Stimulus funds mean more work for MnDOT archaeologists

MINNEAPOLIS -- Construction of the new Winona Bridge is still about five years away, but a small contingent of state workers is already probing the project area.

MINNEAPOLIS -- Construction of the new Winona Bridge is still about five years away, but a small contingent of state workers is already probing the project area.

The objects of their attention: bones, stone tools and prehistoric ceramics, among other ancient curiosities.

Crews from the Minnesota Department of Transportation's Cultural Resources Unit, or CRU, are doing pre-design field work at the proposed bridge location in an effort to "determine if there would be historical or archaeological impacts," said Garneth Peterson, a historian with the CRU.

Armed with shovels and hand tools, augers and sifting screens, and a keen eye for all things old, the archeologists are literally digging into their work, searching for artifacts that may be lying beneath the soil, hidden for thousands of years.

Fieldwork needed


It is, in other words, a typical day's work for the crew of CRU, which plays a critical -- albeit little known -- role in state government. Before any state or federal project stirs up a significant amount of soil, the nine-person CRU staff of archeologists, historians and support people swoops in to make sure that historic artifacts aren't destroyed in the process.

Besides preserving Minnesota's heritage, the group's fieldwork is required by the U.S. government for projects that receive federal money.

CRU is always busy, but with the influx of federal stimulus money, this year's workload is especially heavy.

Peterson said the CRU has averaged 600 reviews in each of several recent years. Halfway through this year, she said, the office has already reviewed 450 projects.

Winona Bridge

At the Winona Bridge site recently, architects sifted through dirt near a public right-of- way, while historians took digital photographs of historically significant structures in the area.

Information they gather will be included in a document that summarizes a wide array of potential environmental impacts of the project.

As recently as 2004, a mixed-use project in Bloomington was delayed by discovery of human remains at the site. A new burial site was found for the remains, and the project was completed as planned.


Detailed work such as that found alongside the Winona Bridge isn't necessary on all projects, she emphasizes. A basic mill and overlay, for example, would not require the same amount of research as a major bridge replacement.

The office gets help from outside consultants and interacts with other pros, including the State Archaeologist and the State Historic Preservation Office.

Still, "we have had a pretty busy year," Peterson said. "It has been hectic."

Rules to follow

Scott Anfinson, Minnesota's state archaeologist, noted that MnDOT has to heed multiple federal rules and regulations pertaining to cultural resources, including Section 106 of the National Preservation Act.

A single investigation can usually satisfy more than one requirement, but the workload does involve separate paper streams to various federal agencies, he said.

"MnDOT has a great staff," added Anfinson, who oversees a small office that conducts archaeological research across the state. "They do a great job in reviewing the projects they have to review."

In the case of the Winona bridge, much of the work is taking place on Latsch Island, home to a boathouse community in the Mississippi River.


Mark Peterson, executive director of the Winona County Historical Society, said it would be "pretty amazing if they found much" in the bridge area, which has been disturbed by industrialized activity dating back to the 19th century.

"I hope I am wrong, but I would be surprised if they found much in that area."

But there's always a chance something will pop up -- and CRU crews are out there, just in case.

The archaeological investigation starts with a general assessment of the area, according to Craig Johnson, a CRU archaeologist.

Hot spots tend to be on past or present bodies of water, which were popular habitation areas for indigenous hunter-gatherers. Quarry sites that may have provided fodder for stone tools are also of interest.

A computer predictive tool, known as MnModel, helps steer researchers in the right direction. It takes into account the physical characteristics of the site and other factors, red-flagging areas that are likely -- or unlikely -- to have unknown, pre-1837 archaeological resources.

The field workers also use such tools as penetrating radar and magnetic surveys, Johnson said.

But most of the work relies on good-old-fashioned manual labor: digging a series of 2- to 3-foot holes, 10 to 15 meters apart. Like the '49ers of old, they sift through the soil with screens that help separate the dirt from the rocks -- or treasure.


Key findings in Minnesota include arrowheads dating as far back as 10,000 to 8,000 years before the Christian era, as well as prehistoric ceramics and clay pipes from the late 19th century, according to the Minnesota Office of the State Archaeologist.

On past projects, Johnson has seen discoveries such as stone tools, arrow or spear heads and pieces of ceramic vessels. Animal bones are also hiding out in the ground. Human bones are less common, Johnson said.

While there is always the chance of bumping into an ancient ceramic or projectile point, it's far more common to come up empty-handed.

"The unusual discoveries happen once in a while, but usually archeologists know what they are going to find," Johnson said. "There are not too many surprises out there."

Architectural resources are more of a known commodity.

Winona, for example, has multiple properties that are on the National Register of Historic Places or are eligible for the register, including the courthouse, the Winona Hotel and the Winona Water Works building, Mark Peterson said.

Garneth Peterson said historians typically photograph all buildings in the area that are more than 45 years old and document the information. They take care to determine if the building possesses "architectural characteristics that are important in the history of the community or area related to a person of significance in the community," she added.

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