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A Mille Lacs history lesson, one short chapter at a time

Archaeologists Jim Cummings (top) gestured to onlookers while David Mather worke1 / 2
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ONAMIA — It wasn’t far from the bustling playground and other Archaeology Day activities. But shaded and sheltered on a bright and sunny day by towering trees on the edge of the forest, the area seemed far removed.

It is a far-away place, this archaeological playground, both in where it’s been and where it still may lead.

The excavation site several hundred yards from the Interpretive Center at Mille Lacs Kathio State Park was meant to be a centerpiece of sorts for Archaeology Day, an annual event held recently at the park. Archaeological films played inside the Interpretive Center throughout the day, and most other displays and activities were just outside its doors.

There was a flintknapping demonstration, an interactive pottery station and an area for kids to sift dirt for treasures, and an archery display and archery and spear-throwing. And the playground, which appeared to serve as a final destination of sorts for the kids and their parents after experiencing all the day had to offer along the way in this family friendly event.

But, go one step farther, all the way across the Interpretive Center grounds and into the shade on the edge of the forest and there it was — a one-meter hole. That’s it — until Archaeology Day 2012.

That in itself makes this a special project.

In many digs, archaeologists steadily work a site at their leisure. But here, Jim Cummings and Dave Mather worked that one-meter spot Oct. 1 and nothing more.

Cummings, who will return as park naturalist at Kathio in November after working on archaeology projects in the state this summer, provided history and background and the like to the dozen or so onlookers who had found their way across the grounds and to the site early that afternoon. Mather, a national register archaeologist, removed soil from the site and an assistant sifted through that soil. At the end of the day, the soil was returned and the hole filled.

Next year, the dig will extend to the next one-meter section of what Cummings said could be an earth lodge that burned in the 1600s, possibly of the Mdewakanton Dakota people, who were thought to have inhabited what is now Kathio at that time.

“We don’t have a crew of archaeologists and we all have other job responsibilities so we decided to try something entirely different,” Cummings said of the annual one-meter digs, which started in 2006 — meaning six cubic meters have been worked in six years. “All excavations begin with one square meter. But instead, we do just one a year. That way we can fit it into our busy schedule of work. We can study it without our bosses saying we’re spending too much time doing it."

“Each fall it’s usually the last Saturday in September (the dig/Archaeology Day). It’s right by the picnic area and we like to include the public. We actually open up excavation over three days — we prepped Thursday and on Friday we had 250 school kids come through and Saturday it was part of Archaeology Day.”

While the current dig and study started in 2006, the site also was studied in the 1960s. But “tragically and ironically, all those field notes from the ’67 excavation burned in a house fire,” Cummings said.

“Dave and I were walking through here one year and saying how we would like to do more (projects) like they did in the ’60s when they uncovered a house that had burned,” Cummings said of revisiting the project. “There was a layer of charcoal down in the ground and we wanted to learn more about it. In the notes, they noted that the house they excavated was one of what may have been five or more in a village. They presumed from the ceramics and shape of the floor of the house that it was from the time period of the 1200s. That was interesting because when we reviewed the artifacts, most of the ceramics appeared to be from later — the 1400s to 1600s.

“We sent samples (of the charcoal) to a lab in Coral Gables, Florida, and it all came back as structures that had burned in the 1600s. That matches the ceramics we were looking at. We’re learning as we go along. It’s still a mystery.”

Of the one-meter-a-year approach, Cummings added, “We’re working with very small pieces. It’s different than doing it in normal fashion because you’ll have discussions day after day. In a way it’s frustrating because there’s such little information to work on. But it causes us to reflect in detail. We’re on the periphery of what was a house, maybe an earth lodge. We just have some clues so far. We’ve only excavated a small portion.”

Between the excavation and other demonstrations and events, Archaeology Day drew 1,049 visitors to the park, according to Erin Lazorik, seasonal park naturalist at Kathio.

“I think this was one of the busiest ones we’ve had,” Lazorik said. “It exceeded what I thought.”

BRIAN S. PETERSON may be reached at or 855-5864. To follow him on Twitter, go to For his blogs, go to

Denton (Denny) Newman Jr.
I've worked at the Brainerd Dispatch with various duties since Dec. 7, 1983. Starting off as an Ad Designer and currently Director of Audience Development. The Dispatch has been an interesting and challenging place to work. I'm fortunate to have made many friends, both co-workers and customers.
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