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In March 2019, Archaeologist Dave Kluth visited a WAPA communication site in Erhard, Minnesota, to perform a survey. This facility was no longer needed by the organization, but the process of dismantling it led to an unexpected discovery that has only been recently resolved.

“WAPA planned on removing all of the equipment and disposing of the property,” Kluth said, “but before that can happen, archaeologists have to make sure there are no cultural resources of any significance on that
property.”

It’s a common process, with respect for cultural history at its core. Hypothetically, if WAPA removes facilities from a site of cultural significance, the site could be adversely impacted by whomever buys the property next. Therefore, cultural resource surveys – such as the one performed by Kluth – must be performed before a federal agency can divest the property.

“We want to avoid important sites being damaged or destroyed,” Kluth said. “So, when they told me that they wanted to dispose of this property, I went up and took a look at it. I did what’s called a ‘phase-one survey,’ basically going to a particular location and trying to identify if there are any cultural resources there, either historic or prehistoric evidence of human occupation at the site.”

Sure enough, during his survey of the property, Kluth found two large depressions in the ground, side by side.

“I could tell right away that this was evidence of a previous structure,” he said. “These were probably cellar pits beneath the floor. Whoever used the structure would store things in those pits, and now they just look like big depressions.”

Kluth examined the property more thoroughly, hoping to better understand what the structure might have been, and to perhaps find more evidence.

“What archaeologists understand is that when you find things on the surface, you want to know if there’s something below the surface,” he said. Kluth moved on to “shovel testing,” which involves digging up soil and sifting it through a screen to see if any artifacts turn up.

“I dug three shovel tests, and I found artifacts on all three attempts,” he explained. “I found part of the stove, pieces of ceramic, some bottle glass and, kind of to my surprise, I also found some prehistoric artifacts.”

The more he looked, the more he found, including small flakes of stone that are left behind when stone tools are made.

“I also found what we call an expedient tool, which is a larger piece of rock, and they chip the edge, kind of like a serrated knife,” he said. “They hold that rock in their hand and they can use it for scraping or cutting.”

He was able to date some of the artifacts, but not all of them.

“You can’t really date little chips of stone,” he explained. “You need to find an arrowhead or a hearth feature so you can get a radiocarbon date. But for a lot of historic artifacts, there are known dates for them. I had some window glass, I had some pottery, I had some nails, and these are all relatively datable.”

One useful clue came from the nails: they were square nails, or cut nails, which suggest that the structure was from the turn of the previous century.

“That kind of nail went out of style, but I found a lot of them,” he said. “Then I looked at the window glass and the thickness of that, and the bottle
glass, and it was all kind of falling in the 1880-1910 range. That gives us a nice age range for identifying when the site was occupied.”

He also discovered some additional, smaller depressions, which could have been pit features. One was rectangular and, if the structure had indeed been a house, could have been a privy.

“So that was my phase-one survey,” said Kluth. “We had a prehistoric site and a historic site, lots of artifacts and some pit features. I wrote the report and sent it in to the State Historic Preservation Office. They reviewed it and said, ‘Before you dispose of this property, we want you to go back and take a look at these pit features and see what they are.'”

Kluth intended to do exactly that.

Unearthing the truth

Phase two involved returning to the site and excavating test units, which were to be set up at various locations to see if they could find anything significant enough to warrant further investigation. This took place in July, and Kluth brought some extra help: Land Surveyor Corey Diekman and Archaeologist Staffan Peterson.

“Staffan came down from our Billings office to help me excavate the site,” he said. “We worked with Corey, who surveyed some of the surface features for us and put in some elevations on the site, so that we were able to do our work and keep a really good record of where we’re digging, and of locations and elevations of artifacts and our test units. Archaeology is always a group effort.”

What they found, however, turned out to be very little.

“We had hoped to find more than we did, but that’s always the trick of archaeology,” said Kluth. “You never know what you’re going to find until you start digging.”

The depressions in the earth that had seemed so promising at first turned out to be natural.

“We thought they would be cultural features, which would contain interesting artifacts that tell us more about the site,” he explained. “Instead, we think that when they were clearing the area in order to put in the communication site, they cut down trees and took out the stumps and kind of left these shallow depressions.”

Even the artifacts turned out to be less useful than he had hoped.

“We found mixed-up soil,” he said. “There were historic artifacts mixed with prehistoric artifacts, which is never good. You lose the context of those artifacts when they are mixed together. Unfortunately, that’s the way archaeology goes sometimes. We had hoped for better, but what we got was a very mixed and disturbed site. There could be something interesting here to somebody, but nothing that’s eligible for listing in the National Register of Historic Places.”

As far as that “something interesting” goes, Kluth ended up doing some
additional – but less dirty – digging, and was able to piece together quite a
bit about the site and its history.

“I was able to do some research at the county historical society, and basically learn about the people who lived there in the historic part of the site,” he said. “We think it was a small house that was occupied by a young family during the mid-1880s. They didn’t spend very long there, maybe three or four years. It’s possible that they had a number of children and it was a very small structure, so they figured it was too small to raise a family and decided to go elsewhere.”

This information also helped him to learn more about many of the artifacts he had found.

“There were some artifacts that were burned, and melted glass and charcoal and things like that,” he said, “so it is also possible that the house burned down or partially burned.”

Kluth was able to learn about what happened to the family, as well. When they left the home on this site, they moved to Montana for a year or two and then made their way to California.

“We learned that from the census records and some of the old maps that show the house location,” he explained. “There were also some marriage records with that.

If you piece the age of the map and the other records together, you get a sense of when the house was built and when the family moved there after they got married. Then it may have burned down, as the evidence seems to suggest, and we have records showing where they moved. That was interesting to figure out.”

Kluth had high hopes for the site, which had evidence of both historic and prehistoric habitation – something referred to as a multicomponent site.

Unfortunately, he learned little about the prehistoric aspect of things.

“It seems to have been a very small campsite,” he said. “We didn’t find a whole lot of artifacts or tools or anything. No features like hearths or a structure location or anything like that.

That was a little bit underwhelming.

We had hoped to find out who the people were who lived there prehistorically, the culture or group, maybe a time period. But we didn’t find anything that would provide evidence.”

After evaluating everything he could about the historic and prehistoric nature of the site, he concluded that it was not significant enough to
justify more work.

Ultimately, though, that serves as a reminder of the importance of the work performed by Kluth and his colleagues across WAPA’s regions.

“We can dispose of this location and be secure in the knowledge that, by us giving up this location, nothing of significance is going to be destroyed or disturbed because we are no longer there,” said Kluth. “That’s the reason ​we were there, to see if we needed to do more work or protect it further.”

The surveys also offered a welcome bit of excitement for the archaeologist.

“WAPA is great at avoiding archaeological sites,” he said. “We’ve got transmission lines and we interconnect with wind farms, and that kind of infrastructure is really good at going over or around sensitive areas, so as not to disturb them. It’s not too often that we get to delve into an archaeological site and take a look around, so this was a lot of fun.”

Last modified on September 12th, 2023