ONAMIA (AP) — The answers lie tantalizingly close to the surface — often buried less than 2 feet deep. Bits of charcoal. Fragments of clay pots. Evidence of elderberries.
The mysteries run much deeper. The story of who lived here, when and what they were doing can become jumbled in 9,000 years of history or just as easily stalled for lack of funding. The interpretation changes as advanced testing methods clarify or correct.
What has emerged in the most recent excavations on Petaga Point — a bit of land that juts into Ogechie Lake from which the Rum River flows 145 miles to the Mississippi River at Anoka — started in the mid-1960s with University of Minnesota archaeologist Elden Johnson’s request to take a look before Mille Lacs Kathio State Park developed a picnic area. On the last day of the 1966 field season, the crew discovered a shallow depression — and what appeared to be the burned remains of a house. They returned the next year to excavate and noticed five depressions.
Just as Johnson (and the U of M’s Lloyd Wilford before him) was inspired to expand on the 1890s work of archaeologist Jacob Brower, Mille Lacs Kathio State Park naturalist and archaeologist Jim Cummings sought to resume where Johnson left off — armed with modern technology, the St. Cloud Times reports.
Work resumed in 2006 and has continued each year since — at the rate of 1 square meter per year. That’s all Cummings and National Register archaeologist David Mather could fit in with their day jobs. Every day of excavation requires two or three days of analysis. Test results can take six months to arrive — when they are funded.
Some years have produced 100 artifacts. Last year produced only a few.
Charcoal directed Johnson’s attention to the remains of what appeared to be a house fire. Tests on three samples of charcoal from Johnson’s excavation and three from the current dig indicate the two structures were contemporary — from 1670 to 1710. Based on Kathio pottery found at the site — used from 800 to 1300 — Johnson had dated the structure he uncovered to 1200. Cummings wondered how such an accomplished archaeologist could be so far off base.
Part of the answer lay in pottery shards.
The 14,000 pieces analyzed from the current dig came from the later Sandy Lake period. Turns out the construction likely is an earthen lodge. Sticks were dug into the ground, the walls were covered in mud, and dirt was thrown on top of the roof — which would have put the Kathio shards Johnson discovered on top of the Sandy Lake shards, jumbling the historical order. The carbon-dating tests on the charcoal offered proof.
Modern-day testing also has revealed some of the food consumed at the site — including the elderberries, but no later-ripening berries, which indicated the structure was occupied in late summer.
“We think this is a village of the ancestors of today’s Mdewakanton Dakota,” Cummings said.
“The artifacts seem to fit. . The only information we have about this specific house was that it was occupied in late summer.”
Among the unanswered questions: Why was an earthen lodge — which is more like the houses built in the Western Plains — built here?
The digs and continuing research aim to answer if the structure is a house, if it was associated with other houses, how old it is, who lived there and what they did at the site.
“What we’re finding, we think we’re right on the edge of a prehistoric house that burned,” Cummings said. Testing showed the wood was pine and spruce.
“You don’t want to leap ahead and jump at an answer,” Cummings said.
He used a modern-day example: An end-of-summer party produces a pile of empty cans. Unearthing the top can produces an artifact; unearthing the whole pile takes much longer but reveals a more complete picture.
Sun slanted through pine trees just off the picnic area at Mille Lacs Kathio State Park. Ogechie Lake shimmered behind him as Cummings stood in sun-dappled shade on a recent Monday morning, indicating the L-shaped direction the meter-by-meter excavation would take this year.
Farther in the trees — which were open fields when Johnson surveyed the site in the 1960s — Cummings pointed out the depressions where homes likely stood about 15 meters apart. In the spring, those depressions are more visible because the grass grows taller there.
The area that became Mille Lacs Kathio State Park in 1957 boasts 9,000 years of human history. Copper tools were manufactured there 3,500 years ago. Daniel Greysolon, Sieur duLhut, planted the French flag at the Rum River in 1679. Father Louis Hennepin wrote about the six months he spent with the Dakota in the region in his 1683 “Description of Louisiana,” published three years after his travels. The Ojibwe eventually pushed out the Dakota in about 1750. Loggers arrived in the 1850s; farmers followed.
“It was as popular 2,000 to 3,000 years ago as it is now,” said Dave Radford, the state parks and trails archaeologist who will be on hand for Archaeology Day.