Archaeology dig seeks clues to Nebraska's prehistoric past

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August 9, 2011 - 7:00pm

Matt Marvin and Steve Sarich are digging and sifting. Marvin is using a shovel to remove dirt from their excavation site, a half centimeter at a time. Sarich is carefully sifting the dirt through a screen. They're standing amidst grass, weeds and dead reeds, fighting flies, ticks and sometimes 100 degree heat in the middle of the drained Hugh Butler Lake, north of McCook. There's no Indiana Jones glamour in this real archeology world.


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Photo by Ray Meints, NET

Alan Osborn is the Nebraska Archaeological Survey director.




Photos by Mike Tobias, NET News

SLIDESHOW: Images of the archaeology dig at Hugh Butler Lake

"It's not really shoveling as it is shaving," Marvin said. "You want to make sure that if there is anything, like for instance the hearth that we found, you'll be able to see it."

The hearth is at the bottom of a shoulder-deep, L-shaped hole.

"It's a fireplace, or where they placed a fire, right on the surface of the earth, and it's discolored the soil to kind of an orange, pumpkin-orange color," said Alan Osborn, the white-haired curator of anthropology at the University of Nebraska State Museum and leader of this project. "And within it are chunks of bison bone, charcoal, other flakes of stone and so forth from resharpening tools. So that was a food preparation area, probably."

Osborn said this hearth is a sign that roaming hunter-gatherers stopped here, near Red Willow Creek, sometime between 200 B.C. and 1200 A.D. Osborn and his crew have been working here since early July. Marvin, who is from Lincoln, and Sarich, a native of Milwaukee, Wis., are undergraduate anthropology majors at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Bran Mims, from Virginia, is a graduate student at East Carolina University. Steve Reynolds is an Omaha native who previously worked on the University of Nebraska at Omaha's Bethsaida Project in Israel.

Osborn says they're here because earlier surveys found signs of prehistoric life in this area.

"This area was littered with bison bone, prehistoric stone tools and chipping debris, as well as a number of little concentrations of rock that are probably hearths," he said. "Either for roasting plants and or for processing bone grease from the bison."

Osborn said the small finds provide perspective on the day-to-day life of the people who spent time here long ago.

"So they were bringing in their tools, cutting up bison, processing plants perhaps, and having to resharpen their implements all the time," said Osborn, who has worked on digs like this almost every summer since 1966. "The bones that we did find on the surface reflect bones that a lot of times were associated with the low-quality parts of bison: the back, the backbone, legs that don't have any meat on them. So that may reflect they were scavenging a dead bison or a bison that had died a natural death pretty recently.

"A bone can tell you not only what the animal was, its age, sex sometimes, what it was eating, but it can also reflect the climate and the environment in which the people lived, so there are ways of knowing what was going on," he added.

The prehistoric people who stopped here were constantly moving. Osborn said he believes they may have been following bison or connecting with family members. They were few in number. By the 15th century, there were just a couple hundred thousand people spread out over the Great Plains.

"The Great Plains is a million square miles, and we've come in and put in six 3-by-3-foot holes trying to find something, and we did. And that's almost a miracle, I guess," he said. "In terms of probabilities, it should be pretty low. But we're able to zero in on some of these sites pretty successfully, and we don't come home with trunks of treasure. But small boxes of fragments of bone and flakes of stone have really a lot more to tell us than archeologists used to assume."

This repetitive, sometimes tedious detective work is "incredibly fun," according to Osborn. And incredibly important, because of the light it sheds on the way that humans lived for most of our existence.

"These kinds of folks that lived here who were hunter-gatherers dominated the earth, lived on the earth for 99 percent of human evolution," Osborn said. "They were sitting near streams, collecting firewood, killing animals, getting through the winter, traveling, and that helped kind of flesh out that whole 99 percent of the story that is still pretty underappreciated."

Osborn and his crew finished this year's work at Hugh Butler Lake on Aug. 6. They plan to continue this archeological survey over the next four years.

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