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Koshkonong dig yields wealth of artifacts

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NEIL W. JOHNSON
September 4, 2010
— Although scientists tend to cringe when terms such as “treasure trove” are applied to archaeological sites, it’s hard to describe the Finch Site at Highway 26 north of Milton any other way.

What else would you call a two-acre strip of wooded hills that archaeologists say holds 160 identified pits where prehistoric Native American people dumped everything from deer bones to weapon shards to burnt and broken clay cookware?


What do you call a property that contains, at the very minimum, 100,000 Native American artifacts which scientists believe date from 5000 B.C. to 1200 A.D.?


Call it what you’d like. But one thing’s certain: The Finch Site, which is located northeast of the intersection of Highway 26 and Pond Road in the Koshkonong Township, soon will be buried by a state highway.


Archaeologists who’ve been digging at the site since late last year have nearly wrapped up contract work for the Wisconsin Department of Transportation. Their charge: To excavate 25 percent of the site and identify its contents before the state purchases and paves over most of it with the planned Highway 26 expansion in 2013.


Although 75 percent of the site remains untouched, the Wisconsin DOT has known since conducting an archaeological survey in 1999 that the area holds a significant amount of native artifacts.


As for the site’s dug-up portions? Pardon the scientific crudeness, but they’ve been a real gold mine.


“What we’ve found here suggests extremely intense, long-term use of this site,” said Ricky Kubicek, an archaeologist from the Great Lakes Archaeological Research Center, the Milwaukee-based research group the Wisconsin DOT hired for the excavation.


“We’re not necessarily sure that there were villages or settlements here, but it’s clear that throughout time, different groups of people kept coming back over and over,” Kubicek said.


Many of the items crews unearthed at the site came from the Woodland Era, a period in prehistoric Native American history 2,500 to 800 years ago. Other items, including some knife and arrow points, come from the Mississippian Era and would have been used by native hunters in southern Wisconsin 1,200 to 500 years ago, crews at the dig said.


Although archaeologists have found no human remains at the site, one key discovery was a 1,200-year-old deer bone. It has visible cut marks in it, probably from stone tools, Kubicek said.


“They’re like prehistoric butcher marks. This was from somebody’s dinner,” he said.


To find such a concentrated and varied cache of ancient human materials is rare, Kubicek said, and was only possible because the hilly, wooded site was left undisturbed by modern plows. Its contents stayed locked for ages in the soils’ stratified layers, encased under old-growth timber and native vegetation.


The area was so pristine, Kubicek said, researchers were able to find in soil samples tiny plant and animal remains, such as fish bones and burned seeds. That helped researchers to pinpoint what the site’s former inhabitants ate and even the seasons when different native groups used the sites.


Archaeologist Katie Cera this week was using a water tub to separate rocks and plant material from soil samples at various pits at the site, a job she’s done for nearly a year.


“We’ve been finding a lot of corn, squash and bean seeds here,” Cera said.


Earlier this year, while she was dumping rocks that sifted to the bottom of her water tub, she found a big surprise—an 8,000-year-old spearhead known as a Folsom point. It’s a rare find and one that doesn’t match the chronology of other items at the dig site. Archaeologists at the dig say it’s not clear how the weapon found its way there.


The artifacts’ next stop is UW-Milwaukee, where researchers will curate and analyze them further.


The items, all of which now belong to the state of Wisconsin, 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.


Meanwhile, Great Lakes Archaeological Research Center plans to continue work at the site through 2012, but at a slower pace, with an emphasis on more analysis of plant and animal remains.


“Anything else that we do in the coming months will be done on a volunteer basis and not at professional speed,” Kubicek said.


Kubicek said public interest in his group’s dig has continued to grow since work started last year. He said this spring, droves of people wandered onto the site, carrying copies of newspaper articles about the dig.


“People wanted a closer look. Teachers were interested in doing class work. Finding stuff in the ground is right up a child’s alley,” Kubicek said.


Now that excavation work has slowed, Kubicek said his group is considering occasional public outreaches, which could include supervised digs at some of the site’s existing excavation areas.


Kubicek said that could give the public a chance to learn more about ancient people of southern Wisconsin before a future roadway alters the course of history.


Dig opportunities

To learn more about the chance to work as a volunteer alongside professional archaeologists at the Finch Site archaeological area, email the Great Lakes Archaeological Research Center at kubicek@glarc.com.



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