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Minnesota State University, Mankato

Minnesota State University, Mankato

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Archaeology Students Explore Le Sueur County

More than 50 undocumented Native American sites found.

2014-09-02
Dan Linehan, Mankato Free Press, 8-30-2014

(PHOTO CUTLINE -- Projectile points like the arrowhead in the photo were found in many sites, though they varied by style and material. Mankato Free Press photo by John Cross.)

As they spread across Le Sueur County in search of Native American artifacts, students in Minnesota State University, Mankato associate professor Ron Schirmer’s team found most of their sites the simple way.

By stumbling into them. Or, to use the archaeology term, by conducting “pedestrian surveys.”

That’s not to say the students had to trek across the whole county. The team had an eye for places that Native Americans would have found appealing to settle.

They’d look for places that were high enough to stay dry but with easy access to water. Nearby wetlands, which provided edible stems and roots, were another plus.

“We usually guessed right,” said Josh Anderson, a 27-year-old grad student.

Funded by a $70,000 grant created by the Clean Water, Land and Legacy Amendment, the team’s purpose was to document Le Sueur County’s archaeological record before European contact. Like many Minnesota counties, very little official work has been done here, Schirmer said.

“Most sites known to collectors aren’t known to archaeologists,” he said.

50 sites found

After they’d identified likely sites, the team’s work began with a knock on the door. Of the 50 sites the team discovered, all were on private property. Though they will release their findings to the public, the group can’t say where these sites are.

Most landowners were receptive, especially if you showed excitement as a student, Anderson said. Many leads for new sites came from amateur artifact hunters, he said.

Schirmer, who teaches in the university’s anthropology department, said some landowners denied the team access because of privacy concerns. And some just didn’t trust the government. But most were cooperative, he said.

When the team found a site, it documented the precise location of every artifact using GPS coordinates. That was important because it gave clues about how these villages were organized.

Just as modern Americans prepare food in a kitchen, sleep in a bedroom and shower in a bathroom, Native Americans created separate spaces for their daily activities, Schirmer said.

The team found evidence of virtually every aspect of Native American life, he said. They found projectile points (including arrowheads) for hunting, cutting and scraping knifes for butchering and larger tools to craft dugout canoes.

They found sharp tools, called burins, used to make small holes in leather for clothes. Pottery shards showed that most of the bowls were small, likely used by individual families.

Not everything of those days remains. The clothes, made of organic materials, are gone. The sinew (tendons) and plant material they used to weave textiles together have disintegrated, as well.

These stone tools have to act as a proxy — a thing or concept that represents something else — for how they lived, Schirmer said.

The sites the team discovered were mostly small villages, likely inhabited by perhaps 50 to 200 people each.

To Anderson, the most exciting site had the quirk of most of its topsoil having been stripped away. That meant that artifacts from thousands of years ago were mixed with much younger ones.

Because the artifacts were found on the surface, the team relied on differences in style and materials to date them. For example, the type of rock found on river bottoms is known to have been used only in specific periods.

The artifacts themselves were cleaned, bagged and cataloged. They’re stored at Minnesota State Mankato, along with about one million other objects, and the team is asking the landowners to donate them to the university.

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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