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Summer Discoveries at Sheffield

July 31, 2017

While some students spend the summer waitressing and others stack up odd jobs or internships, a handful of talented anthropology students from the University of Minnesota have been taking part in an archaeological dig in the St. Croix Valley, just north of Stillwater.

For four weeks this summer, every day from 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m., students have been working with Ed Fleming, Curator of Archaeology at the Science Museum of Minnesota and a summer lecturer at the U, to uncover past secrets of an ancestral Native American village dating back to 1300 AD. Fleming explained that this village belonged to a tradition called Oneota by archaeologists. “Oneota in the Upper Midwest is believed to be the ancestors of the Ioway, Oto, and Ho Chunk people,” says Fleming, and these people once lived in what is now Wisconsin, Minnesota, and Iowa. This site is special, he says, because it is the only Oneota village in the St. Croix River Valley. 

Fleming has been teaching this field school - a course offered through the U of M - since 2011 at multiple locations, and has been doing research and collections-related work at the Science Museum of Minnesota since 1999. An alum of the University of Minnesota, Fleming said he has “been interested in archaeology since childhood,” and loved traveling and visiting ancient ruins as a kid. 

Field schools and getting experience in the field is necessary for students interested in a career in archaeology, says Fleming. This course started with lectures and instruction taught at the Science Museum of Minnesota, followed by a few days of survey work, which involved looking new sites in Dakota County and surrounding areas. 

The survey work involves walking along recently plowed agricultural fields to look for artifacts on the surface and digging “shovel test pits” and screening the soil for artifacts, according to Fleming. Students then head to the Sheffield site, where excavation methods are explained and students are assigned to one of the three excavation areas, which are subdivided into 1x1 meter squares.

Digging is performed systematically, to ensure they don’t miss anything and to keep track of where each find comes from. “It is crucial to work meticulously and to maintain control … so we can intellectually put it back together,” says Fleming, explaining that the relationships among artifacts help us understand what life was like hundreds of years ago. Students keep track of what is found each day by taking notes in field journals, taking photos, and mapping the excavation site.

Emily Weber, an archaeology major who just graduated from the U, said she loved being a part of the Sheffield site. “The entire experience was really amazing,” she said, explaining that the hands-on aspect is something you can’t get anywhere else. Getting rid of the myths and rumors about archaeology, like how movies show archaeologists finding entire dinosaurs in a day, was also beneficial. 

So far, students have found animal bones, stone tools, and pottery in ash-filled pits and rock-lined hearths at the Sheffield site. To date the artifacts found, radiocarbon dates are obtained from “organic material that is found in association with artifacts,” says Fleming, naming carbonized seeds and wood charcoal as common. Organic material excavated from the site a few years ago was dated to the 1300s AD, Fleming says.

Being able to dig in a real excavation site, identify artifacts, and spend so much time learning about methods and the field itself is an amazing opportunity for students interested in archaeology at the University of Minnesota. Fleming, whose first dig was in his sophomore year of highschool, says a “crucial aspect of archaeology is getting out in the field.”

“One of the biggest takeaways for me was that anthropology is just as much about the little things as it is about the big things,” said Emily. Not every site is going to give you “big finds,” but the little finds are just as important, she said. Hoping to work in museums and curation, Emily is going to continue helping out with the Sheffield site and get that “real-world application.” 

"This year was exciting because the group explored different areas of the site," says Fleming. Though each year is wonderful and different, he says “this group of students is fantastic."