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February 24, 2012

Community

Archaeology program evaluating data from 2011 inventory field work at McCoy

Although winter has brought the outdoor research/excavation work to a standstill, Fort McCoy’s archaeologists continue to perform important data analysis and provide input to installation programs and to the surrounding communities and state officials.
PHOTO: Archaeologist Tim Dahlen sorts through artifacts recovered during field work in 2011. Photo by Rob Schuette
Tim Dahlen, an archaeologist with the Fort McCoy Natural Resources Branch, sorts through artifacts recovered during field work in 2011. Dahlen is contracted through Colorado State University. (Photo by Rob Schuette)

Stephen Wagner, installation Cultural Resources Project Manager, and Tim Dahlen, archaeologist, said their work is governed by the National Historic Preservation Act and the National Register of Historical Places. Both Wagner and Dahlen are contracted employees with Colorado State University, which provides archaeological support to the Fort McCoy Natural Resources Branch (NRB).

Regulation requires federal agencies, such as Fort McCoy, to take into account actions on significant historical properties before pursuing any projects or other types of work on the land, Wagner said. In Fort McCoy’s instance, the historic significance often includes the lives of prehistoric Native Americans. Several years ago, for example, a piece of pottery thought to date back about 2,000 years was discovered.

About 5,000 acres of Fort McCoy is inventoried each year. Priorities are assigned for areas to be inventoried based upon construction projects scheduled for the next year and Army training needs. Wagner said 2011 fieldwork also involved the excavation of 20 sites deserving of further research to determine historical value.

“We are charged with finding historical properties,” Wagner said. “When we find them, we determine the significance of the sites by finding meaningful data on historical events, and if there is something worth protecting.”

Currently, the archaeology section is evaluating the materials collected last year. Wagner said the items are cleaned and cataloged. He and Dahlen will document and incorporate findings into a report to be sent to the State Historic Preservation Office. The information is first sent to the NRB chief for any input and forwarded to the Environmental Division chief for review. The archaeological items collected are sent to the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse Archaeological program for curation, or storage and display purposes.

“We use several methods to determine the significance of the artifacts,” Wagner said. “We can compare it to known, or identified, findings of archaeological material. If we need to use radio carbon dating techniques, we send it out to a laboratory off post.”

Dahlen serves as the field supervisor for the work done during the spring and summer months. The season roughly runs from the conclusion of the school/academic year to about the time of the Gun-Deer Season in November. The work crew includes experienced archaeologists as well as archaeology students, who often are seeking field experience, he said. In contrast to the rather large piece of pottery discovered several years ago, many of the items found during archaeological research are much smaller, in many instances a small flake or sliver of material.

“It’s a very labor-intensive process to unearth the artifacts, wash them, analyze them, and get them ready for curation,” Dahlen said. “The material often is very brittle, and we don’t want to break anything.”

Geographic Information System maps are used to pinpoint specific areas to inventory, he said. Sites that are determined to be historically significant are placed off limits to uses that would damage them, he said.

Wagner said the National Historic Preservation Act allows them to provide the necessary protection for a historical site without having to go through the necessary procedures involved in a formal designation on the National Register of Historic Places.

The pair is planning for the next field season. Preparation includes ensuring any equipment is serviceable and clean. Personnel to assist them with the field work will be identified and contacted, and a schedule and location of inventory work will be established and the cycle is ready to begin anew, Wagner said.

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