[ The Real McCoy Online Home ]                                                                                                               November 13, 2009

Archaeology program helps preserve history of Fort McCoy

By Stephen Wagner, Fort McCoy Cultural Resources Coordinator

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.

Photo: 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 ago. (Cultural Resources file photo)
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 ago.
(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 diminished.

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 site layout.

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 University.)


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