Fort McCoy News September 26, 2014

Archaeologists dig up ancient past, preserve history

Public Affairs Staff

Thousands of years ago, Native Americans used the very same lands service members use today for training at Fort McCoy. And, with nearly 60,000 acres of Fort McCoy to explore, it's no wonder that archaeologists who visit the post every year always discover something new about the installation's past.

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Archaeologists Cassie Mohney and Megan Kasten work in a section of Fort McCoy's cantonment area. They are part of a team of archaeologists under contract with Fort McCoy that searches several areas of the post for artifacts as part of historical preservation.

"We have to do more analysis, but this year we've been finding artifacts that could be anywhere from 12,000 to 500 years old," said Tyler Olsen, an archaeologist from the Archaeology Program of Colorado State University (CSU) under contract with Fort McCoy. "With every dig comes some level of excitement as we look back at how people lived here long before Fort McCoy was here."

Olsen is part of a CSU archaeology team that has been doing work at Fort McCoy for decades as part of archaeological support to the Directorate of Public Works Natural Resources Branch (NRB).

The archaeology efforts at Fort McCoy are governed by federal regulations and the National Historic Preservation Act (NHPA), according to Mark McCarty, chief of the NRB. Federal law requires the Army to protect historic properties under its control and to consider the effects of Army actions on those properties. The law further defines the need to find historic properties, including archaeological sites, and determine their importance.

The Phase I Cultural Resources Identification Survey of the installation recently was completed," McCarty said. This effort was huge and ended a 27-year process of surveying nearly 53,000 acres.

The survey identified 164 archaeological sites on Fort McCoy that potentially are eligible for placement on the National Register of Historic Places (NRHP), McCarty said. A Phase II study — going on now — further evaluates the sites based on criteria specified in the NHPA.

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A pottery shard thousands of years old was unearthed in a dig area on Fort McCoy's South Post.

"Sites cleared will be available for future maneuver training and construction without the need for additional archaeological evaluation," McCarty said. "Mission impacts on not completing legally mandated Phase II evaluations would cause restrictions to military training and delays to construction until these evaluations can be completed."

Archaeological field work can take place on Fort McCoy from May through November, and lab work takes place year-round. In 2014, the CSU archaeologists have been working all over the post.

Stephen Wagner, lead CSU archaeologist at Fort McCoy, said the team is currently evaluating 80 of 164 archaeological sites to determine NRHP status.

"NRHP eligibility is the benchmark that signifies whether historic properties, including archaeological sites, are important and need to be protected," Wagner said. "What we're doing is conducting limited excavation of these 80 sites in order to make the eligibility determination."

Field work at the 80 sites has produced numerous artifacts, including "pre-contact" artifacts such as ceramics, stone tools, and spearheads. "Pre-contact" refers to the time before Europeans are known to have come to North America 500 or more years ago.

"The sites we've visited this year have been spread around the installation and reflect most of the human use of the landscape," Wagner said. "Some of the oldest sites we've investigated during this contract are quarry sites that could date as far back as 8,500 B.C. These sites would have been where Native Americans obtained the raw material necessary to make their stone tools."

In an area of Fort McCoy's South Post, Wagner said his team discovered artifacts that might be related to the old infantry maneuver area that was once named "Camp Emory Upton," and dates to possibly around 1910 shortly after the origins of Fort McCoy took hold.

"This site had a number of brick structures that might have been the camp incinerators," Wagner said. "There was a lot of material associated with food as well as some unit insignia from the 28th Infantry Regiment, which was based out of Fort Snelling (Minn.) at the time."

Wagner added the Camp Emory Upton sites were of particular interest, and explained how the history of Fort McCoy builds through all the artifacts they find.

"Pre-contact Native American sites tend to be small campsites located along waterways and wetlands," Wagner said. "Euro-American sites tend to be 19th century farmsteads. Those sites are also interesting, but the quarries and infantry camp were a nice change of pace."

Several CSU archaeologists working at a pre-contact Native American site in the cantonment area in July found hand-chipped pieces of Cochrane and Prairie du Chien chert. Chert is a fine-grained sedimentary rock Native Americans used to make stone tools, arrowheads and spearheads.

"This was an area where someone in the distant past had worked on tools," said Archaeologist Chris Veit, one of the team members working at the site. "With the waterways and landscape of Fort McCoy, there are many places like this that have many pre-contact artifacts."

Many of the CSU archaeologists are also proud to be a part of making historical discoveries.

"The feeling of holding something in your hand that no one has seen in thousands of years is priceless," said Archaeologist Mitch Johnson.

Archaeologist Sarah Tillett agreed. "This is the first time I am able to use my anthropology degree," she said. "Being able to contribute to history and science is special."

Artifacts found are catalogued and sent to the team's lab. From there, most of the artifacts are curated with the Mississippi Valley Archaeology Center at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse.

Wagner said field work and artifact preparation will continue. "Our future work for the next few months will be focused on finishing up lab work and writing a report, which will then be sent to the Wisconsin State Historic Preservation Officer for concurrence," he said.

For more information about archaeology at Fort McCoy, contact the NRB at 608-388-4793.