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.

Outside Archaeology

Submitted by Amy Bleier on Mon, 12/22/2014 - 10:00

Have you ever driven down a road and observed people walking in straight lines, wearing safety vests, and carrying pin flags? If so, they may have been archaeologists conducting a survey. If not, clearly you are missing out on some fascinating roadside attractions.

Archaeological survey

Archaeologists conducting a survey in Burleigh County, North Dakota.

The purpose of an archaeological survey is to walk over a defined area looking for artifacts and archaeological features. Common artifact types we find include: projectile points (arrowheads), chipped stone flakes, ceramics, and animal bone. Man-made features we find may include: earthworks, stone features, and depressions. Artifacts and features that we identify during a survey are recorded as archaeological sites.

In September, a local landowner donated rare, well-preserved artifacts found on his farmstead over the last 60+ years. The artifacts date to the Paleoindian (9500-5500 BC), Early Plains Archaic (5500-2800 BC), Middle Plains Archaic (2800-1000 BC), Late Plains Archaic (1000-400 BC), and Plains Woodland (400 BC-1200 AD) time periods. In October, the landowner generously allowed archaeologists and a volunteer from our Archaeology and Historic Preservation Division to conduct a survey on his property to look for more archaeological sites.

The day of survey was a little chilly and windy (surprise!). Five of us walked over pasture and a plowed field. The south end of the project area was bounded by a small stream and the north by a fence and transmission line. We walked lines paralleling one another, spaced about 50 feet apart. The pasture had been grazed so the grass was short, making it much easier for us to see the ground surface.

Pasture view south

Pasture land, view to south from the middle of the survey area.

Visibility in the plowed field was not as good because of trampled crop stubble.

A portion of the plowed field, view to south.

We were able to inspect areas where there was bare ground or eroded slopes more closely.

So, what did we find? We recorded three different locations. In each location we found a chipped stone flake (fakes are created during production or use of a stone tool).

Flake tool

An isolated artifact (flake tool) found and recorded during survey.

The flakes consisted of two pieces of Knife River flint and one piece of Tongue River Silicified Sediment. Three artifacts may not seem too exciting, but half of the fun is the anticipation that you might find something!

Regardless of the October survey results, we would like to return next year. Why? Based on our archaeological knowledge of the area, the environmental setting indicates high potential for prehistoric and historic archaeological sites. The landowner’s oral history of his farmstead provides information about local settlement and use of the land, which also suggests sites may be found here. We only surveyed a portion of the farmstead so there is plenty more to walk. Some test excavations would be necessary to record artifacts and features beneath the ground surface.

Pretty flower

A flower photographed by Meagan during survey.

The Most Exciting Place in Town

I’m not an employee of the State Historical Society of North Dakota.

Why then, do I spend most of my retirement days either at the Heritage Center or working on various projects with the assistance of the staff of the State Historical Society?

Why wouldn’t I?

In my opinion, the Heritage Center is the most interesting and exciting place in town.

Space on this blog will not permit a complete list of the reasons why I find the North Dakota Heritage Center such a fascinating place to spend my time. I do, though, want to touch on a couple.

I serve as president of the North Dakota Archaeological Association (NDAA). As an “enthusiast” (not a professional archaeologist), I am involved in research on a wide variety of topics and the presentation of that material to our members. I could, I suppose, do that research without the staff and resources of the State Historical Society, but it wouldn’t be nearly as fun or productive.

A recent and ongoing project of the NDAA is the study of various aspects of the Fort Rice State Historic Site, a military post south of Mandan, ND, circa 1864. To prepare for a recent NDAA field trip to Fort Rice, I had the opportunity to work with State Historical Society staff in the Archaeology and Historic Preservation and Archives divisions.

Where do you begin a project as large as the 14-year history of a military post with a large cast of characters, documents, images, and stories? It’s easy. Just ask anybody in either division for information.

My first information request pertained to the availability of artifacts related to Fort Rice - those objects left behind after the occupation of the post. Wendi Field Murray, archaeology collections manager, and Meagan Schoenfelder, collections assistant, assured me that it was not a question of availability. It was more a question of what specific kind of artifact I was interested in. Long story short, I ended up with more information than I could use on what I termed the “bottles, buttons, and bullets” project. All of the artifacts are securely housed in the new, state-of-the-art collections rooms. There, the objects are carefully organized, cataloged, and available for examination (by appointment) and, in some cases, photography.


Top Left: Stamped brass eagle worn on enlisted man’s dress helmet at Fort Rice, circa 1872.
Bottom Left: Ale bottle, Fort Rice Military Post (13732.33)
Top Right: Plume socket for enlisted men’s dress helmet, circa 1872 (87.85.95)
Middle Right: .52 caliber “Ringtail” Sharps Carbine bullet
Bottom Right: Model 1859 Civil War bridle with “U.S” bit rosette (2002.11.310)

After I had chosen the images of the artifacts pertaining to my presentation on Fort Rice, I went upstairs to the State Archives. Again, no problem in assembling information. The question was not “if” the information was available. The question was, what specifically was I looking for? Sarah Walker, Greg Wysk, and Jim Davis are the people with the answers. The information I was looking for was available either on microfilm, in the periodical stacks, or in the climate-controlled archives of the State Historical Society. One particular image I was interested in was of the first buildings at Fort Rice. I was pretty sure a photo was not available. Jim located it in about three minutes!

Fort Rice

First Fort Rice, circa 1869/1870 (C1628)

What could have been a long, time-consuming search for material for my presentation was accomplished in no time with the assistance of the Society’s staff.

I have two other quick mentions.

The new archaeology lab is a continual source of amazement to me. Wednesday afternoons are a busy time in the lab when volunteers and archaeology enthusiasts, like me, come together to sort and quantify artifacts. Again, Wendi and Meagan are there to answer questions and to provide “on the job” training relating to those objects. It is a totally non-threatening and fun environment (and the sweets and treats they provide to the volunteers are another story!)

Archaeology Lab

State Historical Society of North Dakota archaeology lab

Finally, I have had the opportunity to work with the archaeology staff on more advanced areas of study; the lithic comparative collection – a collection of stone raw materials that were used by Native Americans to make projectile points and other stone tools, and the faunal collection, consisting of modern animal skeletons that are used for comparative research.

I could go on and on but I have research to do, and I know where to find the answers I am looking for… the State Historical Society of North Dakota.