Broken pieces of china, tiny glass beads and ancient tools are among the treasures bringing St. Cloud State University students one step closer to uncovering the history of the Little Elk Unit at the Charles A. Lindbergh State Park.
About 175 years ago, the site was the location of an early Episcopal-Methodist mission established among the Ojibwe people who lived near what is today Little Falls. These small recovered objects contain a wealth of information about the everyday lives of those living at the mission, which started when Chief Hole-in-the-Day invited missionaries to his village in 1839. Tensions between the Dakota and Ojibwe forced the missionaries to relocate to Rabbit Lake two years later.
The site was brought to life again in the 1970s when it was first discovered by archaeologist Doug Birk. It has been the subject of very limited archaeological research ever since.
This spring, 14 students and two graduate assistants conducted the site’s most recent excavation under the direction of Rob Mann, St. Cloud State assistant professor of archaeology, and Jim Cummings, Minnesota Department of Natural Resources archaeologist.
Their goal for the five-week dig was to find evidence of a physical structure and evidence of diet and dress at the mission.
The students dug 18 one-meter-square test units and excavated them in 10-centimeter levels. They washed the excavated dirt through water screens to catch the smallest glass beads and lead shot.
While they didn’t find physical evidence of a building, the artifacts they collected indicate a structure was nearby, Mann said.
Ceramic pieces, lead shot and burned animal bone are evidence of the meals eaten at the mission. The missionaries or native hunters would have shot game and brought it back to the mission to cook and eat.
Pieces of window glass recovered had been partially melted, which fit with a theory that the mission had been burned when it was abandoned or a short time later.
This was the first excavation St. Cloud State conducted at the site and was completed with Birk’s consent and in accordance with permits from the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources and the Minnesota Office of the State Archaeologist.
The students worked as a team during the excavation — enduring weather that was both beautiful and miserable, sunny and wet, said senior Jesica Kula.
“It was also fun and exciting to learn about archaeology and help return a part of history with every artifact that was found,” she said. “It was far more than I ever expected. How many people can actually say that they helped re-discover some of their state’s history? It was an experience that I will gladly carry with me for the rest of my years.”
Toward the end of the excavation a rising water table caused water to seep into test units, some of which had to be covered until the water table dropped. Students returned to finish the excavation at the end of July.
“We all got to gain a new respect for nature and the changes it can make in a course of a hundred years,” said Brianna Balsemo, Hastings. “The site used to have people living on it and doing daily chores. We could barely walk to/work on some places because the mud was so slick.”
“It was far more than I ever expected. How many people can actually say that they helped re-discover some of their state’s history? It was an experience that I will gladly carry with me for the rest of my years.”
Stories to discover
Some of the greatest finds were large fragments of a cast iron stove that was brought to the mission by ox-drawn cart from Fort Snelling, Mann said.
For whatever reason, the missionaries left this stove behind, and it didn’t just fall apart. The pieces of the stove were scattered throughout the site. Previous excavations also found pieces of the stove.
Mann is hoping to use the recovered pieces to determine how the stove looked and its primary purpose.
“That’s one of my goals … maybe even find out a likely source for where it was made, what it could have been used for — was it a cook stove, was it just for heat, was it both,” he said.
“That would be, I think, an important piece of our puzzle — trying to figure out why they went to so much trouble to drag that stove all the way out there.”
The cast iron pieces are a signature find that speaks about the missionaries’ plans, Mann said.
“The missionaries thought they were bringing civilization to the wilderness, and this cast iron stove symbolizes that,” he said, adding that the stove’s broken nature is intriguing.
In addition to revealing clues about the mission period, the excavation also turned up evidence from the sites’ previous occupants.
The Little Elk area has been occupied for 6,000 to 8,000 years, and the students recovered prehistoric hide scrapers, flakes from flintknapping, cracked rocks used to boil water and small pieces of indigenous pottery.
While the most exciting finds related to the mission period, Balsemo said, the rocks were noteworthy too.
“When you know what they were possibly used for they become fascinating evidence of history,” she said.
A field study teaches students not only about a specific time and place in history but also introduces them to archeological field methods.
Students learn the proper procedures for measuring, mapping and photographing an excavation. They learn how to dig in precise 10-centimeter levels and how to use a water screen.
This is what professional archeologists do in the field, and a field study is often a pre-requisite of even an entry-level job in archeology. It’s also required of St. Cloud State anthropology majors, Mann said.
The excavation was also a way for students to give back. On two Saturdays, the students welcomed members of the public to tour the site. They explained their dig process and showed them artifacts they were finding.
The public archeology days attracted almost 200 people to the site and helped fulfill Cummings’ goal of opening up Little Elk to the public, Mann said. A future goal is an exhibit on the Little Elk site at the Charles A. Lindberg State Park, where Little Elk is located.
Eventually all the recovered artifacts will be curated at the Minnesota Historical Society facility at Fort Snelling, where they will be available for study by any researcher interested in the site.
The lessons continue
This fall many of the students are analyzing the objects they’ve recovered in Mann’s anthropology 470 archaeological analysis and interpretation class.
Here the students are learning what archaeologists do in the lab once they’ve returned with artifacts from the field, Mann said.
They are learning how to properly clean, sort, identify and catalog artifacts. Then they will also choose one class of artifacts to focus on for an interpretive and descriptive analysis, he said.
When they walked onto the dig site, students were excited to get started and answer the research questions they were asking. That job isn’t done yet, Balsemo said.
“The dig is only a small part of the archaeology,” she said. “We have to gather the artifacts, clean them, and interpret them. Finding the meaning behind the object is sometimes more meaningful than the object itself.”
Kula is enjoying studying the artifacts.
“I wish to know more about what was found on site,” she said. “Archaeologists spend, on usual, more time in the lab than on the field and to miss out on this experience would be a mistake.”