Oneota remains at Fanning represent a historic Kansa occupation, it is probable that the King Hill site can also be assigned to the Kansa.

Several observations and problems arose from the 1966 excavation which prompted consideration of additional work at King Hill.

First, preservation of botanical remains from the site was excellent. The use of more efficient recovery techniques would offer information concerning subsistence and climate that would not otherwise be available.

Secondly, although preliminary analysis indicated that the cultural remains are fairly consistent throughout the deposit, there was some indication of stratification in that trade materials of European derivation were recovered in the upper levels, but were not present near the base. This could prove to offer a unique opportunity to study continuous Oneota occupation of a stratified site.

Thirdly, from analysis of the faunal remains of the 1966 excavations it was possible to make some tentative suggestions which could be tested by additional data.

It appears that the inhabitants of King Hill had a strong orientation toward seasonal use of woodland and woodland border communities judging from the preponderance of deer, raccoon, beaver and turkey remains. Bison and other plains fauna are poorly represented - the majority of bison elements being tools or tool fragments.

Furthermore, woodland fauna are consistently numerous throughout the deposit. On the other hand, bison elements appear to have been deposited only in the middle levels. This information may suggest either fewer bison were available at the beginning and end of the site occupation, or that bison bones selected for use as tools were needed in greatest numbers during the occupation recorded in the middle zones.

In the Spring of 1972, the National Science Foundation approved a grant (#GS-33407) entitled "An Analysis of an Oneota Subsistence System." Emphasis was placed upon the subsistence system because the necessary data was well preserved and available through employment of improved collecting techniques, with this data, testable constructs of the physical-environmental system within which the resident population functioned can be developed, and the hypotheses which arose from the 1966 excavations could be tested with no modification of the recovery system.

The project was designed with three major objectives in mind.

(1) We wished to increase the qualitative nature of the overall artifact inventory. While quantities of pottery, bone and stone tools were recovered in 1966, small materials normally lost through one-quarter inch screen such as tool fragments, splints of bone and antler, and fine chipping debitage were lost. Such data, combined with artifacts from the 1966 excavations, will allow far greater insight to village activities.

(2) We wanted a larger and more complete sample of the cultigens and wild food remains used by the site occupants.

(3) Small faunal remains which are seasonable available and/or sensitive to slight climatic fluctuations were also desired.


All soil from 1972 excavation was forced through a one-sixteenth inch screen by means of hydraulic pressure from an outside tap located at a nearby house. A storm sewer located approximately fifty yards down a steep slope served as a convenient repository for water. One problem was that of soil loss. We could afford neither the time nor the money to bring in large quantities of earth for backfilling or to remove silt which had been deposited in unwanted places. It became obvious that most of the soil be retained at the site. This was accomplished by construction of a sump trench which served as a settling basin. Each morning this trench was excavated, the mud put in wheelbarrows and placed near the excavation units. Backfilling revealed 85 percent of the soil was retained by this effort.

Initially, a trench consisting of five 5 foot by 5 foot squares was dug in arbitrary six inch levels. The purpose here was to open the trench as quickly as possible in order to expose a working profile which would be used to define natural stratigraphic levels within the deposit. It was soon discovered that we had not hit the deepest portion of the deposit. A decision was made to expose the western wall of an old 1966 excavation unit directly north of our trench in which the deposit had reached a surface depth of eleven feet. Once this was accomplished, two 5 foot by 5 foot squares were established to the west of this wall. A third square was established to the east of the original trench. These three squares were excavated in natural stratigraphic units. When possible these natural units were subdivided by six inch arbitrary levels. Again all materials were passed through one-sixteenth inch screen. Large soil samples were taken from each natural level and from the arbitrary divisions within these levels. These samples will be used for gastropod, pollen and chemical analysis.

Four natural levels were discerned within the site. The first of these was labeled "Plow Zone"; this consisted of the upper-most natural level, usually about twelve inches thick, which had been disturbed as a result of horticultural activities. The second natural level was recently disturbed, as suggested by the presence of both pre-historic and recently historic debris, exhibited great variation in thickness. This level represents recent movements of earth, probably from road and house construction. The third level discerned was characteristically very thin, usually only three to four inches. This level is dark and seemed to be transitional to the undisturbed midden below, it probably represents an old A1 soil horizon. The fourth natural level consisted of the undisturbed midden deposit. The thickness of this deposit varied from one to six feet, the deeper portions filling what are believed to have been former erosional ditches. Recent historical debris is almost completely absent from this level.

Processing of the materials from the 1972 excavations at King Hill is now being done in the laboratory of Anthropology at the University of Nebraska - Lincoln. The materials are first passed through a one-quarter inch screen, everything greater than one-quarter inch is completely sorted. Everything less than one-quarter inch is immersed in water; all material that floats is retained separately. After the remaining material is dry, it is sorted for identifiable faunal remains, small artifacts and artifact fragments, and an botanical remains that may have escaped flotation.

In summation, the King Hill project has added to the body of Oneota data in both a quantitative and qualitative sense. The deep midden deposits offers an opportunity to study a stratified Oneota site. Through the use of faunal elements, we should be better able to visualize the physical environment as a balanced system being systematically exploited by man. Further, the project has offered some insights into the adaptability of water screening techniques.

It is proposed that feedback from subsistence system analysis will function positively in construction of the physical environmental systems which pertained at the time of the King Hill site occupation. The subsistence system cannot be derived without recourse to technological evidence. The tools, their implied function and patterns of wear, must be considered as part of a functioning whole, consistent with the hypothesized subsistence system. Combining material cultural data with that of subsistence patterning should yield information about the social and religious systems as well.


Many thanks to Sarah Elder, curator of the St. Joseph Museums, for permission to work with the collection from King Hill site. Warm thanks to Michael Fisher, President Emeritus of the Missouri Archaeological Society, for discussing the site with me and encouraging my interest in the archaeology of Northwest Missouri. Special thanks to Ettus Hiatt for editorial assistance in my webpages.

Webpage constructed by Michael Fuller, 14 July 2010