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    Fort McCoy’s archaeology aids understanding of Wisconsin’s distant habitants of Driftless Area

    Fort McCoy’s archaeology aids understanding of Wisconsin’s distant habitants of Driftless Area

    Photo By Scott Sturkol | Archaeologists Cassie Mohney and Megan Kasten work in an area of the Fort McCoy...... read more read more

    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 has unfolded as more research has been done, said Alexander Woods, Ph.D., an archaeologist with Colorado State University’s (CSU) Center for Environmental Management of Military Lands in partnership with Fort McCoy in 2017.

    “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 July 2017 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 are being studied to further understand how people lived in Wisconsin thousands of years 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 in 2017. “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 who has worked with CSU 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.”

    Most of the artifacts found at Fort McCoy are curated with the Mississippi Valley Archaeology Center at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse. 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.

    Besides special phase III digs, very old artifacts from prior habitants of the Fort McCoy area have been found throughout the post in a variety of places and ways. For example, an edition from the ongoing Fort McCoy ArtiFACT series called, “Fort McCoy ArtiFACT: Projectile point,” from April 2021 describes how some artifacts were found.

    “It is important to remember that no one is perfect. Archaeologists, like anyone, can miss something at first glance,” the story states. “A small scattering of artifacts that was observed atop a hill on the south side of Silver Creek in Training Area B-03 back in 1993. The small number of artifacts at the site were interpreted to be insufficient to merit further investigation or consideration for the National Register of Historic Places.

    “The area was visited again several years later in 1998, and once again, investigators determined that it was unlikely that the area could have any significant research potential,” the story states. “In essence, they asserted that the location was unlikely to yield anything more than small chips of stone left behind after creating or refining stone tools at some point in the last 10,000 years. … (A) recommendation for additional investigations was fulfilled in 2016, and the site yielded far more than a few pieces of chipped stone.

    “In fact, there were hundreds of pieces of chipped stone, more than a dozen formal tools, ceramic vessel fragments that are likely at least 1,500 years old, a few copper artifacts that could be as much as 6,000 years old, and a stone spear point that is almost certainly more than 8,000 years old. Investigators also encountered the remains of an old campfire with bits of charcoal that were submitted for radiocarbon dating. Two different samples came back with roughly the same age of 1,000 years ago,” the story states.

    Tyler Olsen, also an archaeologist with CSU working with Fort McCoy, said he has worked on dozens of archaeological digs at Fort McCoy over the years, and he said he’s found some amazing artifacts. But, he said, that’s after lots of hard, painstaking work and research, and more.

    “Doing this is never easy,” said Olsen. “But it’s a labor of love.”

    Olsen said that there has been steady archaeological work ongoing at Fort McCoy for at least the last four decades. He said his work with the Fort McCoy archaeological team has found some interesting items — including a very old fire pit.

    “The only thing that we can guarantee at Fort McCoy that’s 10,000 years old is a fire pit that we found that we were able to do radiocarbon analysis on,” Olsen said. “That of course took some time. But we’ve also found plenty, and I mean plenty of actual projectile points.”

    In the meantime, archaeological work will continue at the installation as needed. Archaeology efforts at Fort McCoy are governed by federal regulations and the National Historic Preservation Act, said Archaeologist Ryan Howell with the Fort McCoy Directorate of Public Works 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, on the Defense Visual Information Distribution System at, on Facebook by searching “ftmccoy,” and on Twitter by searching “usagmccoy.”

    Also try downloading the Digital Garrison app to your smartphone and set “Fort McCoy” or another installation as your preferred base.

    (The Colorado State University Center for Environmental Management of Military Lands archaeology team contributed to this article.)



    Date Taken: 01.17.2023
    Date Posted: 01.17.2023 15:12
    Story ID: 436839

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