Pieces of the Past
Archaeologists are uncovering key pieces in the puzzle of human history at Minnesota state parks.
By Margaret A. Haapoja
Illustration by Michael Schmidt
As we walked beneath tall red pines in McCarthy Beach State Park campground one chilly October afternoon, archaeologist Dave Radford said recent excavations revealed that people camped here more than 10,000 years ago. A raw wind blowing across Side Lake felt like it could have come across the glacial ice sheet receding north around that time. I pictured men huddled around a campfire, feasting on caribou and perhaps boasting about the day's successful hunt. I imagined women scraping hides for tanning while children played along the shore. I wondered what those early campers would think of the motor home parked here today.
"This nice isthmus between the two lakes is a classic example of the kind of location where we put our campgrounds today," Radford said. "It's about the prettiest place you could find, and that was true in prehistoric times too."
In fact, most prehistoric habitation sites in Minnesota tend to be near lakes, according to state archaeologist Scott Anfinson. As a result, he said, today's booming lakeside development could be destroying thousands of such sites.
"A hundred years from now, perhaps the only intact archaeological sites will be found in large, undeveloped holdings, such as state parks and state and national forests," he said. "To ensure that we don't lose the insight into our past they provide, it is critical that we try to protect archaeological sites on state and federal property."
That is just what Radford and other archaeologists are doing in Minnesota's state parks and recreation areas. Before construction of buildings and roads, they survey sites that might hold artifacts.
"Written word in Minnesota dates back about 375 years," Radford said. "That accounts for about 3 percent of the time that humans were present in the state. Archaeology, along with American Indian oral traditions, is key to understanding the other 97 percent of human occupation in Minnesota."
Most archaeologists agree Minnesota's first inhabitants migrated here as the last major glacier receded about 12,000 years ago. We know little about the daily life of these Paleo-Indian people because little of their material culture remains in the soil. Durable stone spear points and scant evidence of campsites lead archaeologists to think that they traveled through the area in small groups, hunting large game such as woodland caribou and now-extinct species of bison and mammoth.
As time went on, these nomadic people became more settled. In the Archaic period they harvested game and plants seasonally from selected regions. They crafted tools from stone that came from quarries both near and far, indicating the beginnings of extensive trade networks. They began using pottery for cooking and storing food. Archaeologists call this the Woodland period, dating from about 1000 B.C. to A.D. 1700.
As a Minnesota Historical Society archaeologist assigned to work with the DNR, Radford began looking for evidence of these first inhabitants in state parks in 1984. Since then, Radford and his archaeological teams have surveyed more than 500 sites slated for bike trails, buildings, campgrounds, and other construction projects. State, and sometimes federal, laws mandate such archaeological assessment prior to development in state parks.
Working with American Indian tribes is an important part of conducting archaeology. The Minnesota Indian Affairs Council, a liaison between the state and 11 tribal governments, helps oversee the protection of sites with American Indian heritage. For example, the council's cultural resources specialist, Jim Jones, assisted in rerouting a hiking trail near an ancient cemetery in Itasca State Park. Jones recommended that the park neither publicize nor interpret the cemetery mounds but simply protect them.
More Than 1,600 Artifacts
After checking archaeological records at the Minnesota Historical Society and the Fort Snelling History Center to see if any previous fieldwork uncovered artifacts, Radford and his team "go out and do a surface reconnaissance," said Radford, "look on the ground for artifacts and cultural features. Next we'll go in and do patterned shovel testing. We grid the project area off and put in a shovel test every 50 feet, digging a hole that's a foot and a half wide and throwing all the fill onto a screen to sift out artifacts. If we find something, we'll excavate larger units and evaluate how important the site is."
At McCarthy Beach State Park, they determined that an area beneath the parking lot was going to be most impacted by paving, so they dug up 10-foot-by-13-foot sections to a depth of about 2 feet. They worked their way down in 2.5-inch increments—"like a layer cake," Radford said—recording what they found on each level and mapping each find.
They found artifacts such as burnt animal bones from elk and bison, fire-cracked rocks from hearths, and copper scraps and stone chips from tool making along the shoreline and in the campground as well as in nearly all of their shovel tests. "That's a pretty good density of positive shovel tests," said Radford. "I think this site could have been occupied and reoccupied many times. What we do know is that we have a Paleo-Indian occupation here about 10,000 years ago, and then we have all kinds of Woodland occupations that are 800 to 2,500 years old."
For nearly a month, the team unearthed stone tools, including arrow and spear points, stone scrapers, choppers, and knives. They also found several small tools of copper, which were probably used as awls or perforators for decorating leather. And they unearthed pottery shards, ceramic fragments that once formed whole pots. The team spent another five months washing, cataloging, and analyzing 1,629 artifacts.
"Copper artifacts are pretty rare to find in Minnesota," Radford said. "The copper that these early residents worked could have been found loose in the glacial deposits in the area, or it could have been traded with people from Isle Royale, where there were American Indian copper mines."
One of the most interesting finds was a projectile point made of jasper taconite, a common material found in outcrops on the Canadian Shield on Minnesota's Iron Range.
"A classic Paleo-Indian spear point, typical of those used for hunting large game animals like bison, caribou, deer, moose, or elk, had been reworked into a drill," said Radford. "Materials like that from 9,000 to 10,000 years ago are some of the earliest evidence of occupation in this part of the state, not long after the glaciers receded. Across the state, Paleo-Indian sites are quite rare."
After mapping and photographing the artifacts, the team sent them to the Minnesota Historical Society in St. Paul. Interpretive displays with reproductions of some of the artifacts are being prepared for the park office.
McCarthy Beach assistant park manager Dave Ellis Hollenhorst watched Radford and his team painstakingly sift through the soil, one shovelful at a time. He shared the excitement of the archaeologists, piecing together the past and looking at the larger picture of who lived here and when and how they lived.
"Pieces of rock the size of crumbs came to life and somehow connected me to a long-dead camper of the past," Ellis Hollenhorst said. "It's a human connection between the electrified, air-conditioned camper of today and the mammoth hunter of yesterday."
Margaret A. Haapoja, freelance writer and frequent contributor to Minnesota Conservation Volunteer, lives on Little Sand Lake, south of Calumet.