Area archaeologists have known the western Coulee Region to be a hotbed for archaeological treasures for some time. But a 2012 road construction project in Onalaska revealed that the area’s history might be even richer and more extensive than previously thought.
Remnants of an Oneota village and burial site were uncovered in summer 2012 when archeologists were contracted to monitor the reconstruction of Hwy. 35 in Onalaska.
Katherine Stevenson, current projects director at the Mississippi Valley Archeology Center, will give a presentation on the process and the findings Feb. 20 at the Onalaska Public Library.
She said her team was shocked at the range of the discovery.
“We’ve known there were Oneota artifacts in Onalaska for quite a while,” Stevenson said. “We just had no idea we’d find so much.”
Robert “Ernie” Boszhardt, Stevenson’s predecessor at MVAC, first contacted state agencies about the possibility of intact artifacts and human remains along the Onalaska downtown area. He combined field work with research, citing newspaper articles and other accounts from the 1800s that reported similar findings.
At first, Boszhardt and his crew didn’t expect to find much along the highway.
“Most of it had been paved over, so we couldn’t get to it,” Stevenson said. “How do you do archeology in a downtown area?”
As the construction progressed, the MVAC crew began to uncover more and more intact features or former refuse pits, marked by their dark, stain-like appearance indicating a higher concentration of organic material.
The archeologists eventually learned that, because many buildings in downtown Onalaska dated back to the late 1800s, the soil beneath them has remained relatively undisturbed.
“The utility work under many of those buildings was put in without the heavy machinery we have today,” she said. “They just weren’t doing the amount of earth-moving we’re doing now, and that’s allowed much of the land to remain undisturbed.”
With the help of the city of Onalaska, the Federal Highway Administration, Wisconsin Department of Transportation and the Ho-Chunk Nation, the archeologists were able to locate more than 500 archeological features.
Stevenson emphasized that the mutual success of both the construction and archeology projects was due to the cooperation and communication between parties involved.
“It honestly couldn’t have gone any better,” she said. “People often have this image of archeologists and land developers clashing, but in this case it was totally the opposite.”
Stevenson said MVAC presented A-1 Excavating, the road project contractor, with its 2012 Excellence in Archeology Award. MVAC also received the Tribal Excellence Award from the DOT for its work with the Ho-Chunk Nation Historic Tribal Preservation Office.
The MVAC team is still sifting through the findings, and expect they will learn much more about the Oneota people as they analyze the artifacts. Stevenson said she hopes their work will give the community a broader sense of their area’s history.
“I think when people actually see a 500-year-old piece of pottery that was found under their city street, it gives them a sense of connection through time,” she said. “There have been people here for thousands of years, and it’s nice for people to be able to see it firsthand.”