Archaeology and Iowa’s Project AWARE River Clean-up

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!

OSA's Cherie Haury-Artz engages 2016 volunteers with Iowa's archaeological timeline of artifacts.

OSA’s Cherie Haury-Artz engages 2016 volunteers with Iowa’s archaeological timeline of artifacts.

Playing with altatls and spears in the Project AWARE campground.

OSA’s Cherie Haury-Artz helping volunteers with altatls and spears in the Project AWARE campground.

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!

Map of archaeological sites across Iowa and Project AWARE route

Iowa’s 29,000+ documented archaeological sites are clustered around rivers and streams. The Project AWARE route on the upper Cedar River is highlighted.

A selection of artifacts from sites recorded along the 2017 Project AWARE route.

A selection of artifacts from sites recorded along the 2017 Project AWARE route.

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…

Crew hauling heavy tire from river

It takes a small village to “excavate” some of the trash!

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.

Creating a canoe-maran to safely and securely haul oversized and heavy trash.

Creating a canoe-maran to safely and securely haul oversized and heavy trash.

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.

The canoe-maran team that hauled the beast! Mirm, Ron, Dante, and Elizabeth.

The canoe-maran team that hauled the beast! Mirm, Ron, Dante, and Elizabeth.

Loading up volunteers with trash from a large dump in the river.

Loading up volunteers with trash from a large dump in the river.

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!

canoe full of river trash

The home stretch of the 17.5 mile day with a canoe full of trash.

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Iowa Lakeside Laboratory Archaeological Field School

by John Doershuk, State Archaeologist, University of Iowa Office of the State Archaeologist

I had an especially interesting day of archaeology recently that involved my annual archaeological field school class interacting with students from a soils class that was learning to use a Giddings Rig. Lee Burras, Agronomy Professor at Iowa State University, and I both taught courses this summer at the Iowa Lakeside Laboratory, located on West Okoboji Lake, Dickinson County, Iowa. We arranged to have his soils class pull two 3-inch solid cores at 13DK143, the Prairie Lakes Woodland archaeological site my students were investigating. I spent some time discussing archaeological field methods and the context of 13DK143 with Lee’s students so they could better understand how archaeologists think about site formation and taphonomy issues as they relate to soils. Lee in turn discussed the mechanics of soil development with the archaeology students and they gained a far more nuanced understanding than I can provide about why the matrix they were digging looks and feels the way it does and how it came to be. As always, Lee and I found we both learned new things from one another as well as from the process of explaining our respective science to these students.

A Giddings rig set up near archaeological test units.

A Giddings rig set up near archaeological test units.

a Giddings rig soil core machine

The Giddings Rig

A soil core sample from site 12DK143, with deeper layers at top of photo.

A soil core sample from site 12DK143, with deeper layers at top of photo.


‘A Day of Archaeology’ at the Iowa Office of the State Archaeologist

Whenever someone asks what the University of Iowa Office of the State Archaeologist (OSA) does, there’s no quick answer! We have over 20 permanent staff members and numerous seasonal employees in and out of the building, focusing one or more of the following: research, fieldwork, archives, curation, bioarchaeology, technology, education, and making the wheels turn. Five of our staff are pitching in to give you some insight into a “Day of Archaeology” at the OSA!

Mark Anderson – Research Archaeologist:
Today I find myself finishing a Phase I survey report on a wastewater treatment facility expansion in eastern Iowa. I didn’t find any new archaeological sites, but I was able to evaluate and clarify the condition of a previously recorded site. Rather typical work for a CRM project, but I enjoy it. I am also in the process of wrapping up the first stageidentifying and cataloging a projectile point collection of a Historical Resource Develop Program (HRDP) grant project for the Kalona Village Museum. With the help of a high school intern from the Kirkwood Community College Workplace Learning Connection, Isabella Roads and I have been cleaning, sorting, identifying, photographing, and cataloging a 101 projectile point assemblage all collected from the Yoder farm just north of Kalona. There is roughly 12,000 years of Iowa’s prehistoric past represented in this collection. These points will be displayed by culture periods in a case coupled with a large wall mounted version of Iowa’s Archaeological Timeline to tell the story of human prehistory in the Kalona, Washington County, and east-central Iowa area. We also processed a 32 point assemblage, of uncertain provenience, for use as a teaching collection so that the museum will have a hands-on set of projectile points for use in all variety of public programming. It’s great to be an archaeologist!

UI OSA Intern Isabella

High School intern Isabella Roads identifying and cataloging a projectile point collection

John Doershuk – State Archaeologist:
My Day of Archaeology began with explaining to a planner with a local community the mechanics of a conservation easement, an important preservation tool here in Iowa. Conservation easements are a mitigation solution that can be employed in compliance situations such as Section 106/NHPA to support preservation-in-place rather than the often expensive (and inherently destructive) option of data recovery through large-scale intensive archaeological excavation. Conservation easements such as these are legally “in perpetuity” under the Iowa Code and are recorded as part of a property deed. These sorts of easements can be tailored to specific conditions and are a powerful way for a landowner to create a preservation legacy and a cost-efficient way for compliance to be achieved in a federal undertaking, assuming it is physically possible to set-aside and effectively protect a site area long-term. My office then monitors these properties to insure those who grant the easements fulfill their responsibilities. Thus far, seven archaeological sites in Iowa are protected and preserved through conservation easements, and we are actively negotiating easements for three additional sites!

Iowa's State Archaeologist John Doershuk

Iowa’s State Archaeologist John Doershuk

Jennifer Mack – Bioarchaeologist:
Today I am documenting human skeletal remains excavated from an archaeological site. I am recording information that can help determine the number of people represented by the bones, as well as the age, sex, ancestry, stature, and overall health of these people. In compliance with the federal Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, the Bioarchaeology Program at the OSA uses this information to prepare notices for Native American tribes so that human remains and funerary objects can be returned to the appropriate tribe or tribes. Unfortunately, the skeletal remains I am working on today were illegally excavated from a mound many years ago by a private collector who did not record the location of the archaeological site. Because this important information was lost, it is impossible to identify the present-day community to which the remains should be returned for reburial. In this case, the OSA’s Indian Advisory Council, a group of representative from various tribes, will arrange for reburial of the remains in one of Iowa’s cemeteries designated for this purpose.

UI OSA Archaeologist Jennifer Mack

UI OSA Archaeologist Jennifer Mack

Mike Perry – Research Archaeologist:
The Ulch Archaeological Collection is an important source for north-central Iowa prehistory. The collection was recently donated to the Calkins Nature Area in Hardin County, and I’ve been involved with cataloging the collection to make it useful for curation, exhibit, and research purposes. Excellent examples of lithic, ceramic, and bone artifacts spanning the entire range of human occupation in the state are represented in the collection. Several volunteers from central Iowa assisted archaeologists with the major undertaking of cataloging this collection.

Archaeologist and Volunteer

UI OSA Archaeologist Cherie Haury-Artz and a volunteer

Elizabeth Reetz – Director of Strategic Initiatives:
Every day is different for me. Usually, I’m focusing on developing some great education and outreach initiative! Other times, I delve into communications, marketing, fundraising, and research. Today, I’m mostly creating and scheduling social media posts that promote Iowa’s diverse archaeological past and some of our great upcoming outreach events. I’m also reading background materials and browsing lessons to help develop a 4-hour outdoor curriculum for the University of Iowa’s School of the Wild, where every 6th grader in the Iowa City School District will learn archaeology for one full day, every year! This outdoor learning area is centered around the ruins of a historic farmstead, where students can discover foundations and find some historic surface artifacts while learning about human interaction with the landscape.

Historic foundation in Iowa

Historic ruins at the Macbride Nature Recreation Area, Iowa

As someone involved in public archaeology, community archaeology, and archaeology and heritage education, I cannot stress how important it is to communicate well! I get a lot of blank looks from student interns and volunteers when I tell them to learn skills in technology and communicating science to the public. They want to learn how to do lab work and fieldwork, and don’t look beyond that. You know what’s happening out there though? Funding cuts, anti-preservation legislative proposals, down-sized programs. We’re feeling in, in part because we might not be doing the best job of communicating our value to the public. Could you effectively give a two minute elevator pitch about your research to an 8th grader and know that they understood what you were talking about? I’ve also spent a chunk of my week scheming for a session I’ll facilitate at the upcoming Midwest Archaeological Conference in Iowa City where I’m going to challenge my peers and colleagues to do just that!

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