When the Mississippi Valley Archaeological Center calls all hands on deck, it actually means all hands in the dirt. Even the business manager for MVAC had her hands on a shovel for what’s turned into a big project in Onalaska in the Highway 35 reconstruction area.
MVAC has called in all of the experienced help they’ve ever had contact with, whether retired experts or new students, to help on the dig.
According to Kathy Stevenson, project director for the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse-based MVAC, more than 230 pits have been identified in the construction area and they aren’t even halfway done. The pits were dug long ago for various purposes, such as building a fire, crop storage and garbage disposal.
“This is pretty remarkable given all the things that have happened over the last 150 years,” Stevenson said. “This is in the heart of downtown Onalaska. It has exceeded our expectations for what we might find out here.”
She said she thinks it’s all preserved because of the presence of the old railroad bed. Back then, there were no archaeological digs, so, except for narrowly excavated utility pipes, much of the area has never been explored for artifacts.
Last year when MVAC monitored the demolition of the homes along Highway 35 and found two pit features under the Peter Pan Dry Cleaners building, MVAC officials had their first sign there might be some artifacts to recover. “That was the first sign we had of anything intact. But everything around there was thoroughly destroyed,” Stevenson said.
But south of the demolished buildings is another story. MVAC officials have never been able to prove the stories in the newspapers and other accounts of the Oneota culture populating the Onalaska area 400 to 700 years ago. But now they have their proof.
“There’s a lot intact out here,” Stevenson said.
Stevenson said the pottery shards they are finding are very representative of the Oneota culture. “We’ve not been able to recreate pottery made this good over an open fire pit,” she said.
Pieces of jugs or pots that were as large as 10 gallons have been found. Despite their large size, the walls of the jugs are very, very thin. “They’re so evenly made,” Stevenson said. “They’re beautifully made with sand or clam shells or crushed rock.”
The Oneota pottery is identified by the presence of crushed clam shells while other cultures used sand or crushed rock. The notching on the lip of the pottery also is very indicative of the early Oneota culture — circa 1300-1400 AD. Stevenson said both the early and later Oneota pottery remnants are being found on the site.
“We admire their methods,” Stevenson said. “It’s a very sophisticated pottery producing method, probably taught by mothers to daughters. It’s among the life skills taught at a very early age. We have a lot of respect for the technology that went into it.”
Most every weekday, from sunrise to sunset, an MVAC crew of 12 to 15 workers carefully sift through the dirt before the road is repaved. Some of the workers are archaeological students at UW-L, some are hired on a short-term as-needed basis and others are MVAC staff.
They have found a whole range of items in numerous pits: pottery, food refuse, animal bones, plant remains, burnt rock, deposits of ash from cooking fires and more.
They are also finding what they call post molds where tree limbs were inserted into the ground with the exposed part of the limb used to support a shelter such as a wigwam.
Each day MVAC crew members take hundreds of bags of soil samples and found artifacts back to UW-L for analysis at the lab.
The archaeological excavations are being done in cooperation with the Wisconsin Department of Transportation and as evidence turns up at one spot, the DOT crews move to another spot while MVAC workers remove what they can. They are working with the DOT and the construction company to keep things moving efficiently as possible to avoid delays.
Marcee Peplinski of Onalaska has never done field work before and was excited to be able to contribute. Normally Peplinski is the MVAC business manager. After helping out at the dig site each day, she still returns to the office to complete those duties.
Call it beginner’s luck, but on their first day on the dig, Peplinski and Hannah Lingenfelter of La Crosse were thrilled to find two items. One was a hoeing tool made out of bison shoulder bone.
Peplinski learned the other item she found was called a Woodland point. “For me it’s just awesome,” Peplinski said. “To find it, to feel it, to know it. To have them say ‘you just found a Woodland point,’ that’s just thrilling.”
A Woodland point is an arrowhead. But the Woodland era is hundreds and hundreds years older than the Oneota culture.