Thursday, March 29, 2012

Raiders of the lost . . . soybean field

This morning I went on my first ever archaeological expedition. The Amana Heritage Society, in conjunction with the Office of the State Archaeologist, is doing an excavation of the Patterson trading post site near South Amana. I use the word "excavation" very loosely. There was very little digging going on today, although that may change in the coming week.

The trading post pre-dates the settling of the Amana Colonies. It served the nearby (very nearby, as it turns out) Meskwaki village, population 500 to 1,200 people. This was from approximately 1843 to 1847. After the Meskwaki were relocated by the US government, the trading post fell into ruin and the land was eventually converted to cropland.

Following a "surface collection" of artifacts on the site (more on that later), metal detectors were used to check out the site, which was plotted into 10 meter by 10 meter grids. Flags marked sites of metal detector "hits" which could indicate harness buckles, barrel staves or additional metal miscellany.

Soil augering was done at sites were artifacts had been found during the surface collection and/or where metal detector hits occurred. This looked a whole lot like digging post holes to me. Soil was collected in measured depth increments (0 to 20 inches, 21 to 30 inches, etc.) and deposited in a mesh tray to be sifted. Changes in soil color and composition were noted, as they could indicate a building foundation or other man-made disturbance.

Lead shot, beads, bits of glass, brick, ash and metal were among the things found at the site. While sifting this tray, volunteers found a piece of "chinking," the stuff used to seal the logs in a log cabin. Since the trading post consisted of at least one, possibly two, log cabins, this was considered a valuable find. It looked like a piece of field trash to me, obviously there is a learning curve when it comes to recognizing stuff from 175 years ago!

Part of the morning was spent on a surface collection on the nearby area believed to be the Meskwaki village. Surface collection is just what it sounds like, you line up and walk back and forth, collecting any artifacts that are on the surface of the soil, marking each site with a flag.

Since agricultural tillage only disturbs the top 12" of soil, items buried lower eventually work their way up to the top where they are exposed on the surface. Trade beads, bits of glass, "flakes" or "chips" from arrowhead and spear-making and fire-cracked rocks (which are exactly what they sound like) were the most commonly found items. Pipe stems, pipe bowls and pieces of each were also relatively abundant. I even found a pipe stem!

Looking for tiny artifacts is a lot like mushroom hunting. Even if you know what you're looking for, there's no guarantee you'll find anything.

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