Fort McCoy archaeology aids understanding of Wisconsin’s distant past

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Fort McCoy is part of the Driftless Area, also called the Paleozoic Plateau, which escaped glaciation in the last Ice Age, some 11,700-plus years ago.

Combine the location with archaeological work done at Fort McCoy for more than three decades and a greater understanding of early human life in the region and the state is unfolding as more research is done, said Alexander Woods, Ph.D., an archaeologist with Colorado State University’s (CSU) Center for Environmental Management of Military Lands under contract with Fort McCoy.

“Archaeology (on post) has helped the state of Wisconsin better understand the Driftless Area because the work has produced a broad set of data,” Woods said. “Archaeological surveys and digs at Fort McCoy have produced hundreds of thousands of artifacts, some more than 10,000 years old, that show how the earliest of peoples inhabited the Driftless Area of Wisconsin and more specifically around Fort McCoy.”

The Driftless Area is mainly in southwestern Wisconsin, but also includes areas of southeastern Minnesota, northeastern Iowa, and extreme northwestern Illinois. Because the area wasn’t under a glacier during the last Ice Age, ancient people — believed to be ancestral to members of the Ho-Chunk Nation — were able to live and sustain their lives in areas around the installation.

“During some of the phase II archaeological work we did here, we found a couple of (arrowheads) that were almost 10,000 years old,” Woods said. “We know there were people in this area that far back. … We have some carbon dates to back that up.”

The archaeological teams that have worked on post categorized artifacts in certain archaeological time periods. For North America, those time periods include Paleo-Indian, pre-8000 before Common Era, or BCE; Archaic, 8000-1000 BCE; Woodland, 1000 BCE to 1000 Common Era, or CE; and Mississippian, 800-1600 CE. The Plainview points would have fallen into the Late Paleoindian period.

“We’ve also found ancient pottery and Madison points from the Woodland period,” Woods said. “Being able to have the huge collection of artifacts we have from this area (around Fort McCoy) has led to further understanding of the Driftless Area.”

During a recent phase III archaeological dig on Fort McCoy’s South Post, a team of 20-plus people worked for two months to do a very thorough survey of a previously marked archaeological site. The site yielded several thousand artifacts that will be studied to further understand how people lived in Wisconsin so long ago.

“We have to find out and understand more about the various activities and occupations people did out here so many years ago,” Woods said. “That requires a full-scale excavation like (the phase III excavation).”

Some artifacts that were found years ago during archaeological work are being re-examined with new scientific methods. One example is a glass bead, found in 1997, believed to have been used as part of the fur trade in Wisconsin several hundred years ago.

“The (technology) we have today is much better than in 1997,” said Heather Walder, Ph.D., also an archaeologist with CSU working at Fort McCoy. “With the glass bead, we can analyze it using mass spectrometry, which can break down the properties of the bead without damaging the artifact.”

Walden described herself as a historical archaeologist, specializing in the first contact between fur traders and native people hundreds of years ago.

“What I am able to do is look at things like the records French Jesuit priests kept when they came here, and then go look at an archaeological site and work toward matching up the evidence from the written text with what we can find in material culture,” Walden said. “That could be pottery or glass beads that we study.”

Woods said they continue to educate people about the history of the region. In June, an archaeological tour was held for members of the public to learn about the work done at Fort McCoy.

In May, Woods participated in the annual Armed Forces Day Open House, during which thousands of people visited the post. Woods had a display and handed out posters. “The poster was a good example and a small snapshot of all the types of artifacts we have found at the installation,” he said.

Most of the artifacts found at Fort McCoy are curated with the Mississippi Valley Archaeology Center at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse, Woods said. From there, archaeology students and other scholars can see material examples of Wisconsin’s ancient past.

“There is so much there, and there is a lot of further study that needs to be done on what has been found,” Woods said.

In the meantime, archaeological work will continue at the installation as needed.

“Fort McCoy isn’t only about completing (archaeology) because they have to,” Woods said. “They are also doing it to find the value of the history of this area. There is a lot of valuable artifacts and understanding that has come from this effort. … This has been a win for science as well as Fort McCoy and the public.”

Archaeology efforts at Fort McCoy are governed by federal regulations and the National Historic Preservation Act, said Mark McCarty, chief of the Directorate of Public Works Environmental Division Natural Resources Branch. Federal law requires the Army to protect historic properties under its control and to consider the effects of Army actions on those properties. The law further defines the need to find historic properties, including archaeological sites, and determine their importance.

Any artifacts spotted while on Fort McCoy or other federal properties should be left alone, McCarty said. It is illegal to dig for or remove artifacts from federally owned land without permission.

Learn more about Fort McCoy online at www.mccoy.army.mil, on Facebook by searching “ftmccoy,” and on Twitter by searching “usagmccoy.”

Date Taken: 09.15.2017
Date Posted: 09.15.2017 10:41
Story ID: 248405
Location: FORT MCCOY, WI, US 

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