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.

What is Historic Preservation?

Submitted by Amy Bleier on

Documenting, conserving, preserving, and protecting peoples’ stories are at the heart of historic preservation. Some ways to do this are through written and photographic documentation, recording oral histories, and saving historic buildings/structures and archaeological sites. Oftentimes, you will hear us refer to these things as “cultural resources.”

My job as an archaeologist exists because of a law passed by Congress in 1966 called the National Historic Preservation Act (16 USC 470).  In part it reads, “The preservation of our irreplaceable heritage is in the public interest so that its vital legacy of cultural, educational, aesthetic, inspirational, economic, and energy benefits will be maintained and enriched for future generations of Americans.” It created the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation, State Historic Preservation Offices, the National Register of Historic Places, and the National Historic Landmark Program.

Archaeological Excavation

Excavation of an archaeological site.
Photo courtesy of the North Dakota SHPO

Each state has a State Historic Preservation Office (SHPO). The North Dakota SHPO is located in the lower level of the Heritage Center in Bismarck. Our office serves a variety of functions, including developing and maintaining a statewide program—based on state and local needs—that supports and promotes historic preservation. This involves planning to meet challenges unique to our state; advocating for historic preservation policy at state and local levels; and empowering communities, organizations and citizens to action.

Some activities of the North Dakota SHPO:

We are the repository for the documentation of recorded historical and archaeological sites in North Dakota. Part of my job is processing the paper and digital records of these sites. Currently, there are nearly 70,000 site forms on file. The SHPO staff, federal agencies, state agencies, tribal governments, and specialists utilize these records daily.


North Dakota SHPO cultural resources research room at the State Historical Society of North Dakota.
Photo courtesy of the North Dakota SHPO

Section 106 of the National Historic Preservation Act requires federal agencies to consider the impact that federally funded or permitted projects will have on cultural resources. At the SHPO, we advise and assist federal agencies in this process, review project design plans, identify cultural resources, and assess and resolve determinations of adverse effect. This process gives a local voice to the federal planning and decision-making process.

The Certified Local Government (CLG) program provides for a voluntary, formal partnership between the local, state and federal governments which establishes a commitment to historic preservation. North Dakota has seven CLGs: Buffalo, Devils Lake, Dickinson, Fargo, Grand Forks, Pembina County, and Walsh County.

Income tax credits encourage private sector investment in the rehabilitation and reuse of historic buildings. The program allows the owner of a certified historic structure to receive 20% of the amount spent on qualified rehabilitation costs as a direct, federal income-tax credit. We review program applications to ensure the work complies with the Secretary of Interior’s Standards.

The National Register of Historic Places (NRHP) recognizes cultural resources that are considered important in the past and worthy of preservation. We write and solicit nominations to the NRHP. Listing in the NRHP puts no restriction upon a private property owner, who may alter or dispose of their property in any way they wish without any prior approvals. Listing in the NRHP does help protect cultural resources from potentially harmful federal actions.

Alan & Gail Lynch

Alan & Gail Lynch at the Lynch Knife River Flint Quarry National Historic Landmark dedication.
Photo courtesy of the North Dakota SHPO

Awareness and application of historic preservation programs enhance our community identity, increase economic development, and provide a local voice in federal undertakings. We are planning events in 2016 to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the National Historic Preservation Act. We hope you will join us.

See for events across the United States.

Guest Blogger: Amy Bleier

image of sunflowersAmy Bleier is a Research Archaeologist in the Archaeology and Historic Preservation Division. One of Amy’s tasks is to assist with the production of the North Dakota Archaeology Awareness poster.

Animal Bones

Submitted by Amy Bleier on

Faunal comparative collection

Faunal comparative collection at the State Historical Society of North Dakota.

What is a faunal comparative collection? A faunal comparative collection consists of modern animal skeletons which may help with identification of bone fragments found at archaeology sites. The Archaeology and Historic Preservation of the State Historical Society of North Dakota (SHSND) houses such a collection.

How do we acquire intact animal skeletons? Museums may purchase them from retailers specializing in processing natural skeletons and creating replicas. Or, skeletal remains may be collected and/or donated. If collected, processing and cleaning are often necessary. These tasks may be done manually but can be tedious and smelly work. A way around this is to use a dermestid beetle colony. One species of dermestid beetle, Dermestes maculatus, has been used for over 150 years by museums, universities, and taxidermists to clean skeletal material. Many museums, including the SHSND, do not maintain a colony for fear that the beetles may escape and destroy certain types of artifacts. So, we outsource the work. When the processing and cleaning are complete, the skeletal elements are added to our comparative collection.

There are more species of insects in the Animal Kingdom than any other group, and within the insects there are more species of beetles than any other group of insects. Within the beetles is a family known as Dermestidae, commonly called skin, hide, or larder beetles, with several hundred species. One species of dermestid beetle, Dermestes maculatus, has been used to clean animal bones in our collection.

The larvae and adults of these carrion beetles will feed on the muscle, fat, tendons, etc. and leave the bones and teeth clean of soft tissues. Cartilage may or may not be consumed by the beetles depending upon how soft the cartilage is and how hungry the beetles are. Dermestid beetles do not feed on live tissue; therefore, live larvae and adults can be handled without concern of being bitten.

Dermestid beetle

A dermestid beetle on a newly cleaned skull.

Female adult dermestid beetles lay several hundred eggs which hatch after about a week into tiny larvae. The larvae are covered externally by a relatively hard exoskeleton, and as they grow the larvae must emerge from this exoskeleton a number of times (5-11) to continue their development. Each one of these larval stages is called an instar. During this larval growth, the larvae increase in size from about 1/16 inch (1.5 mm) to about ½ inch (12 mm). The smallest instars are able to get into tiny spaces, for example, those in a mouse head, and eat the soft tissues within these areas. At the end of the last larval instar, the larvae form a pupa. After a period of time allowing for metamorphosis, an adult beetle emerges from the pupa. Adults are about 3/8 inches (8-10 mm) in length. The female will breed, lay eggs, and thus start a new generation of beetles. Adults live about 4 months.

SHSND archaeologists have partnered with a retired professor of a regional university who has access to a dermestid colony. For four decades the colony has cleaned specimens to be used for education and research. These dermestids have cleaned several specimens for us including a grizzly bear, a mountain lion, an otter, and a marten.

Dermestid beetle colony

A dermestid beetle colony.

Guest Blogger: Amy Bleier

image of sunflowersAmy Bleier is a Research Archaeologist in the Archaeology and Historic Preservation Division. One of Amy’s tasks is to assist with the production of the North Dakota Archaeology Awareness poster.

Outside Archaeology

Submitted by Amy Bleier on

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.

Inside Archaeology

Submitted by Amy Bleier on

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.