By Elizabeth Reetz, University of Iowa Office of the State Archaeologist
Paddling a stretch of more than 17 miles of river is something I haven’t done since working as an archaeologist in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. But yes – I have continued to find a way to mesh my love of canoeing with my profession of archaeology, and integrate it with environmental education! Paddling a stretch of more than 17 miles of river is something I haven’t done since working as an archaeologist in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. But yes – I have continued to find a way to mesh my love of canoeing with my profession of archaeology, and integrate it with environmental education!
Pretty soon after moving to Iowa, I learned about an absolutely incredible (hyperbole intentional!) community event called Project AWARE (A Watershed Awareness and River Expedition). Project AWARE, sponsored by the Iowa Department of Natural Resources (DNR) and now in its 15th year, focuses on a different stretch of a different waterway in Iowa each year to increase awareness about, and community involvement in, water quality issues that impact the health of Iowa’s aquatic resources. The crux of this project is removing trash from the waterway. Just as important though is the project’s integration of place-based education focused on each year’s route to promote engaged conservation and stewardship. It’s just amazing – I wish every state had an event like this!
Where this event links in with archaeology is simple: People use and have always used waterways and their resources. Most of Iowa’s 29,000 documented archaeological sites have been found along the state’s thousands of miles of rivers and streams, which means that Project AWARE participants have passed hundreds, if not thousands of archaeological sites over the past 15 years and, until recently, didn’t even know it! My office started doing one-day guided archaeological canoe trips for the Iowa DNR Water Trails program, community talks about the archaeology of Iowa’s water trails, and evening campground programs for the Project AWARE participants in 2014. In 2016, my colleague Cherie Haury-Artz and I signed on to be “resident archaeologists” throughout the 5-day canoe journey. As resident archaeologists, we give educational talks and showcase artifacts and traditional toys and games in the evenings. More importantly though, we’re available as informal educators and interpreters while canoeing the river. Archaeology is not only about objects and artifacts, but about how humans have used the land throughout time. A long stretch of river will pass numerous landforms, landscapes, and confluences, all of which have a human story to tell.
This year’s route covered 55 miles of the upper Cedar River, from the Iowa-Minnesota border to near Nashua, Iowa. Before the trip, I did a search through our archaeological site records and found about 50 previously recorded sites within 100 meters of the banks of the Cedar River (hear more during the last 20 minutes of this Iowa Public Radio program!), including highly visible remnant dams and bridge footings. Of course, we couldn’t see most of these sites, because what remains is below the ground, but that still doesn’t mean that the land isn’t telling a human story!
The longest day of the 5-day paddle was 17.5 miles on Day 4 (July 13), which is an incredible amount of paddling combined with pulling and hauling tons of trash from the river. That day, we passed 19 recorded archaeological sites, ranging from undiagnostic prehistoric artifact scatters and Woodland and Oneota villages and mounds to a historic hotel site in downtown Charles City. Most of these sites were recorded between the 1970s and 1990s, because this stretch of river traversed a pretty undeveloped part of Iowa. Where there is little to no development, there is little to no contract archaeology. Therefore, we strongly emphasized to participants to pass the word about our need for land owners and artifact collectors to help us build the story of Iowa’s archaeological past. A huge misconception in Iowa, which ranks 47th with less than 3 percent public land, is that archaeologists will either “take control of your land and tell you what to do” or “tell everyone about where you find artifacts.” To Iowans and beyond, I just have to say, neither of these things are true!
But back to the paddle…
We started off the day during morning announcements by presenting what type of archaeological sites the participants would pass along the route and then headed to the launch. My partner for the day, Dante (a Theater student from the University of Iowa), was participating in this 6th Project AWARE and was pretty well versed at spotting trash – in a way, its own type of archaeological survey! Our first big find of the day was less than a mile into the morning. Often paddlers will come across others working on projects, known to some of the participants as “excavations,” and stop to see if help is needed. We came across Mirm, a first year participant who moved to New England from the Netherlands, and Ron, a second year participant from southeast Iowa, working with a team to remove a large tire from the river bottom. The tire still had the rim, which meant it was heavy. After draining the mud and water from the tire, it took a small village to hoist it onto two canoes, which we roped together to make a “canoe-maran” for safer and sturdier transport. Because the first trash collection point was nearly four more miles away, we paddled as hard as we could to haul this estimated 300-lb beast and drop it off before the cut-off time.
After dropping off the beast and unhitching from Mirm and Ron, we enjoyed some pie and ice cream and got back on the water in search of more “trophy trash.” We found lots of aluminum cans that collected downstream from a highway overpass and part of an old truck precariously eroding out of a steep river bank. Hello, nettles. Towards the end of the journey, we came across a huge team working diligently on a huge mess. As an archaeologist, I am both fascinated with and astonished by the array of material culture found in these rivers. This large trash dump – mostly in the river – contained one of the largest varieties of items I’ve seen in one river dump. There was barbed wire and fencing in the bank and along the river bottom, tires, parts of a TV or radio, a car hood, a conveyor belt from some farm machinery, and weird metal bits us archaeologists like to refer to as, “unidentifiable metal objects.” Canoe after canoe was called over and filled to the brim, and to my knowledge, no one got to finish cleaning up this dump before the sweep came by to get participants back to camp. We had another hefty load. At the end of the day, my arms were as dead as a day full of non-stop shovel testing.
One of the big questions is, are some of these trash dumps actually archaeological sites? Truth is, in a technical sense, they could be. What we focus on here is context, integrity, and knowledge about the past that we don’t already know. If these items are loose and in danger of washing down the river or hazardous (sharp and rusty metal, broken glass), I’m okay with them going in the trash. If these items are certain to erode away and become a bigger hazard, again, I’m okay with calling them trash. Rusty metal is not at all good for water quality, so let’s get it out of the rivers. People are not digging into the ground to remove objects. Participants are well-educated about private property and bank stabilization, and leave these items found in these contexts as is. The “excavations” mentioned before are where items (usually tires, oil drums, and old cars or farm machinery) are eroding out of the river banks, with enough obvious exposure to catch someone’s eye. Also, what happens to archaeological artifacts that are found in the river? As far as I know, no one the past two years of me being a resident archaeologist as come across any prehistoric artifacts. If these artifacts are found, we encourage people to get a photo and, to the best of their ability, a location so we can later record or update a site file. We practice a “leave no trace” ethic and do not collect artifacts. Artifacts in the waterway are under the jurisdiction of the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers.
This event is hands-down my favorite archaeology outreach event of the year. I’m proud of what this team of nearly 500 incredible volunteers accomplished this year! Just to brag a little bit, here are the end stats from the Iowa DNR:
- Total Trash Removed – 28.0 tons (55,945 lbs)
- Tires – 368 tires (7.3 tons; 14,500 lbs)
- Scrap Metal – 14.9 tons (29,860 lbs)
- Recyclables (redeemables, plastic, cardboard, glass, household hazardous materials) – 2.5 tons (5,045 lbs)
- Trash – 3.3 tons (6,540 lbs)
- Trash Recycled: 88% (49,405 lbs; 24.7 tons)
We can’t wait until next year!