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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!

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!

Two New Exhibits at North Dakota’s State Museum Showcase Ancient Predators of the Sky and Sea

I have a variety of responsibilities within my job, all of which I enjoy. One of those duties is the development of new exhibits or improvements of current exhibits across the state. The paleontology department has recently added two new aspects to current exhibits at the State Museum at the North Dakota Heritage Center in Bismarck.

During one of our fossil digs in the summer of 2017, a very large bird claw was collected. After some careful comparison to modern bird claws, we determined that this fossil claw was most likely from a bird closely related to the modern Golden Eagle. This fossil bird (Palaeoplancus) lived during the Oligocene Epoch, approximately 30 million years ago. It was a large bird, very similar in size to its modern Golden Eagle relative, and probably would have been one of the dominant predators of the time.

Bird fossils are rare and tell a unique aspect of the story of past life in the region. For this reason, it is important to share this rarely told story with the public via exhibits. The paleontology department purchased a cast of a modern eagle skeleton and hung it in an attack/diving position. It is hanging in a way so that it seems to be chasing one of its likely prey animals, the small horse Mesohippus. The fossil claw is also on exhibit as well as a cast of a modern Golden Eagle claw for comparison.

Palaeoplancus diving after its prey animal Mesohippus

View of the Oligocene bird Palaeoplancus diving after its prey animal Mesohippus.

The second addition to an exhibit is the incorporation of a new mural, cast, and exhibit case with specimens into the Underwater World in the Adaptation Gallery: Geologic Time. After being collected in southwestern North Dakota and then stored at the Pioneer Trails Museum in Bowman, ND, for more than 20 years, a partial skeleton of a plesiosaur was brought to Bismarck in 2016. Plesiosaurs are a group of long necked marine reptiles (not dinosaurs) that were swimming in the Cretaceous seas when dinosaurs were roaming the Cretaceous lands. Plesiosaurs and mosasaurs lived at the same time and were both likely the dominant predators of their time, feeding on fish and likely anything else they could catch. Plesiosaurs are rare finds as fossils. Large predators tend to be relatively rare in the fauna they are a part of, and that rarity translates to the fossil record as well. The specimen we now have on exhibit is the most complete specimen ever found in North Dakota, and it is comprised of less than 10 percent of the entire skeleton.

Part of this exhibit consists of a new mural depicting part of the animal. Paleontologist Becky Barnes discussed painting this mural in her last blog post. Another part of the exhibit consists of 38 casted neck vertebrae and a skull of a plesiosaur, mounted in such a way to depict a seamless transition between the fleshed out mural and the skeleton mount. The last part of the exhibit is the actual fossil. We have on display a measly 15 vertebrae from the neck, which likely consisted of 70 neck vertebrae in the living animal. All of these pieces together will enhance the story of underwater life in North Dakota 80 million years ago.


The new plesiosaur addition to Underwater World at the State Museum in Bismarck. The mural and cast depicting the animal are above the fossil specimen in the exhibit case below.