When I was a kid, my parents had a set of Time-Life books that covered a bunch of different topics like the ocean, reptiles, the desert and, most fascinating of all, early man. I’d take down that last one and goggle at the bone and stone tools, the scraps of barely clothing and the massive brow ridges of our earliest ancestors and just flounder at how alien it seemed. Of course by the end of the book we had more modern humans, dress, tools and that brow ridge shrank, too. It was a bit more relatable, but still the stuff of imagination. My dreams of becoming an archaeologist were born.
This was way before The Clan of the Cave Bear or any popular fictionalized stories about people with lives, not just the stuff they left behind. The closest I got was the Island of the Blue Dolphins which I had been allowed to get from the Scholastic catalog one time and read over and over again. Then I got to live it a little. From 5th to 8th grades, our middle school had a special program that was rooted in the science curriculum. One year it was Early Man and we would go out into the tiny woodland by the school and try to build shelters, fires, tools and other stuff to just imagine what it would be like. We spent afternoons in muddy ditches trying to lash together tents made out of branches and grass. Hilarious, but pretty instructive for a bunch of 12-year-olds.
So what does this have to do with anything? Well if you’ve read a couple of my other posts, you know I will go a fair bit out of my way to visit anything having to do with pre-contact Native American culture. Like my trip to the Palatki Heritage Site last year and North Dakota’s Mandan Village recreation. This time I could pretty easily drive to Mitchell from Sioux Falls, which was my overnight stop from Wisconsin on my way to the Badlands. Well, when I say easily, I was reckoning without the weather. More on that later.
But first – the dig! Yes, a real, working archaeological dig.
This ancient village site was re-discovered in 1910 by a student from Dakota Wesleyan University. It took 65 years, but eventually a formal group was formed to preserve and excavate the site. You can read about it and a whole lot more on the Mitchell Indian Village website. Building a permanent structure over the dig area means better protection for the site itself and extends the excavation season through the winter and in the rainy times. So much nicer to work inside!
By touring the museum in the building next door, I learned that folks decided to concentrate their excavation on an area that is between the individual houses that were once here. The reason is that people don’t throw stuff away or leave things behind in those houses, but in trash piles called middens. That’s where the treasure is, archaeologically speaking.
By digging down through layer after layer, scientists can learn about the people who lived here by studying what they threw in the trash. Old tools. Bones from kills. Broken pots. Broken household items. If the village is used periodically over several generations, people can see changes in diet, tool manufacture, population density and much more.
Inside the dome are some sections open to the public which display artifacts found on site and recreations of other things that wouldn’t have survived being in the ground like this boat.
Bullboats, as you can read from the tag above, are made from a single hide in order to preserve the waterproof quality. A person can fit inside and paddle alone, but more often several boats were lashed together so more people plus belongings could be moved at once. There are a few hilarious photos of people paddling this or another modern bullboat with a bison scapula paddle. Awkward doesn’t even begin to describe it, but it worked. People could get across lakes, ford rivers, travel on rivers and just move from place to place more easily if they didn’t have to go around water. Here’s a look at what I think is a charred bison shoulder blade –
Bison scapulae were important items in the pre-historic Native America toolbox. They were used to make shovels, paddles, mattocks, serving platters, cooking and roasting pans; all kinds of stuff that needed a rigid flat shape.
Every bit of refuse is removed from the ground, cleaned, numbered and cataloged. Without sophisticated metalworking, bone was the primary tool available for every conceivable task. These are on display in the Thompson Archedome in a big bin you can sort through to your heart’s content.
And there is lots of other stuff to see and learn about including video talks about who is digging and what they are finding. If you ever find yourself in mid-eastern South Dakota, it’s worth a trip.
Just make sure you don’t do it during peak thunderstorm season. OMG I got caught in such a storm. First I had to dash out of the T-Dome back to the visitors center where I bought a cool pair of earrings and shook myself like a dog I was so wet. Of course instead of a straight line between the buildings they have a long, zig-zagging path instead. A family of four and I made a dash for it, laughing all the way because what else can you do? So after I shook and made another dash through rivulets of run-off to the parking area, I headed out. Little did I know that I probably should have stayed another half hour or so. Either there or in a nearby park I passed.
But no…I headed back to I-90 west and ended up having to pull off under an overpass in order to wait out the hail that made it so hard to see I was pretty nervous about continuing. Plus I didn’t want my Jeep all dented to hell. It wasn’t the first time I’ve had to do this, and I’m sure it won’t be the last. Luckily I had a decent cell signal and could get a reasonably accurate radar loop on my weather app. I saw a small niche in the storm which was running lengthwise south to north right over where I was. If I stayed there I’d get all of it for more than an hour I’m guessing. But if I made a run for it when the little pocket of relative calm came in, I could get west of it and away.
Woo hoo, it worked! No lives were lost, no cars were wrecked, no cows were hit. As I went west I came out of the storm into a moody landscape of clouds and wind, but thankfully, no hail and I could see beyond the hood.
And you’ve seen what I got from the Badlands Workshop already. Still one more post to come – about the crazy abandoned town and the foreign cult that now owns the whole thing.