Minnesota Dakota

From a House to a Forest

I am the National Register Archaeologist for Minnesota, and I work in the Heritage Preservation Department of the Minnesota Historical Society.  I really enjoy my job, and working with the National Register of Historic Places program. It is a great feeling to help list an archaeological site or district in the NRHP. It doesn’t guarantee protection, but it helps, because it is an official recognition that this is an important place, and it is a record that will last after I and the current land managers for the site are long gone. In this sense, the NRHP listing is a guide for future generations, that will help make sure it is remembered. Another part of my job is Public Archaeology, and I’m currently working on a report of a 10-year project, on a site that was among the first National Register listings in Minnesota.

Petaga Point (21ML11) is an important site within the Kathio National Historic Landmark District, which was designated because of the ancestry of the Dakota nation here, and the contact with them by French explorers Daniel Greysolon Sieur du Luth in 1679, and Father Louis Hennepin in 1680. The site is located in Mille Lacs Kathio State Park, and my friend Jim Cummings (Park Naturalist and archaeologist) and I had been curious for years about a report from the 1960s on semi-subterranean houses that were thought to be about 1,000 years old – long before the French contact but likely related to the Dakota. In 2006, we suspected we had found one of the houses. It was an oval shaped depression in the ground, like what was described in the 1960s in a grassy field, but now the area is a restored pine forest in the state park. We decided to investigate by digging one 1×1 meter unit per year, during the Kathio Archaeology Day public event. Over the decade, we found a remnant of the house, amid disturbance from the 1960s excavations. By luck, we hit an intact strip of ground that they left between two large excavation blocks (a baulk about 40 cm wide). We followed this, and carefully recovered a thin layer of charcoal from each unit. This was a remnant of the burned house. Radiocarbon dates from our dig and curated samples from the 1960s yielded a surprise – the house is not 1,000 years old. It dates to somewhere around the late 1600s to early 1700s, after the French contact but within the time that the Dakota were still resident near Mille Lacs lake.

Excavating a burned house in Mille Lacs Kathio State Park.

Excavating a burned house in Mille Lacs Kathio State Park.

Archaeobotanical analysis by Seppo Valppu revealed many more surprises. There were many charred needles of white and red pine, and charcoal of spruce, balsam fir and birch. These were likely materials used in the construction of the house, and therefore provide a glimpse of the forest cover around that time. And there were many charred seeds. Lots of these were from food – blueberries, raspberries, pin cherries, elderberries, bunchberries and hawthorn, along with Chenopodium (goosefoot). These all point to the mid-summer months. Surprisingly, there was no wild rice, which was widely used by the Dakota, but that is not available until late summer. And there were many plants of unknown function, that may have been used as medicines or for other purposes.

Pin cherry pits from the burn layer.

Pin cherry pits from the burn layer.

As we write our report, we feel that the best use for the archaeobotanical data is to go to the elders of Minnesota’s Dakota communities, to use as they wish. It is gratifying to see such a benefit from environmental archaeology, from one of the state’s most significant sites. Kathio Archaeology Day, and the 10th year of our project, is September 26, 2015.