Walking in the Footsteps of our Ancestors

Augustana students and faculty excavate the Lynch site this summer.

Augustana students and faculty excavate the Lynch site this summer.

Archaeology is defined as the scientific study of human history and prehistory through the excavation of sites and the analysis of artifacts and other physical remains. In simpler terms, it’s a window into the past – how other cultures and peoples adapted to life in often difficult conditions.

We often hear about the famous digs in the Nile Delta and other locations throughout Egypt from famous archeologists like Zahi Hawass and others, but closer to home lies the story of a civilization waiting to be rediscovered. The Oneota (or Western Upper Mississippian) is the name given to the last prehistoric culture of the American upper Midwest and they are the study of Dr. KC Carlson, Augustana’s assistant professor of anthropology. Her research project, titled, “Oneota Expansion and Ethnogenesis on the Eastern Great Plains,” aims to determine how the early settlers of the Plains came to the area and how they lived among other cultures.

For the last decade, the focus of her research has previously been predominantly on Paleoindian bison kills; however, she’s shifting gears to focus on tracking human interactions to environmental changes at a site in Nebraska that is approximately 1,000 years old.

The site in north central Nebraska is in Lynch, and it has seen multiple excavations – including one in 1959 that revealed lightly built houses dating back to the 13th century. As a result of a drought in the late 1200s, the Oneota people migrated west, leaving behind a migration pattern, and pottery, that clearly depicts the way people lived in the wide open prairie. Part of Dr.   Carlson’s research focuses on what the site in Lynch looks like underneath the ground and where to focus the data based on multiple excavations. We know that during the period of the Central Plains Tradition, life consisted of settled villages, farming, and hunting bison, which played a big role in their diet. However, the pottery found around the Plains tells an even more in-depth story. The Oneota had a distinct pottery style; large pots with capacities up to 10 gallons that used shell as a temper. Their globe-shaped ceramic vessels had smoothed exteriors and other idiosyncratic details such as bone and shell hoes, and are indicative of not just their agriculture, but their way of life.

This summer, Dr. Carlson went back to the site and, along with a crew of 25, focused on excavating an area of the property that was bladed down in the 1930s. “We were hopeful the site was completely intact despite the blading,” she said. “Unfortunately, the living surface is in fact gone. There are still lots of pits and things that were dug down below the occupation layer and those pits will give us information about what people were eating, where they were trading, and what materials they were using. The pit contents also give us an idea potentially of neighborhoods and pottery types that may indicate different social groups living together in different ways. We, however, will be moving our excavations up to a higher slope in future years to get at the living layers of the site.”

Dr. Carlson did discover something priceless on this particular excursion. She explains the site is ancestral to the Pawnee and Arikara tribes and had members of the tribe join the excavation. “They provided information that cannot be obtained any other way by sharing their history from their perspectives and oral traditions as well as sharing things like their origin stories. This kind of information has, in the past, been seen to be unnecessary to archaeological analysis but we as a discipline are realizing that those insights are priceless.”

“Seeing a student 'get it' is the best ..."
— Dr. KC Carlson

This is the fascination Dr. Carlson feels towards the field of anthropology and she imparts that to her students, in the classroom and in the lab. She says, “when I’m not teaching, I’m overseeing students while they analyze archaeological materials from the Lynch site.” However, the most fulfilling part of her job is seeing that 'aha' moment in her students’ faces. She adds, “seeing a student 'get it' is the best and what 'it' is changes depending on the student.”

Dr. Carlson calls this trip a very successful one and students are now back at work in the lab on campus, completing independent research, and pulling together results on posters to be presented at national and international conferences.