National Register of Historic Places

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.

A Day in Transportation Archaeology

A shot of where I spent my day

This year my Day of Archaeology is quite different from last year (  I have recently begun a new career as a Transportation Planner in the Office of Environmental Review at the Connecticut Department of Transportation (CT DOT).  My education and background in archaeology are what allow me to do preliminary project reviews for impacts to historic and cultural resources.  At the CT DOT, projects can vary from line painting on a road, to bridge replacement, to major infrastructure construction.  What I do day-to-day changes and it certainly keeps the job interesting.  Outside of work I also have other commitments of an archaeological nature.  I am on the Board of Directors for the Friends of the Office of State Archaeology (FOSA), and I also volunteer my time running public archaeological excavations for local museums.  A lot of my “free” time is used organizing events.

Here is a general schedule of what my day looked like today:

6:15-6:45AM: While eating breakfast I spent time searching for organization contact information to solicit participants for FOSA’s Public Archaeology Fair, which will be held Oct. 27th 2012 in Wethersfield, CT.

7:00-7:30AM: While commuting to work I listened to The Archaeology Channel’s podcast (

7:30-9:00AM: At the office I organized site maps and photos and filled out archaeology site forms to be submitted to the CT State Historic Preservation Office (CT SHPO) and CT State Archaeologist in order to get site numbers for two historic bridge and mill sites (in Plymouth and Woodbury) that were identified while out on a bridge survey last month.  This site information will eventually be added to the database of CT archaeological sites maintained by the CT SHPO and CT State Archaeologist.  This information is used by state officials for planning purposes and by CRM firms for research purposes.

9:00-11:00AM: I organized project information, maps, and recommendations to submit to the CT SHPO for review under Section 106 of the National Historic Preservation Act, the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), and the Connecticut Environmental Policy Act (CEPA).

11:00AM-4:00PM: I reviewed 4 new projects for impacts to socio-economic resources, parks, refuges, scenic roads and bikeways.  (My job actually entails investigating impacts beyond cultural resources under NEPA & CEPA.)  These projects included bridge replacements and roadway and utility improvements.

5:00-6:00PM: Sent e-mails asking (begging & pleading) local archaeology and historical groups to participate in FOSA’s Public Archaeology Fair, sent out a rough draft of an advertising blurb for the event, and sent my FOSA Archaeology Awareness Month Committee an update.

That just about sums up my day.  Suffice it to say, much of my day revolves around archaeology in some way, even though I spend less and less time in the dirt.