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Sifting through history

August 12, 2011


Gilliane Monnier and Keith Manthie sifting soil.

Assistant anthropology professor Gilliane Monnier and laboratory research assistant Keith Manthie sift excavated soil for artifacts.

Photo: Patrick O'Leary

Along the Mississippi, U archaeologists unearth records of civilizations past

By Deane Morrison

There's no mistaking the pride in Gregory Reinert's voice as he holds up the stone point of a small spear carved more than a millennium ago.

"I was grinning from ear to ear the day I found this," says the University of Minnesota senior and anthropology major.

Reinert is one of a dozen U students who excavated a site called Bremer Village this summer. The archaeological dig is part of a larger effort to discover "the big picture" of human movements, settlements, commerce, and communication in the days before European contact, which in Minnesota began in the late 1600s. 

"We want to understand how culture in southeastern Minnesota changed over time," says Ed Fleming, a lecturer in anthropology at the University and curator of archaeology at the Science Museum of Minnesota. "Eventually, this kind of work all over the eastern woodlands and even plains may reveal something about how tribes formed and took on identities pre-contact."

About an hour from campus, the idyllic woods of Bremer Village overlook a widening of the Mississippi River called Spring Lake, just upstream from the town of Hastings. The dig is the main activity in an archaeology field school organized by Fleming and assistant anthropology professor Gilliane Monnier.

"It's the hands-on stuff that I don't get to do in the classroom that made me want to come out here," says senior anthropology student Jake Kittleson. "Every time we pull out a nice projectile point or a piece of pottery, it's exciting."

Spring Lake was a flood-prone marsh until 1930, when a dam at Hastings turned it into a lake. Many ancient Native settlements dot the river on both sides, but no one knows just how they related to one another or other regional settlements. It seems, however, that the downstream area where the town of Red Wing now sits was a hub of activity during Late Prehistoric times (1100-1400 CE).

Gregory Reinert with atlatltip.Gregory Reinert was thrilled to find this atlatl tip. Photo: Patrick O'Leary

"Learning about smaller villages can inform us about what went on in Red Wing, where marriages, funerals, and other rituals, as well as commerce and oral communication, took place," Fleming explains.

Reading the record

In previous excavations at the 500-meter-long site, archaeologists from the Science Museum found artifacts from the Middle Woodland (1-400 CE) and, primarily, the Late Woodland (400-900 CE) cultural periods. A few pottery sherds pointed to Late Prehistoric culture, as well as Mississippian (ca. 1200 CE until contact) and Oneota, an agricultural culture that existed from about 1200 CE to contact and was named for Iowa's Oneota River.

"The Mississippian is interesting because there seemed to be a lot of movement around the river then," says Monnier. "We see pottery styles here that were found in the Red Wing area. They could have come through trade, or maybe the same people were in both places.

"A big goal at Bremer Village is to find when people lived there. But we don't know if this place was occupied in winter or summer."

There are ways to tell, she says. For example, young deer bones would imply spring occupation—or however many months past fawning season the bones' ages indicate. Unfortunately, the acidity of the soil has probably eaten way any bone remains. But charred seeds would be helpful in indicating what people were eating and in what season.

Holding history in their hands

The weapon whose tip Reinert found came from a projectile called an atlatl, and its shape implies that it dates from the Middle Woodland period—before the bow and arrow appeared in the Americas, Fleming says. Several true arrowheads have also been found at the site, dating from around 700 to 800 CE. 

Student Kittleson caused another stir when he found a curved piece of what appeared to be Oneota pottery.

"Spring Lake has evidence that Oneota people came through or lived here," says Fleming. "We're trying to figure it out. We've found Oneota pottery, but not the big storage pits that characterize their settlements."

Map showing Bremer Village location.Bremer Village (star) sits on the Mississippi River downstream from the Twin Cities.

"It was exciting when Jake pulled out a neck sherd from Oneota pottery," says Anna Munns, a junior anthropology major. "It was curved, but most pottery is from the body [of a pot] and has no angular changes."

She explains that Oneota pottery can be distinguished because it contains shell material that was added to the clay. Sometimes, it leaches out in acidic soil, leaving little pits.

"The pits are telltale signs that the pottery was tempered with pulverized shell," Munns says. "Jake's piece was shell-tempered."

Nearby, senior Heather Van Hove worked in a dig comprising six sections, each a square meter in area.

"In four of the squares there's dark soil, indicating a possible feature, which means it may have resulted from human occupation," she says. "It could be a garbage pit or an activity area."

As for artifacts, they usually turn up when researchers sift soil samples through a screen, she says. They all hold meaning, even ordinary pottery sherds.

"It's really weird to think these were once in the hands of people," says Van Hove. "You're definitely connected to the area you're working in."

A short hike from where Van Hove works, Monnier stands in an excavation pit and points out several stones that seem to be roughly the size and shape of eggplants.

"Here we have these firecracked rocks, which show evidence of having been burned," she says. "So this may be a hearth."

With finds like these, it's hard not to conjure up an image of the Bremer Village inhabitants gathered around a hearth, cooking in pots, telling stories, or maybe just huddling against the bitter winter winds that sweep down the Mississippi Valley. But describing that life is what digs like this are all about.

"I love pre-contact archaeology in the Upper Midwest," says Fleming. "We're piecing together what societies were like before Europeans arrived and everything changed."

Published in 2011

Tags: College of Liberal Arts

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Watch video of excavation at the Bremer Village site.

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Gilliane Monnier

Department of Anthropology