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Trempealeau’s Big Dig: Archaeologists hunt for Native American relics

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Ethan Klicko, center, a UW Baraboo Student, helps to set up a plan map at one of the dig sites in Trempealeau Wis. The plan map helps organize and catalogue any artifacts that are found. Rory O'Driscoll/Winona Daily News

TREMPEALEAU — Seeing a backhoe rip up a well-maintained front lawn might bother some people. For Dana Jackson, the pastor at Mount Calvary Lutheran Church, it’s an opportunity.

“I think it’s pretty exciting,” Jackson said. “There’s all this history on the church property. We walk over it every day and don’t even think about that.”

Jackson — who noted that the land actually belongs to the church — can sit at her front window and watch as archaeology experts uncover a culture 1,000 years old.

Robert “Ernie” Boszhardt, an independent researcher working for the University of Wisconsin Baraboo-Sauk County, is supervising the Trempealeau dig. With about $170,000 from a National Science Grant, Boszhardt and his colleagues are searching for the remains of a Native American culture called the Mississippians.

They burrow, sift and scan for remnants of the ancient culture as cars zoom by on Main Street.

Bits of red-stained pottery and white “Burlington” flint common to St. Louis, Mo., are what their straining eyes are looking for.

“We were learning a lot about all these cultures, but there was this one sliver missing,” Boszhardt said. “It looked like there was this hiatus of the archaeological record.”

The Mississippians were different from any other Native American tribe living in the area.

They came from Missouri in 1050 A.D. and settled in the northern river valley. 

While much of their culture remains a mystery, Boszhardt said, the Mississippians were the first to introduce corn farming to hunter-gatherer tribes.

On a hill behind the church, giant mounds are all that remain of what Boszhardt and his colleagues believe were sacred temples. The Mississippians were distinctly religious, and probably brought a new dogma and  caste system with them.

Walking toward the mounds, Boszhardt gestures to two pits on either side of him.

“You got to think: ‘How did they build this without shovels?’” he said. “They dug this with their hands and sticks and bones.”

Andrew Lohr, a senior at University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire, signed up for the dig to earn credits toward his anthropology minor.

Like the other students, he is sweaty from hours of work in the sun.

“It’s a lot of fun learning about the history,” Lohr, 22, said. “It’s also fun learning about how to do the excavating.”

For Boszhardt, the work is also a mission in learning. Archaeology helps him uncover an American history that goes millennia beyond the written record.

“Human beings share a curiosity about the past and a curiosity about the future and that’s what makes us human,” he said. “It’s also just a blast, doing it.”


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