It’s Friday evening (6/18) and I’m at the excavation camp, about 17 dirt road miles from the nearest paved road. I pulled the trailer in on Wednesday morning without too much trouble. The roads had dried out considerably from Monday but were still muddy and rough in places. The picture above shows the campsite I’m now in…and the gathering storm clouds for what turned out to be a very strong and long thunder storm. The storm lasted most of the night and was accompanied by 50+ mph winds. A lot of the tents in the campground blew down during the night. The picture below shows what part of the dirt road looked like on Tuesday, so use your imagination to guess what it looked like during and after the 2 inches of rain they got in two days!
Before I get to the excavation part let me tell you about the field trip we took on Tuesday. Most of the participants in this project are students at St. Cloud State University in Minnesota. The Forest Service has turned over the actual dig activities to the University and they in turn use it as a field school for their students. The students spend three weeks here and in addition to the excavation work they do, they also take several field trips to areas of interest in the area. This past Tuesday I went with them and visited another field school excavation being conducted by the University of Colorado. That dig was about 50 miles from here and the students were excavating an 800-900 year old native site that looked like it was a small family group living and growing corn adjacent to a now dry stream.
After seeing what those students were doing we headed north to the Wounded Knee Massacre site on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. There wasn’t a whole lot to see there but there were interpretative signs that told the history of this event. Most of the students had never been on an Indian reservation before so it was an eye opener for them.
After Wounded Knee we headed for Wind Cave National Park just outside of Hot Springs, SD. This was one of the thing that I had wanted to see on this trip but didn’t think I would have time to work it in so I was a happy camper to go there…..until we got there and found out that our schedule would not allow us to take one of the tours in the cave. What a tease! We did get to drive around the park a bit and see the local buffalo herd and go through the interpretative center. The cave itself looks to be a fantastic experience so I’ll just have to go back sometime in the future and see it. After this stop we headed back to the campground.
Hudson-Meng is an amazing place. About 10,000 years ago about 600 Bison Antiquus perished here. The site has been under study by archaeologists since the 1970’s and they’re still not absolutely sure what exactly happened although most believe that Paleo-Indians killed the animals in groups over many years. It’s thought that what is now a rolling hill behind the site was a cliff 10,000 years ago and the Paleo-Indians either drove the bison over the cliff or used the cliff as a wall and herded the bison into a narrow canyon and then killed them.
Check out the picture to the right. This is just one small area of bones in the site. In 1997 a climate controlled building was built over the main site to preserve it. After the initial investigation in the 1970’s the area was reburied in order to protect it for future excavation. After the building was built the area was once again exposed and new areas are being uncovered for the first time.
One interesting fact about this site is that there have been almost no skulls uncovered. 600 bison skeletons but almost no skulls. Why? No one has a good answer yet. Some think the skulls were moved to a separate “processing” area to harvest the brains which were used in curing the hides. Others believe that the heads were likely on top of the heap of bones and were the first part of the animals to degrade and weather away. I’m not sure I believe the latter theory, especially if there were multiple kills and if that theory is wrong, it means that somewhere in the area are the remnants of 600 bison skulls.
Only a few of the students were lucky enough to work inside the climate controlled building on the main bone bed. The rest of us are working outside digging test trenches or continuing to excavate areas that were started in the 1990’s. I fall into the latter group.
My job for the last couple of days has been to excavate a 1 meter by 1 meter unit that was previously excavated to the bone bed level. In other words I’m digging just below the level that most of the bones were found at. We are hoping that we might find more bones that would date the first kill even farther back than 10,000 years.
It’s slow, hot, back breaking work but it’s really interesting. You can see my “office” in the picture to the left. I have been working for two days now trying to excavate 5 centimeters off of the top of the raised platform you can see in the picture. In the picture I’m holding my trowel next to a piece of bone that I am the first to see in 10,000 years. How cool is that!
Here’s a little closer look at the bone. I’m not sure how big it is because I can’t dig it out completely. I first have to dig down from the starting surface, five centimeters. While I’m digging down, I’m leaving a little soil around the bone. When I get down to the bottom of my digging level I’ll carefully excavate around the bone. If it goes deeper than the bottom of my level I’ll have to leave it until I….or someone else excavates the entire unit down to the bottom of the bone….5 centimeters at a time.
At the rate I’m going I don’t think I’ll get to the bottom of the bone. Tomorrow (Saturday) is my last day on the project and I’ll be surprised if I’m able to complete my five centimeter level.
As I dig I put the excavated soil in a bucket and when the bucket is full it has to be wet screened. That means it’s put on a rack with a fine mesh screen and washed with water to separate the dirt from any stones or small artifacts that I didn’t see as I was excavating. So far I haven’t found anything in the wet screened dirt.
I leave first thing Sunday morning and head for Hill City, SD. I’ll be staying at a commercial RV park for the night before I report to my next “gig”. While at the park I’ll dump my waste tanks and replenish my fresh water supply. I’ll also do laundry and stock up on food for the week.
This next project will be just as exciting as the current one but in a much different way so stay tuned.
Thanks for visiting.