Its 94 degrees under a bright blue sky, and the air is thick
with humidity. More than a dozen aspiring archaeologists squat or
hunch on their hands and knees to sift through the dirt. They raise
their sweaty faces gratefully when a large silver milk truck hurtles
down the nearby highway and stirs up a slight breeze.
This is hard, hot, and sometimes filthy work. But 13 college students
from 7 states (Iowa, Wisconsin, Michigan, Massachusetts, Illinois,
Ohio, and Kansas) have traveled to Fort Atkinson and enrolled in
The University of Iowas field school. For six weeks, they
will hunt for the remnants of the pre-Civil-War-era Hewitt-Olmstead
Trading Post and nearby Chief Whirling Thunder Village. Today, they
have almost forgotten about the heat, the midday sun, and their
constant thirst, because the mornings dig has paid off with
a rare discovery.
It is a miniature white china figurine: less than one inch tall,
headless, missing an arm and the portion of one leg below the knee.
But it is clearly the figure of a woman. And it was found buried
in the soil within the Hewitt-Olmstead site, number 13WH160 in the
archaeological files of the state.
"We dont know yet if this artifact is from the Hewitt-Olmstead
period," cautions John Doershuk, director of the General Contracts
Program, adjunct assistant professor of anthropology, and director
of the field school. "The people who owned this land made a
picnic park out of it for a few years in the 1920s. So now we have
two different settlements, one sort of on top of the other. And
we have to be very careful with our artifacts to determine which
ones come from the earlier period."
That said, Doershuk looks as elated as his students when it is
his turn to examine the tiny doll. He turns it over in his palm
for a full minute, then tips it carefully into a brown paper lunch
bag neatly labeled with the unit number and level of the find. In
other bags, there are musket balls, pieces of bottle glass, square-cut
nails, and shards of decorated pipe stem from the early 1800s. The
archaeologists know these are authentic because they all bear evidence
of the period: distinctive artwork on the wooden pipe stem, and
a quality and thickness of the glass that had disappeared by the
Doershuk and his colleagues at the Office of the State Archaeologist
(which is housed within the University) are intent upon salvaging
Iowas archaeological record. Only 10 percent of the state
has been professionally surveyed. And twice that much landscape
has been so thoroughly destroyed, mostly by the urban, industrial,
and road building of the last century, there is no chance of recovering
artifacts in their original contexts. To date, the Office of the
State Archaeologist has identified more than 19,000 archaeological
sites in the state of Iowa, but many of these are no longer intact.
The Fort Atkinson dig is unusual because archaeologists are not
just digging to uncover the past. They also are working, in collaboration
with the State Historical Society of Iowa and the city of Fort Atkinson,
to preserve the history of the Indian tribes that were settled there
against their will nearly 200 years ago. This field school is assembling
The Winnebago Indians (now called the Ho-Chunk) were forced out
of Wisconsin by the U.S. government around 1840 and moved to this
area, high in the northeastern corner of the state. They were installed
as residents of a "neutral zone" between feuding Sioux
and Meskwaki tribes who were struggling for control of the area.
The trading post was erected to sustain the Winnebago settlements.
White traders visited the trading post to obtain skins, corn, and
furs from the Indians in exchange for weapons, pipes, and man-made
Together with Larry Zimmerman, executive officer of the Universitys
American Indian and Native Studies Program, Doershuk created the
summer 2000 field school with a dual mission: to retrieve artifacts
from the past while collaborating with Indians interested in reclaiming
the history of the Winnebago and other native cultures. (The field
school is offered by the Department of Anthropology and the American
Indian and Native Studies Program through the Center for Credit
Programs. Personnel of the Office of the State Archaeologist direct
the field work as adjunct faculty members of the Department of Anthropology.)
Over the six-week course of the dig, members of all three tribesthe
Ho-Chunk, Meskwaki, and Siouxwill visit the site and speak
with students at the field school about their goals for archaeological
"Were providing the same traditional, high-quality archaeological
training University of Iowa field schools have always been associated
with," Doershuk says. "But were also bringing students
up to speed on the fact that if youre doing archaeology in
this country, youre probably doing it on ancestral land. So
it only seems logical to take into account their interests in terms
of how the work is carried out."
"Our lab is dedicated to better understanding birth defects,"
Murray says. "But in a larger sense, it is part of a research
labs function to allow talented students to experience research
and see how it will affect the future world they will both inhabit
and create. Then they, in turn, take this knowledge back to their