|By Stephen Wagner, Fort McCoy Cultural Resources
When people find out I’m an archaeologist working at
Fort McCoy, their response is usually something along the lines of “Why
would an archaeologist be working there?” It always takes me a second to
think of how to answer. Should I list the many laws and regulations that
require the Army to find and evaluate the significance of historic
properties? Should I describe the fascinating 10,000-year-long history
of people occupying what is now Fort McCoy? Really, they’re two sides of
the same coin. The fascinating history is what makes the legal
requirements necessary, and if we didn’t have the legal requirements, we
wouldn’t know about the fascinating history.
This Early Woodland pot, which
was unearthed at Fort McCoy in 2007, helped teach archaeologists
more about the life ways of people who lived here 2,000 years
(Cultural Resources file photo)
Without getting too deep into legal drudgery, it’s enough to say that
a combination of laws require the Army to protect historic properties
under its control and to consider the effects of their actions on those
properties. These laws result in the need to find historic properties,
including archaeological sites, and determine their importance.
If a site is important, the Army needs to be concerned about whether its
actions will damage it in such a way that its significance is
An archaeological site (or any historic property) is considered
significant if it meets one of the four criteria for inclusion in the
National Register of Historic Places. It doesn’t have to actually be
listed on the Register; it just has to be eligible to be listed.
The four criteria are a) association with an important historic event;
b) association with an important historic person; c) representative of
historic style; and d) potential to provide information. Archaeology
sites can meet any of these criteria, but are usually evaluated against
the fourth criterion.
The information provided by an archaeological site usually is in the
form of artifacts. For Native American sites inhabited before contact
with European peoples, these artifacts typically are stone tools,
pottery, and the debris left behind from the creation of tools and
pottery. For post-contact archaeological sites, the artifacts recovered
include glassware, ceramics, and nails.
The artifacts that we find can tell us about activities at an
archaeological site as well as trade and transport of ideas, materials,
and people. They can give us a glimpse of cultural preference and style.
We also find what are called features. These are things that can be
studied and recorded, but not collected in any meaningful sense. These
are often fire pits, which give us a glimpse into the diet and
seasonality of the site, and also provide the charcoal required to
obtain radiocarbon dates. Other features can be house foundations and
postholes. These provide information on construction, structures, and
Taken together, the associations between all of the artifacts and
features recovered at a site allow us to learn about the life ways of a
site’s former inhabitants. We learn about their tastes and style and
those traits that make different cultures different. This allows us to
build a picture for a particular site, which we can then use to compare
with other sites throughout the coulee region.
For more than 25 years, archaeologists have been working at Fort McCoy
as part of compliance with these laws. We’ve surveyed over half the
installation for archaeological sites, finding nearly 400 of them. Many
of these sites are eligible for the National Register. Although these
sites can provide information about past events or lifeways,
compliance-related archaeology work rarely involves the actual research
needed to learn that information. That doesn’t mean we haven’t learned
anything. Over the years, our understanding of the historic use of the
landscape has grown.
One recent example of what we’ve learned is about the ceramic styles of
the Early Woodland, which is the earliest period in Wisconsin that
people made pottery. In 2007, we found a nearly complete Early Woodland
pot that was similar to some ceramic types found in Trempealeau and
Southeastern Minnesota, but very different from a type of contemporary
pottery found extensively throughout the upper Mississippi River valley,
including at Prairie du Chien and Stoddard. Charcoal from a firepit
associated with the pot found at Fort McCoy was dated to 2,200 years
ago. This is the only pot in the Trempealeau/Southeast Minnesota group
to be associated with a radiocarbon date.
Aside from this specific example, what we’ve really discovered are more
questions than what we had previously known to ask. We’ve found that
those assumptions we’ve made based on the archaeological record
elsewhere in Southwestern Wisconsin may not be totally correct here.
These are questions that are answerable with the archaeological
materials and sites still buried at Fort McCoy. These are questions we
wouldn’t even have thought to ask if the Army wasn’t required to
identify and evaluate archaeological sites. We won’t be able to answer
them if the Army doesn’t continue to protect significant historic
properties. That is why we have those laws and regulations. That is why
there are archaeologists working at Fort McCoy.
(Wagner is a contracted archaeologist through Colorado State