Expert digs deeper into prehistoric NW Iowa

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Famous boulder yields stone-age art; Sanford Museum revisits local Mill Creek People village sites this summer with new technology.

With a powerful new tool at hand, and a treasure trove of tantilizing clues, Jason Titcomb hopes to delve further back than ever before into the misty prehistoric past of the local area.

After a couple of years of fundraising, the Sanford Museum and the Northwest Chapter of the Iowa Archeological Society has raised the necessary $20,000 to purchase a "remote sensor" device to detect magnetic energy in the earth, which can help to find and map ancient villages hidden feet below ground level for centuries.

The rare-in-the-midwest technology is a major step forward and will be put to use starting this summer, as ambitious Sanford archeologist Titcomb begins to revisit dig sites of many years ago, and to follow some hunches towards possible new discoveries. The new remote sensor is not foolproof, but it will take the "wild goose chase" out of local archeology. He and his group will know they have something before they start to dig, saving money, the landscape, and vast amounts of time. Suddenly, they will be able to do in a season what would have taken several painstaking summers of back-breaking work before.

Titcomb met with a small gathering of amateur acheologists and history buffs at the Sanford Museum in Cherokee Saturday night, to celebrate half a century of archeological digs involving the Cherokee institution with a look back at its finds of the past, and a look ahead at what still may await hidden in the Iowa dirt.

'The Secrets of Pilot Rock'

For the local crowd, it was news on the local landmark Pilot Rock that got people on the edge of their seats.

Titcomb revealed that he and his volunteers have discovered 13 petroglyphs - prehistoric art carved stone-on-stone - on the 61-foot-long Sioux Quartzite boulder south of Cherokee that was depositied by a glacier 20,000 years ago.

Long before white settlers used this marker to find the fertile valley where Cherokee was founded, ancient trails led Native American travelers to the landmark, which they called "Woven Stone."

The first simple petroglyph on the stone was documented in the 1930s. In 2000, an expert decided to revisit the stone to see if he could find the carved marking mentioned by the earlier explorer, and while there, recorded another artwork.

Titcomb heard about the site and decided to take students to visit, and has since documented the remainder of the works. Worn by time and weather, they can often be seen only in a 15-minute time window on an ideal day, when the lighting is at the correct angle.

Some of the markings are what is commonly referred to as "turkey tracks" (think peace symbol without the outer circle) - and have been documented on sacred stone locations elsewhere around North America.

Nobody knows what the symbol means or how old it may be. Some speculate it is an early sylized depiction of the mythical thunderbird, or a way of commemmorating an inportant death, or a totem symbol to mark a clan's territory. Others suggest it could be a mapping symbol, a form of pre-written-language, or, simply a sign that travelers can expect to find good hunting. A crescent moon shape is among the other designs on the local boulder, which visitors can see from a public overlook.

Titcomb feels that additional study could increase the number of documented designs on the stone to 20, and feels many more may have eroded away. This is one of only two prehistoric rock art sites in northwest Iowa, and is said to be referenced in a book by early 19th century writer James Fenimore Cooper, who also wrote "Last of the Mohicans."

For Titcomb, a memorable moment came in 2006 when he first spotted a thunderbird image atop the stone that no one else had apparently ever seen. "It's a feeling like in the movies where Indiana Jones inserts a staff into a secret hole and the crystals start going off," the local archeologist laughs.

Prehistoric Northwest Iowa

The Sanford collection documents the history of the local area from fossil discoveries of primitive nautiloid mollusks and trilobite creatures that once patroled the shallow tropical sea that covered the area nearly 500 million years ago.

Eons of time pass in a few steps from exhibit case to exhibit case. While dinosaurs undoubtedly lived in the region after the sea cover ebbed, finds are rare in Iowa and no Jurassic Period dinos have yet been documented in the state - the soil, climate, heavy farming and glacial history conspire to leave few clues. A man in nearby Dickinson County found a dinosaur tail vertebrae in a load of gravel at his home in 2000, probably from a duckbilled hadrosaur of 100 million years ago, the first major confirmed dinosaur fossil in this region.

Jumping ahead, the Sanford hosts evidence of Iowa's occupation by unfamiliar prehistoric mammals - small wild horses, giant sloths 10-12 feet in length, sharks, mastadons, mammoths, giant beavers the size of bears, camels, musk oxen that went extinct at the end of the last ice age - and more recently, caribou, elk, moose and black bears.

Nomadic people began to appear in the New World around 10,000 years ago, and some of the oldest human sites in Iowa have been uncovered in the local region. The village finds come much later, from the Oneota People, who may be the distant ancestors of the Ioway, Oto and Missouri tribes that extended into the historic era; and the Mill Creek, a small civilization that flourished in the local area 1,000 years ago, then suddenly and mysteriously disappeared forever.

The famous local "digs"

The first director of the Sanford Museum happened to be trained in paleontology - the study of prehistoric life, and the Sanford immediately jumped into the effort to dig up clues to the past. Directors since have continued the efforts. At about the same time as the museum was being founded, the importance of the local area as a hotbed of prehistoric treasures was being realized and the University of Iowa was starting to do archealogical research in the area with the blessing of state leaders.

Residents of the area already knew where some of the ancient villages were based on casual finds that had been made.

The academics and the museum combined to work the Phipps Site north of Cherokee in 1955, documenting a late Mill Creek village of earthen lodges dating to 1100-1200. It was later named a National Historic Landmark.

Next the Sanford was in on the discoveries at the Simonsen SIte near Quimby in 1956-59, where a bison slaughter site was uncovered. Because the species of the bison bones was long since extinct, the find was dated as 7,000 years old. The site has remained in research to the present time. One thing that has never come to light is that the site gave evidence to the prehistoric workers having dogs - one of the earliest findings of dog domestication in history.

In the mid-1950s, a young girl stumbled on the disturbed burial site of four bodies at a gravel site in the Loess Hills. The Sanford was in on the excavation, with its geologist W.D. Frankfurter playing a leadership role, while Life magazine choppered in reporters to cover what would become known as Turin Man. Originally thought to possibly be the oldest humans discovered in the U.S., the bones later tested to be somewhat less sensational, at about 6,000 years old. Still, they represented the first deliberate human burials known in western Iowa. A young adult male was buried with two children and an infant nearby, all in a flexed position. One of the children, probably a girl about 10 years old, was sprinkled with red ochre and dressed in beads made from precious shells. A projectile point was found near her pelvis.

In the 1960s, the Sanford teamed with researchers out of Wisconsin to study half a dozen Mill Creek village sites scattered along the Little Sioux River valley, examining evidence as minute as prehistoric pollens and snail shells to document the environment and the climate the people lived in.

They learned of a highly-organized people who created decorative pottery and advanced bone tools, living in densely-populated villages of around 20 buildings and surrounding them with protective moats and stockades. They may have evolved from the Great Oasis people who preceded them here, but were socially very different. The Great Oasis lived in small family lodges rather than communal villages, and the Mill Creek people had considerable rectangular homes with organized storage and cooking pits, were more advanced in farming corn, and showed trading networks stretching hundreds of miles.

Around 1250 AD they simply disappeared from history, to be replaced here by the incoming Oneota people. No one knows for certain what became of the Mill Creek civilization, but Titcomb leans toward the hypothesis that a period of great drought eliminated much of the food supply on the plains that the people depended on, and they may have fled northwest Iowa to be swallowed up in the cultures of other civilizations of the time, perhaps well into the Dakotas.

Next, the Sanford was in on the discovery of a 1,000-year-old highly-organized cornfield, utilizing ridge cultivation techniques, in O'Brien Couny near Waterman Creek. It is the only prehistoric field surviving in Iowa, and although Titcomb would like to see it made a preserve for public viewing, the landowner is very protective, he says.

In 1970 came the discovery of the Brewster Site, a Mill Creek village just north of Cherokee which revealed information about the diet and lifestyle of prehistoric residents. The village existed for about 200 years starting around 1000 AD, but was only occupied off and on for perhaps 50-75 years total. The site was added to the Historical Register in 1979.

Finding the big one

Then came the Cherokee Sewer dig in 1973-76, where bulldozers had come upon some large bones. One version of the story says that the dozer operator has taken an anthropology class while in college, recognized the bones as prehistoric bison, and brought them in to the Sanford. It turned out to be the oldest bison kill site in Iowa, dating to the Early Archaic period perhaps close to 10,000 years ago. Hunters spooked bison over a small cliff, where they were trapped, slaughted and processed for both feasting and cured into pemican that could be carried for long periods. Dog and elk remains and human teeth from small children were found. Thirty to 60 people may have occupied the site at a time, women working the hides of the animals. The camp was occupied in three distinctly different time periods, the last estimated at 5200 BC. That made the site crucial for continued study of how prehistoric people adapted to environmental and climate changes over the centuries.

On one of the horizons dating about 6,350 years ago they found a bird bone flute that still is playable - the oldest known musical artifact of its type in the world. It is believed that the flute was made from the leg bone of a predecessor to the Trumpeter Swan.

In the 1980s and '90s, the Sanford was kept busy performing archeaologic surveys of sites that were about to be torn up to put in buildings or roads. "If something was in danger, we were there," Titcomb says.

In the past few years, there have been more finds - a Great Oasis farming community, the Crocker site near Washta, where Titcomb recalls being moved by the spot where someone sat and sharpened their tools 900 years ago and left their stone shards behind undisturbed... a "snapshot in time," he calls it. Obsidian stone items were found, and the stone traced to its origin - a cliff in what is now Yellowstone National Park.

And in 2006, Titcomb gathered a team of volunteers are raced to Glenwood, where construction of a new school had turned up a village site. Construction waited only momentarily, and snow season was coming. "When I got wind of it I grabbed some people before the bulldozers came. We had a two-week window."

Forty-four areas were excavated with Titcomb as field director and his wife training the young volunteers in those 14 days; over 800 students touring the site as they worked. One of the things they found was a burned-down lodge, which had been carefully cleared out - obviously an intentional burn by the villagers. They expected artifacts from 800 AD, but found pottery 2,000 years old. The find was important enough to present at the World Archeology Conference.

The 'accidental art'

Local archeology buffs aren't just looking for bones and arrowheads and broken pottery, Titcomb says, but for understanding. "We are trying to understand the transitions. What made one entire group of people pick up and join in a differnt society entirely?"

There are many tricks of the trade in hunting for finds, Titcomb notes. One, people a thousand years ago liked the same kind of views people do today - higher spots, near water and trees.

Rodent trails often go hand-in-hand with the local finds. Just as mice are today, the ancient rodents were attracted to the discarded food in refuse pits in the prehistoric homes and villages, and their small tunnels often lead right to sites. Darker areas in lighter-colored soils may indicate a home site - the organic materials people left behind over long periods can cause richer, darker localized soil.

Anyone who finds something they can't identify while digging or in layers of earth on a riverbank is urged to contact the Sanford for help in identification. It is important not to disturb a site so that it can be studied.

In Iowa, archeology has usually been an accidental art, Titcomb says. A dig happens when someone stumbles on something that had been buried, or when something erodes out of the riverbank. One area student on a field trip several years ago came upon a skull in such a setting.

The accidental nature will be changing, as computer modeling, radar, mineral content scanning, the gradiometer than Sanford is obtaining and other technology will make it possible to research more widely, more quickly.

An ethical question arises in the process - what will we do with what we find?

It is possible for a excavation the size of a phone booth to turn up 20,000 shards of pottery. Facilities like the Sanford simply don't have the space or resources to catalog, preserve and store all of the artifacts that can be pulled from the ground now.

"Also, I've always felt that we shouldn't take everything. In some sense we should preserve a site, leave something behind for the future architects who will come along with more information and better technology than we have," Titcomb says.

When asked about finding human remains, the local architect is clearly less comfortable. Often the prehistoric peoples of northwest Iowa dealt with the bodies of their dead on a hilltop some distance from their village, he said. Titcomb and those before him have concentrated on the living spaces and what they could learn from them, not quested after burial remains, although there is occasionally an individual skeleton that will turn up unexpectedly in a village dig, he said.

Area archeologists are currently trying to identify one unmarked apparant cemetary that has been brought to their attention.

The future of area archeology

This coming summer, Titcomb hopes to use the new remote senor unit to re-explore the several Mill Creek village sites that were excavated many years ago. No detailed maps were made at the time they were originally studied, and it is possible the new device could show a village to be twice the size it was originally thought to be in an old dig. With enough information, it could be possible to establish the Little Sioux River Valley and all of its finds from Cherokee to the Iowa Great Lakes as one sprawling National Archeological District.

For all that has been found, there is more awaiting, he believes.

"I still have a lot of questions. There may be a whole different story to be found." For example, Titcomb's eyes light up behind his studious square glasses when he mentions the Woodland People. They are something of the local missing link, and he would dearly love to find them.

They followed the Archaic Period nomads, and were the first to begin horticulture, growing some food as well as hunting it. They are also thought to be the people who invented the bow and arrow in the region, replacing the spear as the hunting and warfare tool of choice.

"I know they were here. We have had people bring in things that they have found, and I've spotted things in collections that some of the amateur archeologists around the area have. But what was going on out here 2000 years ago?"

Many of the people gathered for Titcomb's presentation are older, several took part in the Sanford digs years ago. They too seem eager for more progress.

"There are so may cases around here where a person has found something, but it's never been investigated any further. When we lose that one person who knows, we may have lost a discovery forever," one man said.

Buena Vista County may be ripe ground for future exploration, hints Titcomb.

"There are some Mill Creek sites in BV that have never really been investigated. I haven't gotten into them, but in this field you never say never," he smiles.

"There are so many unknowns in the BV area, and some very interesting reports of things. I can tell you there are prehistoric sites all around the lake, some documented, some probably not. Local collectors have found some things that give us ideas," Titcomb says. "There is so little known about the prehistory of the lake, just because so much of it got built up before archeological investigation really got going in northwest Iowa."

A Great Oasis People site was reported southwest of Linn Grove way back in the 1960s and still has not been dug.

And Titcomb pays homage to Rev. F. L. Van Voorhis, a retired clergyman from Alta who excavated a Brooke Creek village in the 1940s he named "Chan Ya Ta," a Sioux Indian word meaning, "at the woods." At this site he dug up two separate and complete Mill Creek dwellings, one a ceremonial lodge 40 feet wide by 60 feet long. Many of the weapons, tools, cooking utensils and carved ornaments are included in the Van Voorhis Indian Collection, now displayed at the historical museum in Storm Lake - and a tantilizing indication that there are probably more settlements nearby.

To date, twelve Mill Creek villages have been studied in the three counties of Buena Vista, O'Brien, and Cherokee. State archeology official have estimated that several hundred Mill Creek People once dominated the prairie from Peterson to Sutherland.

For more information, or to join the Northwest Chapter of the Archeological Society, contact the Sanford Museum.

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