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Backstage Pass to North Dakota History

This blog takes you behind the scenes of the State Historical Society of North Dakota. Get a glimpse at a day-in-the-life of the staff, volunteers, and partners who make it all possible. Discover what it takes to preserve North Dakota's natural and cultural history. We encourage dialogue, questions, and comments!

Wendi Field Murray's blog

Investigating and Assessing Damage to Cultural Resources

At the beginning of May, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (Omaha office) hosted a three-day training at the North Dakota Heritage Center & State Museum on investigating and assessing damage to archaeology sites and other cultural resources. I was excited to receive this training, but expected it to be a bit of a slog, as many trainings tend to be—stuffy room, uncomfortable chairs, and text-heavy Powerpoint presentations. I could not have been more wrong.

So why did we attend this training? The primary objective underlining the Archaeology & Historic Preservation Division’s many responsibilities is to preserve North Dakota’s cultural resources. “Cultural resources” is an umbrella term for all types of sites that have historical or cultural significance. This includes (but is not limited to) archaeological sites, historical sites, architectural sites, and cultural heritage sites. There are various federal and state laws that were written to protect these resources. For example, the Archaeological Resources Protection Act (ARPA), passed in 1979, states:

No person may excavate, remove, damage, or otherwise alter or deface or attempt to excavate, remove, damage, or otherwise alter or deface any archaeological resource located on public lands or Indian lands unless such activity is pursuant to a permit issued under section 4 of this Act…” [Sec. 6(a)]

It also prohibits the sale, exchange, transport, or receipt of (or offer to sell, purchase, or exchange) cultural resources if the resource was excavated or removed from public lands or Indian lands in violation of federal law.

ARPA applies to federal and Indian lands, but you may not know that North Dakota’s state laws protecting cultural resources are quite robust compared to those of other U.S. states. (I was well aware of the state laws that protect cultural resources on state lands, but I had no idea how far ahead of other states we are in this regard.) The North Dakota Century Code (55-03 Protection of Prehistoric Sites and Deposits) requires individuals to have a state-issued permit to investigate or evaluate cultural resources on state land. In this context, “cultural resources” include prehistoric or historic archaeological sites, burial mounds, and unregistered graves. Violations of this law are punishable by fine, imprisonment, or both.

Sign that reads the following: Preservation of this site depends on you. Digging and collecting artifacts and fossils on state land without permit is illegal. North Dakota Century Code Sections 55-03 and 54-17.3

This sign reminds site visitors of the state laws protecting cultural resources in North Dakota.

I don’t have the space to go into great detail about the training, but here are a few highlights:

1) I can’t say enough good things about the instructors. They were from Northland Research, Inc., a contract firm in Arizona. The instructors are trained archaeologists and investigators who work in Northland’s Heritage Protection and Emergency Management division. Specializing in cultural resource protection, these are the folks who travel all over the country to investigate crimes relating to archaeological and other cultural resource sites. They record sites, work closely with law enforcement (since a damaged site is also a crime scene), write archaeological damage assessment reports, and act as expert witnesses in courtroom trials. Their slides were of actual work they have done—hardly the mind-numbing Powerpoints I expected!

2) The class was huge (45 people!) and represented nine U.S. states. And it wasn’t just archaeologists. Other students included natural resource specialists, representatives from tribal historic preservation offices, police officers, assistant U.S. attorneys, historic site managers, and park rangers. One of my favorite aspects of the class was hearing other students’ questions; each one spoke to that person’s expertise  and the unique role he or she plays in the investigation of a cultural resource violation.

3) There was a field component (a sure way to make any archaeologist happy!). For one afternoon, the instructors created ten “mock” crime scenes at fabricated archaeological sites near one of our off-site storage facilities. They divided us into teams, each of which had a law enforcement officer as the head investigator. The “site” had holes dug into it and artifacts scattered across it (the artifacts were borrowed from the Archaeology & Historic Preservation Division’s educational collections). We had to use what we had learned in the class to document the damage and collect evidence. I really appreciated the fact that all of the documents we had to create (site map, evidence log, photo log, field notes, etc.) were critiqued after—it helped us to take the exercise seriously and ask a lot of questions about proper protocols.

Staged crime scene

The “staged” crime scene, which included disturbed areas, scattered artifacts, footprints, and modern trash. The yellow flags were placed by our team to mark different pieces of evidence.

4) Forensic sedimentology! Forensic sedimentology is based on the fact that soils in different areas (even very limited areas) are mineralogically and chemically unique. By using X-ray fluorescence and other analysis methods, the mineral and chemical composition of soils from a looted site can be quantified and compared with the particles of soil on the shoes, equipment, and artifacts confiscated from the accused. Scientists can use this evidence to determine with astounding accuracy whether the suspect was actually at the site, or whether the object in question came from that site. The “where” of these cases is important, because different cultural resource protection laws regulate different jurisdictions (i.e., federal land, state land, etc.).

5) We learned how to create a plaster cast of a footprint! The instructors were kind enough to leave multiple bootprints in the soil of each of our test sites so that we could practice. Another important piece of evidence for the prosecution.

Plaster poured into footprint

Plaster was poured into footprints in the dirt. After left to dry for about 30 minutes, they could be removed and brought back to the lab for analysis.

Plaster cast of footprint

A completed plaster cast of footprints left at the mock crime scene.

6) The participation of the assistant U.S. attorneys was unexpected and really beneficial for the rest of us in the class. They value cultural resources enough to spend three days in this training, and it was important to understand the kind of evidence they need to build a case against potential looters and vandals.

As a collections manager who does most of her archaeological work indoors, it was also important for collections staff to be reminded of their role in these contexts. For example, if confiscated artifacts were ever stored here while a case was pending, we would need to be careful about meticulously documenting chain of custody and restricting access to the artifacts. When people come in with artifacts to donate, it is important for us to know whether they were legally obtained. When someone is assessing the cost of the resource damage, we can provide information on curation requirements and costs. We all have a role to play in protecting these resources, and I welcome any training that helps me do that better.

Many thanks to the U.S. Army Corps-Omaha for hosting the training, and to Martin McAllister, Brent Krober, and David Griffel of Northland Research, Inc., and to all participants for a productive and enlightening three days!

Where Did You Find That?: The Importance of Archaeological Context

“Where did you find it?” This is, without question, the first thing you will hear any of our archaeologists ask when someone shows us an artifact. We are kind of obsessed with the “where” questions – where did you find it? Where did it come from? Where in the excavation unit was it found? What vertical level did it come from? Where was it in relation to (fill in the blank)? Where in the world did I put my trowel? (You wouldn’t believe how often I’ve asked the last one.) The “where” – technically known as provenience or context – is crucial to the artifact’s ability to tell a story. If you are a regular reader, then you already know that the object itself can provide some information about the human past. But if we don’t know its context, then it is pretty limited in terms of scientific value.

Field catalog

A field catalog for artifacts recovered during the 1951 excavation of Like-A-Fishhook Village in 1951 (AHP Archaeology files). Because we know which houses were occupied by Mandan and/or Hidatsa and which houses were occupied by Arikara families, knowing from which houses these objects originated is very important (House 4 was located in the Mandan-Hidatsa section of the village).

Imagine a projectile point that someone found in North Dakota. Perhaps they have mounted it in a frame in their home. From its shape and the technological style, I may be able to tell you that it is from the Archaic period. But that is about it. If it is an Oxbow point (for example), then it merely provides evidence that Oxbow technology is represented in North Dakota. It might be aesthetically beautiful, even ideal for exhibit. But it cannot tell us any more about human behavior and innovation in the past, which is actually what archaeologists are all trying to understand. Because at the end of the day, archaeologists are interested in understanding people, not things.

Now let’s imagine that the same point was scientifically excavated. We know from the additional excavation units around it that the point was found at a large camp site in Bismarck. Its vertical location (where it falls in soil stratigraphy) may tell us how old it is, or where it falls in time relative to other artifacts at the site. The artifacts found around it may help us understand what was going on in that spot. For example, if it was found in a pile of animal bone and cutting tools, we could infer that someone was likely butchering animals for food. If it was found in a pile of stone chipping debris and next to an antler pressure flaker, a different story emerges – perhaps this was a lithic workshop where stone tools were being manufactured. If a piece of charcoal found in its vicinity can be dated, then we can come up with a more exact age for the artifact. All of this information is documented during an excavation through extensive note-taking, sketching, photography, and mapping. And those records eventually make their way to the North Dakota Heritage Center & State Museum.

Field catalog cover

A field catalog from the excavation of the Flaming Arrow Village site (32ML4) in the early 1980s.

Field catalog entry

Entry made by crew member on July 20, 1971, while excavating the Hidatsa village of Amahami in Stanton, ND.

When I tell people that I am an archaeology collections manager, they typically assume that I only take care of artifacts. They are often surprised to learn that a huge and incredibly important part of doing archaeology includes creating, archiving, and referencing these paper records and photos. This also surprises archaeology students, who find themselves spending an inordinate amount of time sweating over notebooks or trying to draw wall profiles while wrestling graph paper in gusty winds during field school. This is actually a big responsibility from a preservation standpoint-- once the excavation is over, these paper records will comprise the most complete existing record of the site (or that portion of the site). In fact, when any archaeology contractor or state or federal agency submits collections for long-term curation, we require all the paperwork associated with their recovery from the field to be included.

General level/feature level excavation form

Plan map to go with general level/feature level excavation form

A general level/feature level excavation form, which is filled out for every excavated level (this one was filled out for the level that was at a depth of 95-110 cm). The associated sketch is the plan map drawn to illustrate what the bottom of this particular level looks like. It documents important observations like soil color and texture, artifact content and density, etc. This feature form is from an excavation at Double Ditch Indian Village Historic Site (32BL8), Feature 709, Ditch 4.

We curate these in acid-free, archival folders and boxes and index them now so they are easier for scholars to query when researching our collections. I have never had a researcher request access to collections without also requesting access to the associated paperwork. When we do not have the paperwork providing context for a given collection, the researcher often has to exclude those objects from his/her study. That should give you a sense of their importance!

Detail of House 3 entrance, firescreen (?) and primary fireplace

Cross-section of F28, House 3, firescreen (?) trench.

Photos of features in House 3 at Huff Village (32MO11), 1960.

So the next time you visit our State Museum or state historical site interpretive centers, remember that behind every artifact we are able to say anything about, there is likely a box of associated notes and photos that helped us tell that story.