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Anthropologists explore treasures near Lake Koshkonong

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NEIL W. JOHNSON
May 2, 2010
— Traffic will one day race over an archeological treasure trove off Highway 26 near Lake Koshkonong, where a group of Milwaukee anthropologists believe they’ve found remnants left by some of Wisconsin’s earliest residents.

For weeks, crews from the Great Lakes Archeological Research Center, Milwaukee, have been recovering prehistoric American Indian artifacts on a saddle-shaped, 2-acre strip of wooded land at the corner of Pond Road and Highway 26 just south of Fort Atkinson.


The dig is being done through the Wisconsin Department of Transportation in anticipation of the expansion of Highway 26, which is slated for 2013, officials said.


Surveyed as the “Finch Site,” the area is formed by two wooded glacial hills wedged between the east side of Highway 26 and a low-lying marsh area.


Tentative state plans would put the northbound lanes of the new, expanded Highway 26 over about 80 percent of the site. Only the east edge of the site would remain untouched as state and privately owned property, officials said.


For now, the site is a hive of scientists in boots, floppy hats and dirt-caked jeans. They move around a growing maze of shallow pits being dug to unearth tools, weapon points, pottery and other artifacts with ages ranging at least as far back as 500 B.C. to the time of European explorations in the 1600’s.


The site is undisturbed by modern plows.


“Finding a pristine site like this is very exciting and very rare,” said Ricky Kubicek, an archeologist with the Great Lakes Archeological Research Center. “As we bring up (artifacts), most of them are as they were left off by the original (inhabitants).”


Kubicek supervises a crew of 15 archeologists who are under a tight deadline to recover as many artifacts from the site as possible. The crew will work until August and hopes to unearth about 50 percent of the artifacts surveyors believe exist on the property, department of transportation officials said.


The excavations isn’t being done willy-nilly, site archeologist Ryan Harke said. Crews are using soil analysis to find artifact deposits known as middens.


Harke said middens are recognizable because they create breaks in normal soil layering. He said they stick out like sore thumbs, and they’re chock full of artifacts.


“They’re like ancient garbage dumps,” Harke said.


Kubicek said some middens have concentrations of discarded items that show ancient people used certain spots at the site for specific tasks, such as tool making or pottery crafting.


With a shovel and a trowel, archeologist William Eichmann scraped away a 5-centimeter layer of black topsoil from a pit on the site’s north end.


Eichmann dropped the soil into a bucket and poured it through a large mesh sieve. The sieve caught some key artifacts: flakes of chert rock, possibly discarded by weapon makers in the Mississippian era of prehistoric Native Americans.


“Feel these remnants,” Eichmann said. “Even after being in the ground all this time, they’re still almost razor sharp.”


He said the people who likely left behind the shards ranged the glacial hills of southern Wisconsin to the Galena area in northwest Illinois from 1,200 to 500 years ago.


Eichmann said he could tell the shards were from weapon point production because their color shows they were heated, a process commonly used by ancient toolmakers.


While crews have found no human remains at the site, other items include pottery and tool fragments from the Woodland people, an ancient native group that lived in the region 2,500 to 800 years ago.


One significant artifact crews unearthed came from the south end of the site, on a tree-choked hill overlooking a bog to the east.


Kubicek said he believes it’s a Folsom point, a type of stone spear head used by hunters in the Paleo era—one of the earliest prehistoric cultures in Wisconsin.


“It’s probably isolated. It’s the only item we’ve found from that period,” he said.


Kubicek said if crews find pieces of carbon or burned plant material near an artifact, lab workers offsite could use carbon dating to come within decades of pinpointing its age.


“That system’s gotten better over the years. It’s usually pretty damn close,” Kubicek said.


Kubicek said if the weapon from the south hill actually is a Folsom point, it could be 10,000 years old.


The bulk of artifacts found at the site will be sent to UW-Milwaukee for further analysis of their composition, age and what cultures might have used them, Kubicek said.


Some of the items could end up in museums, or at state-supported historical societies, as part of an agreement between the state, Native American groups and scientists involved in the dig, officials said.


Currently, there are no plans to make the site a protected historical site.


“It’s a matter of getting a reported document of the pictures and the history of what was there. It’s about documentation now and preserving the documents that are recovered,” Department of Transportation highway project manager Mark Vesperman said in a phone interview.


After that’s done, Vesperman said, the Finch site’s days are numbered. It’s on private property, but sale is pending. Soon, the state will take over the bulk of the site.


Vesperman said he’s aware people passing on Highway 26 are curious about all the workers, tarps and buckets at the site.


“We could put a sign out warning people that it’s an archeological site, but that’s like the Wizard of Oz telling people not to look behind the curtain,” he said.


Vesperman said crews won’t necessarily turn away visitors who are curious about the dig, but people aren’t allowed to interfere with the work or do any digging of their own.


Kubicek said because the area is so undisturbed, crews are prepared for a continued flood of visitors to the site. He expects to find significant items until the very end of the dig.


As he walked along a foot-beat path past two open pits near the bottom of a hill, Kubicek stopped to pick up a small, white fragment lying in the dirt.


“Huh,” he said, tossing the piece back to the ground. “Nothing but a deer bone.”



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