TREMPEALEAU — Digging up lawns has made archaeologist Danielle Benden familiar with the neighborhood.
Hunting for signs of a 1,000-year-old culture, University of Wisconsin researchers and students churned up land all over town — near homes on Third Street, in front of a local inn and up on Little Bluff.
This summer’s dig uncovered a surprise outcropping of ancient structures, hidden directly under the grassy subdivisions of this riverside village.
“Literally beneath their feet they walk over archaeology,” Benden said. “Probably unknowingly.”
Benden is curator of anthropology at UW-Madison, but excavations are a team effort spanning years of off-and-on digging, with curious locals joining students and researchers.
Tom Hunter, 65, scooped dirt near an ancient trench and dumped it over a sifter. Hunter watched bustling dig sites pop up around in his hometown for years, and followed the work with interest. He jumped at a chance this year to grab a shovel.
“Trempealeau is a big part of my history,” Hunter said. “And this is part of Trempealeau’s history.”
Researchers are looking
for remnants of the Mississipians, a bygone Native American culture.
The Mississipians made a 500-mile journey up the river from Cahokia, an ancient city near St. Louis, eventually finding a home in Trempealeau. That’s about 30 days by canoe, Benden said.
“Why are they coming here?” Benden said. “It looks like kind of a moon shot.”
They appear for a brief time and then disappear.
This year’s dig only deepens the mystery behind the Mississippians.
Diggers uncovered a lot of buildings, but fewer artifacts than past sites around town.
“What we found was really different than what I expected,” said Mara Taft, a dig supervisor and recent UW-Madison graduate. “But fascinating.”
Researchers think the wayward enclave was drawn to Trempealeau Mountain, the village’s namesake. The mountain is a broken piece of bluff, jutting up in the middle of the river.
There’s no signs Mississippians mixed with other societies, and a couple of decades later, they’re gone, said Robert “Ernie” Boszhardt, an instructor at the Center for Wisconsin Archaeology at UW-Baraboo-Sauk County.
Around the same time, there’s evidence of unrest in Cahokia, including human sacrifices and executions, Benden said.
The findings at the site fit with a theory that the Trempealeau society was part of a religious mission — not to evangelize, but to escape persecution.
“One of the thoughts is, ‘Oh my gosh, they are getting out of Dodge before it is too late,’ ” Benden said.
Wooden posts on an H-shaped building align exactly north-south east-west, which Benden called “classically Mississippian.” The Mississippians placed importance on the cycles of the sun.
“We do know the worship of the sun was a very important part of it,” Benden said.
The lack of artifacts is also important. Ancient refuse can tell researchers a lot about how people lived, but it’s more commonly found in living quarters or dump sites.
“Garbage is treasure to archaeologists,” Boszhardt said.
Less trash might mean inhabitants intentionally kept the space clean, and that could be a sign that the outcropping of buildings was sacred or ceremonial, Benden said.
“That’s the exciting part,” Benden said.