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Surveying Le Sueur County’s Past

Professor Ron Schirmer leading study to document county’s history.

2013-10-14
Dan Linehan, Mankato Free Press, 10-13-2013

Our knowledge of pre-European settlements in Le Sueur County is just not good.

“There is virtually nothing known about the county,” said Ronald Schirmer, an associate professor of anthropology at Minnesota State University. “It’s awful.”

Unlike their counterparts in the metro area and northern Minnestoa, many south-central counties are likewise undocumented.

Schirmer is leading a study to help change that. The Le Sueur County survey began last month and is funded by the Arts and Cultural Heritage Fund, which receives 19.75 percent of the sales tax revenue from the Legacy amendment.

Schirmer and his student assistants were in Le Center on Saturday at an event hosted by the Le Sueur County Historical Society. Visitors crowded around tables in a sort of “Antiques Roadshow” for Native American artifacts.

Donna Schumacher brought two stone cutting tools that Schirmer said were between 3,000 and 8,000 years old. She had found them at her parents’ farm about 35 years ago and had wondered about them.

The 94 documented archaeological sites in the county barely begin to describe the people who lived here before Europeans came, Schirmer said.

And most of those sites don’t give us good information, he said, because only 30 of them have more information about when the artifacts were created. Only one of the sites has an artifact, in this case a projectile point fragment, from before about 7,500 B.C. It is believed that Native Americans settled here about 12,000 years ago, Schirmer said.

The study set a goal of 20 new sites, but about a month in they’ve already found 30.

For a long time, archaeology has been confined to something of an ivory tower, Schirmer said. His predecessors didn’t do much talking with area historical societies or amateur collectors.

“I’m trying to undo that,” he said. Part of that effort involves talking to land owners and private collectors — “informants,” in academic language. Though he didn’t say it, part of that work also involves treating amateurs’ contributions with respect, which appeared to be a skill of Schirmer’s.

“It’s a wonderfully important little piece,” he told someone while inspecting their artifact. “I would love to see where this is from.”

Landowners don’t have to worry about losing their property rights if Schirmer’s team comes across an artifact, he said.

There’s one exception, for burial mounds, but if the land is already cultivated it can continue being farmed even if a burial mound is discovered. While the discovery of a burial mound could prevent land from being developed, these surveys are typically done in natural areas that likely wouldn’t be built upon in any case.

The state doesn’t divulge the location of archaeological sites, so landowners don’t have to worry about curious visitors if something is found on their land.

Collectors, likewise, are at little risk as long as they are looking in private land with the permission of the landowner. It is illegal to collect on public land without a permit.

Schirmer said the study will attempt to cover as much of Le Sueur County as it can, but they’re still looking for residents who know good places to look. (He can be reached at ronald. schirmer@mnsu.edu.) Art and Barb Straub of rural Le Sueur are two of those amateurs. Art said he and his wife are “river rats” who love to spend time along the Minnesota. The land has been in their family since 1857, and they brought a handful of artifacts for Schirmer to inspect.

One, a pottery shard, is from around 1150, Schirmer said. The Native Americans who made this pot flecked it with glittery pieces of granite to make it stronger.

They also brought a bone tool that Schirmer called a “flesher.” It’s used to remove fat from animal skins. Though it seems counterintuitive that a bone would persist outdoors for very long, Schirmer said he’s discovered bone tools thousands of years old.

The study is slated to be finished next June, and Schirmer said it will include a report — understandable by the layman — of what they found.

He praised the Legacy amendment for an infusion of money into what had been a languishing area of study.

“It’s literally a renaissance for Minnesota archaeology,” he said.

The entire version of this story can be read in a print copy of the Mankato Free Press. Call the Mankato Free Press at 625-4451 or (800) 657-4662 to find out how to purchase a print copy. The Free Press also prints select stories online at www.mankatofreepress.com.

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