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.

Inside Archaeology

Submitted by Amy Bleier on Mon, 08/04/2014 - 10:00

When people find out archaeology is my profession, they invariably ask where I have been digging lately. Answer: Nowhere. I have been working in the office. Response: Oh. What do you do?

Today, archaeologists may undertake all sorts of tasks—fieldwork (survey, site recording, and excavation), lab work (sorting and analysis), researching archives, report writing, and curation are some. One of my primary duties is processing, mapping, and maintaining files for sites recorded in North Dakota by other professional archaeologists. In so doing I work daily with contract archaeologists and federal, state, and tribal government employees. Other activities pair me with researchers, students, and the general public.

The Cultural Resource Room is the repository for site records. Part of my job is to review and map the information in each record.

In recent years, I have had the privilege of creating maps for colleagues which were used in presentations, journal articles, and a book. Other maps I produced appear on archaeology-themed posters. For example, a large poster of regional lithic sources hangs in the Archaeology Lab. Located above the lithic comparative collection, it is referenced by staff, researchers, and lab volunteers.

Map of lithic sources in the north-central United States.

In addition to making maps, I enjoy assisting with design and production of posters. Fortunately, the Archaeology and Historic Preservation Division has a room devoted to production of multi-media projects—posters, signs, brochures, photos, videos, audio recordings, etc. Furnished with a MAC, PC, scanners, and a plotter, this room allows staff to use necessary equipment without purchasing software for multiple computers.

The front and back sides of the Paleoindian Period poster.

The posters we produce are one way in which we share our knowledge. Posters produced to date include: Double Ditch Indian Village; Huff Indian Village; Menoken Village; Fort Clark Trading Post; Knife River Flint Quarries; and Paleoindian Period. One for the Plains Archaic Period is in the works now. These are free and available upon request.

Archaeology is the study of the material culture of past peoples. I believe strongly that archaeologists (working outdoors or indoors) need to share what we learn so everyone may appreciate history. Working in the Archaeology and Historic Preservation Division at the State Historical Society of North Dakota allows me to do just that.

Time Traveling at Historic Sites

I love historic sites. These are the places where important things happened, where important things were done, where the world changed. It’s how I time travel. Science fiction has its allure, but it has nothing on historic sites. Each site has a power of place unique to it. I can visit any of the 56 historic sites that the State Historical Society manages and go back in time. A visit can give me a better perspective on what is happening in my own time.

A visit to one of our sites is very fun. We have programs such as History Alive, where you can meet a real person from the past (for 20 minutes or so). We also have film series, tours, guest speakers, demonstrations, concerts, and hands-on activities for kids. At many of our sites we have programs through the fall and winter, too. Wondering what to do on the weekend? Check out the events at our sites, http://www.history.nd.gov/events/index.html.

You may not notice all that goes into preparing for your visit. We mow and trim the site, which can be quite a challenge during a rainy year or just a rainy month. We have the buildings repaired as best we can with time and budget constraints. We provide entertaining and educational programs for various audiences. All of these things take planning, time, and people to make sure your visit is enjoyable. When we are successful, all you notice is that your visit is great!

Most of the planning is done during the winter months when visitation to the sites is lower. We plan for new programs such as concerts and speakers, we update our operating plans, and do some long range planning. If needed, we plan for and do some maintenance and repair work. In the fall of 2012 and early spring 2013 we did a bank stabilization project on the Red River of the North at Fort Abercrombie.

We have a lot of sites that have only a marker and no staff. These sites are more difficult for the average visitor to understand. We have sites related to General Sibley’s and General Sully’s expeditions into Dakota Territory between 1863 and 1865.We have sites that recognize prehistoric villages and Native American culture, historic townsites, and the role of North Dakota in the early explorations and mapping of the American West, among others.

At sites such as these, you have to bring knowledge with you. We have looked at trying to do something with technology at some of these marker sites, like QR codes. Unfortunately, some of them are remote enough that technology can’t help us. We keep looking for new ways to share the stories of these sites, too. Soon, the 3rd edition of the Traveler’s Companion to North Dakota’s Historic Sites will be published. This book will give brief histories of all of our historic sites and their significance in the greater story of North Dakota.